In her 93 years, change has been a constant companion for Sister Mary Gregory. But unlike many of us, she has embraced change. She’s also been an agent of change.
BY Stephanie Thomas
At 93, Good Samaritan Sister Mary Gregory has witnessed enormous change in the world. She’s also experienced significant change in her own life. But unlike many of us, Mary hasn’t resisted change, even when it’s brought suffering and loss. She has been open to change – accepted it and often embraced it. She’s also been an agent of change.
“Some people as they get older find change very, very difficult,” reflects Mary. “Now I don’t like change for change’s sake and I’m a stickler for tradition that is relevant, but I do enjoy change. It keeps you alive.”
Born in 1923 in Grafton on the New South Wales north coast, Mary’s early years were spent at Eastbank, on the Orara River, halfway between Coffs Harbour and Grafton, in the same district as the farming settlement established by her pioneer ancestors.
The eldest of six children, Mary’s education began at “a little subsidised school” close to home. When it closed, Mary, age 6, moved to Coffs Harbour and lived with her grandparents to continue her education at the local Catholic school run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
“There were no buses or public transport, apart from a train which didn’t run at the right times, so I didn’t get home all that often,” says Mary. Her parents made the trip across the “rough roads” to visit “only periodically”.
When Mary was 11 her mother became seriously ill and was in hospital for “quite a long time”.
“My mother died one day after my baby brother had his first birthday. That left six children between the ages of 11 and one,” recalls Mary.
“In those days people were buried the next day. My brother was one on the third of December, my mother died on the fourth, and at her funeral, my father’s mother, my grandmother… came around the open grave and she kissed my Dad and she kissed me, and she went back to her place and dropped dead at the open grave.
“So that meant my Dad lost his wife and his mother, and we lost our mother and grandmother. It was very traumatic – a traumatic time.”
One of Mary’s aunts looked after the children initially, but when she married, the younger siblings went to an orphanage for a time, before other “wonderful aunts and uncles” took the children into their care. Mary, however, continued to live with her grandmother.
Mary remembers the care of the Good Samaritan Sisters following her mother’s death. “They were so kind and concerned, and more or less took me under their wing,” she says.
It was the sisters who suggested that Mary relocate to one of their colleges, St Mary’s at Wollongong, as a boarder to finish her secondary education.
“Now one of the reasons for that,” explains Mary, “was that my grandmother by this time was becoming older and more fragile, so it was time for me to move on.”
Another reason was that one of Mary’s aunts – “my mother’s sister, a wonderful woman” – who had eight children of her own, lived relatively close by in Sydney.
After moving to Wollongong at the age of 15, Mary remained connected with her father and siblings, gathering with them whenever possible, but her aunt’s family were a crucial support.
“They used to call me number nine in the family,” laughs Mary. “I’m still very much part of that family.”
Mary says the death of her mother and the turmoil that followed meant she “grew up overnight” and “more or less fended for myself” – but “with a lot of support from others”.
“We’re eternally grateful to our extended family for what they did,” she says. “They were very, very supportive and loving and caring.”
In the early stages boarding school was tough for Mary. “I was a real country kid settling into a very new environment. I was very lonely for some time, but then I gradually became part of the scene and I loved the place,” she says.
After gaining her leaving certificate, Mary completed a teacher’s commercial work course and stayed on at St Mary’s for several years in a teaching capacity.
During a break from teaching, Mary went to Casino in northern NSW where she worked as a secretary. She also became friends with a young man. But when a congratulatory telegram arrived announcing the exam results of her students in Wollongong, Mary realised that teaching was what she most wanted to do. She also had a strong desire to explore a religious vocation, a seed planted by her mother years earlier.
“So my friend and I parted company,” says Mary, “but we still remained friends.”
Mary’s father, however, did not support her desire to become a nun. It wasn’t until 1944 when she was 21 that Mary entered the Good Samaritan Sisters’ novitiate.
“My father was very, very disappointed,” explains Mary, “but eventually he came around and we were reconciled. He was a gentle, loving Dad; it was just difficult for him to understand.”
St Benedict’s at Broadway in Sydney was Mary’s first teaching appointment following the novitiate and teacher training. After four years there, she went to Braidwood in southern NSW, where she taught for three years. Then, unexpectedly, in late 1954, Mary’s superiors asked if she would consider studying social work.
“I didn’t even know what social work was,” says Mary. “I said, ‘What is it?!’ So they started to explain and they said, ‘Well actually, we’ve made an appointment for you. There’s a panel going to assess future students and the interview’s next week’.”
Mary was perplexed – “I loved teaching; I usen’t be able to get back to school fast enough after Christmas holidays to be in the classroom” – but went along with the plan in the spirit of obedience.
“So off I went to this interview,” says Mary. “It’s the only time in my life I wanted to fail in something!”
Fail she did not. Once immersed in her studies at Sydney University, particularly the extensive placements with social welfare and healthcare organisations, Mary was completely ‘at home’.
“I discovered talents that I didn’t know I had. And I think it was just God calling me again. I really found a niche in social work,” she says.
Soon after graduating in 1957 with a Diploma in Social Studies, Mary, now 34, was asked by her superiors to oversee the changeover of the Mater Dei Orphanage at Camden, a ministry of the Good Samaritan Sisters since 1910, to a special school for children with intellectual disabilities. It was a radical change-management project.
“That was a very difficult year because of the enormous change,” says Mary.
Not only was Mary responsible for managing the transition from an orphanage to a special school within a year, which included finding alternative care arrangements for the children living there, she also had to continue the day-to-day administration of the school and residential care section, as well as teach classes.
“It was really a very difficult year,” she says, “but the changes had to be effected.”
With frugal resources, Mary embraced the task wholeheartedly, seeking professional expertise and support where she could, particularly among professionals she’d met during her studies. Much was accomplished by the end of 1957, but there was more to be done.
However, in early 1958, following a change in her congregation’s leadership, Mary was abruptly transferred to Moruya on the NSW south coast to resume teaching. No explanation was given at the time. Despite feeling confused, angered and “deeply wounded”, Mary “took up the next challenge”.
“I had to make an enormous adjustment personally,” she says. It also took Mary “a while to adjust to all sorts of changes that had happened in education during that time”.
“When I arrived at Moruya and found myself in a classroom, I said to myself, ‘These children need me to accompany them here’, so I was able eventually to throw myself into the ministry there.”
Mary had “five wonderful years in Moruya” before she was asked to take on another challenge which would draw on her skills and experience as a social worker, educator and leader.
In 1963, she was appointed Director of the Good Samaritan Centre at Arncliffe in Sydney, a position she held several times over the next 21 years.
Before Mary’s arrival, the Centre had been operating for many years with different mandates, but essentially, it was a continuation of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ very first ministry supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable women in colonial Sydney.
Under Mary’s leadership, the Centre supported socially and emotionally disadvantaged girls between the ages of 15 and 18 who were committed to the care of the Sisters by the Children’s Courts.
“They were committed to our care usually for about 12 months,” says Mary.
While at the Centre, the young women were offered support and assistance to develop life skills so they could take their place in society.
“What we tried to do was cater for their circumstances,” explains Mary. “We tried to work with them, looking to their future.”
“Our facilities were very poor, really; we struggled financially [they received no government funding], but at least we had a plan of care and we tried. I’m not saying it was always successful. It wasn’t.”
“Quite a few” of the young women from the Centre have remained in contact with Mary. “Not just with me,” she’s quick to add, “but with members of the staff whom they related to very, very warmly after they left. It’s the place that was remembered as much as the people in it. Some had sad memories of it and some had angry memories, and others had very warm, affectionate [memories].”
Mary says many of the young women went on to lead positive and fulfilling lives, caring for their families and pursuing careers. “But of course, there are others that I often wonder what’s become of them. And there are others who have possibly ended up back in courts or been in trouble or strife. They haven’t all been success stories.”
Mary describes her time at the Centre as “a time of re-creation”.
“The girls who came to me, I saw their potential. They didn’t have to change from what they were,” she explains. “They just had to be re-created. They had the potential; it was just a matter of drawing them out and letting them become the people they were, they are.”
For Mary, the Good Samaritan Centre was her “most formative” ministry. “It was the most challenging, it was the one where I probably suffered immensely,” she says, “but it is something I cherish.”
Many of Mary’s ministries were pioneering projects. In 1974-75, she was asked to lead the School Social Work Division of Centacare, which was established to maximise the educational opportunities of students in disadvantaged schools in Sydney.
“We pioneered school social work in Australia,” says Mary, “and it was in the Catholic schools that we pioneered it. Social workers were not introduced into the public school system until later on.”
In the mid-1980s, Mary spent 15 months studying at Fordham University in New York, where she completed a Masters in Religion and Children’s Religious Education, with a specialisation in family ministry.
“Some of these courses had been set up in response to John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, the encyclical on the family,” explains Mary, “and following that publication, the bishops throughout the world called for a compassionate, pastorally-centred approach to meeting the needs of families.”
Armed with new learnings, Mary returned to Australia in 1986 and began a new role as Director of the Ministry of Family Development in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese. Her brief was to encourage parishes to adopt a “family perspective” in all ministries so that families were supported to build on their strengths.
The emphasis was on the “development of families”, says Mary. “It was not looking at family problems; it was looking at developing the family.”
After almost 10 years in family ministry, Mary, now 73, had a well-earned sabbatical in Perth. While there, she accepted an invitation to live “only for a few months” with another Good Samaritan Sister at Claymore, a public housing estate in Sydney’s south-west.
Claymore had been identified as a “very socially-disadvantaged area” with few human services and facilities. Mary says the St Vincent de Paul Society had invited the Good Samaritan Sisters to live in Claymore as “a presence” and “to see what could be done” for the community.
“The night I arrived a little family had been burnt to death in a fire that had been possibly deliberately lit,” Mary recalls. She “immediately saw there was a great need” to support the community.
It wasn’t long before Mary’s short-term placement at the House of Welcome, as it was known, became a ministry that continued for “several years”.
Living among the people was important for Mary. It allowed her to get to know them and their needs. While she would visit residents in their homes and get involved in community activities, they would also drop in at the house for a ‘cuppa’ and a chat.
Over time the House of Welcome became an important community space. Luncheons were held there so residents could gather socially. Gradually, these luncheons developed into opportunities for residents to discuss issues of concern in the community.
At about the same time, some of Mary’s St Vincent de Paul co-workers began talking about “animation”, an approach to community development that had been embraced by poor communities in developing countries.
“The whole idea of an animation community development approach,” explains Mary, “is that the people know their needs, they think they don’t know the solutions, but they really do. The solutions lie within them. So, by building up relationships and working with them, rather than for them, they will come up with solutions.”
Before long, Mary and her co-workers began implementing the “animation” philosophy, adapting it to suit Claymore. The luncheons developed into forums to hear the needs of the residents and to work towards solutions and put them into action.
It was a slow process, but Mary says the community responded positively. One of the first needs they identified was improved public transport; another was a laundromat. Twenty years on, Mary says the bus service and laundromat are still operating. The residents now run their own luncheons and have initiated other projects in response to their community’s needs.
“The whole idea [of animation] is that the residents eventually take over their own management, with opportunities to consult the animation team,” says Mary. “The same approach has been taken up in other local areas.”
For Mary, animation is best summed up in the text from John’s Gospel – “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (10:10).
Retirement seems elusive for Sister Mary Gregory. When she finished her ministry in Claymore in 2002, the St Vincent de Paul Society asked the Good Sams if any sisters would be open to supporting a group of elderly people who’d been homeless and were being accommodated in a block of units in Ingleburn. Mary put her hand up.
“That was very interesting because they were all younger than I was,” laughs Mary.
“It wasn’t easy but they all responded in some way or another. I was there two or three years when I became very ill and I was rushed to hospital.”
In 2013 after her 90th birthday, Mary moved from Camden into a care facility in Campbelltown. She admits the move was difficult and it’s taken time to adjust. But true to form, she has embraced the change.
As with her last 93 years, Mary continues to be very active and engaged in life. She’s a life member of the animation movement in the Macarthur region, and regularly attends their meetings. “It keeps me alive and sane,” she says.
Indigenous rights and issues have been close to Mary’s heart since the late 1980s. These days she is a member of Winga Myamly (which translates to “sit down and talk”), a local Aboriginal reconciliation group supported by Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor.
Mary is also the resident ‘postie’ at her care facility. She sees it as a practical and pastoral role. “It gives me an opportunity, as I go around, to have a little chat with the people and deliver their mail and see how they’re going,” she says.
Mary’s involvement in activities within and beyond the care facility is balanced by prayer, reading and reflection. As she reflects on her life, Mary is particularly grateful for the many people she has encountered in her various ministries and what they given to her.
“They had so much dignity and so much to teach me,” she says. “They taught me about real life – living it to the full.”