When Sister Clement Baseden, who turns 88 this month, is asked how she looks back on her long and rich life, she leans forward in her chair, gives a big grin that lights up her face, and says, “Well it hasn’t been boring!”
BY Debra Vermeer*
When Good Samaritan Sister Clement Baseden, who turns 88 this month, is asked how she looks back on her long and rich life, she leans forward in her chair, gives a big grin that lights up her face, and says, “Well it hasn’t been boring!”
It certainly has not.
Born and raised in Western Australia, Clement became a Catholic during her school years, joined the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in 1954, and, following teaching appointments in Sydney, served 16 years as Principal of Seiwa Girls Middle and High School in Sasebo City, Nagasaki Ken, Japan. Since returning to Australia in the mid-1980s, Clement has been working in parish ministry at St Benedict’s Parish, Arcadia, in Sydney’s rural north-west.
Clement says her life was unsettled from a young age.
“My mother died when I was four, and my brother and I went to live with my maternal grandmother in Esperance, my elder sister went to boarding school, and my father went to the northern goldfields,” she says.
Clement began school at the public school at Esperance, before heading off, age eight, to boarding school at St Gertrude’s New Norcia, under the care of the Brown Josephites.
A couple of years later, her sister told her father that she wanted to become Catholic and he decided that if one child was to become Catholic, then the other two should also be Catholic, because circumstances had already separated them enough. So Clement was baptised by Abbot Catalan of New Norcia.
Clement recalls her time at New Norcia fondly – a time of bush picnics, cubby houses and playing hockey with bush waddies. Later, she would use those hockey skills at intervarsity tournaments.
After finishing her Junior Certificate examination at New Norcia, Clement went to live with her sister for a while, and then with her father, who was working as a butcher in the mining town of Coolgardie.
There, she enrolled for a three-month commercial course in shorthand, book-keeping and typing, at St Anthony’s, the local Sisters of Mercy school.
“My father had an idea that I could get a job in a bank,” she says. “I was hopeless at maths, so that was never going to happen, but the typing has been a valuable skill.”
Staying on as a boarder at St Anthony’s, Clement completed the Leaving Certificate and then, in the last year of World War II, she took the long train ride across the country to Brisbane where her father was working for the Americans.
Intending to go to university, but lacking the required Intermediate maths qualification, she went back to school, for an extra year, at Lourdes Hill College, a Good Samaritan school, where Sister Vianney Phillips was Principal. She found herself at the back of Sister Helen Mary Hobbes’ Intermediate maths class and took other senior subjects including Sister Helen Mary’s logic class.
“Halfway through the year, the University of Western Australia dropped the maths requirement, and I immediately dropped the maths, but I made a life-long friend in Helen Mary Hobbes and I enjoyed seeing more of Dad in that year,” she says.
Back in Western Australia, Clement began a Bachelor of Arts and says she enjoyed university immensely.
“My grandmother had instilled in me a great love of reading,” she says. “I had a wonderful English teacher and it was the time when TS Eliot and Gerard Manly Hopkins were all the rage and I relished it.
“It was a great year to go to university. The war was over and the place was full of young ex-servicemen and there was a lot of life and energy there. I joined the Newman Society and played hockey. It was wonderful.”
After graduating in 1948, Clement moved to Victoria and taught English and French at St Anne’s Church of England Grammar School for Girls, in Sale, before taking up a position at Toorak College in Mt Eliza.
In December 1951, she boarded a ship for London, where some of her friends were already living.
She taught English and religion at Barrowcop School in Lichfield, Staffordshire and then did a supply term at the Ursuline Convent School in Greenwich, and the Raines Foundation School for Girls in London’s East End.
“It was a wonderful time, living in a flat with friends, theatre and music and getting out and about and involved with things like the Catholic Evidence Guild,” she says.
The Catholic Evidence Guild, run by Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, was a society engaged in the study and teaching of Catholic doctrine.
“Our teaching was done on a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and other parts of London,” she says. “I remember one of my efforts. It was a speech on confession. It was at Speakers’ Corner and people were shouting and heckling and it was all very challenging.”
By this stage, Clement was considering heading home to Australia and joining a religious congregation. Her first thought was to join the Mercies in Coolgardie, but they had amalgamated with the Perth Mercies, and she says she had not forgotten the Good Sams.
“It was the Australianness of the Good Sams that caught me, I think,” she says. “I just thought they were a good option. I had known them and kept in touch with them and I thought I would give it a go.”
After a holiday in Europe, to Lourdes and through Italy, Clement sailed from Naples for home in 1954 and entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in July of that year.
“I stubbed my last cigarette out on the convent gate post,” she laughs.
“I entered the day the Pennant Hills communities were celebrating Mother Philomena’s silver jubilee,” she recalls. “I was fortunate to have Philomena and Bernardine Gallagher as my novitiate mentors. The Scripture schools we did were great – not as threatening as the Speakers’ Corner Soapbox, not to me, anyway. The audience was silent!”
Clement’s first teaching appointment was to St Brigid’s, Marrickville, where she again met up with Sister Vianney Phillips, who she had known at Lourdes Hill, and from whom she says she learnt much. From 1961 to 1963 she was a contributing member of the editorial committee for the Word and Life catechetical journal for teachers.
One day, while on a retreat Sunday at Glebe, Clement was called up to see Mother de Sales, and wondered whether she was in trouble for something.
“Instead, she asked me if I had ever thought of going to Japan! So I told her, no, it hadn’t occurred to me. She told me to think about it, which I did and in the end, I just thought, ‘why not?’”
The Sisters of the Good Samaritan have been in Japan since just after the Second World War, when Cardinal Gilroy asked if they would respond to a request from the Bishop of Nagasaki to go and set up a school in his diocese, which had been devastated by the second atomic bomb, which fell 70 years ago this month. When the Sisters arrived three years later, they were confronted by the consequences of modern warfare. They spent a few years in Nagasaki learning Japanese, helping in a clinic for bomb victims, teaching English and getting used to Japan.
Sasebo City, north of Nagasaki had also suffered from bombing and when a devastated school site was offered to the bishop, Sister Catherine Teresa Mercovich and the community went to Sasebo and the building of the Seiwa school began.
Post-war, Sasebo was home to a large American Navy base, which had schools, but no kindergarten.
“Sister Mary John Constable saw the problem and solved it,” Clement says. “An Australian nun taught an American kinder class in a Japanese town!”
When Clement arrived in Japan she was assigned to teach the American kindergarten children for a year.
“It was a bit of a shock, but it was fun,” she says. “Having learnt music was a help. When things got out of hand, we sang.”
After two years at language school in Nara, Clement was asked to take over from Sister Catherine Teresa as Principal of Seiwa Girls Middle and High School.
She stayed on in that position for 15 years, making lifelong connections with the students, their parents and the broader community.
While in Sasebo, Clement became involved with the local Lions Club and when she took a year out to do a course at Sydney University in teaching English as a Second Language, she met up with some Lions members in Sydney.
“They raised with me the idea of sponsoring kids for a youth exchange program,” she says. “Sister Catherine Teresa had sent several girls to study in Australia and this was a chance to build on that initiative. It grew into a big program involving students from Australia, America and now, south-east Asia.”
Another initiative was the Seiwa Singers, a choir which came to Australia about once every four years, travelling through country towns, being hosted by families and making friends.
Clement’s impact on the local community was recognised in 1982 when she was awarded a Culture Day Award by the Nagasaki newspaper for her “Contribution to Peace and Welfare”. The following year she was made an Honorary Citizen of Sasebo City – an honour never before bestowed on a woman in her own right.
In 1983, Clement began her journey home to Australia, “the long way”, via India where she undertook studies in transactional analysis. Using the Eurail Pass given to her by the Seiwa parents as a farewell gift, she made a retreat at Stanbrook Abbey in the UK, and arrived in New York, where she did a Masters in Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University.
Back home in Australia, Clement was appointed to St Benedict’s Parish, Arcadia, where she still resides today.
“There is no Catholic Primary School in Arcadia, so my main work was to establish a sacramental program, an after-school gathering, involving parents and children in small activity groups,” she says.
But it’s easy to see, that despite her many happy years being settled at Arcadia, a part of Clement’s heart remains in Japan, and it seems she is also lovingly remembered by the Seiwa school community.
She recently received a letter from the president of the Kikunokai – the mothers’ group of the school, announcing that they will celebrate their fortieth anniversary in December and inviting Clement to be present.
“We’ve never forgotten your love for the members,” the letter says.
Clement says she is looking forward to making the trip back to Japan and catching up with her friends and the Sisters there.
“It’s going to be great,” she smiles.
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.
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