June 2018

“People teach you so much if you just sit still for a minute”

When a young Sister Kath Bourke entered the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in the 1960s she envisaged life as a teacher, but instead, decades of accompanying people with disability has shown Kath that she is the one who has been taught – precious lessons about life, love, friendship, community, and the gift of slowing down.

BY Debra Vermeer

Born and bred in Marrickville, Sydney, Kath was one of four children in a big extended family of Irish background.

Kath was educated at St Brigid’s Marrickville, which was a Good Samaritan school, where she came to know and admire the Good Sams.

“Mum’s two sisters were in the order as well,” she says. “So I had lots of exposure to the Good Sams. They were very much part of our life.”

Kath entered the Good Sams straight out of school at age 18, completing the novitiate at Mount St Benedict, Pennant Hills, and then teacher training at St Scholastica’s in Glebe. Her first teaching appointment was at St Agatha’s at Pennant Hills, followed by Lawson in the Blue Mountains.

She was enjoying teaching at Lawson, when she received a request out of the blue from the congregation to take up a position at Mater Dei special school at Narellan, south of Sydney and to undertake study in special education.

“Special education wasn’t something I had thought about or sought after,” she says. “I was really happy at Lawson. But it was certainly a turning point for me.”

After completing the study in special education and while she was teaching at Mater Dei, a second turning point for Kath came in the early 1970s, when she had the opportunity to take a retreat with French-Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement.

L’Arche is an international federation of faith communities where people with and without an intellectual disability share life together. L’Arche, a French word for “the Ark”, seeks to create communities where people live a simple life of work, care, prayer and celebration.

L’Arche was founded in 1964 in a small French village by Jean Vanier who welcomed two men, Raphael Simi and Phillipe Seux, both of whom had an intellectual disability and were living nearby in a large institution. By living with Raphael and Phillipe, Jean discovered a way of the heart and a new way of living the beatitudes of Jesus.

From these simple beginnings, L’Arche has grown into an international federation of 153 communities in 37 countries.

But back in the early 1970s, L’Arche was still in its infancy, and Kath says that the retreat she undertook with Jean Vanier introduced her to new ways of thinking about relationships and living.

“It was an interesting group of people at that first retreat,” she recalls. “It wasn’t only people working in the disability area, but all sorts of people, especially rejected people, people we struggle with or who struggle with us.

“One of the people in my group was ‘Mum Shirl’, [a Wiradjuri woman who would go on to be a prominent social worker, humanitarian and activist committed to justice for Aboriginal peoples],” Kath says.

“She was drawn to Jean Vanier and he to her. He later went to visit her. He has a real heart for people on the margins of our society.

“The main thing I remember from that retreat is that at the end he invited us to go and meet people in a similar group in our area and just share with each other.”

So, Kath and a few other people did just that.

“It was people coming together around people in need, some with mental illness, others with different needs, and they were drawn from a variety of areas,” she says.

From this little group grew the beginnings of Faith and Light in Sydney.

Faith and Light communities are made up of persons with an intellectual disability, their families and friends, particularly young friends, who meet together on a regular basis in a Christian spirit, to share friendship, pray together, fiesta and celebrate life.

“Both L’Arche and Faith and Light are about men and women of disability having a real place in our community, rather than on the edge,” Kath says.

“It’s about being together, sharing life together. I was very drawn to that and it’s what has kept me going really.”

After Kath left Mater Dei and took up a position in the Parramatta Diocese accompanying people with disability, she met a Columban priest, Father Peter Toohey, who would go on to be the founding Community Leader of L’Arche in Sydney.

“It was a big move [starting a L’Arche community],” she says. “Everyone was unsure at the beginning. We were unsure what would unfold, but it was also a very unsure time for the people with disability, who had mostly, up to that time, been in institutional care.

“For them to come from where they were secure and to step out and trust this new way of living was a big ask. Whenever you step out there is a trust required.

“I learnt a lot through that coming together and praying, and not knowing when was going to be the perfect time to step out and begin this new venture.

“And the main lesson I learnt was about slowing down. Let’s not try to make it work tomorrow, but just recognise that God is in it, so it will unfold.”

Kath says another thing they learned early in the process was the need to involve young people in the L’Arche experience as live-in companions.

“Young people have the compassion but also the energy, so that after the day-to-day care, which can be demanding, they could still ‘dance into the night’, as Jean Vanier says.”

The beginning of L’Arche in Sydney was greatly enhanced by the young people who became the first live-in companions.

“They were coming to live and discover community,” Kath says. “They lived in community beside the people with disability. It is a big commitment and they were wonderful.

“These young people played a big role in my own growth and transformation.”

Kath says part of the transformation of living in a L’Arche community is to embrace weakness as a strength, as Jesus talks about in the Gospels.

“I still struggle with my weaknesses,” she says. “None of us wants to be the weak link in anything.

“Jesus said that those who are weak will confound the strong but we don’t really want to own that, I don’t think.

“So imagine the anguish of someone going through life and feeling they are not loved because of what’s happening with their body. L’Arche helps those people to find a place in a community where they are loved for who they are.”

One of the L’Arche residents who experienced transformation through love and community was Jeremy*, who Kath met at Gladesville Hospital where he was living, and who became the first person to take up residence in the L’Arche house in Burwood.

“In the beginning, Jeremy would pack the things that were most precious to him into a back-pack every day. It was huge, and he would carry it every day on his back,” she says.

“And then, as he took each step along the road to trusting, something would be taken out of the back-pack and left in the house. Maybe a pen, from his collection of pens, or some other small item.

“It was the beginning of trust. It was him saying, ‘this is somewhere I am safe and trusted’.”

While a member of the L’Arche community in Sydney, Kath was still working in the Parramatta Diocese, responding to people with disability as a friend and companion.

“We formed little groups, prayed, and looked at different ways of celebrating where everybody could be involved,” she says.

In 2002 Kath took a sabbatical, which included spending time in Ireland’s L’Arche community. She also visited Canada and undertook a course entitled “The Mystics through the Creative Arts”, which she describes as “such a blessing”.

Upon her return to Australia, Kath moved to Brisbane and lived in the L’Arche community there for several years and says she formed deep connections there which she continues to treasure.

“It threw up an even greater awareness that weaknesses are something we need to embrace, rather than climb over and they transform your strengths into deeper strengths,” she says.

“It taught me also about reconciliation. I had the experience of the washing of the feet in the L’Arche community and I learnt what it really means – the getting down, the way we are with each other, that we kneel and hold that vulnerable part of us.

“It is being exposed in front of each other and in that exposing we can see the love.”

Kath says one of the L’Arche residents in Brisbane, David*, who had no movement, except for his face and smile, had a great impact on her.

“David couldn’t speak, or even shake hands, but he had a wonderful presence and he was able to give what we all need, a sense of connectedness. He showed me that it’s not what we do that’s important, but simply our presence and our smile of welcome to each other.”

Kath moved back to Sydney six years ago when she was asked to take up a position supporting women who had worked at St Scholastica’s Boarding School in Glebe and who were now living independently and moving on in age.

“We as an order wanted to remain connected to these women and to support them as they age,” she says.

She also reconnected with both the L’Arche and Faith and Light communities in Sydney, as well as in Newcastle.

This year, L’Arche Australia celebrates its 40th anniversary and L’Arche Sydney, its 35th anniversary.

“It still continues to thrive because it is founded on the idea of people with and without disability living together, side by side,” she says.

“And it is still really powered by the young people who volunteer to come and live in community with people with disability for a period of time. Lots of young people have moved around the world because of L’Arche over the years, although in Australia, one of the challenges is that immigration changes mean that this movement of young people is not so free as it was.”

Kath says the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) also throws up some challenges.

“The NDIS is good and it has its positives, but it is challenging the ways that we are living together,” she says.

“So we are at a time of re-looking at how the community lives its experience.

“L’Arche is not the answer for everybody, but it is saying, we can love each other, live together and work through needs and be open to each other. We’ve still got that vision.”

Looking back over the years, Kath says the opportunity to be a companion to people with disability and their families has been a rich blessing.

“I’ve been blessed to go to people I never knew or dreamed of, really, that I had no sense of,” she says.

“And I feel very humbled by it – there’s a beautiful richness in people’s hearts.

“I think I saw myself as the teacher in the beginning, but what I’ve come to learn is that people teach you so much if you just sit still for a minute.”


* Name has been changed.

Debra Vermeer

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

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