February 2014

Seeing the need and not passing by

At 94 and 86 years old respectively, Good Samaritan Sisters, Mary Constable and Marie McMahon say they begin each day not knowing who will arrive at their front door or what the day will bring, and that’s exactly how they like it.

BY Debra Vermeer

At 94 and 86 years old respectively, Good Samaritan Sisters, Mary Constable and Marie McMahon say they begin each day not knowing who will arrive at their front door or what the day will bring, and that’s exactly how they like it as they live out their “ministry of presence” in a Sydney public housing estate.

The two sisters live in Balmain, just a few hundred metres away from sparkling Sydney Harbour. But despite the prime real estate they enjoy, Mary and Marie live simply, in a small public housing unit and conduct much of their ministry at their dining room table, over a pot of tea and some cake or biscuits.

“We’re just here being neighbour to everyone,” says Mary.

The pair are so well known and loved in the area for the practical assistance and the loving presence they provide, that their door is always open to a steady stream of neighbours and visitors from further afield.

“People say to us ‘what are you going to do today?’ And we say ‘we don’t know – whatever happens’. And something always does happen too,” says Marie.

“It’s really open house here. And it’s just lovely. And it’s not because of us personally that they come. That’s not it. But they recognise what’s being done for the other.”

Mary and Marie have lived in their home since 1989, when the Sisters of the Good Samaritan applied for them to live in the public housing estate “to help integrate the people into the Balmain society”.

Before coming to Balmain, Mary’s Good Samaritan background was in teaching and welfare work, including spending more than a decade teaching in Japan after the war, and pioneering The Beginning Experience for widowed, separated or divorced people. Marie’s background within the Congregation was in teaching and pastoral work.

“And then, in the 1980s we were working in a Good Samaritan welfare centre in Balmain, opposite the church, and when we moved down here you could say the work came with us,” Mary says.

In fact, Mary played a key role in having the public housing built in the area.

“It was an old Marxist and myself who were involved in their becoming a reality,” she says. “He and I worked very hard. We had many meetings and we had interviews with the council and that type of thing. There was a great fuss when they were going to be built, lots of demonstrations. People didn’t want the public housing here. But we got them built.

“And we were in the first group of people to move in here, and so we knew all the people as they came and we grew with them.

“We’ve always seen our role as being about doing what we can in a simple way and being a presence for the people.”

Over the years that presence has taken on many forms, depending on the needs of people.

They have used the common room in the complex to hold activities for their neighbours, including bingo, film nights, Melbourne Cup luncheons and Tai Chi.

They also co-ordinate a monthly bus trip in conjunction with the local council, to help people who might be elderly or lonely have an enjoyable outing. Once a year they organise a coach trip for one week. They’ve been to destinations all over Australia and this year are off to Eden on the NSW South Coast.

“Everyone loves it. It’s a nice break for them,” says Mary.

As people have come to know the pair, their house has grown into a distribution point for all kinds of charity gifts and other social support.

“We have one lady who comes from Mosman. She said to us one day, ‘We people over at Mosman have too much, would you take some of it?’” says Marie. “And now that lady comes regularly with clothes, beautifully sorted into age groups. And she’s just one. There are many others who do the same.”

When they receive such gifts, Mary and Marie store the goods in their little garage, before distributing them to people in need.

“There are occasions when we certainly can’t get the car into the garage because it’s so well packed,” Mary laughs.

Whatever they can’t distribute personally they give to others in their network who make sure it goes to someone who needs it.

“People are so willing to help,” Marie says. “We have morning teas here with a variety of people, doctors, lawyers, business people, you name it, who are all very ready to help and who we can call on for something if we need it.”

Every week from March through to November, Mary and Marie take delivery of up to seven boxes of apples.

“There’s a firm in Abbotsford and they have toffee apples, but if the apple is blemished in any way the toffee won’t take, so they deliver them here and we bag them and distribute them,” Mary says.

Amongst the many visitors to their door each day are people who are newly settled in Australia, who seek their help with language or in dealing with bureaucracy.

“And sometimes they just come to chat. We have an Iraqi friend who comes and sits down and has a cup of tea and tells us about how his sister is in Syria and he’s so worried about her, and we can just be here, to listen to him,” Mary says.

Their advanced age doesn’t stop Mary and Marie from more active tasks either. They regularly do the grocery shopping for a woman in their complex who is a double amputee and has difficulty getting out.

Their work is well recognised in the local community, with the hamburger chain Grill’d including them in their “Local Matters” program which supports community groups. Each month, Grill’d stores place three jars on the counter with the name of a community group and a brief outline of the work they do. By placing tokens in the jars, customers decide which group should receive donations of either $300 or $100 each.

Last year, the customers at Grill’d Darling Harbour store voted for Mary and Marie to receive the $300. The Fr John Therry Catholic Primary School in Balmain is also a great supporter of the pair, with the Principal, Marco Ianni, showing appreciation for their work and sending occasional donations.

On top of the practical help for which they are so well known, Mary and Marie provide spiritual support for people in their local area, having hosted for 20 years a fortnightly Christian Life Community gathering, where they get together with a small group and read scripture, talk about what’s happened in each person’s life in the last fortnight and pray together.

They have also hosted a weekly gathering of elderly people at their home to discuss the Sunday Gospel and they often print out copies of scripture reflections, from a Christian Brother, Br Julian, for people who are interested in receiving them.

Despite their busy program, Mary and Marie also like to keep up with politics and what’s going on in the world.

“We do discuss a lot of politics in this house,” says Mary. “The morning teas are not for nothing.

“Watching the news and seeing what’s going on, especially with the youth is so sad. The suicides, and the murder of these 19-year-old boys who were just stepping out for a night out – it’s terrible.

“It makes you wonder, where does God fit into their lives? And where does eternity fit in? I’d just love it if we could do something more with the youth.”

At 94 and 86 years of age, Mary and Marie say they feel blessed to be able to carry on with their ministry of ‘being neighbour’.

“It’s about being Good Samaritan. And what we do as Good Samaritans, we do as the whole Good Samaritan Order, not just us. It’s seeing the need and not passing by,” Marie says.

“I love the freedom to be able to do what we do – to be neighbour and to be there for people when they need us.

“And we have the time to do it all. We’re not having to rush off to work, and that’s a blessing that comes with age. I don’t feel 86, anyway. It’s just a number.”

Mary says she has always thought of the other, ever since she was a little girl.

“And I like being useful. I’m a trained welfare worker, and that helps, but I do see the need of the other,” she says.

“Also, I see purpose. I’m not here to sit pretty. There’s a purpose in being created. There’s a purpose in living. I mean, I’m 94. What’s God letting me live so long for? It’s not for nothing.”

Both sisters say they’ve never worried about having such an open house.

“I think it’s wonderful that people find us approachable,” says Marie. “It amazes me that they don’t think twice about coming, knocking and walking in. And we’re so well looked after around here. They’re always ready to help us out and they wouldn’t let anything happen to us.”

The two sisters say they have no plans to retire from their neighbourly ministry.

“Oh no! Why?” says Mary. “I can say I’m very happy. I don’t fear the next day. I look forward to it.”

“Oh yes,” Marie agrees. “You know that whatever is going to happen you’ll be able to meet it, or cope with it. And we meet lovely people, and they value us. I think we’re something to hang onto for them, some security, and that’s wonderful.”

Debra Vermeer

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

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