For Good Samaritan Sister Carmel Pattinson, a self-confessed extrovert who’s lived in the city for 40 years, coming to terms with the isolation of a ministry in western Queensland can be challenging, but she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
BY Debra Vermeer*
For a self-confessed extrovert who has lived in the city for 40 years, it can be challenging to come to terms with the isolation of a ministry based in Richmond in western Queensland, but Good Samaritan Sister Carmel Pattinson says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s vast. It’s huge. But it’s exciting,” Carmel says of her sprawling new assignment.
“My friends come out from the city to see that I’m surviving,” she laughs.
“But despite the challenges of the heat, the isolation, and the mosquitoes, I’m quite passionate about the ministry. I’ve got no doubt in my heart that this is the ministry for me and I’ll find ways around the challenges.”
Richmond is located 500 kilometres west of Townsville, midway between Mount Isa and Townsville. The town has a population of 1,000, but Carmel’s ministry extends beyond the township to the people on the vast network of outlying properties in the Hughenden, Julia Creek and Richmond areas.
It is a return to her home state of Queensland and to the diocese in which she grew up, prompted in part by a desire to be nearer to her 91-year-old mother, now living in aged care in Ayr.
“I grew up in Ayr (88 kilometres south of Townsville on the delta of the Burdekin River), where our family home remains in the family today,” she says. “So I’ve been a country bumpkin, living in the city for 40 years.”
Carmel is the second eldest of nine children and was educated by the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Francis School Ayr for Years 1 to 10, and at St Mary’s Charters Towers where she completed Years 11 and 12.
After leaving school, she went to teachers’ college in Brisbane for 12 months before entering the Good Samaritan convent in 1969.
“And I haven’t looked back really. I had wonderful formation and I’ve had great and varied opportunities all the way through,” she says.
Carmel continued her teacher education with the Good Sams and then taught for five years at Avalon and Dee Why on Sydney’s northern beaches before moving to Melbourne and embarking on parish ministry at St Mary’s Thornbury.
“We began the parish at Craigieburn in 1985,” she says. “I had trained as a teacher but found myself working in parish ministry and I felt I needed to be equipped for that, so I was given the opportunity to do two wonderful years of pastoral study for a Masters degree at Loyola University in Chicago.”
More placements in parish pastoral ministry followed, including 11 years in two Brisbane parishes, four years in pastoral planning in Toowoomba Diocese, and then six years on the Good Sams leadership team, based in Brisbane.
After signing off from her term on congregational leadership, Carmel had a 12-month period of rest and refreshment, living back in the family home in Ayr with one of her sisters, before the opportunity to move to Richmond arose.
“I have always had a desire to work in my home diocese, but never had the opportunity,” she says.
“I’ve been here six months now and it’s exceeded some of my expectations! Richmond is one of the most attractive outback towns. The streets are lined with bougainvilleas and a few years ago they built an artificial lake here which provides people with all sorts of activities like fishing, boating, water skiing, walking tracks. Dinner on the Mary MacKillop House deck overlooking the lake is a unique experience and the morning and evening skies are always reflecting the glory and beauty of God’s creative touch. It’s exquisite.”
Carmel is based in Mary MacKillop House, a former convent of the Josephite Sisters working in the west. The house is now administered by the Diocese of Townsville and is part of the diocese’s Western Ministry for Spirituality Outreach, an initiative formed to respond to the expressed needs of the people in the western regions of the diocese.
“The dream of the diocese is that this house can be a hub of the town; a place that provides people with respite, time to pray, time for reflection; a place to be, to share life’s journey, a place for growth, both pastorally and spiritually,” she says.
“And part of the outreach is also to find a way to tap into the people out on the properties, who are often two hours or more away from their local town.”
Carmel says one of the things that attracted her to the job was that in the position outline they said the scope of the ministry allows the co-ordinator to be “as creative as she desires”.
“I love that I can use my creativity to do this outreach to families on properties,” she says. “If we can be a presence to them, then that would be a very good thing. Because as a congregation, we’ve always had a strong care for rural people and the marginalised and we’ve tried to maintain a strong interest in rural ministry.”
Being new on the block, one of Carmel’s first challenges was to connect with the people of Richmond community, and to find her way out to the various properties.
“I went out with Arthur the mailman in July,” she says. “He picked me up at 5:30am on his way out to deliver them not only the mail, but also meat and groceries and other things.
“We visited 18 properties and I was the official gate opener along the way. I met some of the families. It was a great day. Arthur asked me every question about life and the church under the sun and reckons he had quite an exciting day! So did I, but it was quite exhausting.”
Carmel is the only official resident religious representative of any faith in Richmond, although a priest comes to town for Mass every Sunday, so ecumenism is not so much a theory as a fact of life.
“Oh, it gives a whole new meaning to ecumenism,” she says. “It’s just how it is. I’ve been asked to bury loved one’s ashes and give blessings and all sorts of things for people of other denominations, simply because people have gotten to know me around town. They see me leading the prayer at the Anzac Day ceremony and when they need something of a spiritual nature I’m the one they call.
“I see it as another opportunity to be the presence of God for people, regardless of their religion.”
Carmel says the primary ministry of Mary MacKillop House is to be a centre of spirituality and hospitality in the town.
“We have daily prayer each weekday at 5:30pm and we have a number of people who come to that. Often the locals’ circumstances will give the spiritual theme or focus to our prayer,” she says.
“We had a liturgy for Mary MacKillop’s feast day and we’ve had farewells and blessings for people who are moving away to other places.”
The Centre also offers a monthly prayer morning in Richmond, which will hopefully extend to the communities in Julia Creek, Hughenden and perhaps Winton.
Carmel says she is blessed to have a number of wonderful volunteers helping her, especially when she has to leave town to complete her studies in spiritual direction, visit her mother or attend to other duties in the diocese. She also enjoys it when visitors come.
“Michael Sinclair – a director on our Good Sam Foundation Board was the first to arrange a visit. He and his wife Helen accompanied Father Michael Walsh, and the Richmond community was able to celebrate all the Holy Week liturgies with Father Michael presiding, and Michael assisting the local liturgy team to enhance these liturgies.”
She says her first six months in the job have been a learning curve.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d go with it,” she says. “But there’s something drawing me here and I know it’s of God.
“My hope would be to meet people where they’re at and to offer them the opportunity to develop their relationship with God if that’s where they choose to go.
“There is a lot of listening involved, especially in these early days, but with the people I’m meeting, I’m sensing that they’re searching for greater meaning in life, for personal development and ways to boost self-esteem.”
Carmel says she would like to explore the use of social media, set up networks by email or phone to invite people in outlying areas to come to workshops and other spiritually nourishing events, or utilise some online resources such as ACBC-BBI eConferences.
“As I do more visiting I’ll notice what their needs are and then respond, and that’s slow, slow work. I’m not sure where it will end up; that’s the mystery. But for my part, I’ll be listening, with a keen ear and an open heart, I hope.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both the Catholic and secular media.