On Monday 14 January Sister Mary Gregory was farewelled at a Requiem Mass inside the chapel at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe. Hundreds of people attended to farewell a woman who faithfully lived out the parable of the Good Samaritan in different sectors, in different states and in different decades. Below is an abridged version of a profile featured in the August 2016 edition of The Good Oil. Read the unabridged version here.
Change “keeps you alive”
Good Samaritan Sister Mary Gregory has witnessed enormous change in the world. She’s also experienced significant change in her own life. But unlike many of us, Mary hasn’t resisted change, even when it’s brought suffering and loss.
“Some people as they get older find change very, very difficult,” reflects Mary. “Now I don’t like change for change’s sake and I’m a stickler for tradition that is relevant, but I do enjoy change. It keeps you alive.”
Born in 1923 in Grafton on the New South Wales north coast, Mary’s education began at “a little subsidised school” close to home. When it closed, Mary, age 6, moved to Coffs Harbour and lived with her grandparents to continue her education at the local Catholic school run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Mary remembers the care of the Good Samaritan Sisters following her mother’s death. “They were so kind and concerned, and more or less took me under their wing,” she says.
It was the sisters who suggested that Mary relocate to one of their colleges, St Mary’s at Wollongong, as a boarder to finish her secondary education.
Mary says the death of her mother and the turmoil that followed meant she “grew up overnight” and “more or less fended for myself” – but “with a lot of support from others.”
After gaining her leaving certificate, Mary completed a teacher’s commercial work course and stayed on at St Mary’s for several years in a teaching capacity. She also had a strong desire to explore a religious vocation, a seed planted by her mother years earlier.
Mary’s father, however, did not support her desire to become a nun. It wasn’t until 1944 when she was 21 that Mary entered the Good Samaritan Sisters’ novitiate.
“My father was very, very disappointed,” explains Mary, “but eventually he came around and we were reconciled. He was a gentle, loving Dad; it was just difficult for him to understand.”
St Benedict’s at Broadway in Sydney was Mary’s first teaching appointment. After four years there, she went to Braidwood in southern NSW. Then, unexpectedly, in late 1954, Mary’s superiors asked if she would consider studying social work.
“I didn’t even know what social work was,” says Mary. Mary was perplexed but went along with the plan in the spirit of obedience. Once immersed in her studies at Sydney University, particularly the extensive placements with social welfare and healthcare organisations, Mary was completely ‘at home.’
“I discovered talents that I didn’t know I had. And I think it was just God calling me again. I really found a niche in social work,” she says.
Soon after graduating in 1957 with a Diploma in Social Studies, Mary, now 34, was asked by her superiors to oversee the changeover of the Mater Dei Orphanage at Camden, a ministry of the Good Samaritan Sisters since 1910, to a special school for children with intellectual disabilities. It was a radical change-management project.
“That was a very difficult year because of the enormous change,” says Mary.
However, in early 1958, following a change in her congregation’s leadership, Mary was abruptly transferred to Moruya on the NSW south coast to resume teaching. No explanation was given at the time. Despite feeling confused, angered and “deeply wounded,” Mary “took up the next challenge.”
In 1963, she was appointed Director of the Good Samaritan Centre at Arncliffe in Sydney, a position she held several times over the next 21 years. Under Mary’s leadership, the Centre supported socially and emotionally disadvantaged girls between the ages of 15 and 18 who were committed to the care of the Sisters by the Children’s Courts.
Mary describes her time at the Centre as “a time of re-creation.” “The girls who came to me, I saw their potential. They didn’t have to change from what they were,” she explains. “They just had to be re-created. They had the potential; it was just a matter of drawing them out and letting them become the people they were, they are.”
For Mary, the Good Samaritan Centre was her “most formative” ministry. “It was the most challenging, it was the one where I probably suffered immensely,” she says, “but it is something I cherish.”
In 1986 [Mary] began a new role as Director of the Ministry of Family Development in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese. After almost 10 years in family ministry, Mary, now 73, had a well-earned sabbatical in Perth.
While there, she accepted an invitation to live “only for a few months” with another Good Samaritan Sister at Claymore, a public housing estate in Sydney’s south-west. It wasn’t long before Mary’s short-term placement at the House of Welcome, as it was known, became a ministry that continued for “several years.”
Living among the people was important for Mary. It allowed her to get to know them and their needs. While she would visit residents in their homes and get involved in community activities, they would also drop in at the house for a ‘cuppa’ and a chat.
When she finished her ministry in Claymore in 2002, the St Vincent de Paul Society asked the Good Sams if any sisters would be open to supporting a group of elderly people who’d been homeless and were being accommodated in a block of units in Ingleburn. Mary put her hand up.
“That was very interesting because they were all younger than I was,” laughs Mary.
In 2013 after her 90th birthday, Mary moved into a care facility in Campbelltown. She admits the move was difficult and it’s taken time to adjust. But true to form, she has embraced the change.
As she reflects on her life, Mary is particularly grateful for the many people she has encountered in her various ministries and what they given to her.
“They had so much dignity and so much to teach me,” she says. “They taught me about real life – living it to the full.”