It’s 30 years since the Good Samaritan Sisters first arrived in the Western Australian outback parish of Mount Magnet. To mark this milestone, past and present parishioners, sisters and members of the wider community gathered earlier this month in Mount Magnet for a weekend of celebrations.
Among those sisters returning for the celebrations were two of the four founding community members – Sisters Catherine Bell and Therese Denny, who now live in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. (The two other members of that first community were Sister Carmel Bourke, who died in 2013, and Sister Val Deakin).
For 94-year-old Catherine, who ministered in Mount Magnet for eight years (1986-1993), returning and reconnecting with the people was “wonderful”. Making the long trek from the east to west coast and then inland to Mount Magnet, just as she had done 30 years ago, did not faze her at all.
“I do like going places, I like experiences,” Catherine told The Good Oil.
“I’d have a shot at anything really, and people know that because they say, ‘Catherine, where haven’t you been?!’ I’ve been all round Australia. That’s not to my credit; that’s to the Lord’s great blessings! Bishop Hickey did ask us to come and we volunteered.”
In mid-1985, the then Bishop of Geraldton, Barry Hickey, invited the Sisters to “establish a house in the goldfields, preferably at Mount Magnet, where there may or may not be a resident priest”.
In his letter, the bishop outlined the work he wanted the sisters to undertake in the goldmining communities surrounding Mount Magnet. That work included visiting families, promoting religious education, training people in lay ministries, forming groups and basic Christian communities, offering retreats and spiritual formation, and reaching out to Aboriginal people.
After their arrival in 1986, two main areas of work emerged for the sisters: parish pastoral ministry and community support work. While all four sisters were involved in both areas, Catherine said Therese and Val focused on faith formation activities, and she and Carmel focused on pastoral outreach, especially to people on the cattle and sheep stations.
For a week at a time Carmel and Catherine would travel hundreds of kilometres visiting families on remote properties. “The country was just flat. In some cases there were no roads. We’d be going over sandy plains or desert plains,” said Catherine.
“We visited about three stations a day. Carmel used to be the organist at the little church [at Mount Magnet] so she had to be back here to play the organ. So we always got back on a Saturday afternoon.”
Even though Catherine was raised on a farm, she said Mount Magnet was “something entirely new” – “a new way of living”, “an eye-opener”, “a challenge”. Despite the challenges, including extreme heat, remoteness and sheer hard work, she found it an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“We were a very happy community, all meeting the challenge of the outback, and loving it,” said Catherine.
“Those families who welcomed us and did so much to help make us comfortable, were, and still are, wonderful. It was a real blessing to be able to be with them again.”
Sister Ita Stout, who ministered at Mount Magnet for 10 years from 1995, also returned for the recent celebrations. Travelling from Charters Towers in north Queensland, this was Ita’s first visit since she left in 2004.
“It was like returning home, and I could stay here now for another ten years,” said Ita, now in her mid-80s. “I would just take up again from where I left off.”
In addition to pastoral ministry at Mount Magnet, in her first five years Ita lived with a family on a station or in an isolated area for at least six weeks each year, tutoring children and offering pastoral care to the family.
“You gave the mother the free time. She didn’t have to worry about the education of her children all the week and so she was able to do her own work, have a little bit of space. And of course that helped the whole family. Everybody was much happier,” she explained.
Ita thoroughly enjoyed her outback experience. “The people accept you and they love you and they help you. It’s a two-way thing; it’s not just one-way,” she said.
Sister Gerri Boylan has spent the last 16 years ministering among the people of Mount Magnet and beyond. When she arrived in 2000, she worked with two other Good Sam Sisters, but now is the only one at Mount Magnet.
With no resident priest – a priest travels from Geraldton once a month to celebrate Eucharist – Gerri is the Pastoral Administrator and Leader of Mount Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra. She works closely with these communities, supporting parents and children in their faith development as well as celebrating funerals, baptisms and Liturgies of the Word with Communion. Gerri also visits pastoralists on their stations and is an integral member of the broader community.
Each year when she’s about to return to Mount Magnet after holidaying with her sisters and family in Victoria, Gerri admits she finds it hard. This year was no different.
“I found it hard leaving,” she said. “But once I got on that plane I was right, and once I got here [Mount Magnet] it was OK. After about three days I thought, I’m glad to be here. I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world.”
Long-time Mount Magnet parishioner and pastoralist, Karen Morrissey, who has lived in the area for nearly 40 years, is overflowing in her praise of the Good Samaritan Sisters. She said the sisters’ commitment to Mount Magnet over a 30-year period has “never wavered”; “they’ve walked side by side with the people”.
Karen explained that when the sisters first arrived in the mid-1980s, life in Mount Magnet was “reasonably prosperous”. “The mining was heading into a very prosperous period of time, the wool price hit a peak in about 1988 and there were more full-bodied communities here,” she said.
But a few years after the sisters arrived, communities in the area experienced significant changes and disintegration due to a number of factors.
In particular, mining operations decreased in size and scope and moved to a situation where many staff became fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, the wool industry completely collapsed, and then a long drought began.
In that time of change, disintegration and diminishment (which also included the loss of the resident Catholic priest), Karen said the communities were not functioning very well.
“And yet, at the centre of that is this heart through the sisters gathering people together creating the Church; there’s this wonderful presence in our communities and it’s transformative.
“For example, were we not to have had the sisters through this time, it would have been so much harder for our families to have adjusted, adapted because we wouldn’t have had that ability to come together as we do and support each other as we do.
“So I feel that they’ve been an integral part of the community coming to some sort of functionality – where people are feeling that they are valued and that they have dignity and self worth.”
Karen was one of the main instigators of the recent 30-year anniversary celebrations, which included a community BBQ and Liturgy of the Word with Communion.
She said it was an “opportunity to say thank you”: to God “for giving the strength and the guidance for the sisters to come here”; to the Good Samaritan Sisters “for saying yes to the bishop”; to the individual sisters (16 in total) who “left their families and friends to come out here in what’s an extremely isolated and difficult situation”; and to “the communities that have supported the sisters”.
“It was a beautiful weekend,” said Karen. “God was very present.”