Sister Sheila Mary O’Donnell, who died in the 98th year of her life, was one of a group of Sisters of the Good Samaritan whose chief ministry lay in spreading the joy and beauty of music.
Born in Kerang on February 27, 1915, Sheila Charlotte was the third of five children born to Patrick and Amy (Fitzpatrick) O’Donnell. Patrick died when Sheila was only four years old, so Amy became a widow after a mere ten years of married life.
Sheila’s first close contact with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan was at St Joseph’s School, Kerang, where she completed her primary and secondary education. In the years following, Sheila continued her studies in music, gaining an Associate Diploma of Music (AMusA) in 1935.
It was soon after this that she sought admission to the Good Samaritan Novitiate at Pennant Hills. She achieved this goal when she was admitted on March 23, 1936. She was then known as Sister Sheila Mary, one of possibly very few who retained their given baptismal names, or at most a variation of it. Sheila Mary made her first profession of vows on January 4, 1939.
Unlike most newly professed sisters who spent the first year after profession at St Scholastica’s, Glebe Point, Sheila was appointed as music teacher at Reservoir soon after her profession. She would later regret that she never had the privilege of being a “Junior” at St Scholastica’s.
In 1942, she was one of the pioneer group to begin Good Samaritan life in Whyalla. While there, she continued her ministry for the next 11 years. Appointments to Santa Maria College, Northcote, St Augustine’s School, Balmain, and Mater Dei School, Toowoomba, followed. These interstate appointments, which were quite normal during her early years of Good Samaritan life and mission, were followed by a much more challenging role: Regional Superior of communities in Japan. At the same time she was appointed as local superior of the community at Nara.
Although Sheila was not fluent in the Japanese language, this period from 1966 to 1972 was one she would look back upon with great warmth of feeling. She was deeply loved by the Good Samaritan Sisters in Japan, and she relished the opportunities later offered to return to Japan to participate in significant anniversaries and celebrations.
On returning to Australia in 1972, Sheila resumed her ministry of teaching music at Rosebank College, Five Dock. Once again, she undertook the role of superior of the community. Later ministries included parish pastoral work, and offering hospitality to the many people who used the facilities at the Santa Maria Centre at Northcote.
In 2002, Sheila joined the community at Marian House, Northcote. With several other senior sisters from that community, she graciously moved to South Morang Mews. Her final days were spent at Villa Maria, Bundoora, where she died peacefully on December 30, 2012.
Sheila, because of her wide experience in Good Samaritan communities, touched the lives of so many Good Samaritan Sisters. She was universally loved wherever she lived, not only in the Congregation, but by students, parents and the lay people who remember her with respect, warmth and sincere affection. Also, her fellow residents as well as staff at South Morang Mews and Villa Maria remember her constant good humour and zest for life.
Perhaps Sheila’s life can best be epitomised by a simple hymn which she not only sang, but faithfully lived: “By this shall all know, that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.”
Love of Christ and love for all the neighbours whom she met along her way were the constant song in Sheila’s heart.