August 2011

A commitment to sharing the story

Good Samaritan Sister Marilyn Kelleher has an enduring love of history and believes that, far from being irrelevant to people and life today, history has the capacity to animate and refresh us.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Good Samaritan Sister Marilyn Kelleher has an enduring love of history and believes that, far from being irrelevant to people and life today, history has the capacity to animate and refresh us.

To illustrate this, Marilyn refers to the generosity of the sisters of her congregation, who, despite working under enormous pressures in schools with classes of 100-plus students, they simply “got on with the job”.

“Even though we’re not going to teach [100-plus students] anymore,” says Marilyn, these women embodied a spirit that can still animate us.

Marilyn makes this claim as a long-time student and teacher of history and literature, and as one who has done extensive research on her own congregation’s history.

Her love of history has its origins in the 1950s when she was a student at St Brigid’s in Marrickville, a Good Samaritan school in Sydney. Such was her interest in the subject that, after leaving school, and while working part-time, she enrolled in a modern history unit at Sydney University, a not-so-common occurrence for women at that time.

After joining the Good Samaritan Sisters in 1961, Marilyn spent a few years in the novitiate and the teacher training college before heading to St Patrick’s College Campbelltown, where she began her 29-year-ministry of enthusing pupils in their study of history, English and religious education.

“It was a very good introduction to teaching. I loved it,” says Marilyn. “I loved the students and I was very happy there.”

After seven years at St Patrick’s, Marilyn spent a decade at St Scholastica’s College Glebe, followed by a 12-year appointment as principal of Stella Maris College Manly. As if that wasn’t enough, she also pursued part-time studies in history and English, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and a Master of Arts.

It was in the 1980s that Marilyn became interested in her own congregation’s history. She was particularly captivated by Scholastica Gibbons – who founded the Good Samaritan Sisters with Archbishop Polding – and those sisters who joined the congregation in the first 20 years.

“It’s an amazing history,” she says. “Looking at our nuns, it’s like looking at Australian history. We’ve got them all: [we’re] descended from convicts, Irish rebels, free settlers. It’s fascinating!”

This interest in her congregation’s history ultimately led Marilyn to complete a doctorate and author two new volumes of the Annals of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

Published in July last year, volumes two (1939-1949) and three (1950-1959) build on the original volume (1857-1938) and continue the unfolding story of the congregation’s life.

Now, only 12 months on, Marilyn is already back in the archives and eagerly researching the next period, 1960 to 1969. It’s an extensive process, but for Marilyn, an important labour of love.

“I think religious orders need to be collecting this material and then it’s available for critical study in the future,” she explains.

While work on the Annals is Marilyn’s primary ministry, she also maintains a commitment to education as a member of the governance bodies of St Scholastica’s College Glebe and the Jesuits’ St Aloysius College Milsons Point.

It is through her role with St Aloysius that Marilyn has played a part in establishing an innovative new Jesuit primary school for Aboriginal children in Redfern. Named Jarjum – which means ‘children’ in the Aboriginal Bundjalung language – the school will provide disadvantaged children with broad-based educational opportunities.

Following the refurbishment of the former presbytery at St Vincent’s Church in Redfern, the school will open its doors either later this year or early next year.

“I don’t think there is anything quite like this [initiative] in [an] urban area,” says Marilyn. “There are programmes in mainstream schools, but a lot of funding goes to rural areas. Redfern is a case where there are various needs.”

For Marilyn, educational opportunities and good educators have played a significant role throughout her life. Key influences have been her “wonderful” parents, the many nuns at school and in the novitiate, and later, colleagues in the schools where she taught.

“I think I was very fortunate,” she says.

Having joined the Good Samaritan Sisters in 1961, Marilyn was bound to be influenced by the momentous happenings at the Second Vatican Council. She recalls her novice mistress, Mother Philomena, saying: “Sisters it’s good to be alive at this time!”

“We were taking it in all through the novitiate, and then that meant when I left the novitiate, I kept up the interest and kept following it and reading about it.”

So what does she think about the legacy of Vatican II?

“We need to use Vatican II and all that we have gained from it to move towards Vatican III into the future.”

She feels strongly about the accusation of some that Vatican II was a break with the past. “I don’t think we ever thought it was a break with the past.”

Marilyn’s understanding of Vatican II and history has a nice symmetry. What she says of Vatican II might well be applied to the study of history.

“I thought [Vatican II] was going back to the riches of the past and to looking at the authentic tradition and then taking that forward into the modern world. You can’t stay in the past; you can’t stay with a tradition that is no longer life-giving, but you can know it, you can evaluate it, and then go forward.”

And conversely, what she says of history fits with her view of Vatican II. “[History is] our story and you need to know where you’ve come from.”

Does Marilyn ever relax? She enjoys reading “just about anything” but mainly history and religious books, as well as music, opera, ballet or a long lunch with relatives or close friends.

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