May 2018

Joys of being neighbour in suburban Melbourne

For nearly a quarter of a century, Good Samaritan Sister Mary Zita Duffy has found joy through providing food for people in need in suburban Melbourne and helping the disadvantaged break out of their “high rise prisons” to spend time together in a safe community.

BY Debra Vermeer

Sister Zita is approaching nearly 25 years of service at The Collingwood Cottage Inc, which began life as an inter-church organisation in August 1993 at St Joseph’s Parish Hall, Collingwood.

“There’s just such joy in seeing people go out with a load of food and smiles on their faces,” the chipper almost-84-year-old says.

“A lot of them don’t speak much English, but one thing they do say is ‘thank-you’. They know that word and they say it all the time.”

Zita was born in Flemington after the family moved from Cowes, Philip Island. She grew up in Thornbury, the fifth daughter of eight children, and was educated at St Mary’s Thornbury by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

“The sisters did have a big impact on me at school,” she says. “They travelled by double- decker bus each day to teach us. They were always very kind. You’d see them even on a Saturday or Sunday out visiting the sick. They were always doing something for someone.”

Zita felt her call to join the Good Sams quite early, while still at school, but she had won a teacher’s scholarship in Form Three, which required her to serve three years of teaching in State primary schools after she finished her training.

“So I completed that, but all the time nursing a vocation,” she says.

Her vocational fire was stoked further when her two older sisters joined the Good Sams.

“I vividly remember going to their professions and the ceremony certainly made a big impact on me,” she says.

After she completed her scholarship’s teaching requirement, she joined the Sisters of the Good Samaritan herself and, over the next 40 years, served as teacher and sometimes principal in Good Sam schools at Coffs Harbour, Fairy Meadow, Marrickville, Forest Lodge, Moruya, North Fitzroy, Cohuna and Hughendon.

In 1992, Zita was offered a year of study which she undertook at the Columbans’ Pacific Mission Institute at Turramurra in Sydney.

“I was nearly 60 when I finished that year of mission study and it opened up new horizons like I couldn’t believe. I realised there was more to mission than teaching. It showed me the broader scope of mission. It was wonderful.”

Following that, the congregation asked Zita to take up a position as pastoral associate at North Fitzroy Parish.

“It was actually the last thing I wanted to do at that time, but I did it. The parishioners were lovely people, lots of Italians. Whenever I’d arrive at some Italian family’s house, they’d run and get me a Tia Maria! Lovely people.”

It was the Religious Education Coordinator at St Brigid’s Parish School, North Fitzroy, who first mentioned to Zita about a position available at the newly opened Collingwood Cottage.

“She said the parish had just opened a food bank and they needed someone like me to volunteer to run it,” she says.

“It was just by chance. But the words ‘by chance’ are important in Luke’s Gospel, [indicating God’s providence]. Anyway, I thought it sounded interesting and the order agreed that I could try it out.”

Initially the food bank operated from the hallway of the presbytery in Collingwood, but Zita soon brought her principal’s organisational skills to bear on the situation.

“I said, ‘Father, what about we use the hall? Let’s go up to the hall and organise something different’. And from there, together, we organised the show,” she says.

“One of the great things about our order is its recognition of past experiences and encouragement to use the skills you have already achieved. And one of the skills I had was ‘controlling the crowd’.”

From there, Zita set about gathering volunteers around her, both from the parish, other parishes, as well as from the people who actually gathered weekly at the food bank.

“You just keep looking around and seeing who would make a good volunteer,” she says. “And some of them actually come up to you and ask if they can be a volunteer. It gives a sense of ownership and responsibility.”

The Collingwood Cottage works closely with Food Bank Victoria, an independent not-for-profit organisation which opened at Airport West a few months before The Collingwood Cottage opened.

“Our volunteers go out and collect the food from Food Bank Victoria and then other volunteers unload the van and stack the food in the storeroom or put it out for the people,” Zita says.

The van was bought with the proceeds of The Avon Woman’s Day Spirit of Achievement Award, which Zita was awarded in 2000.

“We bought a second-hand van with the winnings and that was a big help,” she says.

In 2001 The Collingwood Cottage expanded to two venues, at the invitation of Father Casey, Parish Priest at Brunswick and a founding member of The Collingwood Cottage.

“They had a lot of the high-rise housing in Brunswick and plenty of people in need, so now we’ve got two venues,” Zita says.

For the last two-and-a-half years, the Collingwood operation has been located at Fitzroy Parish following a fire at the Collingwood Parish in 2007, but with reconstruction works nearly complete, they are due to return to Collingwood soon.

“The people who use our service mainly live in these high-rise flats which go up 22 floors and are pretty awful,” Zita says. “They’re a bit like prisons. There are lots of migrants and people in different kinds of need.

“The people we see have changed over the years. Some of the people we deal with now speak Cantonese or Mandarin, as well as Vietnamese people and people in wheelchairs.

“Between the isolation of their living arrangements and their language barriers, it can be very lonely, so part of what we do is offer a cuppa and a piece of cake while they wait for their number to come up. They slowly make friends and build community.

“It’s good for their mental health, to get out of their loneliness and meet people and make friends.”

Zita’s organisational skills are evident in the running of the food bank, with clients called forward one-by-one to collect their food.

“We serve people individually,” she says. “And we make sure they have plenty of fruit and veg.

“We never ask why they’re there because we respect their dignity, but often they’ll tell you their story and share that with you, which is a privilege.”

Zita says she feels The Collingwood Cottage fits perfectly as a ministry of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

“It’s very neighbourly,” she says. “I think Pope Francis would be happy with it because we’re reaching out and looking after God’s poor, like he says.

“Food is one of the things we need as human beings. It’s a basic right and it also brings people together.”

As she approaches her 84th birthday, Zita says she is aware that her time with The Collingwood Cottage is drawing to a close and retirement beckons.

“We have an excellent board in place and so many wonderful volunteers who will carry the work on,” she says.

“We also have school students come and help, from Santa Maria College and Windsor College.

“I tell them that what they’re doing is ‘doing Eucharist’, that when Mass ends and the priest tells us all to go and live the Gospel, this is it, taking God’s love to the people.”

Zita has recently moved in with her older sister, Sister Therese Duffy, and is looking forward to enjoying retirement together.

“We’re living together again after 66 years apart,” she says. “It’s just wonderful how it’s happened.”

Her other sister, Sister Mary Duffy, has dementia and lives in a Melbourne nursing home and other siblings are also nearby.

Looking back over the years, Zita says her overwhelming emotion is gratitude.

“I’m just so grateful for the vocation and to have had the freedom to follow my own initiative as well as the order’s,” she says.

“When we started at Collingwood there were no rules and we were able to form it and to form them. And what it comes down to is being hospitable.

“You don’t know who you’ll meet and how you’ll touch lives. You just do your best. And what you’re doing is just another little snippet of God telling you that his love is there for everyone.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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