In the eight years that Sister Sue Hill has been tending the extensive gardens of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ properties at Pennant Hills and Glebe in Sydney, the trained horticulturalist says she has grown to love her ministry of caring for God’s creation.
BY Debra Vermeer*
The gardens at the Mount St Benedict Centre in Pennant Hills are an oasis of beauty, peace and calm in the midst of suburban mayhem, and for Good Samaritan Sister Sue Hill, the horticulturalist who has stewardship over the grounds, the gardens are a place to rest and to encounter God.
“It’s God’s garden,” she says. “It’s beauty that’s before us every day, and it’s God’s creation.
“A lot of people come here to Mount St Benedict in need of rest, recuperation and care in their own way and the gardens can help provide that for them.”
Sue has been caring for the gardens at the Mount St Benedict Centre and at St Scholastica’s in Glebe for eight years, since completing a Certificate in Horticulture at TAFE.
She concedes that horticulture is not the work that most people think of when they think of religious sisters.
“Yes, it does raise some eyebrows when I tell people what I do,” she laughs. “But it also broadens people’s ideas of what sisters do.”
Sue was born in Bulli, in the NSW Illawarra and started school at St Columbkille’s at Corrimal, a Josephite school, before completing her primary schooling at St Francis Xavier, Wollongong and high school at St Mary’s Star of the Sea College, Wollongong, both run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
From the age of seven, following the death of her mother, Sue was a boarder at school, but she saw her father and her older brother regularly, as they were close by.
“When my mother died, boarding school was the best thing my father knew to do for me, and I understand that,” she says. “It was hard at first, but I got used to it.”
Sue fondly remembers the Good Sams who taught her during those years and says they had a big impact on her and her vocation.
“I admired the way they worked, their friendliness, and their care of me,” she says.
After leaving school, she worked for an architect for three years, before feeling called to join the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in 1977.
“I entered the convent at Red Hill in Canberra as a postulant,” she says. “Then I had two years at Mount St Benedict at the novitiate. There were five of us who entered at the same time, including a lovely woman from Japan, so it was a wonderful cultural experience.”
After working in Glebe for some time, doing catechetics, Sue embarked on teacher training before heading to Melbourne, where she taught for ten years and completed further qualifications. A short stint teaching in North Queensland followed, before Sue found herself back at Pennant Hills, working at St Agatha’s Parish as a pastoral assistant.
“I facilitated the sacramental program, with wonderful help from the parishioners, as well as other things like visits to the local nursing homes,” she says.
Then, out of the blue, Sue was asked by the Congregation whether she would be interested in studying horticulture.
“I’ve always had an interest in gardening,” she says. “We had a lovely garden at home. Dad grew vegies and flowers and I spent a lot of time outside with him in the garden, watching him and learning from him. So when I was asked by the Congregation to take up horticulture, I thought ‘why not?’”
Sue fondly recalls her time studying for the Certificate of Horticulture at Ryde TAFE in Sydney.
“It was good fun,” she says. “There were all sorts of people in that course. There was one woman who had previously worked with an opera company and another who was a doctor, and then there was me, a sister in my 50s!”
In the eight years that she has been tending the gardens at the Mount St Benedict Centre and St Scholastica’s, Sue says she has grown to love her ministry of caring for God’s creation.
“I don’t think I could go back to sitting down in an office job, that’s for sure,” she laughs.
“I love preparing the gardens for the people who come here. I like things to be right for them when they come and to help make sure it’s a welcoming place for them.
“When people drive past Mount St Benedict [on busy Pennant Hills Road], they look at that big brick wall and they don’t know what’s here, behind it. And then if they come in, often they can’t believe it.
“To have such a beautiful place here, right in the middle of things, is a very big blessing. It’s a place for people to walk around and enjoy the space, the peace and quiet and the beauty.”
At the Sisters of the Good Samaritan Congregational offices in Glebe, Sue oversees the gardens, providing a welcoming oasis for people attending meetings and events.
“It’s about how guests see the place,” she says. “When people come in, either here at the Mount St Benedict Centre, or at Glebe, we want them to feel that they want to come back.”
In the garden, Sue has a special love for the roses.
“It’s fascinating when you cut the roses down that within weeks they’re back up again. I think it’s amazing what you can do to roses and how they respond to that. You can treat them very vigorously and then give them some care and some water and TLC, and they respond.
“I’m also fascinated by trees and I adore the gum trees here on the [Mount St Benedict] property. But I also enjoy indoor potted plants and potted colour.”
Sue says while her work in horticulture has taken her away from a very people-centred ministry, it also allows for quiet moments of connection.
“Often people who are on retreat here might approach me in the garden for a chat,” she says. “It’s a quieter interaction. People do enjoy the natural beauty of the place.
“I think it is a very Benedictine ministry. Benedict was of the earth as well. And as Good Sams, we talk about creation and living together on the planet and we ask how do we sustain that?
“With gardens, as in life, the weeds are there to test us. But it’s God’s garden and we’re helping to create places of hospitality, of welcome and of rest.”
Looking back on her life as a Good Sam and the turns it has taken, Sue says she is grateful.
“I am grateful as I look back that I was given the opportunity to do this,” she says. “I love that I can be outside and doing what I love, because in life, you can sometimes get put into places where you don’t really fit. This has been a good fit for me.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.
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