July 30, 2012
Sister Elizabeth, (always Mary to us) was the eldest of the six children born of Frank and Phyllis Murphy.
Our parents were unusual for their times, Dad being a self-educated chartered accountant, ambitious for both himself and his children. He had ambitions for Mary to study medicine, an ambition thwarted by her call to a vocation as a nun. Mum was a born organiser, able to turn her hand to anything – perhaps in today’s world; she would have been an “events manager”. But they were foremost deeply Catholic and welcomed her decision with pride and thanksgiving. It was from this stock, overlaid by a loving environment, a father who inculcated a belief that she could do anything, and a belief and dependence on God,that Elizabeth sprang and was the foundation of her life.
She was educated in her primary years at Highgate with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart but when the family moved to South Perth she commenced secondary education with the “Brown Josephs” and it was this order and the charism of Mary MacKillop which beckoned and resulted in her entering the order at the age of fifteen in the company of Dorina Bianchini.
Elizabeth lived a long and deeply satisfying life and her achievements were a natural outcome of the environment in which she was nurtured.
She was decisive: witness her decision at fifteen to leave home and embark on a life changing journey which she knew to be right for her. This was a quality to stand her in good stead for the rest of her life.
She was deeply Australian in her nature and outlook. She loved the Eucalyptus and all the variation of Australian flora, particularly the WA wildflowers. She would wax lyrical about our blue skies and the quality of our light on her visits home from Peru. She revelled in our Australian poets who captured effectively the beauty and loneliness of the Australian bush, the continent and its people: Dorothy McKellar, Henry Lawson and Les Murray spring to mind and artists such as Drysdale, Nolan, Boyd and McCubbin. Our beaches were a source of joy not just for her love of swimming but as a meditative experience of God.
She loved youth and believed passionately in the right of every child to an education and the opportunity to pursue it to its maximum ability. She empathised with the parents of rural children in their desire and their efforts to send their children on to secondary and tertiary education.
She was a good listener. She would in her terms “hang loose” and listen to every point of view to discern the right decision. As a family member she was unique in that she listened to all of us, never offering advice, but allowing us to pour out our joys and woes which is the greatest gift one can give another.
She loved life; she was a joyful person who took on one job after another with immense enthusiasm. Seemingly unassuming, her achievements would continually amaze us. She had all the qualities of a great teacher; a “can do” attitude; a love of learning and a desire to impart it; a belief that education is a necessity for “the good life”, a competitiveness that drove the children into sport, drama and educational conquests; an innovator who believed that the rural children should have as many as possible of the advantages of their city cousins.
When she emerged from a Chapter as the Superior General, she plunged into the office with enthusiasm, firmly of the belief that the Holy Spirit threw up the right person for the times. Armed with the confidence that she would thus be guided, she led the Order at a time when the winds of change were still blowing through the Church. The change in the apparel of the nuns was but an external sign of the depth of the challenges that Pope John 23rd had set his followers. Love and compassion were needed for those who felt threatened and decisiveness for the competing needs of a society whose dynamics were also in a state of flux; the competing needs of children and aged care, teaching or pastoral work in the community; the needs of Aboriginal communities and remote mining areas.
During her time as Superior General she was elected Head of the Council of National Superiors General, a Council consisting of all the Orders of Priests, Nuns and Brothers. She was energised by the new directions emanating from these Orders as well as her own which gave her huge hope for the future of the Church.
The Order was moving towards setting up a Mission in Peru. This was an extension of Mary MacKillop’s Charism of reaching out to the disadvantaged and in keeping with John 23rd’s mandate that missioning was to be about the development of recipients. The nuns set forth finally in 1981 on this new and unknown commitment, knowing that they were pursuing their Founder’s charism but little else. Elizabeth sought permission to join them when she stepped down from office. She spent an interim period of two years on the motor mission of South West of WA, all the time determinedly learning Spanish and finally set forth for Lima in 1992. She spent ten years in Lima and described it as the high point in her life. She developed a huge love and respect for the Peruvians; the women who displayed such dignity amidst their difficult lives and the children who responded so eloquently to the ministrations of the Sisters. She would have remained until recalled but for a motor vehicle accident which resulted in her departure after ten years.
She found it difficult to settle in a world of western affluence and waste but another challenge was to present itself when it was suggested that she write a history of St Gertrude’s College, New Norcia where she had taught for 17 years and around this period she was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Law for her contribution to Education from the University of Notre Dame in WA.
Now ensconced in South Perth, she embarked on the research for her book, ably assisted by some devoted old girls of the College and the editorial assistance of Sister Ann Carter of Loreto. The result not only encompassed a history of St Gertrude’s but of the planning of the Church Leaders for education in the early to middle twentieth century and of the rural economy of WA of that time as the pupil numbers of the College were inextricably linked with the rise and fall of the rural economy.
Elizabeth’s final years were passed among fellow retirees at the Convent in South Perth and the love and companionship of those around her gave us (her siblings) much solace.
Mary’s life was a source of wonder and continual amazement to us, her family, but she was much more than her career to us. She was a confidante, listening to our woes and setting Mary MacKillop on to their fixing; a repository of family memories of Mum and Dad in their early days, a story teller of her adventures both overseas and around Australia.
She was particularly close to our brother Frank. They were so close in age that they shared a childhood with a youthful Mum and Dad and formed a bond that was to last them all their life.
She always delighted in her nieces and nephews. She knew the state of each of our children at any one time, regaling absent siblings with the exploits of those around her. She was much loved by them and their comments on her influence in their lives at her eightieth birthday celebrations was a moving tribute.
We count ourselves blessed to have had Mary as a sister. She has enhanced our lives as a sister and friend and those of our children. We love her dearly and utter a fervent Deo Gratias for her life.