September 2011

An extraordinary woman

Ordinary. That’s the word Good Samaritan Sister Mary Ronayne chooses to describe herself. Those who know Mary are amused though not surprised to hear this and are quick to describe her as far from ordinary.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Ordinary. That’s the word Good Samaritan Sister Mary Ronayne chooses to describe herself. Those who know Mary are amused though not surprised to hear this and are quick to describe her as far from ordinary.

A former student of Mary’s, Good Samaritan Sister Sonia Wagner, who has also lived with Mary in community, regards her as a significant role model.

“[Mary is] truly grounded, humble, down-to-earth” and has “absolutely ‘no tickets on herself’, no self interest. She is always focussed on the other, especially the other in trouble, the common good, the mission”.

Sonia describes Mary as “an astute reader of the signs of the times in nation, Church and congregation” and “a wise and visionary leader who forged new pathways and systems in the congregation, in religious life and especially in Catholic education”.

Retired Victorian ombudsman John Fleming has known Mary for over 25 years and worked with her as a Board Director of Mater Christi College, Belgrave. He has deep admiration for Mary’s great integrity and sharp mind. “She has a mind like a steel trap,” he says.

The second of three children and only daughter of Irish immigrants, Mary was born and grew up in Kingaroy, about 200 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. “We had a small farm and life was very simple and rather poor,” says Mary, “but we were very happy.”

Mary’s association with religious sisters began at an early age. She recalls making regular trips to town to do the shopping with her mother and younger brother, but on the way her mother would “lodge me with the sisters at the primary school”.

“I would entertain myself there, with their help I suppose, while my mother did the shopping… So I wasn’t scared of nuns because they’d been around all of my life.”

Mary attended St Mary’s Primary School, Kingaroy, initially staffed by the Sisters of Charity and later the Good Samaritan Sisters, and then went on to board at Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane for her secondary education.

In July 1945, just six months after finishing school, 18-year-old Mary entered the Good Samaritan Sisters and commenced her novitiate and teacher training in Sydney. Her early teaching years included short placements in New South Wales at St Brigid’s, Marrickville and St Mary’s, Wollongong, followed by two years in South Australia at St Joseph’s High School, Gawler.

In 1954, Mary was transferred to her alma mater, Lourdes Hill College, where she remained for eight years. She clearly remembers arriving at the school to learn that the principal was the same one who had been there when Mary was a student. Mary also learned that the principal’s office had been set up at the end of the room where she was to be teaching a rather large class of junior students.

“It was a bit daunting,” says Mary. “My former principal was sitting in that office and here was I trying to teach these 99 students!”

While Sonia Wagner wasn’t in that class, she says Mary was “an excellent teacher [who was] able to convey complex matters with clarity and good sense”. Clearly, Mary had a great gift as a teacher and a passion for education.

It was during her time at Lourdes Hill that Mary began a Bachelor of Arts degree studying by correspondence through the University of Queensland. She did this in addition to full-time teaching and the supervision of boarders. It was a heavy load that often meant she worked late at night and into the early hours of the morning, preparing classes and doing her own uni assignments. But Mary hastens to add there were many other sisters who had similar experiences.

With Mary’s appointment as the inaugural principal of St Margaret Mary’s College, Townsville in 1963, a number of other leadership roles followed in quick succession. In September of that same year, Mary was elected to her congregation’s council, and in 1964, she was appointed principal of St Scholastica’s College, Glebe. Five years later, in September 1969, age 42, Mary was elected superior of her congregation and went on to serve as leader for two terms until 1981.

During that period and beyond, Mary made significant contributions to the life of other religious in Australia and on the international stage. She was the national secretary, and later national president, of the Conference of Women Major Superiors and the newly combined Conference of Women and Men Major Superiors, now known as Catholic Religious Australia.

In the mid-1970s she was chosen as one of two Australian delegates to attend the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) meeting in Rome. This was Mary’s first time overseas and proved to be her window to the world.

“It was really a wonderful experience because your mind is open to a worldview rather than your own national view or smaller-than-national-view,” she explains. “The mind is blown with the reality of life across the world, and being part of that was a privilege and a pleasant experience.”

Mary continued as a UISG delegate for a number of years, representing Australia, and later Oceania. This responsibility took her back to Rome on a number of occasions but also to Manila (when the Philippines was operating under martial law), and to Bombay (now Mumbai), exposing her to the realities of life in developing countries.

“They were hands-on experiences, of walking around the streets of Manila,” she says. “We all had to go on some form of exposure when we got there. We were just assigned to various places and my assignment was with others to roam around the city and to visit families here, there and everywhere and keep an eye on the soldiers so you didn’t get shot on the way! That was really a wonderful experience,” she says.

Mary believes national and international bodies like Catholic Religious Australia and the UISG have a significant role to play in the development of religious women and men. “I think [they are] very significant because the problem is, that each of us comes with our own narrow vision of our own community and we can get bogged down in that because there’s just so much to be done.

“But you’ve got to be able to have a bigger vision because we’re here for the Church; we’re not here just simply for ourselves,” she explains.

Following her years in congregational leadership, Mary continued her ministry in education, mostly in the governance of Catholic schools and the formation of lay teachers. In particular, she led a task force which reviewed Catholic education in Western Australia, and served as executive officer of the Good Samaritan Education Council, working closely with her congregation’s ten colleges.

She resigned from this latter role in 2004 for health reasons, but now at age 84, she remains interested in, and connected with, the life of the colleges.

In 2008, Mary deservedly received the Australian Catholic University’s highest honour, Doctor of the University (honoris causa), “in recognition of her outstanding contributions to Catholic education in Australia”.

It’s extremely difficult to agree with Mary’s description of herself as “ordinary”. The closest word that comes to mind is “extraordinary”.

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