Hope rises from the ashes

If you had spent some thirty years serving God by serving the People of God as a Sister of Mercy, you might be entitled to feel just a little cheated when your home burnt to the ground while you were attending Mass.

Hope rises from the ashes

Margaret Dolahenty of Muswellbrook, formerly Sr M Chrysostom and then Sr Margaret Rose RSM, has a different attitude. “God sent me there, I shouldn’t have been there because I hadn’t been well.”  Another ‘blessing’ of that fateful morning was that “Tiny”, Margaret’s much loved Jack Russell, had been left in the yard rather than locked in the fernery as usual. He therefore escaped and remains a faithful companion.


Margaret, now 73, is known in the parish as an accomplished historian, co-author of 100 Years and Counting, published late last year to mark the centenary of the parish church of St James. When she reflects on her life, she does so with a historian’s eye for detail, patterns and connections. She also does so with the eyes of faith, as ingrained in her as her fund of family stories and love of people.


Born in Muswellbrook, the eighth of 11 children, Margaret can pinpoint the moment when her love of history, particularly family history, was awakened. She was holidaying with her mother and siblings at their aunt’s home on the north coast. “Mum took us away every year for a great holiday. Aunt Rose visited one of her daughters and vacated her house for us. Mum was telling stories of her childhood and youth and I was just fascinated. Ever since, I’ve felt that the stories and images should be preserved and shared.”    


A bursary awarded at the end of primary school at St James’ enabled the young Margaret to become a boarder at St Catherine’s College Singleton. “That was a great experience, I made a lot of friends and we still meet.” Margaret loved to learn and took the separation from family and the rigours of boarding school in her stride. Some students, including Margaret, had older sisters who had entered the convent and some thought, “We were given a licence to play up. Anything but…!”  By the time she had completed her Leaving Certificate in 1956, “I had my heart set on entering the convent as a Sister of Mercy.” Not so unusually for those days, her older sister Dorothy, who had attended Muswellbrook High School and encountered the Sisters of St Joseph at Aberdeen, had also reached a similar decision. Margaret recalls that Dorothy was “just a little put out” when Margaret told her parents of her decision, wanting to be the first to make an announcement. Margaret entered in March 1957 and Dorothy in June 1957. Older sister Laurel had already entered the Sisters of Mercy.


The day Dorothy left for the convent was a struggle for Margaret, who was convinced that she might never see her sister again; “I was devastated.” In those days, Sisters were rarely able to return home and members of different congregations, or groups, did not mix. Because Dorothy and Margaret had chosen different congregations, their paths would be unlikely to cross.


It’s a lovely irony that Margaret now shares a home in Muswellbrook with Dorothy, 75, who remains a Sister of St Joseph.


Margaret completed her novitiate and teacher training at the Convent of Mercy Singleton and began teaching infants classes at St John’s Primary Lambton. In 1963 she was asked to teach secondary classes at St Aloysius’, which stood next to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newcastle. While mathematics was her specialty, “You could be asked to teach in other areas and you just did your best.” Life in the convent and classroom was all that Margaret had anticipated and her years at St Catherine’s had been good preparation.


A turning point in a highly regulated life occurred when Congregational Leader Sr Patricia Lake invited Margaret to become congregational bursar. This meant joining the provincialate community at Singleton so she was almost back on home turf. She enjoyed the new role and recognises that it gave her confidence and led to her moving in different circles, liaising with business people, service providers and various professions. “In later years, those contacts became important in a way I had never imagined.”


In 1962, only three years after Margaret was professed as a Sister of Mercy, the second Vatican Council began in Rome, concluding in 1965. The Council was a gathering of the bishops of the world, initiated by Pope John XXIII, although he died before its conclusion. The Council brought immense change to a church characterised by stability; in fact some commentators say that the full scope of ‘Vatican II’ is yet to be recognised, much less implemented. Changes such as the celebration of the Mass in the vernacular rather than in Latin, with the priest facing the congregation, were visible and relatively simple, although not without controversy. New theological understandings, such as seeing the Church as the People of God, were more challenging.


For many, including Margaret, who had only known a stable and predictable church, the advent of significant, albeit gradual, change was unsettling; “You know where you’re heading and then you find yourself floating – I was finding that all too much.”


During her seven years as congregational bursar, Margaret moved from Singleton to Branxton and was able to move more freely within the community. “I got to know the people so that was a good experience.” Margaret’s faith and commitment were rock solid but she felt stirrings of a desire for a different way of living within the Catholic Church.  Her health had caused some concerns and when she reflected on her life since beginning high school in 1952, she recognised how disciplined it had all been. “I think I was burnt out.” After returning from an extended family holiday in Queensland, her mother Alma said, “Margaret, are you in the convent or out of it?” This crystallised the turmoil she was feeling and a decision not to remain a Sister of Mercy soon followed.


Margaret had earlier experienced the sadness of Sisters leaving and so she took the trouble to write many letters explaining her decision and asking for understanding and prayerful support. While she remembers well the support she experienced, she maintains, some 25 years later, that she has never looked back and that she has taken her Mercy story with her.


In retrospect, it might seem that leaving the congregation was the easy part. With years of teaching behind her but not feeling inclined to return to the classroom due to health issues, Margaret needed to find work and a place to live. “I was looking for my first job at 48!” She entered the hitherto unknown world of Centrelink, undertook work experience, received references from the business world she had entered as congregational bursar and experienced more than a few disappointments along the way.


However, she found employment in a variety of positions, with a distinct leaning towards assisting those with disabilities or disadvantages. She is still in touch with residents from a local home for people with an intellectual disability. The Mercy story is alive and well.


For a period Margaret left paid work to care for an aged aunt in Muswellbrook. This meant returning to the home in which her grandparents had lived and it was a labour of love. On the death of Aunt Barb, Margaret inherited the family home, built in 1893. “It was sacred ground to me – I always felt the presence of the people I’d known there, and I was a caretaker.” She had come full circle, back to the town of her birth, and has been happy to stay there.


Fast forward several years and Sr Dorothy is living and ministering in Muswellbrook. Two other sisters, Justine and Pauline, also live locally. Margaret’s love of history has led to an absorbing pastime, compiling scrapbooks for family members to mark significant birthdays and anniversaries. The vast collection of stories, photos, documents and news clippings has been marshalled to create precious keepsakes, with Margaret’s calligraphy enhancing the pages.


On Friday 12 August 2011, Dorothy drove to St James’ Church, picking up Margaret on her way. While they were at morning Mass, an electrical fault led to the family home burning to the ground. Fr James Lunn had to tell Margaret he had “some bad news” for her. As well as the loss of home and personal possessions, all the records so diligently accumulated were gone. Margaret was able to move in with Dorothy and after the initial shock, she was bowled over by the thoughtful kindness of so many within and beyond the community. Townspeople, parishioners, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St Joseph reached out to her and continue to do so. She refuses to be bowed down by it all, and is deeply grateful for Tiny’s survival, for the kindness shown and for the fact that the material she had compiled for others replenished her own collection. She recalls that primary and secondary classmates brought photos she had originally given them, in one case already mounted in an album. 


Even the fact that Margaret had taken up a family member’s suggestion to compile a scrapbook to mark her 70th birthday – and the completed sections were all destroyed – is a cause for no more than brief regret.


The home had originally been built by Margaret’s grandfather, Michael Dolahenty. He had managed to ‘swap’ a block of land he owned for something higher, out of the reach of flood waters. “Water, fire – eventually it was destroyed by fire,” she says ruefully.  


One bright spot amid dark days was the retrieval of a small, badly burnt tin containing various trinkets of mainly sentimental value. Among them were two plain rings, and when the local jeweller polished them, Margaret and Dorothy recognised their grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s wedding rings. They have even greater value now.


The resources gathered for the church history were lost too but the approaching centenary celebrations in December 2012 meant that the show had to go on! The published history, authored by Margaret, Larry Keegan and Bill Spicer, is testimony to skilled research, a love of storytelling and above all, deep faith.


What next for this sanguine woman with so much to give? While Margaret and Dorothy get on – as one friend said without thinking – like a house on fire! – Margaret looks forward to being settled in her own home and returning to documenting the stories of her family and community. She feels strongly that she is where she’s meant to be and while she acknowledges that these days are not the happiest for the church she loves, she believes in the words of Jesus to his disciples, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20)



Copies of “100 Years and Counting” are available from the parish office at 4 Sowerby St PO Box 35 Muswellbrook 2333 P (02) 6543 1167 E muswellbrookparish@mn.catholic.org.au



A gem from Margaret's recollections

Growing up, Margaret and Dorothy had a friend, Mary, who lived nearby. Mary was an only child, and when their mother’s tenth pregnancy produced twin boys, Margaret and Dorothy thought that one of the boys could be given to Mary’s mother. This suggestion was politely but firmly refused by their mother but the girls had a brainwave. They knew that the boys had come from the local hospital, so they presented themselves at the hospital on their way to school and told the receptionist that they wanted to order a baby for Mary’s mother. The receptionist called other staff to hear the girls’ request!

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