A passion for people

Judy Margetts SGS

Judy Margetts SGS

When Sister Judy Margetts left Brisbane to join the Good Samaritan Sisters, she never dreamed her vocation would take her from the classroom, to 17 years in Kiribati, pastoral outreach in rural Queensland and now the Indigenous community of Palm Island.

BY Debra Vermeer*

When Good Samaritan Sister Judy Margetts left her home and family in Brisbane, aged 19, to join the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, she never dreamed her vocation would take her from the classroom, to 17 years in Kiribati, pastoral outreach in rural Queensland and now the Indigenous community of Palm Island, but she says all of her ministry has been underpinned by one thing – a passion for trying to meet people where they are at in life.

Born in Brisbane in 1947, the eldest of four girls, Judy was educated first by the Josephite Sisters at St Joachim’s Holland Park, and then by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at Lourdes Hill College.

“I was brought up in a practising, churched, Catholic family,” she says. “And in those days, growing up in the 50s, certainly the school, the nuns and the influence of my family was all very strong. I suppose I was a typical Catholic kid of the times.

“I loved school and I did admire many of the sisters who taught me. I can remember in primary school thinking I would like to be a sister, and that continued in high school with the influence of the Good Samaritan Sisters.

Judy with a student from St Michael's Primary School, Palm Island

Judy with a student from St Michael’s Primary School, Palm Island

“My father also worked for Pellegrini’s [a Catholic devotional supplier], and I used to read all the saints’ stories of missionaries, and those sorts of influences probably inspired not just me, but others in those days.”

When it came to choosing between the Josephites and the Good Samaritans, Judy says it was probably the Benedictine spirituality of the Good Sams which spoke to her most strongly.

“I’d had a good experience of both orders,” she says. “They were both Australian congregations, and at that time, both teaching congregations. And even though I didn’t know very much about the Benedictine spirituality at that stage, somehow I thought the Good Samaritans were more contemplative.”

After leaving Brisbane for Sydney, Judy completed the Good Samaritan Novitiate at Pennant Hills, and teachers’ college at Glebe. Her first appointments were to Catholic primary schools in Fairy Meadow, Ultimo, West Wollongong and Dundas. In 1980 she returned to Queensland, teaching in Innisfail, North Queensland, and then serving as Principal in Hughendon, Western Queensland and as Assistant to the Principal and Religious Education Coordinator in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast for six years.

At the end of 1993, Judy had just enrolled for a renewal course at the Pacific Mission Institute in Sydney, when she was asked by the Congregation to go to Kiribati, where the Good Sams had recently decided to accept young women who had expressed a desire to become sisters.

Judy and students at the Kiribati Pastoral Institute graduation

Judy and students at the Kiribati Pastoral Institute graduation

She accepted the appointment, first completing her Graduate Diploma of Ministry from the Pacific Mission Institute.

“I arrived there in 1995 and I was there for 10 years,” she says. “I was working at the Kiribati Pastoral Institute (KPI), and after the first year there I was appointed Director of KPI.”

The Institute is a diocesan pastoral institute, which offers a two-year course for young leaders – either those preparing to enter religious congregations or lay people.

“At the same time, I was only there two weeks when the first of the Good Samaritan enquirers began their live-in time with us,” Judy says.

“That was an interesting time, both for them and for us, because we were on a learning curve too. Three women enquired initially, but by the time I got there, there were two, one left. So it was an interesting, challenging time, trying to learn the language and culture, and also teaching full-time at KPI.”

One of the women inquiring to join us in those early days was Ameria Etuare, who became the first I-Kiribati woman to make her final vows as a Sister of the Good Samaritan in 2009.

“We had lots of enquirers, and with all our Kiribati sisters, I would have taught them at KPI or taken them for spiritual direction or accompaniment, so you develop a special relationship with them,” she says.

After 10 years, Judy left Kiribati to come home and do some study and renewal “in preparation for some new, ‘you-beaut’ ministry”.

She did two semesters at Royal Melbourne Hospital, completing the Clinical Pastoral Education qualification, while also working one day a week in prison ministry with Sister Mary O’Shannassy SGS. The following year, Judy completed a course in spiritual direction at the Heart of Life Centre.

“And then I was asked to go back to Kiribati,” she laughs. “It was a bit of a surprise, but I thought ‘why not go while I can?’ And so I did.”

Judy ministered in Kiribati for another seven years, making her the longest serving Good Samaritan Sister on the island nation. She returned to teaching part-time at KPI, and also became more formally involved with the formation of the young sisters.

“During this time the Good Samaritans’ novitiate moved to Lawson in NSW, so I was the on-the-ground person in Kiribati, the coordinator of initial formation.”

She says living in Kiribati had its challenges, including a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and fewer choices available in general.

“But I found it to be comfortable enough living,” Judy says.

“When you’re in an isolated place, sometimes the challenges of living in community are exacerbated because you don’t have any outlet, and I also never became fluent in the language, although I certainly worked hard at it.”

In 2013, Judy was asked by the Congregation to come back to Australia.

“It was a bit hard to accept that, but I did,” she says. “And when I came back, two of our pre-novices, Tuata and Juniko, came back with me and went to Lawson to the novitiate. I was able to be present for their first profession this month, which was a wonderful celebration.”

Upon her return, Judy was given the opportunity to explore ministry options, first basing herself in Brisbane, and then spending a year in Richmond, western Queensland, where she assisted Sister Carmel Pattinson SGS in pastoral support, spending time with people in the town, joining the golf club (an interest she had taken up years earlier in Nambour), “and generally being with the people and meeting them where they are”.

Having indicated that she would be interested in working in isolated places or possibly with asylum seekers, Judy was asked to consider moving to either Palm Island, a predominantly Indigenous community off the North Queensland coast, or to Santa Teresa, an Indigenous community near Alice Springs.

Circumstances and a process of discernment led her to Palm Island, where she is now living and working with Sister Robyn Brady SGS.

“I realised that my work in another culture would be of assistance to me, although I really hadn’t worked in an Australian Indigenous community before,” she says.

Judy calls her ministry on Palm Island one of pastoral outreach. She spends an hour each day at the island’s Catholic school, offering literacy support under the guidance of the special needs teacher, an experience she loves. On Mondays she goes to the women’s crisis centre, which offers short-term accommodation for women experiencing domestic violence.

“Maybe I help with lunch there or just chat to someone, and they get to know me and I slowly get to know them,” she says.

On Tuesdays she heads down to Ferdie’s Haven, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, where she sits in on the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“We’re not running it,” she says. “We’re supporting a service that’s already there. I find it quite inspiring to listen to these young fellows, and some women as well. They have some colourful stories to share and it is very humbling.”

She visits Sandy Boyd Hostel, the local aged person’s hostel, as well as the Joyce Palmer Medical Centre, where she always spends time at the dialysis unit and gets to know the people there and in the wards.

“You meet different ones in the community and you slowly start to feel at home,” she says. “It’s very rewarding when they might initiate conversations with you in the shop each day. We’re just slowly building up relationships.”

The sisters are also the parish team on Palm Island, assisting the priest, who is from Ghana, with pastoral support and with enculturation issues, as well as providing hospitality after Mass and occasional accommodation for people visiting the island.

“It’s a ministry of presence and of relationship,” she says.

Judy says she hasn’t felt the frustration of island life so far on Palm Island, largely because she has developed interests which suit the lifestyle there.

“When it comes to interests, I’ve always believed in getting passionate about what’s available or what’s possible, not pining for what’s not possible,” she says.

Thus, she has put the golf clubs back into storage and taken up candle wicking, along with photography and reading. She also enjoys the challenge of cooking with whatever ingredients are available.

Her main passion, she says, is for people.

“When I think about it, I’ve got a passion for the ‘everyman or everywoman’; for the ordinary person, the person in-between. Even as a teacher in the classroom, you have the really bright ones and the really naughty ones and the ones in between can be neglected. They’re the ones I want to look out for.

“And the literacy work with the kids in the school is reminding me how much I really love teaching and helping to close that gap that exists.

“Like the people on the island, you try to meet the child where the child is at and build up trusting relationships. You can’t organise or plan those things, but you’ve got to be there for them to happen. It’s the being there that is important.”

* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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The Good Oil, June 16, 2015. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

13 Responses to “A passion for people”

  1. Carmel Dunne says:

    Since we sat on a bunny rug together I have known what a wonderful person you are. I rejoice that our families have always bee friends. I believe that Mary and Bernie, Margaret and John will be knowing with pride and love how wonderful you, Helen, Annie and Marie have lived into their commitment and loving kindness. Your committed ministry as Good Samaritan has given stability and service based on humility.
    How wonderful you are. Love Carmel

  2. Carmel Dunne says:

    Judy, how proud I am of you. I knew you had done so very much; knew what an example of authentic love and commitment. To see all your work in one article was overwhelming.
    Your family and friends would be delighted. Mary and Bernie will be bragging in heaven and giving thanks.
    We have come a magic carpet ride from the photo of us both sitting on a bunny rug! Thank you Judy xx

  3. steve sinn says:

    Lovely to read Judy. I sometimes think that it is only looking back that we can see that yes, the reign of God was among us. Thanks for revealing it.

  4. klee says:

    You are always bright and smiling,Judy, and so easy to relate to. Thank you . Katie Lee

  5. Jeanie Heininger says:

    I feel so proud of you Judy and I can imagine you in many of the places mentioned where I have shared time with you. You are a true Good Samaritan and I liked the part where it was the spirituality that drew you to the Good Sams.

  6. Marie Casamento says:

    Judy what a rich life! I especially liked the concept at the end of taking time to sit and listen. As Henri Nouwen wrote ‘care’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to sit beside’. Thank you for your witness in this regard, very Benedictine. Marie

  7. Cathie Menck says:

    I always knew from our time together in Nambour that you were a very special lady and you still are. Thanks you for sharing your journey.

  8. Susan Stubenrauch says:

    Hi Judy – really enjoyed reading about your new life. Your work with the people sounds very rewarding. I would love to come and visit. Maybe we could have an Oblates visit one day!! best wishes, Susan Stubenrauch.

  9. Kate Vandenberg says:

    Remember Judy Margetts very well from Pennant Hills – Lovely lady

  10. Beth says:

    I really enjoyed reading the article about my lovely Year 2 teacher, Sr Peter, who way back in 1975 ‘magically’ became Sr Judith after the school holidays. My wonderful experience of Judith at West Wollongong seems to have been replicated for many people in many different places across the years. A truly “good” Good Sam.

  11. Marie Mohr says:

    Thank you Judy and Debra for this wonderful insight into your life. It is wonderful to hear the passion and committment to others that comes through in this piece.
    Very inspiring. Marie

  12. Anne Dixon says:

    Lovely article Judy – really enjoyed reading and identifying with a lot of what you shRed. Thank you!

  13. Ameria Etuare says:

    Wowwwwww, what a courageous woman you are Sr Judith. Thank you for your humble, honest and interesting story of your life. Thank you for your mission for the people of Kiribati, especially I would like to thank you personally for forming me, moulding me and influencing me to become one of the Kiribati good sams. Your ‘being’ and your presence was really worthwhile and deeply appreciated. We miss you Sr Judith but all the best in your new page of your journey. Te Mauri Te Raoi ao Te Tabomoa.

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