Catholic education in the South Australian city of Port Pirie “owes its existence” to the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, according to Brenda Keenan, Director of Catholic Education in the Port Pirie Diocese.
BY Stephanie Thomas
“It would be true to say that here in Port Pirie, Catholic education IS and will continue to BE because of their vision, their commitment and their legacy,” said Brenda at an event last month to celebrate the 125th anniversary since the Sisters opened the first Catholic school in Port Pirie.
Several events were held in Port Pirie over two days (May 22-23) to acknowledge and celebrate the Good Samaritan Sisters’ contribution to education in Port Pirie and to the life and mission of the Port Pirie Diocese, generally.
Among the 16 sisters who attended the celebrations, many of whom had travelled interstate, was Sister Margaret Ann Kelly of Sydney who lived and ministered in Port Pirie from 1964 to 1966.
“The recent celebrations were extraordinary,” she told The Good Oil.
“The Bishop, the CEO [Catholic Education Office] staff, the schools, the people could not have done more to make the Good Samaritan Sisters welcome and to assure us of their appreciation of the efforts and service of the Sisters over the [past] 125 years,” she said.
“I felt quite privileged to be part of it and was so glad I had come.”
Port Pirie was Margaret Ann’s first ministry placement after finishing the novitiate in Sydney.
“As it was my first move it was all rather exciting, and as so far away, I felt I was experiencing something quite different – to live in a smaller community, to teach as a Good Samaritan Sister, to see life away from Sydney,” she explained.
“At the school to which I was appointed – Our Lady of Fatima School, Risdon Park – there were two Good Samaritan Sisters on staff and one lay teacher. For the first two years I taught grades 4 and 5, and in the second year I was principal.”
For Margaret Ann, her experience in Port Pirie evokes many memories, but those which stand out include: “a hard work ethic and fidelity to our religious practices”; “basic simple living”; “a contented community”; “a supportive Church community particularly, for me, at Risdon Park”; “heat and sulphur fumes and sand storms”; “the importance to the general community of the smelters”; “closing all the windows and pulling down the blinds when the severe heat was on. Somehow this seemed to work! A bit!”; “isolation”; “enclosed life”; “the pleasure of sitting before my first winter fire of mallee roots. A fire like no other!”
For the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, their foundation in Port Pirie has special significance because it was their first venture as a congregation beyond New South Wales.
In 1890, at the invitation of Bishop John O’Reily of Port Augusta, a pioneering group of seven sisters and three lay women teachers arrived in Port Pirie. Archival records suggest that within a matter of days, the sisters and lay colleagues “were teaching over 100 hundred children and enduring the intense heat”.
“Coming to Pirie, for the sisters, was like going to a foreign mission, 1,000 miles by train from Sydney,” said Congregational Leader Sister Clare Condon in a reflection delivered to parishioners during Mass at Port Pirie’s St Mark’s Cathedral on May 23.
“For the sisters the isolation of Pirie from Sydney was very real, and in 1899, only nine years after the foundation, Mother Berchmans wrote to the new bishop, James Maher (1896-1905) indicating her intention to withdraw the sisters.
“To relieve the pressure on the sisters, a new primary school was opened, and the rest is history, with schools opening and closing and re-opening over the decades.”
Sister Margaret Ann Kelly said she was “moved” when she heard accounts of the loneliness of the first sisters and the challenges they faced.
“I felt quite honoured to be associated with their generosity, faith, selflessness and competence shown all those years ago. These were strong women,” she said.
“A magnificent contribution has been made by these women to Catholic education,” said Brenda Keenan.
“Of particular interest to me is that their selfless generosity may be seen in the fact that, of the first 200 pupils enrolled, well over 100 were non-Catholic.”
Brenda also said that the first group of sisters did not come alone.
“As a part of this pioneering community three lay teachers, domestic staff, literature and resources came from Sydney with the sisters to Port Pirie. Two Miss Freemans (siblings) and a Miss McCarron were very much part of the initial pioneering community of Good Samaritans,” she said.
“The close relationship that exists between lay staff and the Good Sams was as apparent in the late 1800s as it is today.”
In a letter to the Port Pirie diocesan community, Bishop Greg O’Kelly expressed gratitude to all Good Samaritan Sisters who had ministered throughout the diocese over the last 125 years.
“We thank God for the more than 300 Good Samaritan Sisters who have been on mission in the Diocese of Port Pirie from 1890 until now. Think of the generosity and goodness that number indicates. We thank God for the Sisters and their faithfulness, and pray in particular for the four who ended their days amongst us, a commitment to the end, and are buried in Port Pirie,” he said.
“We give special thanks for the continuing presence and witness and work of Sister Mary Howard [Parish Pastoral Associate] and Sister Sonia Wagner [Bishop’s Assistant for Pastoral Ministry].”
While the recent celebrations in Port Pirie focused on the past 125 years, they also included the launch of a new partnership between the Diocese and the Sisters which looks to the future.
The “Kiribati Commitment” is a partnership between Catholic Education in the Port Pirie Diocese and the Good Samaritan Sisters which will provide an opportunity for young school teacher leaders in the diocese to engage in a two-way outreach experience in the remote Pacific island nation of Kiribati.
“One teacher (on an annual basis) from each of our diocesan schools will be given the opportunity to travel, to meet, to contribute, to laugh, to pray and to learn – from each other and from the I-Kiribati and the Good Samaritan community on the island of Tarawa in Kiribati,” explained Brenda Keenan.
“We are delighted that in 2016, as the I-Kiribati Sisters, and indeed as all Good Samaritan Sisters, celebrate 25 years of mission and service in Kiribati, Catholic Education in our Diocese will commence a new partnership with the Good Sams in the Pacific.”