March 2024

Honouring women who see need and run towards it

This year’s International Women’s Day honoured women who care and who will continue to care, women who will see need and run towards it, and it will be at cost, writes Good Samarian Sister Patty Fawkner.

Participation in two International Women’s Day (IWD) events gifted me with two memorable phrases – affirming and challenging phrases.

My day began on 8 March with an IWD breakfast for senior students and staff from New South Wales Catholic schools, hosted by the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP.

I wasn’t sure why Tanya had invited me as it was 30 years or more since I had a hands-on role in schools. I was able to invite two other Good Samaritan Sisters and we found ourselves seated at the main table with Tanya, together with three Sisters of Charity and two Sisters of St Joseph. We sisters were ‘of an age’ (our teaching and nursing days had long since passed).

It emerged we were there because Tanya wanted to celebrate us, and all the women religious we represented. Australia’s nuns, she said, were the “unsung nation builders … feminists before their time”. She spoke of the legacy of religious women in the civic, social and religious development of Australia and the lessons we can take from their example.

Tanya’s research was thorough and, I believe, her analysis accurate. She said that nuns served Indigenous communities, the poor and kids who would otherwise have missed out on an education. Sisters visited prisons, nursed the sick, comforted the grieving. “Where there was distress, poverty and the marginalised the nuns weren’t far away,” she said.

The sisters lived by Jesus’ Gospel values of radical commitment to justice, compassion, mercy and service of the poor. They taught these same values to the children in their care. “When you teach large numbers of children the importance of social justice, you change the nation,” Tanya said.

“I don’t think Australia’s nuns have received enough credit for the work they have done and the success they have built.” Tanya identified pragmatism, persistence and love as key to this success, together with the sisters’ “optimistic can-do spirit, a sense of adventure and a huge amount of elbow grease”.

Some of the sisters had highly developed entrepreneurial skills and financial acumen. Of necessity, they were formidable fundraisers. She recounted how it was said of Sister Bernice Elphick, a Sister of Charity, that she was the only woman who “Kerry Packer could not say no to.”

“Love drove the mission.” Tanya quoted feminist pioneer Germaine Greer who was taught by the Presentation Sisters.

I realise now I had a terrific education … I think one of the reasons why I was never properly domesticated is because I was actually socialised by a gang of mad women in flapping black habits … They really loved us. I realise that now, although I didn’t realise it at the time.”

Tanya summed up the Sisters’ mission in a striking phrase that will stay with me: “The nuns went where there was need and ran towards it.”

Such proactive energy!

Though their numbers have declined from a peak of 14,622 in 1966 to about 3500 today, and though their average age is now significantly higher, Tanya believes that nuns continue to run towards need. The issues of inequality, homelessness, loneliness and addiction are similar to what the sisters faced in the past.

Tanya’s examples were apt. Groups such as ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) promote justice for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. Individuals such as 88-year-old Brigidine Sister Brigid Arthur who advocates for and with refugees and asylum seekers, and is also committed to climate justice, as are many, many religious women.

Brigid appeared in a recent ABC Australian Story featuring climate activist, Anjali Sharma. At age 16, Anjali sued the Australian Government for failing in its duty of care of children by not phasing out fossil fuels. Because of Anjali’s age,Brigid acted as her litigation guardian.

Thankfully, Tanya is not naïve about nuns; she wore no rose-coloured glasses. She is aware that some nuns abused and enabled abuse of children in their care. “There were women in religious orders unsuited to both life in a religious order and a life of teaching. Some places were cruel, run by cruel people,” she said.

However, most nuns acted with care.

Care was the key theme in the second IWD event I attended that evening. The Australian Catholic University celebrated IWD at Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney and inaugurated its 2024 Women’s Leadership for Mission Program. Again, I was unsure of why I was invited, and yet again was gifted with another compelling phrase.

The keynote speaker, Dr Alessandra Smerilli, a 50-year-old Italian Salesian Sister, appeared on a prerecorded video. Last year she was appointed Secretary for the Faith and Development Sector of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, making her the highest-ranking woman in the Roman Curia.

Alessandra claims that our world hasn’t learnt the language of care because care has been relegated to the private sphere of women. We do not place a legal or economic value on care.

She posed this scenario: How would we (you and me) change, how would social interactions, our church and world change if, instead of asking, “What do you do?”, we asked “Who do you care for?”

This was memorable phrase number two: a question which has relationality at its core, and probes what is often hidden, under-appreciated and taken for granted.

After Allessandra’s input we broke into small discussions groups. Many conversations began with “Who do you care for?” The dialogue that ensued was deep and engaging.

The bulk of caring for family and home is done by women no matter their employment, study and other commitments. We know that. Again, let’s not naively minimise this. It was sobering for me to hear several women speak of the burden such caring places on them.

This year’s International Women’s Day honoured women who care and who will continue to care, women who will see need and run towards it – and it will be at cost.

It occurs to me to ask you, as I ask myself, who do you care for? What is the need to which you must run?


Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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