A conversation with grace

Recently the Leadership Conference of Women Religious gathered in St Louis Missouri. Some 90 nuns assembled, and high on the agenda was the first formal response to a sharp rebuke by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Keynote speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, told the Sisters, “You are the best seed bed I know for evolving the church and the world in the 21st century.”

A conversation with grace

Closer to home, a group of Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar have been celebrating golden and diamond jubilees of becoming Josephites. Sisters, families, friends and communities where the jubilarians work have been fêting them, and there will be a Jubilee Mass of Thanksgiving at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Newcastle on 6 October at 11.30am. All are welcome.


Aurora invited three jubilarians to share their stories and uncovered a surfeit of grace and gratitude. Sisters Jeannine French, 70, Marie Jones, 71 and Tess Connolly, 80, came to Lochinvar via different paths but share a deep appreciation of the myriad opportunities they have encountered along the way.


Jeannine French grew up in Wauchope an only child and due to her mother’s illness, the Sisters allowed her to begin school at 3. She recalls the priest visiting her class and asking the girls, “Who is going to be a nun?” and the boys, “Who will be a priest?” All children raised their hands, and on arriving home, Jeannine announced to her parents that she would be a Sister of St Joseph.

They duly enrolled her at St Joseph’s College Lochinvar so she would have a better understanding of convent life. She recalls that her mother wasn’t able to come to the station each time Jeannine returned to Lochinvar, but she would religiously wave the tablecloth when she saw the train from her kitchen window!


Young Tess Connolly was educated first by the Sisters of Mercy but when she enrolled at St Joseph’s Merewether, Josephite Sr Joan Blake became a key influence. Nevertheless for Tess, “Nuns were nuns and that wasn’t me,” so after completing school she began working at Palings music store. After three years, realising she wasn’t satisfied, Tess visited Sr Joan. The beginning of a new decade – 1 January 1950 – marked the beginning of her new life as a Sister of St Joseph.

Tess had an older and a younger brother. Entering a convent then was a very different, highly-regulated experience and Sisters could only visit, and be visited by, families a few times a year. The graciousness of parents who bid farewell to only daughters is hard to understand now, but the common element in these women’s stories is ‘the call’. It’s neither ethereal nor mystical, and it could be downright trying, but it was real, and remains so for each of them.


Marie Jones grew up next door to temporary tin shed classrooms used when the school at Cardiff was burnt down. She began her education sitting on the fence listening to multiplication tables and spelling. The portrait of her much loved Carmelite aunt, Sr Josephine Marie, drew her towards religious life. “Being the first girl after five boys was rather special, although two brothers died before I was born. My mother would dress me in overalls and my brothers would put me in a billycart and take me everywhere. We had hideouts in the nearby bush – it was just great fun.” Marie also had two treasured younger sisters.


Despite her tomboy ways, Marie says she knew at 7 that she wanted to enter the convent. Her parents had two comments: their door was always open if convent life didn’t suit her, and she would need to save the money – more than £100 – to provide what she would require. Marie worked at Woolworths in Hunter Street: “It was a tight budget. I earned £7 6s a week and I put away £2 a week but I made sure I had a vanilla slice at ninepence every day.”  


Until this point there is a certain parallelism in these women’s stories. Each grew up in a home where faith, expressed in prayer and worship, was integral. No one imagined that life in the convent was easy, but life for most people had its trials and education for women was often not a priority. As Tess pointed out, convent life offered possibilities that secular life didn’t offer women, and although a high degree of commitment and plenty of hard work were expected, there were compensations. ‘Opportunity’ is a word that occurs often in the conversation. Anticipating today’s trend of a variety of careers, the Sisters taught for many years, each being appointed principal, but they also experienced other working lives.


Jeannine is a gifted singer and musician and has a passion for liturgy. She bravely requested a move from school to adult education. A corollary of this was a year studying at the National Pastoral Institute in Melbourne, where “You were able to face the struggle of coming to adult faith.” Until recently Jeannine served as support person for Music and Liturgy in the Newcastle Inner City Parishes.


Tess taught in infants’ classrooms for many years – in fact she taught two generations of Marie’s family at St Benedict’s Edgeworth; “I felt like a grandmother!” Inspired by a Movement for a Better World (MBW) retreat at Lochinvar, Tess later responded to an advertisement for a secretary with MBW and was appointed. “I love office work,” she says, so she moved to Sydney and stayed with MBW for 25 years. “If you had told me I would attend international meetings in Rome, I wouldn’t have believed it!” Tess also served as pastoral associate at Shortland “and I loved the people there too. Now I drive from Warners Bay to Lochinvar on Mondays and work in the office there.”


Marie too was a teacher and principal, but for the last 18 years has been a warm pastoral presence at St Columban’s Primary at Mayfield. She studied psychology along the way and says, “That’s helped me enormously. I’ve worked with refugees and I know how hard it is to find homes for them. Clothing children, supporting families in times of grief, whatever the need of the moment – that’s what I’m doing.”


Jeannine captures the feeling of these three graced women when she says, “God was calling me to do this and I wasn’t going to be happy or fulfilled unless I gave it a go, and so although it was structured, I didn’t find it all that burdensome. There were times of prayer, of recreation, of work, of study.”   


What she describes sounds like a very balanced life – something that so many today yearn for, but struggle to achieve.


On the subject of falling numbers of Sisters, Jeannine says, “We decided as a congregation some years back we were going to live until we die. If eventually we disappear, something will emerge for the needs of the Church. God is in control.”


Tess has the last word: “Over the years the nuns have taught young women how to stand on their own two feet. At 80, I’m living on my own two feet, doing what I want to do, doing what I can do…I’m still going strong, and the best is yet to come!”


The other Jubilarians are Sisters Clare and Florence Tobin, Ruth Long, Lesley Curran, Agnes Burke and Maureen Metz (60 years) and Sisters Patricia McCarthy and Patricia Boland (50 years). To encounter the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar please visit www.ssjl.org.au

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