The death last month of Sister Mary Ronayne, former Superior-General of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, elicited an outpouring of tributes from people far and wide who remembered Mary as an outstanding leader not only in her congregation, but also in the wider Australian Church and beyond.
“Elected Superior-General in 1969 at the age of 42, Mary led us in embracing a Vatican II vision of the Church and its place in the world,” Congregational Leader Sister Clare Condon told those gathered for Mary’s funeral Mass on March 31 at St Scholastica’s Chapel, Glebe, Sydney.
“She was fearless in her ability to speak clearly about the signs of the times, particularly for women’s religious orders and for education. She did this in many arenas, especially as the regional representative of women’s religious orders in Rome at the International Union of Superiors General [UISG].”
In an email message to the Sisters, retired auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Pat Power, said that Mary (formerly known by her religious name, Sister Mary de Lourdes) “was a great figure not just among the Good Samaritans but in the whole Australian Church”.
“I remember her as a formidable woman, articulate and forthright in presenting a Vatican II model of the Church,” he said.
“I was Archbishop Thomas Cahill’s secretary from 1975 till his death in 1978. I had a great love for Tommy but he could be forceful if he thought he could get away with it. But I remember on a couple of occasions him reporting meetings he had with Mother de Lourdes and he had clearly met his match. Yet I think he admired her for her courage in not bowing unquestioningly to a bishop.”
Similarly, Dr Peter Tannock, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame Australia, described Mary as “one of the great women of the Australian Church” who had “a big influence” on him.
“I first heard her speak as a formidable leader in 1972 at the Armidale Catholic Education Conference. She captured that large audience completely,” said Peter.
“Over the years she demonstrated great leadership at a time when it was desperately needed in the Church and in Catholic education. Her wisdom, strength, faith, practical common sense, fearless honesty, and instinctive understanding of the right course of action shone through. As did her humility and sense of humour.”
The second of three children and only daughter of Irish immigrants, Mary was born in 1927 in Kingaroy, north-west of Brisbane, Queensland. She was educated by the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Mary’s Primary School, Kingaroy, and later at Lourdes Hill College, Brisbane.
In July 1945, 18-year-old Mary entered the Good Samaritan Sisters and commenced her novitiate and teacher training in Sydney. She was given the name Sister Mary de Lourdes, but later reverted to her baptismal name.
Mary’s early teaching years included short placements in New South Wales at St Brigid’s, Marrickville and St Mary’s, Wollongong, followed by two years in South Australia at St Joseph’s High School, Gawler.
In 1954, Mary was transferred to her alma mater, Lourdes Hill College, where she remained for eight years. It was during her time here that she began a Bachelor of Arts degree, studying by correspondence through the University of Queensland.
With Mary’s appointment as the inaugural principal of St Margaret Mary’s College, Townsville in 1963, a number of other leadership roles followed in quick succession. In September that same year, Mary was elected to her congregation’s leadership council, and in 1964, she was appointed principal of St Scholastica’s College, Glebe in Sydney.
Five years later, in September 1969, Mary was elected Superior-General of the Good Samaritan Sisters and went on to serve as leader for two terms until 1981.
Sister Rita Hayes, speaking at the vigil service for Mary in Melbourne on March 28, said that Mary was leader for “the two very critical chapters of 1969 and 1975”.
“These were the chapters in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. For many, it was difficult to see how to interpret religious life and to live it faithfully while at the same time adopting so much that was new,” said Rita.
“It was evident that Mary had an insightful understanding of what the Council Fathers envisaged as revealed in the Council documents… When congregational chapter proceedings became bogged down or debate became heated, much was resolved due to Mary’s incisive interventions.
“During the chapter process itself and in her letters and exhortations during these years, she saw clearly what was of the essence of our life and what could be changed and/or discarded. She expressed clearly that this was not a time of fear but a time for renewal and a deepening of our charism. In this, as in so much of what she did, she looked fearlessly towards the future.”
During Mary’s time as leader and beyond, she made significant contributions to the life of other religious in Australia and on the international stage. She was the national secretary, and later national president, of the Conference of Women Major Superiors and the newly combined Conference of Women and Men Major Superiors, now known as Catholic Religious Australia.
In the mid-1970s, Mary was chosen as one of two Australian delegates to attend the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) meeting in Rome, which had been established in 1966. She continued as a UISG delegate for a number of years, representing Australia, and later Oceania. This responsibility took her back to Rome on a number of occasions but also to Manila (when the Philippines was operating under martial law), and to Mumbai, India, exposing her to the realities of life in developing countries.
Following her years in congregational leadership, Mary continued her ministry in education, mostly in the governance of Catholic schools and the formation of lay teachers. In particular, she led a taskforce which reviewed Catholic education in Western Australia, and served as Executive Officer of the Good Samaritan Education Council, working closely with her congregation’s ten colleges.
“Her influence in our formation and her forward thinking and action enabled Good Samaritan Education to travel new paths,” said Sister Margaret Keane and Mater Christi College Principal Mary Fitz-Gerald at the vigil service.
“Mary took pride in responding to the ‘signs of the times’ yet did so with gentle determination and prayerful purpose… Mary was a prophetic voice, well ahead of her time, outlining new possibilities for governance and lay leadership in education.”
Mary resigned from her role with the Good Samaritan Education Council in 2004 for health reasons, but remained interested in, and connected with, the life of the colleges. Her work with the Council paved the way for Good Samaritan Education, the ecclesial community established in 2011 to oversee the ethos, mission and stewardship of the ten incorporated Good Samaritan Colleges in Australia.
In 2008, Mary received the Australian Catholic University’s highest honour, Doctor of the University (honoris causa), “in recognition of her outstanding contributions to Catholic education in Australia”.
For Sister Michelle Reid, who also spoke at the vigil service, Mary was always focused “on all who knew her”.
“She did this as a wonderful visionary leader of our congregation and as a representative in the wider Church, but she also did it for the ordinary person she met as neighbour wherever she lived. She worked to be inclusive of all, especially those who were marginalised, unknown, or in the background,” said Michelle.
Mary died peacefully in Melbourne during Holy Week on March 22, 2016 and her funeral Mass was celebrated in Sydney during Easter week.
“It does seem to all of us, that in this Easter week when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, it is fitting that we commend Mary to her God; the God in whom she lived and had her being,” said Sister Clare Condon at the funeral Mass.
“She was indeed a true witness to the Gospel and is now more fully in relationship with the person of Jesus.”