The weekend of May 26-28 marked the end of an era for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan when after 117 years, the Congregation’s community life and ministry in the north Queensland community of Charters Towers came to an end.
To recognise the contribution the Sisters have made to the community in that time, a number of events were held over the weekend, including an assembly and morning tea at Columba Catholic College during which a memorial sculpture was unveiled, a ritual of closure at the convent, and a Mass of Thanksgiving at St Columba’s Parish.
“The decision for us to leave a community such as Charters Towers is not an easy one. But like religious orders of our time, our resources and personnel are now limited and the time has come for us to move on,” Congregational Leader Sister Clare Condon told those gathered at a luncheon after the parish Mass.
“Although there is a sadness in leaving for both the sisters and the parish, it is also time to rejoice in the life that the sisters have shared with you and you have shared with us,” she said.
“As a congregation we have been enriched by the experience of the many sisters who lived here at ‘The World’, as Charters Towers was known.”
In the last 117 years more than 200 Good Samaritan Sisters have lived and ministered in Charters Towers in the areas of education, parish ministry and pastoral outreach.
When they first arrived from Sydney in 1900 at the request of Bishop Joseph Higgins to carry on the education ministry established by the Sisters of Mercy, there were just 11 sisters. Ranging in age from 22 to 34, they were all certified teachers.
“They were young and adventurous, probably not knowing at all what lay ahead of them,” said Clare.
“Two days after their arrival, on February 1, 1900, 700 children presented themselves for enrolment.”
At that time Charters Towers was a rapidly growing community due to a gold-mining boom which had begun in the 1870s.
“By the end of 1900, the first local woman to join the sisters was Annie Eustace, who at the age of 19, set out on the long journey to Sydney to join the novitiate,” said Clare.
“She was the first of over 40 women born in Charters Towers to join the congregation, including two sisters and two cousins from the Lyons’ family.
“I would like to acknowledge the incredible contribution that the Lyons’ family have made over generations to our congregation. I lived with Sister Columba in the early 1980s and I learnt from her what it means to be a Good Sam.”
In his homily during the parish Mass, Townsville’s recently ordained Bishop, Tim Harris, expressed gratitude to the Sisters and reflected on their legacy to the community.
“I am not sure that ‘goodbye’ is an adequate description of what we are celebrating, because ‘good bye’ has connotations of permanency,” he said.
“The words used in the ritual to close the convent… were ‘the ritual to honour the leave-taking of our Good Samarian convent’. Yes, ‘leave-taking’ seems a much better term… It is more positive and it suggests that their story, the memory and the presence will last forever.
“Today is certainly an historical moment but it is surely living history because we can tell the story today and we can make it come alive tomorrow.
“The sisters may no longer be physically with us in Charters Towers, but their legacy will last forever. No-one can easily erase 117 years of continuous presence. In 117 years from today, future generations will read about these amazing women, they will be inspired and their hearts will be lifted by what they read.”
Bishop Tim also acknowledged the last community of Good Sams in Charters Towers, Sisters Ita Stout, Marion Firth and Patricia Comerford.
“You are in a long line of sisters who have given your all to this district. You have joined all the other ‘Good Samaritans’ who did ‘good’ things in this part of the world. You gave the Catholic Church a ‘good’ name because you have been living the gospel and doing what needed to be done not for yourselves but always for others,” he said.
“You have been, and you are an inspiration, and you are leaving something of yourselves behind.”
Colleen Young, Columba College’s Deputy Principal, has known the Good Samaritan Sisters for most of her life. She was educated by them, worked with them at school, and has shared faith and friendship with them. She said the Sisters’ departure from the community would leave a large void.
“They will be missed because it was like they were our beacon. Whether there were good times or whether there were challenging times, the Sisters have always been there,” said Colleen.
“So it is something that’s going to be very hard to replace.”
However, Colleen also said the Sisters’ presence over many years had “instilled something in anybody who’s come in contact with them”.
“The seeds have been planted and have been watered and we will continue to carry on because they have shown us what it is to uphold that proud tradition of the Good Samaritans, their deep sense of spirituality that has been marked in all the work that they have done, and they have shown us how to walk faithfully with our God,” she said.
For Sister Margaret Ann Kelly of Sydney, who taught at the College from 1969 to 1973, and was one of 17 sisters who returned for the celebrations, the weekend was “most memorable”.
“117 years is quite a stretch of time. We were left in no doubt that the Good Samaritan Sisters have made a great contribution to the faith, education and cultural enrichment of the Charters Towers people during that time and, through the education of boarders, to people of the north and west and beyond,” she said.
“While the people of the Towers marked their appreciation of the Sisters’ presence over those 117 years, we know we also found gold and were given so much from the Charters Towers people.”