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Raylene Penny, left, and Tyahn Bell (ACU)

Aboriginal women Raylene Pennay and Tyahn Bell are preparing to represent their mob during NAIDOC Week in Rome as recipients of the 2023 Australian Catholic University Francis Xavier Conaci Scholarship. 

The annual scholarship offers First Nations students from ACU the opportunity to study at ACU’s Rome campus.

It is named after Francis Xavier Conaci, an Aboriginal boy who travelled to Rome in 1849 to train as a Benedictine missionary but died shortly before his 12th birthday. He is buried at the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome. 

While undertaking their study, Ms Pennay, 38, and Ms Bell, 22, will also represent Indigenous Australians in Rome’s NAIDOC Week celebrations, hosted by the Australian Embassy to the Holy See.

“It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go and study Catholic social thought, and I’m so grateful to be able to do that in Rome, in the home of the Church,” Ms Pennay said.

A Gunggari mother of two young children living on Yugembeh country in southeast Queensland, Ms Pennay is studying a Bachelor of Midwifery (Indigenous) through ACU’s Away from Base program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

She hopes to highlight the initiatives that are closing the gap for First Nations women in the healthcare system.

Ms Bell, a Ngunnawal woman, is studying social work at ACU Canberra. The Ngunnawal people are the traditional custodians of ACT and parts of surrounding NSW.

While in Rome, Ms Bell hopes to send an encouraging message to all First Nations people.

“I’d like to send a message back home that you can do things, that we were made for deadly things and that we can and will do deadly things,” she said.  

Australia’s ambassador to the Holy See, Chiara Porro, said her team looked forward to welcoming the two scholars to Rome.


Proud Gungarri and Ngunnawal women awarded Francis Xavier Conaci Scholarship to study in Rome (ACU)