A conversation, but not with God
It took a couple of calls to get through to Sister Mary Ellen O’Donoghue, but when I listened to her phone message I knew it was going to be worth it.
“Sorry to be so late getting back to you Lucy,” she said, “But I can’t be in two places at once.”
Driven to religious life by a “calling for education”, Mary Ellen says she joined the order to “make a difference” and “be around like-minded people”.
Three decades on she says while things are a little different it’s her relationship with God and her belief in “his compassion to help all people” that continues to inspire her work.
As one of the 6, 400 nuns in Australia today Mary Ellen is part of a community threatened with extinction. It’s hard to imagine that only thirty years ago 13, 000 women fulfilled these kinds of roles; but in the past twelve years the Sisters of St Joseph have taken a total of just three new recruits into their noviciate (nun school).
But the reasons for the drop are fairly obvious to Mary Ellen.
“For many people we are irrelevant,” she said. “And I think that’s because they don’t understand what we do or why we do it.”
Nuns or “sisters” as they are more appropriately called were a normal part of life when I was growing up. My Catholic primary school backed onto a Dominican convent where it was more common than not to see a nun or two, head to toe in black and white, walking through the playground. My first piano teacher was also a nun of considerable age who wore a habit and a pair of rosary beads that would swing distractingly from the belt of her dress during lessons.
Closer to home, my great aunt was sent to a convent at the tender age of seventeen and remained a “sister” until she passed away two years ago, at ninety years of age. And as my Grandmother tells it, back in the 1940’s, when my aunt was packed away to the convent, it was considered “normal” for at least one child among families of my great grand-parents social standing (working class, Irish Catholic immigrants) to send at least one child “off to serve God”.
It’s a tradition that I can’t help thinking must have been like drawing the short straw because in those days a lifetime of serving God wasn’t for the faint-hearted. As a “novice” my aunt not only had to swear a life of poverty, chastity and obedience; in her first few years of service she was also forbidden to leave the convent or visit her family; a period of time that included the death of both her parents.
When I share this story with Sister Mary Ellen she assures me things have changed. And while the sisters still take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience she is quick to remind me that a literal definition of some of those values “just sounds ridiculous”.
“What it really means is that we go where we are needed. We work for good and all our “goods” (possessions) are held in common. And poverty doesn’t mean destitute,” she said.
But what it does mean is that sisters share their income and those earning little or no money at all through their work are supported by those that do. The Sisters of St Joseph also regularly send money to colleagues working overseas in places like East Timor and Peru.
When it comes to the vow of chastity I find myself treading cautiously. After all, it’s pretty self-explanatory right? So instead I ask Mary Ellen what she considers “the advantages” of being a “sister” in her extensive field of work.
“I guess that comes down to the fact that as sisters we don’t have a mortgage in Sydney to worry about. Or if we are needed to work off in a rural community we don’t have the needs of a husband or children to worry about. I guess it’s a freedom to go anywhere, with no considerations,” she said.
But it’s the vow of obedience or, “to go where the need arises” that seems to have given the most shape to Mary Ellen’s working life.
Following through on her love for education she started working as a teacher, first in Sydney and then several years in a remote outback community in Western Australia. Four years ago she became the CEO of Good Grief, a company established by the sisters of St Joseph that runs education programs for people affected by change and loss.
It’s a position she admits twenty years ago would have been an anomaly, but now that’s no longer the case.
“Each person comes to us with skills and talents that we can use, depending on need. We have all kinds of professionals in the order now, lawyers, social workers, nurses, doctors and teachers. But the difference is that we work in organisations that meet pressing needs,” she said.
It had been almost a week since the announcement of Mary MacKillop’s canonisation when we spoke and I was keen to talk about some of the negativity and cynism that had arisen from sceptics, Anglican ministers and MX readers (February 22, page 20) alike.
I found their opinions offensive and my first response was to shout “don’t people realise that it is nearly impossible to be a saint?” at the radio. In a calmer moment a bit later on, when I realised I didn’t actually know how hard it was either, I wondered what impact this negativity would have on people with faith, who believed their prayers to Mary MacKillop had in some way steered their recovery.
As we started the interview I secretly hoped that Mary Ellen would agree with me and cajole these kinds of people for their disrespect (not particularly holy behaviour I’ll admit), but instead her response was compassionate, forthright and fair.
“I think it’s because people don’t understand sainthood, so their first response is well, what about the other good people in the world?
“Then of course there are people who question the church and this didn’t happen so much twenty or thirty years ago. Since then we’ve had all the revelations of abuse within the church, and the wars and the conflict. So will all those things in mind, rightly so,” she said.
“But when you turn on the television every night and see violence and greed, I guess what the “saint thing” does is show there is another way to live life and that instead of treading on everyone, we can give a hand up.”
And what does she think Mary Mackillop would have made of all this “saint stuff”.
“She would have been gobsmacked,” said Mary Ellen. “There is no way she would have expected this because she would have been just trying to help the people around her.
“At the end of the day, Mary MacKillop is a role model and we all need role models.”
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