March 2014

Living life to the full

Former Santa Maria College student, Joan Corfee, finds herself standing at the interface of Church and world – looking in at the Church through the eyes of the marginalised and out to the world with a Catholic spirit.

BY Debra Vermeer

Joan Corfee has lived a life packed with love, family, faith, travel and adventure, including studying in Jerusalem and volunteering with Mercy Ships in Africa.

Along the way, Joan says she has moved from the centre of the Church to the periphery, and now finds herself standing at the interface of Church and world – looking in at the Church through the eyes of the marginalised and out to the world with a Catholic spirit.

Born and raised in Melbourne, Joan completed her schooling with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, first at St Joseph’s Primary School, Northcote and then at Santa Maria College.

“I wasn’t actually one of those ‘love to be at school’ people,” she says. “I really wanted to leave and get out in the world and go to work.”

Despite that, Joan says that now, at age 71, she can see the impact that the Sisters had on her life.

“I think I was always inspired by those women,” she says. “The Good Sams always seemed to have an academic focus and a real ‘get up and do it’ focus. They assumed that you could do things. I wouldn’t have said at the time that I was inspired by these women but I know now that I was. They were great women. And I’m really grateful to them.”

After finishing the Leaving Certificate, Joan earned a Commonwealth Scholarship, but circumstances prevented university studies, so she got a job, completed an accountancy degree at night, and became an accountant with the Australian Tax Office.

“In those days that made me quite a bit of money, so I started travelling,” she says. “My first overseas trip was on the day of my graduation, at age 21, and I went to Japan on a cargo ship, which was a lot of fun.

“I spent a month in Japan and then went to Singapore and over to India, all on a ship, and then hitchhiked across India, which you wouldn’t do now. It was an adventure.”

On her last night in Tokyo, Joan was playing the piano in a piano bar when she met a young American man named Mel, who would later become her “wonderful husband and greatest supporter”.

“It was his last night in Tokyo and it was my last night in Tokyo. He was going back to the US and I was going on to England. So it was one of those ships passing in the night things. But it was an enduring moment.”

After a year living and working in England and travelling in Europe, Joan returned to Australia, via South Africa, resuming her work with the tax office for a year before heading off again, this time to the US. She and a girlfriend shared an apartment in Hawaii for three months, and then Joan moved on to mainland USA to catch up with Mel, who she’d met in that Tokyo bar.

“By this time the Vietnam War was on and Mel was posted to Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska,” she says. “We became engaged there and again it was just one of those things. We hardly knew each other really, but he asked me to marry him and I said yes.”

They were married in Melbourne in June 1968 and went on to have three children and six grandchildren.

“After the wedding, we had to fly back immediately to Strategic Air Command because he was still serving and we lived in the US for two years. Our first child was born on the military base and then we came to Australia to live permanently in Jan 1970.”

With their three children at the local Good Shepherd Catholic Primary School in Mulgrave, Joan volunteered to co-ordinate the liturgical music at the school. Later, she was asked to become the religious education co-ordinator, but realised she didn’t have the qualifications for the job.

“So I did a theology degree at night, part-time,” she says. “I was probably one of the first women to do it at Melbourne Theological College back in those days. It took me eight years. And when I graduated with that, I commenced a Master’s Degree in Ministry which was a new degree in Australia, being offered for the first time at Melbourne College of Divinity.”

It was during her time studying for that Master’s degree that Joan had the life-changing opportunity to study in Jerusalem at the Tantur Institute, a campus under the patronage of Notre Dame University.

“I spent two months there, which was a fabulous experience,” she says.

“My study in Jerusalem was on the relationship among the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, but it was also heavily scriptural and archaeological and historical. It was a wonderful, wonderful course.

“I also spent some time in the Palestinian refugee camps, which was a watershed moment in my life and has informed my position on supporting the Palestinian statehood issue. The plight of the Palestinian people in the camps moved me to a new way of thinking about the marginalised.”

After returning home and completing her Master’s degree and a year of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), Joan complemented her work in the Good Shepherd school and parish with one day a week working as an industrial chaplain at a health insurance company.

“I absolutely loved that, working in the corporate world,” she says. “It involved counselling and I did a little bit of advocacy. I worked closely with human resources and also did some funerals and things like that. It was really a very general role, which I loved doing and the company really valued it. It was great.”

After 16 years, Joan left her work with Good Shepherd and took up a job as Co-ordinator of Pastoral Care at Dandenong Hospital.

“They had no pastoral care department at the hospital, so I was offered the job of getting that up and going and to organise the chaplaincy. It was very much a job about being with people, being a presence for people in the hospital and their families as well as for the staff.”

In 2008, Joan was looking around for a volunteering opportunity when her eye fell upon an article in Australian Catholics magazine about Mercy Ships.

“I thought ‘gosh, I could do that. I could do what I’m doing at the hospital, the pastoral care thing, and being a presence, and all of that’,” she says.

After an extensive vetting period and a year of fundraising for her fare and board, Joan set off for two months living on the Africa Mercy.

“Africa Mercy is a hospital ship which goes into the countries of sub-Sahara Africa, the very poorest countries,” she says. “I served in Liberia, which the UN puts right at the bottom of its list of socio-economically deprived countries. It’s very, very poor, with no surgical care.

“On the ship, you do whatever is required. The ship actually runs a ‘village’ and a hospital, because it is totally self-contained. It has to be. And so there are 450 volunteers on the ship who come from all over the world.

“My job was pastoral care, which was quite a generalised role, and it included hospitality for visiting dignitaries and other visitors. Then I would go into the wards and sit with people, much like what I did in Dandenong Hospital, and if a corridor needed sweeping, then I would do that too, everyone did. It was a great community and they do absolutely wonderful things. I’m too old now, to serve on the ship again, but I do fundraising and public speaking for Mercy Ships.

“It was another watershed experience in my life really.”

Now retired, Joan continues to do volunteer work.

“Apart from speaking for Mercy Ships, I teach English to a group of Iranian asylum seekers and I do some gardening at a drop-in house for asylum seekers and make their garden beautiful for them. And I travel a lot.”

Joan says the faith that has underpinned her life has changed over the years, but never faded.

“Over the years I started to get very frustrated about the Church, wanting the Church to be more open to the marginalised, and that wasn’t happening for me,” she says.

“And I think I moved more to the periphery of the Church. I had been right in the centre. I was on the Diocesan Liturgical Committee and involved with other diocesan activities, I was working in a Catholic school, working in a Catholic parish, the kids all went to Catholic schools, the whole thing.

“But in the last 15 to 18 years I moved to the periphery and now I find my place is one foot in and one foot out. I stand at the interface of Church and world, so that I look in at the Church through the eyes of the world, the eyes of the marginalised, the eyes of people who don’t know what the Catholic faith is about or understand what’s going on and I look out at the world with what I’d call a Catholic spirit, but I don’t agree with a lot of the stances the Church takes.

“So for me [Pope] Francis is brilliant. He’s going where I want to be. That would define my spirituality now – standing on the boundaries, looking out and looking in.”

Debra Vermeer

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

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