October 2011

A woman grounded in the Word

News of the death of Good Samaritan Sister Verna Holyhead came as a hefty blow for the Good Samaritan Sisters. But as the news reverberated throughout Australia and around the world, it was also felt deeply by many people who knew her in some way.

BY Stephanie Thomas

News of the death of Good Samaritan Sister Verna Holyhead on September 25 came as a hefty blow for the Good Samaritan Sisters, many of whom had gathered in Sydney for the first day of their six-yearly chapter. But as the news reverberated throughout Australia and around the world, it was also felt deeply by many individuals and groups who knew her in some way.

Condolence messages flooded in from those who’d known Verna as a teacher, lecturer, biblical scholar, retreat-giver, liturgist, writer and friend. Verna’s sphere of influence was far and wide, both seen and unseen.

Speaking at the vigil service for Verna on October 5, Good Samaritan Sister, Glenda Bourke said, “Whatever our connection [with Verna], we hold in common a sense of awe and gratitude: at the depth of her knowledge of the sacred texts; at the range of her insights; at her ability to make interconnections with a variety of biblical texts; at her extraordinary general knowledge which allowed her to slip some amazing gems of general wisdom into her reflections; and of course, at the richness of her way with art, poetry and literature in general”.

A tribute published on the website of John Garratt Publishing said Verna was “responsible for leading many people in Australia and around the world towards a closer relationship with God”, and that her books – What Name Shall I Tell Them? Reflections on the Biblical Names of God, Welcoming the Word for each of the liturgical years, Pillow for My Heart: Words for Resting Our Grief and The Gift of Saint Benedict – “remain among the best-loved titles published by John Garratt Publishing”.

The tribute continued: “We join the Good Samaritan congregation in honouring this wonderful and inspired lady whose mission and work will live on in those who have been led to God through her thoughts, wisdom and great kindness”.

Such high praise and respect for Verna is echoed by Garry Everett of Queensland. “I never met Verna, but she became a friend to me through her commentaries on the Sunday readings, which I have been treasuring for many years now, in leaflet and book formats,” said Garry. “Her scholarship, her sacramental stance, and her serene common sense, endeared her to all of us.”

So what shaped this remarkable woman, especially her commitment to God and to others? And how did such a wellspring of spirituality, talent and wisdom evolve?

Verna Alice Holyhead was born at Kew, Victoria, in 1933, the only child of Charles Eric Holyhead and Alice Sarah Maria Coghlan. She began her education at Santa Maria Junior School and St Joseph’s School, Northcote, and completed her secondary education at St Ita’s Central School and Santa Maria College Northcote. According to Good Samaritan Superior, Clare Condon, it was during these school years that the charism of the Good Samaritan Sisters was “etched into Verna’s heart”.

In 1951, Verna was a pioneer student at the newly-opened Toorak Teachers’ College. Good Samaritan Sister, Zita Duffy, also a student at the college, recalled at the vigil service how Verna “was not only an outstanding student but also a zealous apostle”.

Inspired by the “urgent call to mission vibrating in the heart of the Melbourne Archdiocese” during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Zita said Verna “never missed an opportunity to respond wholeheartedly to make Christianity central to the lives of many – following Cardinal Joseph Cardijn’s spiritual guidance [of] SEE, JUDGE and ACT”.

So motivated was the 18-year old Verna, that according to Zita, within three weeks of commencing her studies, Verna had sought out all the Catholic students and encouraged some of them to form a weekly Gospel discussion group. She then approached a Vincentian priest living nearby to be the group’s chaplain.

In 1952, both Verna and Zita transferred to Melbourne Teachers’ College where they enrolled in a new two-year course designed to train infant teachers. Here Verna formed yet another Gospel discussion group, but this time she became its leader!

“It was during these years of special infant teacher training Verna utilised the freedom to express her ideas with exceptional artistic ability, outstanding creativity and precise literary skills,” said Zita. “Her work was the admiration of all college students.”

In 1953, Verna graduated with a Trained Infant Teachers Certificate (TITC) and taught for the next three years in Melbourne State Schools. During that time, she continued her involvement in the Cardijn-inspired National Catholic Girls’ Movement (NCGM), so much so, in 1956, she had become the movement’s vice-president, and by 1957, the national president.

In July of 1957, age 24, Verna took another step in her apostolic mission and entered the novitiate of the Good Samaritan Sisters. Appropriately, she adopted the religious name Sister Mary Paul.

After completing a fourth year of teacher registration at St Scholastica’s Teachers College in 1960, Verna taught at St John Vianney Primary School, Fairy Meadow (Wollongong) in 1961, before taking up studies at Sydney University and gaining a Bachelor of Education in 1965. After one year at St James’ Primary School, Forest Lodge (Sydney), she was engaged as a lecturer at St Scholastica’s and Mount Street Teachers’ College. She was only 34!

In the heady post-Vatican II years, Verna grasped the opportunity to do further study in theology. She completed a Diploma in Theological Studies from St Patrick’s College Manly (1967) and a Master of Arts in Religious Sciences at Regina Mundi College in Rome (1968-1972).

From 1973 to 1984, Verna was a lecturer, then deputy principal of the Good Samaritan Teachers’ College (which later became part of Australian Catholic University). In 1985, she did more study, this time in biblical language at the University of Sydney. Six years later, she travelled to the Holy Land spending two months at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies.

In 1993, Verna returned to Melbourne where she was Director of the Santa Maria Centre at Northcote until 2001. From 2002 she was engaged in biblical and liturgical ministry, which found expression in writing books, retreat-giving and in the leadership of pilgrimages to Israel.

Verna had a deep commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, particularly Jewish-Christian relations. In 1988 she was a foundation member of the New South Wales Council for Christians and Jews, and remained active in this dialogue when she came to Melbourne.

Verna also served as a member of the council of the superior from 1981 to 1987, and was part of the congregation’s formation team at Pennant Hills (1986-1992).

Speaking about her ministry as a writer and author earlier this year, Verna said: “I try to encourage readers to not only hear the Word of God but also to act on that word. I believe that human experience, current events, art, poetry and literature are also revealing words, and so I try to integrate these into my reflections.”

The hardest thing about writing, she said, is “convincing myself about the truth of what I have written, and then trying to live it”.

For many years Verna wrote “Oil and Wine”, a reflection on the Sunday readings published first in print format and most recently, on the Good Samaritan Sisters’ website. It was eagerly anticipated and devoured each week by people from all walks of life and will be sorely missed.

Verna said: “When people in aged care facilities, the outback, or in parishes where life is very barren as far as homilies are concerned, tell me that ‘Oil and Wine’ is a great help to them, I feel that I am being neighbour”.

But Verna also appreciated those who were neighbour to her – first her community who accepted Verna’s ministry – “especially when I am battered by time deadlines or writer’s block”.

“Above all,” she said, “I am very aware of the companionship of Jesus the Good Samaritan who pours his healing oil and wine into the half-dead moments of my life.”

Verna Holyhead SGS died on September 25, age 79, after suffering a stroke a few days earlier. Her funeral Mass was at St Mary’s Church, Thornbury, Victoria, on October 6.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.