October 2017

The privilege of influencing young women

Looking back on her vocation and her work, Sister Joan Sexton says it has been a great privilege, particularly to be able to influence young women and “to promote their self-confidence and their ability to move ahead in society and to do whatever they could do”.

BY Debra Vermeer

At 88 years of age, you’d think life might have slowed down somewhat for Good Samaritan Sister Joan Sexton, but she says her days remain full and happy, fed by the daily newspaper which keeps her up to date, and nourished by her life-long commitment to prayer, community, reading and reflection.

Joan, who turns 89 next month, has been living at St Catherine’s Aged Care Services, Eastwood, for the last couple of years, following a serious hospitalisation.

“They’re very good to me here,” she says. “We get very well looked after by the staff and Nora [a Good Sams’ Health Carer] comes three times a week to visit and to see if there’s anything she can do for me. Plus, I get regular visitors.

“There are also various activities we can go to and I keep busy. I read the paper from cover to cover and retain an interest in world affairs and where Australia is going in the midst of all the various tribulations.”

Before moving to St Catherine’s, Joan lived in semi-retirement with Sister Frances Maher at The Calvary Retirement Community, Ryde.

“We got on very well together, and she still visits me a lot,” she says.

“We used to enjoy gathering people in. I was a fairly good cook, so we had a fairly good social environment and we would gather people in and really build community around us.

“I’ve always had a great love of literature and so I joined a book club there at Ryde and we read a great number of books and had wonderful discussions about them. We also used to go over to the parish at Ryde every Tuesday and take a group of migrant women for English speaking classes.”

Joan’s enthusiastic approach to life has stood her in good stead throughout a life which has included some significant challenges, including losing her mother at a young age and being appointed a school principal at just 23 years of age.

Born at her parents’ home in Glebe in 1928, Joan was the last of four siblings and says she grew up in “a very, very Catholic home”.

Her schooling was largely completed with the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Scholastica’s, Glebe, apart from a short period spent at St James Catholic School, Forest Lodge.

“I enjoyed school,” she says. “Mother John Bede at St James had a big influence on me, as both a mentor and a comforter.

“My mother had died when I was nine, and then my older sister was getting married and I was broken-hearted, losing both my mother and my sister. I think Mother John Bede took an interest in me because of that.”

Joan left school after completing the Intermediate Certificate and worked at the Commonwealth Bank for two years, before entering the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

“I would have entered sooner, but my father wanted me to make my debut before I entered,” she says. “So I made my debut at Waverley College, and he gave me his blessing, so I entered the novitiate in 1946.

“I think I just wanted to do something in order to help other people, and I realised that the Sisters have a great influence on people and that’s why I wanted to enter.”

After completing her formation at Pennant Hills and undertaking teacher training at St Scholastica’s, Joan began her teaching career at St Mary’s Primary School, Manly.

Her next appointment, at Charters Towners in North Queensland, couldn’t have been more different to beachside Manly.

“It was a bit of a shock at first,” she laughs. “But I enjoyed my time there, and due to a range of circumstances, from the age of 23, I found myself the principal at the school there. I also had responsibility for the junior dormitory, with 30 young boarders.

“All I can say is I learnt on the run!”

A string of school appointments followed, at Wilston in Brisbane, Belgrave in Melbourne and Rosebank College in Sydney, where her speciality subjects were English and History.

In between school appointments, Joan was appointed Director of Postulants at Pennant Hills, and in 1991 and 1992, she completed a Masters of Education in Gifted Education at the University of NSW.

“That was wonderful,” she says. “After I graduated with that, I helped schools around Sydney and Wollongong with their gifted education programs. I enjoyed that work.”

Looking back on her vocation and her work, Joan says it has been a great privilege.

“The ability to influence girls and to promote their self-confidence and their ability to move ahead in society and to do whatever they could do, was really a privilege,” she says.

“And I very much enjoyed my years with the postulants. Seeing these young women come through and go on to flourish, whether as a Good Samaritan Sister or in other ways is a joy.

“Not all of them remained with us, because at various points in their life other things occurred and they left, but they are all very loyal to the Good Samaritan ethos and are wonderful women.”

Joining the Good Sams in the post-war period means that Joan has seen profound changes in religious life, particularly in the period following the Second Vatican Council.

“To be honest, I found all the change very difficult at first,” she says. “I remember resisting a little bit at the fact that there were so many changes.

“But over time, I came to realise that God had his purpose in all of these things and who was I to be criticising them?

“I realised that I needed to accept them and turn them to the best use possible.

“And now I can see that the changes have enabled us to do more good, to help people more because they gave us the freedom to respond to the need.”

Joan, who was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2003, for service to education and the community, says while religious life has had its challenges, it’s also brought her deep joy.

“I think most of all, I’ve loved the ability to participate in the liturgy, and prayerful living,” she says. “And then, of course, also helping those who came seeking some help or some enlightenment in one way or another.

“And, apart from the Gospels, the Rule of St Benedict has been my guiding light, especially Chapter Four [Guidelines for Christian and monastic good practice].”

Recalling a semester spent in Chicago undertaking spiritual formation, Joan says she is thankful for the opportunities afforded her by religious life.

“That ability to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit, which the Congregation has always allowed each individual, has been one of the great joys of my life,” she says.

“Now and again in religious life you have difficulties, but God is always there to help and I find most of these difficulties can be avoided or calmed through prayer and discernment.

“The other thing for which I’m very thankful is the formation of deep friendships through my lifetime. They have been a great support.”

Looking to the future, Joan says she is sad that more young women aren’t choosing religious life, but the future must be left in God’s hands.

“I think we have to accept the fact that in today’s world, the occupations and leisure activities are all geared to the present time, and we should rejoice in those and promote them, rather than be critical and trying to return to the past again. We have to trust in God.”

Debra Vermeer

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

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.