Jacinta Shailer, 91, is a Good Samaritan Sister well known in the religious community, and beyond, for many reasons: her exquisite nature photography; beautiful wood carving; 20 years of service in Japan; hospitality at Maria Tal retreat house in the Blue Mountains; and her pioneering teaching on creation spirituality.
BY Donna Mulhearn
These threads come together to form an extraordinary life and spirituality that is inspiring in its scope and depth, as well as its simple theme: savouring beauty, be it in nature, in others, or within.
An energetic, vibrant person, Jacinta says her outlook on life is based on the Gospel verse: “I’ve come that they might have life and have it more abundantly”.
Her call to creation spirituality about 30 years ago has shaped her life since, and her current work, though there are traces of it weaving through her early life as well.
“Since I was in Japan, beauty has become a theme,” she says. “But even before then I was struck by beauty in different places.”
The foundation for Jacinta’s love for nature and eye for detail may be her happy childhood years on a farm in rural Queensland. It was a simple life without electricity, riding on horseback to school, working hard, milking the cows.
“I remember one day looking out the window to a paddock which my father just ploughed, and noticing all the different colours in the soil: blacks, browns, reds. I thought it was beautiful. When he planted oats and they grew so green and lush, I remember rolling around in them, it was so lovely.”
High school years were spent as a boarder at Lourdes Hill College, a Good Samaritan school in Brisbane. This was her introduction to the Good Samaritan world and where she received her vocation, though her mother had laid a foundation years before through her own spirituality, which made a deep impression on Jacinta as a child.
“My mother was a Catholic who had a great love for God, and spent quiet time in prayer every day,” she says. “Because of her my impression was that religion did not have anything to do with rules and law, it was just a loving relationship with God.”
Jacinta remembers the moment she received her vocation at the age of 16, describing it as a “bolt out of the blue”.
“I was just sitting in the classroom, a sister was reading the poem ‘The Cry of the Children’ then I just knew in a flash that I was called to be a Good Samaritan Sister. It gave me such joy, I just wanted to run out of the classroom and dance with joy.”
She entered the novitiate five years later in 1948 aged 21 and made her first profession in 1951.
Jacinta completed her teacher training at St Scholastica’s Glebe – fulfilling a childhood dream to become a teacher – and went on to teach in Canberra, Melbourne and inner-city Sydney. Then, in 1963, she fulfilled another long-held dream by joining the Good Samaritan Sisters in Japan. The Sisters had begun work there in 1948, following an invitation by the Bishop of Nagasaki to assist survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb. They later established communities in Sasebo and Nara, working in schools and parishes.
“The day I left for Japan was absolutely a day of ecstasy,” Jacinta recalls. “I couldn’t describe it any other way. I had no idea what awaited me.”
As well as teaching, the last 11 years of her time in Japan focused on a new high-rise area, called Heijo Newtown near Nara city. It housed 10,000 people who had come from all parts of Japan, of whom only three were Christian. As they initially had no base from which to work, Jacinta and another Good Samaritan Sister, Haruko Morikawa, eventually set up a library on a table outside the supermarket to make contact with the women and children of the high-rise. She said their aim was to build community on Christian principles.
“After three years we finally got our own space called Asebi Centre, within the high-rise, where we could have an expanded library and offer English and scripture classes. We also began Meals on Wheels, which was new to Japan and that has expanded to this day, even though Asebi Centre is now closed.”
(Sister Haruko Morikawa is now supporting survivors of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, echoing the congregation’s early work in Nagasaki.)
Jacinta looks back on her time in Japan as a challenging, but life-changing experience, giving her a new understanding of her faith and a new outlook on life.
“When I was asked, ‘What is Christianity?’, it was not easy to answer that in Japanese and made me really think more deeply about what was the real living core of Christianity without the cultural baggage. I think the gifts of Christianity to Japanese people, or anyone else are joy, compassion, forgiveness and true heart-felt love.”
Jacinta returned to Australia in 1983 with her time in Japan leaving a lasting impression and informing her future work.
“I was enriched by the Japanese people in many ways, but especially by their simplicity and love of nature. You waited for the first blossom of spring, and summers were so jolly hot you were waiting for that first breeze of autumn on your cheek. You were very much in touch with seasons.
“I learned more from them than they did from me.”
Upon her return, Jacinta asked to go “somewhere I could put my fingers in the soil and be rehabilitated into my own country”. She was sent to the perfect place – Najara, a centre for spirituality, ecology and adult education on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, which operated under the auspices of the Good Samaritan Sisters from 1977 until 2004.
She joined in the work of the centre, helping with retreats and regenerating the bush, and says, “It was there I really got in touch with nature”. Here she realised that Japan had also uncovered her creativity.
“A friend in Japan discovered I had a gift of photography. She loaned me a camera one day and recognised beauty in what I had taken. So I came back understanding I had a gift that I hadn’t realised.”
Jacinta soon put her photography skills to good use in an environmental campaign in the area.
“I was invited to photograph the Emu Mountain area, which was part of a green corridor between the coast and the hinterland that was threatened with development, and so I became part of the campaign trying to save this land.
“A missionary sister in Brisbane saw a story in the paper about it and called to tell me: ‘Jacinta you need creation spirituality’. My response was: ‘What is that?’ She came and told me about it and what books to read.”
The campaign to save the land failed. Feeling exhausted, in 1988 Jacinta was given the opportunity to pause and study the ground-breaking “Culture and Creation Spirituality” course in California with teachers such as Thomas Berry, Mathew Fox and Brian Swimme.
“It was life-changing,” says Jacinta.
“My creativity was stretched with such great teachers and content, but I was so devastated by what was happening to the world I went to Brian Swimme one day and asked, ‘Brian what can I do?’
“He said, ‘Jacinta steep yourself in beauty, then you’ll know what to do’.
“And that’s what I’ve tried to do through my photography, my books and running courses in creative spirituality. I believe if your eyes are opened to the beauty of something you’ll want to protect it, look after it and help restore it.
“After the failure of the campaign to save Emu Mountain, the course lifted my spirits, it was so enriching.”
On completion of her study in 1989, Jacinta went to the Blue Mountains, initially as director of the Maria Tal cottages, and has been there ever since.
“I immediately began to teach creation spirituality and later, as part of a retreat team, gave annual long retreats at Maria Tal and weekends featuring creation spirituality presented in various ways – through the lens of a camera, through dance, mime and prayer.”
She also created a beautiful garden at the Wentworth Falls property and has written several books of photography, poems, prayers and writings – one of her most popular being Wildflower Journey Prayers.
Jacinta describes her work in recent years as “coming to bloom”.
“In Japan I found it hard to bloom because of the language barrier. But I felt I could really bloom here and continue to bloom.”
Jacinta currently hosts three monthly groups: Benedictine spirituality, cosmology and an Ilia Delio book club (Ilia is an American Franciscan Sister and theologian specialising in the area of science and religion). She is also involved in local ecumenical groups and Good Samaritan groups, while still hosting guests coming to stay for rest and retreat.
“I also feel part of my ministry is to look after the garden here, it’s a place of creative refreshment for those who come.”
Wood carving is another aspect of Jacinta’s creativity which was also sparked in Japan.
“I really love it, I can do it for six to eight hours a day. I’m so blessed to have these gifts of photography and wood carving. I would be bereft without them.
“My hands might be a bit arthritic but I can still hold a chisel and a camera, so will keep going,” she says with a smile.
“Beauty is so important in our lives, to be alive to the beauty of the smallest things.”
Decades on from Japan, how would Jacinta now communicate her faith?
“Now, I would start with creation. Getting people in touch with the whole inter-connectivity of creation and the presence of the divine in the whole of creation. I would begin there.”