Worms, Ernst Alfred Fr (1891-1963)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter
Birth / Death: 

born 27 August 1891 Bochum

died13 August 1963 Sydney, age 72

One of the first mission anthropologists and the first Pallottine in Australia to gain wide recognition for his work on Australian religion and rock art in the north-west. Worms published profusely on Aboriginal lifeworlds from 1938 until his death, and his second major book was newly released in 2006.


Portrait of Ernst Worms

A portrait of Father Worms held in the Pallottine Centre, Sydney.


Ernst Friedrich Gustav Worms [the vowel is pronounced as in ‘torn’] was the son of Protestant railway worker Ernst Otto and Catholic Auguste Helene née Wieners (born 11 January 1854). He and his brothers Adolf (1889-1955) and Paul (1893-1966) were schooled as Catholics in Bochum, and one of his sisters was a Clementine nun. When he entered the Pallottine novitiate in 1912 he had completed his vocational education as accountant (kaufmännische Lehre).1 Worms joined the Pallottines against the wishes of his father, who died soon afterwards.2

The 21-year old received his habit in 1912 and commenced his study of theology and philosophy, but was drafted into military service in 1914. He sustained serious injuries at Brest-Litowsk (Poland) in the Summer of 19 from machinegun fire injuring his left eye, throat, neck and back. He was released from the military in 1918.3

From 1918 to 1920 Worms studied under Professor Hermann Nekes, who taught history of philosophy, comparative religion and mission science at Limburg. Fr. Nekes was already an established expert in mission language and had been called to the orientalist seminary in Berlin in 1909 together with the founder of the Cameroon mission Fr. Vieter, to instruct public servants destined for that German colony in Jaunde. The Provincial Council in Limburg reluctantly agreed to second Nekes to Berlin until 19, but as it turned out, in that year teaching at the Pallottine colleges was suspended because practically all their young scholars had been drafted into the military.4

After his ordination in 1920 (age 29) Fr. Worms spent ten years in teaching and youth ministry, the dates not being clear in the sources. According to Ihle he became the prefect and then the director of a boading school in Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) in the Masuria lakes district, where he ministered to ‘new Germans’ (Neudeutsche) after the re-drawing of national boundaries at the end of World War I.5 (The Pallottines became quite prominent in the ministry and youth organisations for ‘new Germans’, according to Leugers.) According to Antweiler, Worms directed the Pallottine college at Rößel that opened in 1921 near Königsberg in eastern Prussia (now Reszel in Poland).6 Br. Franz Nissl, also a war veteran, who followed to the Kimberley a year after Worms, was farm manager (1925-1931) while Worms was rector at Rößel.

Fr. Georg Walter’s ethnographic history of the Kimberley mission published in 1928 (‘Australia: land – people – mission’) was a further role model in how to combine scholarly and missionary work. When Bishop Raible sought to extend the Pallottine presence in the Kimberley vicariate and was recruiting again, Worms applied. According to the reminiscences of Brother Schüngel and Fr. Bleischwitz, Worms was recruited as an ethnographer. However, according to his biographies by Ihle and Antweiler, he was recruited as an ordinary missionary and his ethnographic talents unfolded later. He spoke English and French.

Fathers Worms and Hügel prepared themselves for the Kimberley mission by attending a two-months course in mission medicine in Würzburg.7 On 11 November 1930 they departed together with Brothers Anton Boettcher, Tautz and Josef Schüngel. They travelled via Rome and had the privilege of an audience with Pope Pius XI. They also attended high mass in St. Peter’s and experienced mass in the small cell with the vestments and chalice of their founder St. Vincent Pallotti.8

In Genua they boarded the German Lloyd ship Trier to Singapore, which carried nearly 100 missionaries, including some Irish Jesuits who taught them a little English. From Singapore they took the Minderoo to Broome and after a seven-week sea journey they were greeted by Fr. Raible.9

During his first few days in Broome all Worms could see was a class system reflected through race and space. If anyone asked him ‘and how do you like Broome, Father?’ he felt like replying ‘it’s gross!’ But his English was poor, and he was aware of being a newcomer who needed to tread lightly.10 Two years later he sent his mentor in Limburg a Western Australian pocket yearbook with the comment:

look at the high wages in Broome, whereas the non-whites, i.e. blacks, half-castes, Chinese, Malays, and Japanese, are given dogs’ wages [mit einem Hundelohn abgespeist]. Blacks are almost always given £1 a month! The government doesn’t care.11


From November 1930 to 1937 Worms was based in Broome conducting linguistic inquiries. For example in February 1933 he interviewed a blind woman Sophie, the wife of Phillip in the Broome camp, in the presence of her husband and three other Aboriginal women to compile notes on the Yawuru language (Jaueru according to his German phonetics).12 He also noted strong foreign influence in the languages he studied, and urgently requested a Malay Grammar from Professor Nekes in Limburg.13 He published a paper on foreign language influences in the Kimberley in 1938.

Fr. Raible wanted Fr. Worms to make contact with indigenous people in the bush. The first expedition was from Beagle Bay with Fr. Hügel and an unnamed indigenous guide in 1931. About 40km inland they reached the site of the Galalang dreaming, Worms’ first direct encounter with indigenous spirituality.14 Part of his brief was to find a new mission site, and Balgo was eventually selected.

In 1935 as Monsignor Raible was in Germany being ordained as bishop (a position for which Worms was also considered) he brought the 60-year old Professor Nekes to the Kimberley to collaborate with Worms. They explored linguistic differences between the various groups and travelled as far as the desert south of Gregory Salt Lake.16 They also brought informants from different Kimberley regions to Beagle Bay to be interviewed at length about their language.

Chief Protector Neville was not well disposed towards such research. At his first meeting with Worms in December 1935 Neville noted in his file:

Dr Betz and his wife and another scientist called in’ … ‘I advised the Bishop that it was necessary for the scientist to apply for permission to take photographs on reserves and also for permission to enter reserves in order that he might pursue his research work’. 17

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Worms travelled by car, horse or camel and often camped out or attached himself to an Aboriginal camp. He found that Aboriginal women would barely speak to him, and the men often held back information they considered sensitive. They found it difficult to muster the patience to repeat complex grammatical fine points and offered simplified versions as adequate alternatives. Once he conducted 231 tests on 30 informants to record the various ways of expressing sense of smell, which became the basis of one of his publications. Often a whole group would shift camp while he was in the middle of an investigation.

His memoirs suggest that he preferred to travel ‘by himself’, and camped out ‘by himself’. However, this most likely means ‘without other white people’. He makes many references to Aboriginal guides whom he credits with extraordinary powers of survival and sense. For example, on one occasion he was being guided through dry scrub for days and running out of water, when the Aboriginal guide suddenly stopped, looked around, cut a path through the scrub and hit the stem of a tree with an axe. Fresh water bubbled out. This is of course a story about one of the natural icons of the Kimberley, the boab tree, also found in Cameroon. Worms was given a message stick as ID clearance to attend ceremonies on condition to never show it to any whites and carry it with him at all times.

While Nekes’ interest was primarily linguistic, Worms engaged with the religious aspects of indigenous culture. His first publication was about an initiation ceremony (1938) and his second (1940) about religious beliefs reflected in 50 legends. See Publications list.

In 1937 Worms fell off his horse and this brought on back pain that would plague him for the rest of his life, despite two operations in 1942. Compounded by his war-time back injury it forced him to wear an uncomfortable corset in the tropical heat. It spelled the end of his active fieldwork period until the 1950s.

In November 1937 Fr. Worms became the fist Rector of the newly opened college in Kew (Victoria), fulfilling Bishop Raible’s ambition to recruit and train Pallottines in Australia. The Bishop also used this to establish a Pallottine presence in Victoria and form a mission support group, and no effort was spared to attract media attention. Worms spoke on radio and was frequently in the news. He entered the fray of public limelight by disputing with the popular writer Ion Idriess whether white or coloured pearling crews were responsible for introducing venereal disease. He followed up by expressing an opinion on Aboriginal reserve boundaries, and by hosting a German scientific expedition, and finally published a letter written by an Aboriginal boy at Lombadina

Dear Father Ernest

This is our first letter to you. How are you? We were glad to see your photo in one book you look more fat this time must be you have plenty of maize that side. Bishop told we fellows that you have big house. Have you nice garden? Who waters it? Are there any happles in your garden or any water melons? Might be you have sweet potatoes and pumpkins. How many boys you get em for Fathers? When will they come here in this country? What kind they look we will be glad to look them.

Did you like our books that we sent for Congress? This time we are making other kind drawings for you, they are little bit any kind but you might like them.

One Thursday the boys went to nother side plain to meet the Bishop and Father Francis. We came back because they neber came with car, so for nothing we been go. Then they came after noon time.

On Trinity Sunday the Bishop confirmed ten of the school children and some of the old people; he blessed our school too. In the afternoon the Bishop took us in the lorry to Thomas Well, we had sweet tea and three tins of jam; it was too good. Do you have picnic that side? When we were in the car we been think of you when you been take us in car; we went quick goes that time. Do you stop with car that side?

Father Benedict took us for a picnic. We got two kangaroos; we gave one to girls and we got plenty bush fruit.

Father John came up to see us. We was glad to look him after long time.

I hope you like this little letter. Tell them new Fathers we will be glad to look them. Good-bye Father. Pray for we fellows. Best wishes from us all

Your boy, Lenard18

Read more: News Item Z  |  News Item D News Item B  |  News Item C

As communication with Germany was interrupted during the war, Worms’ brother, a German military captain, thought Worms must still be in Broome when it came under aerial attack in March 1942, and made inquiries in Limburg.

However Fr. Worms was establishing an international reputation in missology. He made contact with the University of Melbourne and the national museum, and in 1935 he hosted a visit from Prof. Petri at the Frobenius Institute at Frankfurt University.

Read more: News Item A  |  News Item Y  |  Petri Book cover

Also, Fr. Nekes had joined Worms in Kew and while the German Pallottines were under house arrest in their Melbourne headquarters, these two continued editing their linguistic work starting with a dictionary of 2590 handwritten pages. For their book on 26 indigenous Australian languages they gained the interest of a Melbourne publisher in 1945 but when the 1065-page manuscript was completed in January 1946 no publisher wanted to touch it. Nekes died in 1946. The manuscript of was not published until 1953, and to Worms’ great disappointment not in Australia, and only in microfilm format. It became Nekes and Worms Australian Languages as volume 10 in the Micro-Bibliotheca series of the Anthropos Institute in Posieux (Fribourg).19 (It was finally published in book form in 2006, re-edited by Bill McGregor and accompanied by a CD-ROM, and released b Mouton de Gruyter in Germany as Vol. 24 of its Trends In Linguistics Documentation series.20) Anthropos dedicated a special volume to the publication of Australian Languages in 1953 in which Worms argued that ‘The Australian languages show such strong fundamental similarities of certain structural elements and such a frequently occurring even if apparently small basic lexicon, that their internal unity is as certain as the unity of the Australian Aborigines as a people itself'.  He advanced a theory of settlement of waves of migration from the north.

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Worms’ prolific publishing period commenced in Kew, with articles in the Vatican’s ethnological series Annali Lateranensi in 1938, 1940 and 1942, and increasingly in the leading ethnographic Swiss journal Anthropos. Altogether he published 16 academic journal articles, and two co-authored books. Every publication required the prior approval of the Provincial and was reviewed by two internal censors.21

In 1946 he undertook his first visit to north Queensland where he felt he found support for his migration theory in the remnant ‘pigmy tribes’ of the north Queensland rainforest and offshore islands (a theory that has been in and out of favour). The following year he accepted several speaking invitations on a visit in Germany. He returned on the Austurias docking in Sydney on 6 March 1947.

Worms continued his research and mission work in the Kimberley from 1948 to 1957, at Lombadina and Broome. A taste of his warm, wry and observant writing is offered in his character sketches of the Pallottine Brothers Wollseifer, Krallman and Graf at Beagle Bay.

During this period he became the first scientist to describe a number of rock art sites including one at the Yule River south of Port Hedland, which he considered his greatest contribution to science described in a special edition of Anthropos in 1955. He deduced that the images were based on a prehistoric mother cult. In a broadcast lecture on the German SWR (Südwestrundfunk) radio recorded in Melbourne in 1953 he described his exploration of the site. Being dropped off by plane in a new, unexplored world of desert, he wandered alone for days:

‘I climbed over pyramid-shaped rocks and experienced the greatest surprise .... I thought I was in an art gallery. Massive rock paintings gave testimony to the art of the Aboriginal. I named these rocks ‘Gallery Hills’.

The site he described is now referred to as ‘Father Worms Hills’. Robert Bednarik writes:

In 1939 the Frobenius Institute of Germany conducted brief expeditions to three localities — Abydos, Port Hedland and Depuch Island — which resulted in some preliminary descriptions (Fox 1939; Petri 1954; Petri and Schulz 1951). Davidson’s visit in 1938-39 is reflected in his opinions about similarities with other Australian rock art (Davidson 1952), but the first study of substance was the work of another German researcher, Father E. A. Worms, who conducted field work in 1931 and in the early 1950s (Worms 1954). His observations, especially in the Abydos area, led him to suggest that many anthropomorphous petroglyphs there with certain distinctive features were connected with the Kurangara cult, introduced from the east and originating in Arnhem Land. This deduction is no longer accepted today (McNickle 1985) and the figures in question are now called ‘Woodstock figures’.22

In September 1953 Worms explored a rock art site 45 km south of Port Headland and removed one of the sandstone images to Perth, and the following year he undertook further expeditions into the Centre and the top of the Kimberley, where a Trappist monk had referred to rock paintings in 1905 in a completely different art form - again possible support for a theory of waves of migration.

In late 1953 and 1954 he journeyed into the Centre and the northern tip of the Kimberley and subsequently published on the Yawuru and Bardi people of the Kimberley and on the Bardi creation spirit ‘Djamar’.

Worms was appointed the first rector of a new Pallottine theological college at Manly (Sydney) in 1956. He undertook what was to be his last visit to Germany in 1957, visiting Würzburg and Münster where he donated several valuable artefacts to the Centre for the Study of Religions.23 He also gave a series of lectures in the United States.

His reputation as an Australian anthropologist was now well established. In 1960, at age 69, he was awarded funding from the New York based Wenner-Gren Foundation for a nine-months expedition to Central, North and Western Australia during which he visited Ayers Rock, the Simpson Desert and x-ray style rock art sites in Arnhem Land, and saw bark paintings for the first time. On his return Dr Petri, who had by now published his book on ‘the dying world of north-west Australia’, and Dr. Micha awaited Worms at La Grange mission.

In 1961 Worms presented at a symposium on Australian Aboriginal Studies with Tindale, Shields and others, and became a founder of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies established by act of parliament in 1964 with a membership of 100 leading academics.

He wrote from Manly to his nephew in Münster that he was ‘just polishing his book’, destined to be published as Volume 5 in a series of 36 volumes. He added that the ‘German academics are pretty critical and have higher standards than elsewhere. (Die deutschen Gelehrten sind recht kritisch und stellen höhere Ansprüche als anderswo.)’24 He was referring to the Religions of Mankind series by Kohlhammer in Stuttgart. While in press the manuscript was referred to as Die Religion der australischen und tasmanischen Eingeborenen, however he completed Die Religionen der Südsee und Australiens.

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Worms had followed invitations to speak in Rome, Munich, Münster, Vienna, and at the Frankfurt Frobenius Institute, also at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, at Verley University in San Francisco and at the Congress of Anthropological and ethnological Science in Philadelphia. Münster University obtained funds from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (the German equivalent of the ARC) to invite him back for a semester of guest lectures in the theological faculty, but he became too ill to travel and had to decline this and invitations from Cologne and Nijmegen.

He spent his last months in the Pallottine centre in Sydney and inspired a young generation of new recruits with his stories, such as his first impressions of Broome. After long sickness he died of cancer at St. Vincent’s hospital in Sydney in 1963 at the age of 72. Fr. Alphonse Bleischwitz, who had worked alongside him in mission work and at Manly for the last three years, gave him the last rites. He is buried at Carlton cemetery (Victoria) alongside Fr. Nekes. An obituary remembered him as 

‘A pious priest, an intrepid researcher, a wise teacher,

a benevolent man, a sophisticated friend.25


List of Publications

Worms, E. A., ‘Die Inititiationsfeier in NW-Australien’, Annali Lateranensi 2, 1938: 147-174.

Ernest Worms, ‘Onomatopoeia and Foreign Words in some Kimberley Tribes in North-western Australia’ in P. Elkin (ed) Studies in Australian Linguistics, Oceania Monographs No. 3, Sydney, Australian National Research Council 1938.

Worms, E. A., ‘Die Religiöse Vorstellungen und Kultur einiger Nord-westaustralischer Stämme in fünfzig Legenden’, Annali Lateranensi 4, 1940:213-282.

Worms, E. A., ‘Die Goranara Feier im australischen Kimberley’, Annali Lateranensi 6, 1942:207-235.

Worms, E. A., ‘Sense of smell of the Australian Aborigines. A psychological and linguistic study of the natives of the Kimberley division’, Oceania, 13 No. 2. 1942.

Worms, E. A., ‘Feuer und Feuerzeuge in Sage und Brauch der NW-Australier’ Anthropos 45, 1950:145-164.

Worms, E. A., ‘Djamar, the creator. A myth of the Bad (West Kimberley, Australia)’ Anthropos, 45, 1950:641-658.

Worms, E. A., ‘Djamar and his relation to other culture heroes’, Anthropos, 47, 1952:539-560.

Nekes, H. and E. A. Worms Australian Languages, Micro-Bibliotheca 10, Anthropos-Institute, Posieux 1953, 1065pp (microfilm).

Worms, E. A., ‘Australian Ghost Drums, Trumpets and Poles’, Anthropos 48, 1953:278-281.

Nekes, H. und E. A. Worms, ‘Australian Languages’ Anthropos 48, 1953:956-970.

Worms, E. A. , ‘Prehistoric petroglyphs of the Upper Yule River, North-western Australia’, Anthropos, 49, 1954:1067-1088.

Worms, E. A., ‘Contemporary and prehistoric rock paintings in central and northern north Kimberley’, Anthropos, 50, 1955:546-566.

Worms, E. A., ‘Australian mythological terms’, Anthropos 52, 1957:732-768.

Worms, E. A., ‘Mythologische Selbstbiographie eines australischen Ureinwohners’, Wiener Völkerkundliche Mitteilungen 5 (1) 1957:40-48.

Worms, E. A. , ‘The Poetry of the the Yaoro and Bad’, Annali Lateranensi 21, 1957:213-229.

Worms, E. A., ‘Prehistoric Rock Carvings’ Air travel Australian National Airways Magazine, March 1957:14-16.

Worms, E. A., ‘Verbannungslied eines Wildbeuters in Australien’, Anthropos 54, 1959:4-168.

Worms, E. A., ‘Der australische Seelenbegriff’, Zeitschrift für Misionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft 43, 1959:296-308.

Worms, E. A., ‘Tasmanian Mythological Terms’, Anthropos 55, 1960:1-16. 

Worms, E. A., ‘Religion’ in H. Shields (ed) Australian Aboriginal Studies: a symposium of papers presented at the 1961 research conference, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1963.

Nevermann, E. , Worms E. A. Petri, H. (eds)Die Religionen der Südsee und Australiens, W. Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart 1968.

Petri, H., ‘Australische Eingeborenen-Religionen’ (Worms-Petri) in Nevermann, Worms and Petri (eds) Die Religionen der Südsee und Australiens, W. Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart 1968.

Nekes, H. and E. A. Worms Australian Languages (ed. William McGregor) Trends in Linguistics Documentation Vol. 24 Mouton de Gruyter, 2006. With CD-ROM

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News item A

The West Australian (Perth) 7 Nov 1938


Catholic Priest's Research.

Reserves set apart for natives would not be as useful as they might be until their boundaries were altered to include the territory of the tribes expected to live on the reserves, was the opinion expressed on Saturday by the Rev. Father Ernest Worms, Director of the Pallottine Missionary College, Kew, Victoria, and an authority on the manners, customs and origin of the aborigines. Father Worms returned by the airliner Brisbane from a visit to the Kimberleys, where he formerly worked for several years, and will leave for Melbourne tomorrow. While in the Kimberleys, Father Worms met and co-operated with the German scientific expedition, under Dr. H. Petri, which was organised by the Ethnological Institute of Frankfurt-on-Main to study prehistoric aboriginal culture In Australia. In a brief interview on Saturday Father Worms said that his researches had practically convinced him that the Kimberley tribes were the oldest in Australia but they were greatly influenced culturally by the Central Australian tribes, which, he thought, were the youngest in Australia. The Kimberley natives were particularly healthy and the hospitals which had been established at Broome. Wyndham and Derby were splendidly conducted and were doing fine work. "Reserves for the natives will always be a problem," Father Worms said. "'he natives believe that they belong to the place where they were born and that, through some mystical relations, their fathers found their souls at those places and they will not keep inside reserves which are outside their own territory. It will be a difficult thing, perhaps, to do, but I feel that reserves should be so defined as to embrace some of the territory of all of the tribes in the vicinity. Thus, the natives will be in the reserves and, at the same time, in their own country." Father Worms said that he had not yet had an opportunity of examining the new West Australian native regulations and, therefore, could not express an opinion of them.26

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News item B

The West Australian (Perth) 22 Jan 1938


New College for Kimberley Fathers

The Vicar Apostolic of the Kimberleys (Dr. Raible) left Perth on Wednesday by plane for Melbourne and tomorrow after noon he will attend the opening of a new missionary college for novices of his order, the Pallottine Fathers. The new college is in Studley Park-road, Kew. The opening ceremony will be performed by the Archbishop of Melbourne (Dr. Mannix) and addresses will be given by the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) and Dr. Raible. The principal of the new college is the Rev. Father Worms, who until a few months ago was working among the Kimberley natives. Father Worms, in words addressed to prospective students of the college recently, said that the missionary must be armed with a formal education of a high standard, he must acquire a perfect knowledge of the Catholic religion, a wise and supple judgment ac cording to the principles of Catholic morality, a thorough understanding of the national, religious and social surroundings of the Australian natives, a correct appreciation of their old, primitive culture and customs, and, by no means least, a fine feeling for the sensitiveness of the native mind. That all meant an intense study of philosophy and theology, an introduction to-anthropology, ethnological and linguistic, a certain gift for learning other languages, a love for sciences, and a sound ambition to improve their talents. The missionary should desire to enrich the standard of the corresponding sciences by his own exact researches. In the North-West the missionary had to face the influence of Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shintoism that came from the Dutch Islands and from south-east Asia and Japan. Those old religions were imported not so much by their selected faithful, but too often by the dregs of the Orient. They were a great danger in at least disseminating indifference among the Christianised blacks not yet rooted in a strong Christian tradition.27

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News Item C

The Argus (Melbourne) 12 Nov 1938


Dry W.A. Weather

Tribes of aborigines who had never previously seen a white man were met by the Rev Father Worms rector of the Pallottine College Kew during a visit to the Kimberley area In Western Australia recently. Because of dry weather rather Worms said yesterday the aborigines were moving about more than was their usual custom Some of them had told him that they had never known the country to be so dry. Father Worms said that he was opposed to segregation of aborigines In a reserve. They were very intellitent and adapted themselves to station life. The Pallottine Fathers, a Roman Catholic German missionary society, have been working in the Kimberley area for a number of years. At the missionary college, established at Kew young Australians will be trained for the work.28

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News item D

The West Australian (Perth) 20 Jul 1938


Victorians to Give Assistance.

To assist the Pallottine Fathers In their missionary work in the north of this State, a society to be known as the Association of Pallottine Co-operators has been formed in Melbourne. The Pallottine Fathers have for the past 45 years been in charge of missions in the Kimberley district, the area under their control being approximately one and a half times the size of Victoria. Their mission field, the Vicariate of the Kimberley--of which the Vicar-Apostolic is Bishop Raible - extends from south of Broome, north past Yampi Sound, thence skirting the Drysdale River Mission to Wyndham, and includes the hinterland as far east as the Northern Territory, border. The mission stations are at' Broomes, Beagle Bay, Lombadina and Rockhole, and the fathers visit Derby, Wyndham, Hall's Creek, Fitzroy Crossing, Turkey Creek, La Grange and Argyle. It was to help his missions in the Kimberleys and also to give Australians an opportunity of taking an active part in the work of such missions that Bishop Raible launched in Victoria an appeal for assistance and established the Pallottine Missionary College in Studley Park road, Kew, early this year. At the college young Australian boys are being trained for ordination to the priesthood or as lay brothers, to serve in the Kimberleys. The rector of the college is the Rev. Father Ernest Worms, the noted scientist and anthropologist. The Pallottine Co-operators will undertake to spread the knowledge of the missionary activities of the fathers, and also to give their services in any special appeal for the support of the college, or they will undertake the special object of each collecting £1 annually for the mission.29

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News Item Z


The West Australian (Perth) 26 Nov 1937


A Missionary in Defence.

MELBOURNE, Nov. 25.-Statements by Mr. Ion Idriess,the well-known Australian author, in Sydney that white hunters and pearlers were principally responsible for venereal disease among aborigines in the north and that leprosy was rapidly killing the natives of the Kimberleys were challenged by the Rev. Father E. Worms, rector of the Pallottine Missionary College, Kew, today. Father Worms recently came to Melbourne after seven years among the aborigines of the Kimberleys. There, he said, the spread of disease could be attributed to the coloured crews of the luggers. The white pearlers, as a rule, were a respectable, clean-living body of men to whom no exception could be taken The work of the West Australian Government in endeavouring to stamp out disease among the blacks was worthy of special commendation, Father Worms said. Every year, Dr. Davis (of the Department of Native Affairs) travelled through the Kimberleys inspecting the natives and looking for lepers. Missionaries did similar work. Two years ago the West Australian Government had built a large leprosarium at Derby to which afflicted blacks were sent. The lepers were in charge of qualified sisters of the Order of St. John of God. There were 100 lepers there at present. The Government had provided also a hospital at Port Hedland for the treatment of venereal disease. Both of these hospitals were for the treatment of blacks exclusively. Before the leprosarium at Derby had been built, the Pallottine Missionary fathers had conducted a temporary leprosarium at Beagle Bay, under the supervision of two doctors highly qualified in tropical diseases. It was the aborigines of this district, Father Worms added, who had found and succoured Captain Hans Bertram, the German airman, and his companion when they were lost there for many weeks.30

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The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Nov 1937


"Not Caused by Whites."


MELBOURNE, Thursday. Statements by Mr. Ion Idriess in Sydney that white hunters and pearlers were chiefly responsible for venereal disease among aborigines in the north, and that leprosy was rapidly killing the natives of the Kimberleys, were challenged to-day. The Rev. Father E. Worms, rector of the Pallottine Missionary College, Kew, who recently came to Melbourne after spending seven years among the aborigines of the Kimberleys, said that the spread of disease could be attributed to the coloured crews of the luggers. The white pearlers, he said, as a rule were a respectable, clean-living body of men to whom no exception could be taken. The work of the Western Australian Government in trying to stamp out disease among the blacks was worthy of special commendation.31


The Argus (Melbourne) 10 Jan 1939

"PERSONAL." Dr. Petri, of the Frankfort Ethnological Museum, who is the leader of the Frobenius expedition for the comparative study of primitive and prehistoric culture, will arrive to-day by the overland express. He made thorough researches of the cave paintings in the north of Western Australia. Dr. Petri will be the guest of Father Rector Worms, of the Pallottine Missionary College, Kew.32


The West Australian (Perth) 30 Oct 1937


A Missionary's Work.

An account of his work during the past seven years as a missioner and research worker among the Kimberley tribes was given by the Rev. Father Worms at the Chesterton Club on Wednesday night. Father Worms has made a study of the native languages and customs and is now proceeding to Melbourne, where he will enter the seminary of the Pallottine Order to record the results of his studies in book form. Introducing Father Worms, the president of the club (Dr. V. H. Webster) said that he was an authority on the Beagle Bay and Broome tribes, and he doubted whether any living person knew more about them than did Father Worms. He had lived among them, had mastered their languages, had gained their sympathy and confidence, and had even been admitted to their initiation ceremonies, a rare thing for a white man. Father Worms said that the diocese of the Kimberleys covered an area of 130,000 square miles, in which there were about ,000 people, less than 2,000 of whom were white. The biggest town was Broome and the smallest was Fitzroy Crossing, in which there were just three houses, two of them being the police station and hotel, and each of them a mile apart. The worst diseases in those parts were malaria maligna and leprosy. Leprosy had become increasingly common of recent years, but since the establishment of the leprosarium, which was under the care of three sisters of St. John of God, it had been brought under control and was being stamped out to a large extent. Living was very expensive in the Kimberleys. At the small mission stations a ton of flour which was obtainable in Perth for £2/10/ cost over £12 by the time it arrived. One-third of all living expenses went in transport.

Mission's History. The mission had originally been under the charge of the French Trappists, but they had been unable to live according to their strict rules, especially as they never ate meat, and had been forced to relinquish it. After the Trappists had left there had been danger of the mission being lost and a cattle station being established on its property. But Bishop Gibney had saved it. Going to the North, he travelled a great part of the way by bullock team, and he worked with pick and shovel to keep the mission going. The Pallottine Order had taken it over in 1901. For the first 25 years they had been at Beagle Bay only, but had then taken over the whole of the Kimberleys and had established three other stations. The missionaries gave the natives as much freedom as possible and did not interfere with their customs. Their strict marriage laws were very effective and were not discouraged. The only thing they were made to understand was that they could not become Catholics until they gave up the practice of magic. Dealing with native magic, Father Worms said that the natives thought there was no natural death. Any one who died was believed to have been murdered by another native and the men would then meet in secret to weave curses for the supposed murderer. He gave an instance of a woman who had died of pneumonia. The men had taken the body and put hot stones in the throat, believing that the person responsible for her death would thereby be cursed and die of a throat infection. Father Worms said he had witnessed several kinds of initiations, most of which could not be described in detail. One part of an initiation ceremony he had seen consisted of the older men puncturing their arms and standing over the young man who was being initiated while the blood poured over his body, covering him from head to foot. A dangerous practice at some of these initiations was the drinking of blood. With leprosy so common this was the surest way for it to be spread. He had warned many of the natives of the danger. "This is a very good custom," he had told them, "but don't do it now, or you will get leprosy." The mission natives were taught the necessity of work, were given the rudiments of religion and education. Many of the younger natives responded well to instruction and became good scholars. The men fished and worked as stock boys, donkey boys and lugger masters, while the women raised fruit and vegetables. The butchers, bakers and carpenters were half-castes. At, intervals the natives were encouraged to go back to their natural life for a time, a most necessary provision.

Differences in Languages. Father Worms spoke of the long history of the Australian races and the deep culture which they possessed. He had been able to discover many things regarding their history by the study of their languages and customs, he said. There was a marked difference between the languages of the northern and southern tribes. In the north the languages were invariably prefix languages, where the pronoun was changed by the addition of a prefix, while in the south it was indicated by a change of suffix, as in Latin. The Australian languages were the most difficult he had had to learn. They had strict rules of grammar, which the natives adhered to, even though they could not explain them. When in Finland, said Father Worms, he had found that whereas the German language had only four cases the Finnish had 13. He was surprised to discover that the same number of cases were used in the Australian aboriginal languages. Father Worms made films of native rites while in the Kimberleys and recorded many of the songs of the natives. He recited the words of one song which had been composed by one of his native boys and which was now widely known and sung by the other natives. The song was a poetical description of the Koolinda coming into sight over the horizon.33



Worms files Words text 2
Worms text 3 Worms and others grave
  Courtesy Roberta Cowan, Pallottine Archives, Rossmoyne



H.Petri’s book on ‘The Dying World of Western Australia’
on fieldwork facilitated by Fr. Worms.
Later they collaborated on several publications.



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1 Bernd Worms to Br Josef Schüngel SAC in Limburg, 17 07. 1988 in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP.

2 Provincial, 6 October 1934, file note re. appointment as Vicar Apostolic, in Raible, ZAPP.

3 Antonia Leugers Eine geistliche Unternehmensgeschichte – Die Limburger Pallottiner-Provinz 1892-1932, St. Ottilien EOS Verlag 2004:387; Ruth Ihle ‘Unter den Ureinwohnern Australiens’ Biografie von Ernst Worms in Pioniere und Aussenseiter – 21 Biografien, Darmstadt, Turis Verlag 1968:405-427.

4 Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. Vol. 47 No 4, 1963:287-288. Bernd Worms to B Josef Schüngel SAC in Limburg, 17 07.1988, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP. Fr. Ludwig Münz, obituary in in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP.

5 Ruth Ihle ‘Unter den Ureinwohnern Australiens’ Biografie von Ernst Worms in Pioniere und Aussenseiter – 21 Biografien, Darmstadt, Turis Verlag 1968:405-427.

6 Antonia Leugers Eine geistliche Unternehmensgeschichte – Die Limburger Pallottiner-Provinz 1892-1932, St. Ottilien EOS Verlag 2004:368);

Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. Vol. 47 No 4, 1963:287-288.

7 Antonia Leugers Eine geistliche Unternehmensgeschichte – Die Limburger Pallottiner-Provinz 1892-1932, St. Ottilien EOS Verlag 2004:112.

8 Josef Schüngel SAC to Bernd Worms 2. 8. 1988, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP. Ruth Ihle ‘Unter den Ureinwohnern Australiens’ Biografie von Ernst Worms in Pioniere und Aussenseiter – 21 Biografien, Darmstadt, Turis Verlag 1968:405-427.

9 Josef Schüngel SAC to Bernd Worms 2. 8. 1988, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP.

10 Kurt Benesch, Mission Aktuell 1/1975 in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP.

11 Worms to Nekes, Broome 22 March 1932, in Nekes, Australien B7d,l(2).

12 Nekes, Australien B7d,l(2).

13 P Ernst Worms SAC to P Nekes, Broome 12 May 1933 in Nekes, Australien B7d,l(2)

14 Ruth Ihle ‘Unter den Ureinwohnern Australiens’ Biografie von Ernst Worms in Pioniere und Aussenseiter – 21 Biografien, Darmstadt, Turis Verlag 1968:405-427.

 Josef Schüngel SAC to Bernd Worms 2. 8. 1988, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP. Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. Vol. 47 No 4, 1963:287-288.

16 Alfons Bleischwitz ‘Geschichte der australischen Mission’ in Bleischwitz, Alfons [P] P1 Nr 13 ZAPP.

17 File note by CPA 19 December 1935 in Establishment of a mission hospital for the treatment of natives and half-castes at Rockhole Station – Proposal by the Rev. Otto Raible SROWA 1939/0010.

18 "ALL THE NEWS." The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879-1954) 22 Sep 1938: 17. Web. 11 May 2011

19 Josef Schüngel SAC to Bernd Worms 2. 8. 1988, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP. Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. Vol. 47 No 4, 1963:287-288.

20 William McGregor, Father Hermann Nekes and Ernest Worms’s ‘Australian Languages’, Anthropos 102 (1) 2007:99-114.

21 Antonia Leugers Eine geistliche Unternehmensgeschichte – Die Limburger Pallottiner-Provinz 1892-1932, St. Ottilien EOS Verlag 2004:113.

22 Robert G. Bednarik ‘First dating of Pilbara petroglyphs’ Records of the Western Australian Museum 20, 2002: 414–429.

23 Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. Vol. 47 No 4, 1963:287-288.

24 Worms at Manly to his nephew Bernd Worms in Muenster 10 April 1962, in Worms, Ernst, P (1891 -1963) P.1-27, ZAPP.

25 Antweiler, A. ‘Nachruf – P Ernst Adolf Worms SAC’, Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. Vol. 47 No 4, 1963:287-288.

26 "Kimberley Natives." The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879-1954) 7 Nov 1938: 16. Web. 11 May 2011.

27 "Training Of Missionaries." The West Australian (Perth) 22 Jan 1938: 28. Web. 11 May 2011.

28 "Tribes Wander." The Argus (Melbourne) 12 Nov 1938: 6. Web. 11 May 2011.

29 "Kimberley Missions." The West Australian (Perth) 20 Jul 1938: 17. Web. 11 May 2011.

30 "Welfare Of Natives." The West Australian (Perth) 26 Nov 1937: 29. Web. 11 May 2011.

31 "Disease Among Aborigines." The Sydney Morning Herald 26 Nov 1937: 6. Web. 11 May 2011.

32 "Personal." The Argus (Melbourne) 10 Jan 1939: 6. Web. 11 May 2011.

33 "With The Kimberley Tribes." The West Australian (Perth) 30 Oct 1937: 17. Web. 12 May 2011.