Meet the four Council members who will assist and advise Sister Patty Fawkner in her role as Congregational Leader until 2023.
BY Stephanie Thomas
Sister Marella Rebgetz says she has never thought of herself as a leader. But others who know her think differently. The Sisters of the Good Samaritan, at their recent Chapter Gathering, elected Marella to be part of the five-member team which will lead the Congregation for the next six years.
Marella’s role in this new leadership team will be as one of four Council members whose ministry is to assist and advise Sister Patty Fawkner in her role as Congregational Leader.
It’s little wonder that Marella is feeling “shocked” about her new appointment. “Yes, yes, there is no question about that!” she laughs. It will be vastly different to her most recent ministry experience.
For more than a decade, the 51-year-old has been living and working in Kiribati, a Pacific island nation straddling the equator, where the Good Samaritan Sisters have ministered for just over 25 years. There Marella worked as a water engineer on government aid projects helping to address the country’s critical water needs and its acute vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
“It was a great job,” says Marella. “I really enjoyed it. It was a combination of management tasks, design tasks, onsite construction supervision, and working with communities.”
During that time, Marella says she became “a huge believer” in “transparency of process and getting community ownership of projects”.
“And while it happens a bit differently in different cultures and contexts, I think those are two things that have stayed with me” – learnings she will take with her in her new role.
Of the gifts and skills she brings to the Congregation’s new leadership team, Marella believes it’s her particular experiences and perspectives which will be of most benefit.
“It’s a different experience that I think I bring… a different perspective on things,” she says.
In saying this, Marella is referring to her most recent experiences living beyond Australia in a cross-cultural community of Good Samaritan Sisters where she also worked “outside Good Samaritan circles” and “outside Church circles”.
As one of about 25 Good Samaritan Sisters aged under 65 – Marella is the third youngest Australian sister, a Gen-Xer and “totally post-Vatican II” – she also brings different generational experiences and perspectives from that of the majority of her sisters.
Born in north Queensland, Marella grew up on a cattle station between Hughenden and Charters Towers. There she completed her primary education by correspondence and through School of the Air, and later attended St Mary’s College, Charters Towers for her secondary education.
While Marella and her family knew the Good Samaritan Sisters at Charters Towers (she wasn’t educated by them), it wasn’t until she’d finished university and was working in Sydney that she really got to know them as a volunteer at a half-way house run by Sister de Sales Smith, known to many as Sally.
“I really enjoyed it there,” says Marella.
“Through Sally I met a couple of other sisters and then did some tutoring for some migrant students who lived in another community. And one day I just sort of discovered that that’s where I felt most at home, really. And I would still say more than anything, it’s where I still feel most at home.”
Marella’s new home as of early 2018 will be in Melbourne. She spent a week there recently with Sister Veronica Hoey, the outgoing Melbourne-based Council member, and says that the experience helped her to adjust to her new reality. With the leadership team having already met a number of times, Marella is now feeling much clearer about her new role and all that it involves.
“Basically, before [I was elected] I didn’t know what [the role] involved… and I still don’t know all the ‘ins and outs’, but somehow it’s not as scary anymore,” she explains.
Like Marella, Sister Veronica McCluskie is still coming to terms with her election to the Congregation’s new leadership team. While she wasn’t surprised to be nominated as a member of Council – “I think this is the third time I’ve been nominated” – she didn’t think it would go any further than that.
“I had no idea that I’d be chosen at all,” she says.
“I didn’t think that people would choose me actually, because I’m not young.”
Veronica recalls telling sisters during the Chapter election process: “‘I’m old you know, and you shouldn’t even be thinking of me’! And people were saying, ‘That’s why we’re thinking about you, because you have a wisdom, and that’s a wisdom that only comes from living our way of life over a long time and having had such a variety of experiences of our way of life’.”
Veronica agrees that she’s had a “big variety” of community and ministry experiences since her profession as a Good Samaritan Sister in 1965.
Straight after her teacher training, Veronica moved into secondary teaching positions “mainly in small country schools in New South Wales”. Following placements in Good Samaritan schools in north Queensland, she was invited to move into parish work “in the early days when sisters were starting to be pastoral associates”.
In 1991, after completing some theology study, Veronica became the first Good Samaritan Sister to live and minister in Kiribati. There she served on the teaching staff of the Kiribati Pastoral Institute. In an interview with The Good Oil in 2011, Veronica described her eight years in Kiribati as “one of the most transformative experiences of my life”.
It was transformative for the Congregation, too. From that small beginning there are now two communities of I-Kiribati Good Samaritan Sisters engaged in a variety of educational, pastoral and community development initiatives.
When Veronica returned to Australia in 1999, she moved into vocations work for the Congregation and also served as Director of the Congregational Centre at Glebe in Sydney. From there she was appointed to leadership roles in the Australian Church, first as the Executive Officer of Catholic Vocations Ministry Australia, and then as Executive Director of Catholic Religious Australia, the peak body for religious congregations in Australia.
For Veronica, leadership is about “enabling others, ennobling others, bringing out the best in others… so that you can move together towards something.
“I don’t think it’s an easy job, but I think that if we do that, the practical things will fall into place. All the things that need to be done will happen; the people will feel empowered, ennobled,” she says.
While recognising she has natural leadership qualities, Veronica believes she’s at her best in “deputy” roles. “When the group visions, I’ll help implement it”; “I’m very much a team player,” she says.
For the past five years Veronica has been part of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ Communities on Mission Team, which she describes as “a service role” undertaken on behalf of the Congregational Leader and Council to assist sisters in their community and ministry placements. She agrees this experience of working closely with individual sisters, while at the same time being attuned to the broader life and mission of the Congregation, will serve her well as a member of Council.
Veronica, who will be based in Brisbane from early 2018, is enthusiastic about being part of the new leadership team, whose members range in age from late 40s to early 70s.
“I think we’re very lucky that the Congregation sees the benefit of not just choosing all one age group and I think that’s really good. I think we’ve got people with a wide variety of [skills and experiences],” she says.
“I’m very happy with the group. I think we’ll get on very, very well together. We haven’t bonded fully yet; we haven’t had time. But you can feel yourself being drawn to them – I can anyway. This is my team now!”
For Sister Meg Kahler, being elected to the leadership team of her Congregation is a “privilege”. She also sees it as “a great endorsement from the Congregation”.
“I wouldn’t be here if the sisters hadn’t said ‘yes’ to me being here, so there’s something very comforting and kind of lovely about that – that they can obviously see that there’s something I can bring to this, and that’s a nice thing to know, an empowering thing to know,” she explains.
Meg, age 47, is looking forward to this new ministry, while also conscious of the challenges of leadership.
“I’m very keen to get involved in the life of the Congregation in this way. Having said that, I know that it’s not without its challenges and there are some things that I will need to learn and develop and grow into. But I’m really happy to be in this position,” she says.
Like Veronica and Marella, it will be Meg’s first time as a member of Council, and while it will be a “big change” for her, she’s ready to embrace it.
At the 2011 Chapter Meg says she’d been nominated to the Council, but withdrew from the process.
“I think I had a bit of an instinctive sense that I wasn’t quite ready, [which was] partly to do with the ministry that I had at the time – whether it was a good time to leave that. But I think personally, too, I had a sense of feeling not quite sure that it was the right time for me,” she explains.
“Whereas I didn’t have any of that kind of hesitation this time… And I think that comes down to probably a bit of the personal and professional journey in the time in between, and coming to an understanding of who I am within the Congregation as well.”
In the 18 months before the Chapter Gathering, Meg was part of the Chapter Planning Committee (CPC), whose role was to coordinate the Chapter preparation processes and the actual Gathering. It’s an experience she believes will be valuable in her new role.
“I think one of the advantages of being involved in the CPC is you do get to know the structures of the Congregation and where people are; so you get a tremendous sense of where the Congregation is, which I think will be very helpful with this job,” she says.
Meg is a proud Queenslander. Originally from Warwick, she and her family also lived in Bundaberg and Rockhampton, before settling in Brisbane. After finishing school, Meg completed a Bachelor of Arts followed by a Diploma in Education.
It was during her first teaching position, a four-year stint at Ryan Catholic College, Townsville, that Meg first met and made strong connections with the Good Samaritan Sisters. After a year teaching at the Catholic school on Palm Island, Meg decided to see if religious life with the Good Samaritans was for her. The rest is history.
Since joining the Congregation in 1996, Meg has had a rich mix of ministry placements, including five years teaching at Santa Maria College, Melbourne, two years as Director of the Kiribati Pastoral Institute, a year as Manager of The Good Samaritan Inn, Melbourne, and three months teaching English in Tanzania with a group of Benedictine sisters.
For the past decade, Meg has been part of the Good Samaritan Education Mission Team, which provides formation opportunities for staff and students of Good Samaritan Education Colleges in the history, values and spirituality of the Good Samaritan Benedictine tradition. She says she has enjoyed this ministry and will miss it, but is ready for a new challenge and opportunity.
Meg acknowledges that she couldn’t take on her new congregational role “if it was all just looking at ourselves the whole time”.
“I think that was a great thing about the Chapter and the Chapter process, that we did keep drawing people in from beyond ourselves, which I think was important and an indicator, if you like, of a way forward,” she says.
“We can be challenged and enlivened by those partnerships,” she adds. “…And it’s not partnership for the sake of partnership; it’s partnership because it’s good for everyone.”
Sister Catherine McCahill comes to the new leadership team with a wealth of experience and expertise, particularly in education, scripture and theology. Since joining the Good Samaritan Sisters over 40 years ago, she’s lived and ministered in communities in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Japan.
But Catherine also comes to the new leadership team with the wisdom and experience of being a member of the outgoing leadership team. Saying ‘yes’ to another six years as a member of Council was not difficult for Catherine, because for her, serving the Congregation in this way is a “privilege”.
“It’s a privilege in a lot of ways,” she says.
“It’s a privilege [because] you’re seeing ‘the whole’, you see ‘the bits’; you’re there with planning and moving forward; you’re there with grieving over what is lost or what’s broken; and everything in between.”
Catherine sees her leadership role as one of empowering her sisters, both individually and collectively.
“In this position I can help the rest of the sisters do what they do well at every level – by [offering] pastoral support, by taking care of the resources, by planning for the future, by ensuring that we have good opportunities for ongoing education and formation,” she explains.
A gifted teacher and life-long learner, Catherine is “very passionate” about providing education and formation opportunities for others. She describes her main ministry over the past 40 years as one of “learning and teaching”, and says her love of learning was fostered by the Good Samaritan Sisters as a young student in north Queensland.
The eldest of six children, Catherine grew up in Townsville and was educated there by the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Margaret Mary’s Primary School and St Margaret Mary’s College. After finishing school, she began a Bachelor of Education at James Cook University, but after her first year, at age 19, Catherine decided to join the Good Samaritan Sisters. It wasn’t until after her novitiate in Sydney that she returned to Townsville to complete her degree.
Catherine’s first teaching placement was in Melbourne at Santa Maria College, Northcote, where she taught chemistry and religious education. From there she moved to South Australia and taught for five years at Sacred Heart College, Adelaide, and a further three years at St John’s College (now Samaritan College), Whyalla.
After completing her second degree, this time in theology, Catherine spent six months in Japan at Seiwa College, before returning to Sydney to teach at Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills.
In 2006, after completing her doctorate on Jesus as teacher in the Fourth Gospel, Catherine moved into tertiary education and was appointed Academic Dean at Yarra Theological Union, whilst also teaching courses in Scripture and religious education.
Catherine says her doctoral thesis enabled her to bring together her passion for biblical study and Christian religious education. Underpinning her thesis is her “fundamental belief that the ultimate purpose of biblical study is deeper knowledge and love of the God of Jesus”.
For the last 20 years, Catherine has also played a significant role in the governance of Good Samaritan Colleges. Until recently, she was a member of the assembly of Good Samaritan Education, the ecclesial community established in 2011 to oversee the ethos, mission and stewardship of the ten incorporated Good Samaritan Colleges in Australia.
Having been a member of her Congregation’s leadership team for the past six years, Catherine acknowledges that she brings insights and knowledge to the new leadership team. But she is conscious that being involved in leadership this second time will be “different”; it will be “a new time” for her.
She is enthused by the Congregation’s Statement of Directions for the next six years and looks forward to working with her new team.
“There is a depth of experience in the group,” says Catherine, “and I think that’s a real blessing – of lived experience – and that’s really important at this time.”