June 2015

A passion for people

When Sister Judy Margetts left Brisbane to join the Good Samaritan Sisters, she never dreamed her vocation would take her from the classroom, to 17 years in Kiribati, pastoral outreach in rural Queensland and now the Indigenous community of Palm Island.

BY Debra Vermeer

When Good Samaritan Sister Judy Margetts left her home and family in Brisbane, aged 19, to join the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, she never dreamed her vocation would take her from the classroom, to 17 years in Kiribati, pastoral outreach in rural Queensland and now the Indigenous community of Palm Island, but she says all of her ministry has been underpinned by one thing – a passion for trying to meet people where they are at in life.

Born in Brisbane in 1947, the eldest of four girls, Judy was educated first by the Josephite Sisters at St Joachim’s Holland Park, and then by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at Lourdes Hill College.

“I was brought up in a practising, churched, Catholic family,” she says. “And in those days, growing up in the 50s, certainly the school, the nuns and the influence of my family was all very strong. I suppose I was a typical Catholic kid of the times.

“I loved school and I did admire many of the sisters who taught me. I can remember in primary school thinking I would like to be a sister, and that continued in high school with the influence of the Good Samaritan Sisters.

“My father also worked for Pellegrini’s [a Catholic devotional supplier], and I used to read all the saints’ stories of missionaries, and those sorts of influences probably inspired not just me, but others in those days.”

When it came to choosing between the Josephites and the Good Samaritans, Judy says it was probably the Benedictine spirituality of the Good Sams which spoke to her most strongly.

“I’d had a good experience of both orders,” she says. “They were both Australian congregations, and at that time, both teaching congregations. And even though I didn’t know very much about the Benedictine spirituality at that stage, somehow I thought the Good Samaritans were more contemplative.”

After leaving Brisbane for Sydney, Judy completed the Good Samaritan Novitiate at Pennant Hills, and teachers’ college at Glebe. Her first appointments were to Catholic primary schools in Fairy Meadow, Ultimo, West Wollongong and Dundas. In 1980 she returned to Queensland, teaching in Innisfail, North Queensland, and then serving as Principal in Hughendon, Western Queensland and as Assistant to the Principal and Religious Education Coordinator in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast for six years.

At the end of 1993, Judy had just enrolled for a renewal course at the Pacific Mission Institute in Sydney, when she was asked by the Congregation to go to Kiribati, where the Good Sams had recently decided to accept young women who had expressed a desire to become sisters.

She accepted the appointment, first completing her Graduate Diploma of Ministry from the Pacific Mission Institute.

“I arrived there in 1995 and I was there for 10 years,” she says. “I was working at the Kiribati Pastoral Institute (KPI), and after the first year there I was appointed Director of KPI.”

The Institute is a diocesan pastoral institute, which offers a two-year course for young leaders – either those preparing to enter religious congregations or lay people.

“At the same time, I was only there two weeks when the first of the Good Samaritan enquirers began their live-in time with us,” Judy says.

“That was an interesting time, both for them and for us, because we were on a learning curve too. Three women enquired initially, but by the time I got there, there were two, one left. So it was an interesting, challenging time, trying to learn the language and culture, and also teaching full-time at KPI.”

One of the women inquiring to join us in those early days was Ameria Etuare, who became the first I-Kiribati woman to make her final vows as a Sister of the Good Samaritan in 2009.

“We had lots of enquirers, and with all our Kiribati sisters, I would have taught them at KPI or taken them for spiritual direction or accompaniment, so you develop a special relationship with them,” she says.

After 10 years, Judy left Kiribati to come home and do some study and renewal “in preparation for some new, ‘you-beaut’ ministry”.

She did two semesters at Royal Melbourne Hospital, completing the Clinical Pastoral Education qualification, while also working one day a week in prison ministry with Sister Mary O’Shannassy SGS. The following year, Judy completed a course in spiritual direction at the Heart of Life Centre.

“And then I was asked to go back to Kiribati,” she laughs. “It was a bit of a surprise, but I thought ‘why not go while I can?’ And so I did.”

Judy ministered in Kiribati for another seven years, making her the longest serving Good Samaritan Sister on the island nation. She returned to teaching part-time at KPI, and also became more formally involved with the formation of the young sisters.

“During this time the Good Samaritans’ novitiate moved to Lawson in NSW, so I was the on-the-ground person in Kiribati, the coordinator of initial formation.”

She says living in Kiribati had its challenges, including a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and fewer choices available in general.

“But I found it to be comfortable enough living,” Judy says.

“When you’re in an isolated place, sometimes the challenges of living in community are exacerbated because you don’t have any outlet, and I also never became fluent in the language, although I certainly worked hard at it.”

In 2013, Judy was asked by the Congregation to come back to Australia.

“It was a bit hard to accept that, but I did,” she says. “And when I came back, two of our pre-novices, Tuata and Juniko, came back with me and went to Lawson to the novitiate. I was able to be present for their first profession this month, which was a wonderful celebration.”

Upon her return, Judy was given the opportunity to explore ministry options, first basing herself in Brisbane, and then spending a year in Richmond, western Queensland, where she assisted Sister Carmel Pattinson SGS in pastoral support, spending time with people in the town, joining the golf club (an interest she had taken up years earlier in Nambour), “and generally being with the people and meeting them where they are”.

Having indicated that she would be interested in working in isolated places or possibly with asylum seekers, Judy was asked to consider moving to either Palm Island, a predominantly Indigenous community off the North Queensland coast, or to Santa Teresa, an Indigenous community near Alice Springs.

Circumstances and a process of discernment led her to Palm Island, where she is now living and working with Sister Robyn Brady SGS.

“I realised that my work in another culture would be of assistance to me, although I really hadn’t worked in an Australian Indigenous community before,” she says.

Judy calls her ministry on Palm Island one of pastoral outreach. She spends an hour each day at the island’s Catholic school, offering literacy support under the guidance of the special needs teacher, an experience she loves. On Mondays she goes to the women’s crisis centre, which offers short-term accommodation for women experiencing domestic violence.

“Maybe I help with lunch there or just chat to someone, and they get to know me and I slowly get to know them,” she says.

On Tuesdays she heads down to Ferdie’s Haven, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, where she sits in on the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“We’re not running it,” she says. “We’re supporting a service that’s already there. I find it quite inspiring to listen to these young fellows, and some women as well. They have some colourful stories to share and it is very humbling.”

She visits Sandy Boyd Hostel, the local aged person’s hostel, as well as the Joyce Palmer Medical Centre, where she always spends time at the dialysis unit and gets to know the people there and in the wards.

“You meet different ones in the community and you slowly start to feel at home,” she says. “It’s very rewarding when they might initiate conversations with you in the shop each day. We’re just slowly building up relationships.”

The sisters are also the parish team on Palm Island, assisting the priest, who is from Ghana, with pastoral support and with enculturation issues, as well as providing hospitality after Mass and occasional accommodation for people visiting the island.

“It’s a ministry of presence and of relationship,” she says.

Judy says she hasn’t felt the frustration of island life so far on Palm Island, largely because she has developed interests which suit the lifestyle there.

“When it comes to interests, I’ve always believed in getting passionate about what’s available or what’s possible, not pining for what’s not possible,” she says.

Thus, she has put the golf clubs back into storage and taken up candle wicking, along with photography and reading. She also enjoys the challenge of cooking with whatever ingredients are available.

Her main passion, she says, is for people.

“When I think about it, I’ve got a passion for the ‘everyman or everywoman’; for the ordinary person, the person in-between. Even as a teacher in the classroom, you have the really bright ones and the really naughty ones and the ones in between can be neglected. They’re the ones I want to look out for.

“And the literacy work with the kids in the school is reminding me how much I really love teaching and helping to close that gap that exists.

“Like the people on the island, you try to meet the child where the child is at and build up trusting relationships. You can’t organise or plan those things, but you’ve got to be there for them to happen. It’s the being there that is important.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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