I began school at Holy Spirit Primary in Kurri Kurri and then was in the first class at Mt St Joseph’s High School Cessnock, begun by the Sisters of St Joseph. I completed the Intermediate there and then spent two years at the ‘Doms’ (St Mary’s) in Maitland to gain my Leaving Certificate. The desire to be a missionary came directly from the mission boxes the Sisters showed us; they were called “Jacky Mite Box” – not such a good name now but that’s what they were called in the fifties! I wanted to work with the Pallottine Fathers who worked with Aborigines in the Northern Territory but I was too young. God works in his own ways – I doubt I would have lasted 45 years there! Too dry and hot...
I would have liked to be a teacher but I didn’t receive a scholarship after high school so for five years I worked in an accountant’s office. Mum and Dad were very supportive of my wanting to become a missionary – although initially I only signed up for three years. I have a brother, John, and a sister, Lynne – little did any of us know what my decision would mean.
At 23 I joined a group of 27 other young people under the auspices of “Palms” and we did a course at the Carmelite Monastery at Minto. None of us were trained – we were all young and naive! Almost all of us were sent to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and no one knew anything about the place – but ironically, it was where I was able to teach. In the ways of the time, I taught for a year then commenced teacher training in Port Moresby.
I taught under a local headmaster in a fairly remote village and after five years I had my own school. Basically that’s what I’ve been doing ever since; in Mun, in the highlands, for 20 years, and now in Kiripia for the last 25 years. My first students were around my age and that wasn’t unusual.
The parish priest in Kiripia, Fr Joe, is a Divine Word priest from Boston. Our school, Saints Peter and Paul, has 300 elementary (infants) students and another thousand in the primary school, and the school and parish centre are really the hub of the community. These facilities were built by Palms missionary Kevin Laxton. There isn’t anything else, and the people’s homes – grass huts with no electricity – are scattered throughout the valley. The roads are horrendous and sometimes the river floods, making travel even more difficult.
Now, 45 years after arriving, I’m the only lay missionary and I work under the auspices of the Diocese of Mt Hagen. As well as the school, we have a big health centre with two local Sisters of St Therese; one a nurse, the other a pastoral worker. There’s also a parish centre where courses are offered.
The Legion of Mary offers many opportunities for me to work with the sick, young people, elderly and anyone in need. The aim is always to become ‘obsolete’ – to work our way out!
Officially I come home every three years but sometimes there are passport problems so this is my first visit in five years. Family members visit me from time to time, and when I’m home, I feel like I’ve never been away!
You can’t preach the gospel before you meet the basic needs of the people. For example, I wasn’t trained as a nurse but there was, initially, no nurse at the health centre so I did what I could, to the best of my ability. I’m still doing that.
The elementary school is now led by teachers I trained, so that’s very satisfying – and a little embarrassing. I walk down the street and see old men with grey beards and teeth missing and they say, “Miss Pauline, you taught me in Grade 6!” Some have become benefactors because they value the education they received. Children walk miles to school, and adults too want to learn. Currently I teach reading and writing to teenagers and adults of all ages and I also teach about the scriptures – they’re really hungry to learn.
One of the questions many people ask is, ‘Have you missed not having a husband and children?”
Well, the best way for me to answer that is to say that many years ago, I met Anna, 11 at the time, and profoundly deaf. We (the parish priest and I) “adopted” her because her family wasn’t supporting her. Having a deaf child was very confronting for them. She’s 58 now, and she has a daughter, Sarah, and four grandchildren. Sarah insists on calling me ‘Mum’! Anna and Sarah are as much my family as my brother and sister here and their children. Anna has met my Australian family and I’m proud of the progress she’s made. She’s the cleverest of people, and everyone has great respect for her.
When I had been in PNG for 25 years, the people had a great celebration and part of it was dressing me as a ‘local’ with face paint. I feel very much one of them and I’ve always felt accepted.
One of the issues now is the prevalence of people with HIV-AIDS and I work with them in the health centre. In the past, no one would touch an AIDS sufferer except Father and me, but now, there’s more understanding and medicine can do more.
The people there love the Church and they say, “What will we do when you leave?” My response is always, “If you can’t manage without me, then I haven’t done my job well at all!”
Kurri Kurri is still home, and I will retire here, but PNG is home too. There is a different mentality among the people, not surprisingly, but they are very caring, spontaneous, emotional and loving. I have learned more from the people there than I have given and I have no regrets. I owe Jacky Mite a lot!
Please visit www.palms.org.au or P 9518 9551 to learn more about the work of missionaries. There are many opportunities for short or long-term commitment by individuals, couples or families.