Natalie Acton, Mount St Benedict Centre’s newly-appointed Director, is brimming with hope and enthusiasm for the Centre and its ministry.
BY Debra Vermeer
Long before Natalie Acton took on the role as the first lay Director of the Mount St Benedict Centre, she had a relationship with the place, with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan that she met there, and with the Rule of St Benedict.
Combined with her background in business, theology and formation, Natalie says she was drawn to the role on a number of levels.
“I feel like I’ve been in relationship with this place since 2010,” she says.
“My belief in the essential role of theology in the contemporary world, my appreciation for the relevance of the Rule of Benedict and the spirit of the Good Samaritan in this time and place is what has drawn me to this role.”
The Mount St Benedict Centre, at Pennant Hills in Sydney, is a retreat, spirituality and conference centre, run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
It has long been a place of spirituality and formation, having been home to more than 776 Good Samaritan novices from 1927 until 1999. Today, it provides a haven of peace in the midst of the busy city for anyone seeking something deeper in their life.
Natalie, who began work as Director of the Centre in June, grew up just down the road in North Rocks.
“Our family was part of the local parish and I went to Christ the King School there,” she says.
“In those days every family in the school seemed to be part of the parish. It was a real community.”
After high school at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta, Natalie started a science teaching degree, while at the same time working as a manager at McDonald’s, but she soon realised that science teaching was not for her.
“I was working at McDonald’s and I went through their management training program. I realised that I really enjoyed all aspects of the business,” she says.
From McDonald’s, Natalie found her way into David Jones and worked in the human resources and training areas for nine years, training staff and working in management development. During this time she came into contact with consultants working in performance management and was approached to join their company.
Two small children soon followed, and with Natalie’s work requiring frequent national travel, her husband John, a teacher, elected to stay home with the kids. Natalie then took up a role with a successful retail company, but found that something was missing in her life.
“The job came with intense pressure, with enormous travel and very long hours,” she says.
“I was looking after 26 stores and over 100 staff and while I had reached a level of success in my career, and our lives were very full, I felt there was something missing, I felt so empty.”
With Natalie feeling unhappy at work, and with John now also busy running a café in North Sydney, the couple decided it was time to take a leap of faith and to make significant changes to their lifestyle.
“We had always dreamed of having a larger family and of living outside of Sydney,” she says.
“So, we sold the café, sold our house, had a baby, bought a business and moved to the Central Coast all in an eight-week period.
“And this time, my husband took the lead with the business and I stayed home with the children, doing some consultancy on the side to help bring some money in.”
Two babies in 20 months added to their family, but Natalie was starting to think that maybe working in their family business wasn’t the answer for her.
“I felt the desire to study,” she says.
“I wanted to study something that was not career focused but was purely for my delight. There was only one topic I was interested in and that was theology.”
She started a Theology for Beginners course at the Broken Bay Institute and enjoyed it so much that she rolled it into a degree.
“I loved it. I chose units that I was interested in, which led me to majors in biblical studies and spirituality. Alongside the academic work, the course provided rich material for personal reflection. I enjoyed studying so much that when I finished my degree I went on to do a Masters in Theology specialising in Mission and Culture.”
When she wasn’t studying, Natalie was busy in parish life, volunteering with sacramental programs, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), and a prayer group at the school. She was also appointed to the Broken Bay Diocese’s Forum for Laity, an advisory group to the bishop about issues relating to the role of lay people in the diocese.
“I realised that I got so much life and pleasure out of what I was doing with my volunteer work, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could do this full time,” she says.
“My husband could see that I wasn’t enjoying working in the family business, and after many long conversations, he suggested, ‘Why don’t you go and do what makes you happy?’”
“So I prayed, asking God for some direction. A few months later a friend rang to tell me there was a job going at the Broken Bay Diocese and I should consider applying”.
Natalie did apply and was appointed to the role in parish support, which she loved. Then, after about six months in the role, Bishop David Walker announced he wanted to hold a Diocesan Synod and Natalie was approached to become the Synod Coordinator.
“As part of that process we engaged a professional facilitator, but what was missing was a spiritual advisor – someone to accompany us, to keep us in tune with the movement of God and open to the Spirit,” she says.
Good Samaritan Sister Christine Manning was approached to take on that role, and in her, Natalie found a great mentor and friend.
“Christine struck me as a person of peace and balance, deeply connected to the Gospel. In our work together she shared her love of scripture and would often quote the Rule of St Benedict,” Natalie says.
“This intrigued me and so I started reading everything I could find on the Rule and was just blown away.
“I was completely taken with it, that this Rule, written so long ago, could continue to offer such contemporary wisdom for living in relationship with God, with others and with all of creation.”
At the conclusion of the Synod, Natalie considered what might be next for her and realised that it was her interactions with women religious which she found most life-giving.
“I so admired these women and the way they listen to God’s Spirit in shaping their responses to a changing world. I had hoped there may be an opportunity to work with these inspiring women”.
This opportunity came with the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, working with ministry board directors, executive leaders, middle managers and frontline staff providing formation programs and experiences, and developing resources in the area of mission and values.
“It was varied work which I really enjoyed,” Natalie says.
“This experience helped me realise the great gift of the charisms of religious orders, the way they capture people’s imaginations and enliven them spiritually. It’s a privilege to journey with people in these times, to have a sense of God at work in people; it’s very inspiring.”
After four rewarding years, Natalie saw the advertisement for the position of Director at the Mount St Benedict Centre and knew she wanted to apply.
“Over the years I had been participating in almost everything that was held at Mount St Benedict,” she says.
“I had attended days of formation, the Advent and Pentecost Festivals, had come for spiritual direction and was a library member, so in a sense I felt like I had been hanging around the Mount St Benedict Centre quite a lot,” she laughs.
On top of that, Natalie had been a member of the Mount St Benedict Centre Advisory Committee and was in touch with the “mechanics” of the Centre and reflections for the future.
Natalie took on the Director’s role in June and is brimming with hope and enthusiasm for the Centre and its ministry.
“Firstly, I hope that we can continue to support the extraordinary ministry of the varied groups who come here, within the Congregation and beyond it,” she says.
“Secondly, the Centre program has for many years shared the Benedictine spirituality of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in diverse and engaging ways and I think we can continue to do this, seeking to expand our offering even further using technology and contemporary methods of sharing information and building community.
“We are exploring a number of creative opportunities including web-based resourcing, spirituality podcasts and we’re drawing inspiration from around the world on emerging solutions for building an online community.”
Natalie says she and the staff are continuing to consider how the parable of the Good Samaritan and it’s imperative to “being neighbour” might invite new types of partnerships as well as creating space for community dialogue and reflection on contemporary issues.
“The Centre has always provided a space for hospitality, education and support, in the physical sense,” she says.
“We are now thinking about how we might be invited to offer this support, formation and hospitality beyond the physical boundaries of the Centre and into the wider community.”