December 2018

Giving God first choice

When Eugennie Levinson was thinking about possible life directions during her late teenage years in 1960s Brisbane, the idea of exploring a vocation with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan was high on the list. But as Sister Eugennie recalls it now, when the time came to make a decision and take the leap, she “needed a little push”!

BY Stephanie Thomas

“I wasn’t sure if this was where God wanted me,” says Eugennie, “but I had that sense of giving God first choice in my life, and if it didn’t work out, well, I’d know somehow.

“But that was my commitment – just to give God first choice and to see where that would take me. So here I am, still here, and happy to be here!”

That “little push” came from a Good Samaritan Sister who had stayed in contact with Eugennie during her post-school years when she was at teachers’ college and then in her first year of teaching in Beaudesert with the Queensland State Education Department.

“I was 21 years old then and she thought it might have been a good idea if I entered that year. I wrote back a letter saying I thought I should wait until the end of the year,” laughs Eugennie.

“But as it happened, I did enter in July 1969.”

Since entering the novitiate of the Good Samaritan Sisters five decades ago, Eugennie has not regretted her decision.

“This is where I’m meant to be,” she says.

“I have a great love for the Good Samaritan congregation; I’m very proud of our Benedictine heritage and our Good Samaritan charism. I think as women we do great things, and I think God has done great things for our congregation.

“So, there’s just that sense of a deep gratitude for being part of the Good Samaritan congregation… I’m very grateful for the friendships I’ve made and for the opportunities for study, for travel, for ministry.”

Sister Eugennie Levinson (fourth from left) with Good Samaritan Sisters in Kiribati

Eugennie’s ministries have taken her down paths which she says have enriched her life, including 17 years in secondary education, mostly in Queensland, both as a teacher and religious education coordinator. She enjoyed those years in various school communities, but it was after completing a theology degree in Melbourne followed by a clinical pastoral education program, that Eugennie moved into pastoral ministry – and found her niche.

After three years working in adult faith formation at Mount St Benedict Centre – the Good Samaritan Sisters’ spirituality and retreat centre in Sydney – Eugennie spent “seven wonderful years” from 1996 as a pastoral associate in the parish of Whyalla Stuart in South Australia.

“I have very fond memories of that time,” says Eugennie.

“That was my first experience of parish ministry and I really did enjoy it. I enjoyed working with the people there – that team approach.”

Because it wasn’t a large community, Eugennie says she was able to get to know the people “very well” and develop strong relationships. She also felt supported by the people and appreciated the leadership style of “the wonderful parish priest” she worked with, Father Arthur Hackett.

In 2009 Eugennie accepted another pastoral associate position, this time in the Brisbane parish of Cannon Hill. She says her six years there were quite different to Whyalla, but again, it was a good experience.

“Because I enjoy that pastoral side of ministry, I was very happy in doing that,” she says.

“I think that’s where my gifts lie, mainly in that hands-on pastoral approach to people, rather than anything academic.

“That’s not to say that I’m perfect in doing that and there haven’t been challenges, but overall, I’m just happy that I have this opportunity as a Good Samaritan Sister to do that kind of ministry.”

Eugennie attributes her love for pastoral ministry and her gifts in that area to the influences of family in her early formative years.

“I think that whole commitment to caring for others came from my mother and grandmother. They were women who helped others,” she says.

“And my father, too, would often help people out and he’d be inviting people home… He was a mechanic so he was always fixing people’s cars and finding jobs for his nephews…

“So I suppose that sense of real care for other people in need was very much a part of my family.”

Alongside this strong ethic of care for the ‘other’, Eugennie was raised among “people of faith”.

“When I grew up I lived next door to my great-grandmother, and my grandmother lived over the road, so there was a sense of being embraced by an extended family, both in loving care, but also by faith,” she says.

“I have lovely memories of my great-grandmother kneeling in prayer and saying the Rosary, things like that.”

She also has memories of one of her father’s sisters who had “a deep faith”.

“I remember when I stayed there on holidays with my cousins, she would come in at night and she would kiss us good night and bless us with holy water. And they’d say the Rosary too.

“So there was a sense in which I grew up with a strong faith, particularly from the women in the family.”

Women beyond the family also influenced Eugennie. In primary school she was educated by the Presentation Sisters and the Mercy Sisters, and then in high school, she was introduced to the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Benedict’s College, Wilston.

“I really loved our principal, Sister Francis de Sales Fitzwalter,” says Eugennie.

“She was a good principal and a very pastoral, kind person who took a personal interest in us as students.”

Eugennie says her ethnic heritage has also shaped her life. Born in Indonesia in 1948, her father was Dutch-Indonesian and her mother an Australian of Irish ancestry. Eugennie spent the first 15 months of her life in Indonesia, and although she has no recollection of the experience, she has an affinity with her “Asian background” – so much so, that when she had a sabbatical in 2000, she asked to do a pastoral renewal course in the Philippines at the East Asian Pastoral Institute.

“Because of my Asian background, because we are close to Asia [here in Australia] and because we have sisters in the Philippines – for all those reasons, I just felt it would be good to go there,” she explains.

At the end of the course, Eugennie spent a week in Bacolod City on Negros Island where a small community of Good Samaritan Sisters had been ministering since 1990. Three years later, in response to a ‘call’ from her congregation to join the Bacolod community, Eugennie was boarding a plane bound for the Philippines.

When Eugennie arrived in 2003, the community of sisters was focussed on the planning and construction of a pre-school for children from very poor areas of Bacolod. Eugennie worked closely with two other sisters who were instrumental in that project on the ground – Filipina Sister Leonie Duenas and Japanese Sister Yoshi Suzukawa.

“I was delighted to be part of the growth of that early Kinder,” says Eugennie. “They were good years.”

Apart from her involvement in the establishment of the Good Samaritan Kinder School, which opened in 2004, Eugennie immersed herself in the life and mission of the Good Samaritan community in Bacolod, providing pastoral support and care where she could to both the sisters she was living with and the local people.

“I look back [on those four years] as a very formative time for me and also with deep gratitude for the opportunity,” she says.

Last year Eugennie responded to yet another ‘call’ from her congregation, this time to spend a year with the small but growing community of Good Samaritan Sisters in Kiribati.

“I didn’t really have a specific ministry other than to be a support to the community that I was based in,” she says.

“I did find it challenging, I have to be honest…, but I was glad to have the experience and I am most grateful that I have met our [I-Kiribati] sisters there and have got to know and understand them a little bit better. That’s been a big plus.”

Since returning to Brisbane in 2018, Eugennie hasn’t been engaged in a full-time ministry as such, but when she describes her current commitments, it’s clear she’s involved in a number of pastoral and community development initiatives.

She’s actively involved in her local parish, including as a member of the social justice and RCIA groups, and is part of the Good Samaritan Oblates group in Brisbane, ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans), and the Good Samaritan Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Network.

“I think there’s enough there without getting into full-time ministry at the moment,” she says.

“I would like to have a bit more hands-on involvement with refugees…, maybe one day a week. A couple of our sisters are involved in that in Brisbane, so that would be good.”

Connecting with and supporting people wherever they are comes naturally to Eugennie. She resonates with the Gospel challenge of being “leaven” in the community and refers to an article she read recently which encouraged this, especially among sisters who aren’t engaged in full-time ministry.

“I like that idea because I think that’s something we can all do,” she says.

“I think we can all be a leaven and I think we can all exercise the charism of the Good Samaritan – first in our communities.

“I remember a Benedictine priest in the novitiate used to say, ‘We have to be Good Samaritans to one another first’, and I haven’t forgotten that; so I try to be that, and try to be that leaven wherever I am, to be that leaven in the community – whether it’s parish, whether it’s a school, whether it’s community, or groups that I belong to.”

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