She’s been described as “an extraordinary figure of the Catholic Church in Australia”. On so many levels there’s much to admire about Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald.
BY Stephanie Thomas
For Mary McDonald, the choice she made nearly 60 years ago to become a Good Samaritan Sister “deep down has always” felt right. She admits the “road” has been “rocky at times, but always with clear sign posts”.
It’s been through this Good Samaritan religious life that Mary has engaged deeply with life; it’s where she has given to others and received from them. It is also where Mary’s talents have been cultivated and where she’s explored what she is most passionate about – education, the environment and women’s development.
“I feel great gratitude for the life and opportunities I’ve been given,” reflects Mary.
Born in the north Queensland town of Ayr in her parent’s hotel, Mary spent her early years there until the family moved to houses in Townsville. But before long, they returned to hotel life, an experience that conjures up happy memories for Mary.
“Oh they were good [times], I suppose because it was such a country pub. We served behind the bar as soon as you could see over the bar!” she laughs.
It could be said that it was ‘pub life’ that led Mary closer to the Good Samaritan Sisters, since it was they who convinced her parents it would be better for Mary and her sister to board at St Mary’s College in Charters Towers, rather than “be at such a rough place”!
“[Boarding at Charters Towers is] how I got to know the nuns more,” she says.
Growing up Mary knew she wanted to be a teacher, but she also had a “deep desire” to go to Africa as a missionary. This “desire” was easily challenged by one of the local Good Sams, however. “Why would you want to go over there when there’s enough work to do here?” Mary recalls being asked. It was enough to persuade Mary to think differently about her life’s direction.
After finishing school, Mary worked in a children’s library before entering the Good Samaritan Sisters’ novitiate in 1955. While it was before the heady times of Vatican II (1962-1965), Mary says the religious formation she received was innovative.
“We had a wonderful novice mistress, Mother Philomena… She was just incredible, before her time,” Mary recalls. “She gave us wonderful teaching,… wonderful opportunities.”
Mary says that Mother Philomena and Sister Clare, who were responsible for the young sisters’ formation, both had Masters degrees from Sydney University, which was “quite extraordinary” for women in those days.
“There was a culture already in the convent of scholarship, of higher education,” Mary explains.
“It’s the whole understanding of education and scholarship which we inherited through the Benedictine tradition.”
This culture of learning and scholarship was something that Mary embraced. Later, she would earn seven academic qualifications, each undertaken to complement her work.
Mary remembers Vatican II as a time of “real excitement”, but notes that she and her peers had already been exposed to the work of theologians who would feature at the Council.
“They weren’t new [to us],” she says.
Mary believes that Mother Philomena prepared her novitiate cohort “scripturally and theologically for the journey of Vatican II”.
Apart from the first 13 years of her religious life, Mary has mostly lived in Queensland. Her early teaching years, first in secondary and then primary, were in Sydney’s inner city suburbs.
“I loved teaching,” says Mary, “and had the joy once when the welfare officer came to check on attendance, in hearing a little girl in my Grade 4 class call out across the room: ‘Mr Welfare, I’d never miss school. It’s the happiest place I could ever think of!’”
In the late 1960s, Mary was transferred to Brisbane where she began her first leadership role as principal of St James’ Coorparoo. Later she went to St Joseph’s Nambour on the Sunshine Coast, still as principal with a full teaching load.
It was here in Nambour in the early 1970s that Mary’s environmental awareness developed. “It was the time of Bjelke-Petersen and they were just wanting to wipe out everything that was green,” she says.
Mary became an active member of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council and supported local campaigns. “I got involved with the activism at the time, went to some protests… I took up petitions… I just got interested,” she says.
What did her sisters think of her activism? “I don’t think the superior knew what to do with me!” laughs Mary.
It was also during her time at Nambour that Najara Centre for Spirituality and Ecology was born. The Centre emerged from adult education initiatives offered at the school.
Located out of town on a property, Najara operated under the auspices of the Good Sams as a centre for spirituality, care for the environment and adult education from 1977 until 2004. Mary was instrumental in its birth and loved the experience.
“That was a joy of a time,” she says.
Working with Mary in those foundation days was Sister Olive Buckle – “one of my dearly loved mentors”.
“She was much older than me at the time, but she was such an amazing woman,” says Mary.
“She had this great skill with people, loved people, a deeply spiritual woman. And so we began there with a really strong group supporting the place.”
With her appointment as Director of the Townsville Catholic Education Office in 1985, Mary finished her first stint at Najara (she returned in 1996). The first woman in Australia to be appointed to a director’s role, she served for nine years. It was a “hard, demanding, challenging” role, but Mary found it rewarding to create “a more cohesive and collaborative climate with priests, principals, teachers and parents”.
The then Director of Queensland’s Catholic Education Commission is said to have described Mary as having “the sensitivity to succeed and the steel to survive”.
All of Mary’s tertiary qualifications – she holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Education Studies, a Diploma in Educational Administration, Masters degrees in Education, Environmental Education, Theology, and a Doctor of Philosophy – were earned through part-time study while working full-time. So when the opportunity arose for a sabbatical, Mary leapt at the chance.
Keen to study in the US and with the pioneering feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary was delighted to learn she was the successful applicant for a year’s endowment as the Georgia Harkness Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University, near Chicago.
“That was such a year of rich and memorable experiences,” she says.
Because she “felt so blessed”, Mary wanted to give back to the community. “So began another rewarding phase and interesting life experience,” says Mary. Once a week she volunteered at Genesis House, a safe house for street prostitutes in Chicago.
Mary says her interest in feminist theology grew out of her ecological awareness. “They’re so deeply linked, in those days [the 1970s] particularly,” she remarks.
One of the ways Mary helped to foster women’s development was through her involvement with WATAC (Women and the Australian Church) which began in the 1980s. As WATAC’s first national president, she worked with religious and lay women throughout Australia to advance the role and voice of women “in the various spheres in the Church”.
Mary is a well-travelled woman, both in Australia and internationally. Most of her travel opportunities arose because of her involvement with the International Benedictine Education Commission and the Good Samaritan college immersion programs. She was also a sought-after facilitator for religious congregations both in Australia and overseas.
At the end of 2010, having completed a ten-year term of office as Chair of the Brisbane Archdiocese’s Education Council, Mary was looking forward to retirement. But her “new life came in a sudden and unexpected way”. She suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage and stroke, and lay for five days in critical care barely able to move “but thankfully I was able to speak”.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever walk again. I was paralysed all down my left side,” she explains.
After six weeks in the rehab centre at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, Mary was eventually able to stand then walk. “I suppose I had the will to walk assisted by a great physiotherapist,” she says.
While Mary’s physical mobility is severely affected these days, her mind and spirit are vibrant, and she remains actively engaged in life “as much as it’s wise to be”.
Mary hasn’t lost her love of teaching. She tutors refugees and migrants at TAFE one day a week and works with other Good Sams to raise awareness about environmental issues. She loves to garden – “I’ve gardened everywhere I’ve lived” – and as an avid reader, enjoys being part of a local book club.
While Mary can no longer play a round of golf – she was a social and competition golfer and is rightly proud of her hole in one! – she has taken up croquet. “I can manage to stay upright and hit fairly accurately,” she laughs.
She also continues some voluntary work with the Buddhist-sponsored home palliative care organisations Karuna and Cittimani.
On so many levels there’s much to admire about Mary.
Jane O’Hara, technically Mary’s second cousin who prefers to think of her as an aunt, describes Mary as “ageless, compassionate and wise”.
“I know that Mary has faced challenges in her life… but she has faced everything with a dignity and respect that I really admire.”
Jane also admires that Mary is “so comprehensively educated”, “incredibly smart and strategic”.
“I have no doubt that if Mary had made different choices in life, she would now be running a large ASX company or her own multi-national company,” she says.
Jane Connolly, a friend and former colleague of Mary’s, loves spending time with her and says that “conversation is never dull and laughter is abundant”.
“I admire Mary’s intellect, her engagement and joy in life in all its fullness, her compassion and her empathy. A woman of deep faith, she is open to the experiences and beliefs of others.”
In 2008 the Australian Catholic University (ACU) awarded Mary with an honorary doctorate in acknowledgement of “her outstanding contribution to lifelong learning and community engagement in the fields of education, spirituality, ecology and women’s development”.
Fittingly, the ACU described Mary “as an extraordinary figure of the Catholic Church in Australia”.