March 2018

In gratitude for “bountiful gifts and graces”

Sr Patty Fawkner SGS

“There is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven – a time to build and expand, and now a time to hand over and take our leave,” says Sister Patty Fawkner in a reflection delivered during the closing ritual of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ convent at Pennant Hills in Sydney.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

“And one of them, realising he had been healed,
Returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
And he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.” (Luke 17:15-16)

Just like this Samaritan leper, we come this evening to glorify and thank God. Specifically, we thank God for the bountiful gifts and graces given to, and given by, 227 Sisters of the Good Samaritan who have lived in “Regenbah”, known also as the “professed house”, over the past 93 years. For decades this convent had a rich life and mission independent of the support it gave to the nearby novitiate community.

I wish to look at the significance of what we are ritualising tonight through the lens of three members of that first community of 1925. It occurs to me that these three women seem to somehow epitomise our Good Samaritan story here at Pennant Hills.

In this trio there was a former mother general, a future mother general and a sister whose ministry was described as “domestic duties”.

The former mother general – Berchmans McLaughlin – was the first Australian-born leader of the congregation. She led the congregation from 1898 to 1916, a time of incredible expansion. Under Berchmans’ leadership numbers within the congregation more than doubled to 330, 92 per cent of whom were under 30! She opened 22 convents, 27 primary schools, 10 secondary colleges and eight boarding schools. Move over Bob the Builder; here is “Berchmans the Builder”.

Berchmans was the superior of the first Pennant Hills community and was charged with raising funds for, and overseeing the construction of, the novitiate building. She was an entrepreneur and astute business woman. And she was a Samaritan – a practical, courageous, warm-hearted, and seemingly fearless, Good Samaritan.

Over the years following Berchmans’ educational emphasis, the sisters travelled from the convent to primary schools at Thornleigh, Pennant Hills and Dundas, and then of course established, staffed, and walked across the paddock to Mount St Benedict College.

It was said that Mother Berchmans always displayed extraordinary hospitality, especially to priests, and that she worked in close partnership with bishops and clergy. The founding parish priest of St Agatha’s, Father Cornelius Lynch, lived here for a number of years, in a room behind the chapel. It wasn’t just a room, the community here provided him with a home. Over the years the Pennant Hills community has constantly offered hospitality to the local church and diocesan community.

Sister Januarius Pauli, affectionately known as “Jan” was another member of the founding community. Her responsibilities were many. Jan had charge of the cow, the kitchen, the jam-making, the vegetable garden and the chooks! She loved – and was loved by – the early parishioners of St Agatha’s. Once the novitiate was completed, one of Jan’s duties was to initiate the postulants into the wonders and practicalities of the kitchen.

I spoke with two former postulants last week – a 98 and a 91-year-old. When I mentioned Jan their faces lit up and one of them said: “She was a real sister to us” – a sister not only in name. Jan lived here for 43 years until her death in 1968. Extraordinary! And she was a Samaritan – a hands-on Good Samaritan, described as a great listener, full of candour and compassion. It was said of her that she balanced her life between chapel, kitchen and garden, always conscious of the presence of God.

Good Samaritan vocation and ministry isn’t always lit up in lights. Part of the vocation for all who lived on this site was to be community-makers, sisters to each other, constantly striving to balance work, prayer and leisure which Jan seems to epitomise.

The youngest member of the first community was the future mother general, Oliverio Murphy. Oliverio lived here a second time in the early 1970s when I was in the novitiate. I can still see this diminutive woman, with the biggest, light-up-the-room smile. With Mother Oliverio you never felt that she was just seeing you as another novice. You felt that she related to you mutually and affectionately. As Mother General, when speaking to a group of local superiors, she said:

“I know you provide [the Sisters] with all necessaries for their material welfare but we must give them more than that. We must… give them our love.”

Oliverio nursed Mother Berchmans through her last illness. She loved and learnt from Berchmans. “She was all in all to me”, Oliverio said. The affection is palpable.

We’re not only celebrating the “necessaries for material welfare” in terms of education, formation and pastoral ministry given by the Pennant Hills sisters for 93 years. We’re also celebrating nine decades of love and wonderful friendships which have been forged and nurtured by the sisters. Our friendship with each other and with you, members of the wider community, is one of the greatest gifts of Good Samaritan life. We thank you for your friendship and support and we thank and glorify God.

Mother Oliverio was courageous and prophetic. And she was a Samaritan. She was a gracious Good Samaritan with refined taste and love of beauty. We honour all those sisters and their partners who, like Mother Oliverio, have stewarded this site and preserved its beauty, and made it a place of spiritual refreshment both inside and throughout the beautiful grounds.

There was nothing mean-spirited about Mother Oliverio. She was a woman who always looked beyond narrow borders. It was she who called our sisters to Japan in 1948, at a time when a number of our sisters were still grieving the death of brothers and loved ones in World War II. “Some may say we cannot spare the sisters,” she wrote, “but surely if we give out of our poverty [God] will not be outdone in generosity.”

The sisters looked beyond narrow ministry borders here at Pennant Hills. Over the years Sisters have been involved in numerous and diverse ministries. They were Samaritans, good Good Samaritans – all.

For 93 years the community here has fulfilled St Benedict’s injunction to prefer nothing to the Work of God, that is praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Those who pray the office have been described as “cantors of the universe”, raising up the joys and concerns of the world to our gracious God. The praying community here have given their lives in prayer and loving service for the sake of the world.

I’m sure Berchmans, Januarius and Oliverio, like all of us, had times of weakness, failure and, yes, sin. Today, we ask forgiveness and I unreservedly apologise for the times that any of our sisters over these 93 years have inflicted harm or hurt in word, action or inaction, on those with whom we’ve lived, with our partners and colleagues, and those in our care. For any harm, I say “sorry”.

It was said that Mother Berchmans always looked to the future rather than the past. And now, having told a wee part of the past, we look to the future with our hopes and prayer. What would Archbishop Polding say today? I imagine he would say with the writer of Ecclesiastes: “There is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven – a time to build and expand, and now a time to hand over and take our leave”.

I’m sure Polding would join with me, with all those who have lived and loved here, and with all our Good Samaritan Sisters in praying:

May this site continue as a place of learning, beauty, prayer and spiritual refreshment.

May the dedication and commitment of all those who have lived and ministered here, continue to bear fruit in the years ahead.

May the strong partnerships forged between the congregation, the wider church, Good Samaritan Education, and civil society, continue.

And may whatever evolves on this site be, in the words of our Good Samaritan logo, “that in all things God may be glorified”.

This is an edited version of Sister Patty Fawkner’s reflection delivered on March 9, 2018, during the closing ritual of “Regenbah”, the Good Samaritan Sisters’ historic convent at Pennant Hills in Sydney.

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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