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Thank You to the Sisters of St Joseph

May 09, 2014

Thank you to the Sisters of St Joseph, Bathurst Diocese on the occasion of the Fusion with the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

It is a sweet privilege that I have been given today to extend a heartfelt thank you to the members of the Perthville Josephite Congregation, past and present, on your behalf and on behalf of those whose lives have been touched by such a remarkable group of women.

So many words have been written and so much analysis given to the historic events of the Bathurst story, suffice to say that from tumultuous beginnings emerged a memorable narrative of perseverance, service and ministry for the people of the Bathurst Diocese:

  • One hundred and thirty-eight years of continuous presence
  • Some 47 foundations in the Bathurst Diocese over those years
  • Provision of schooling, religious education and music tuition
  • Embracing and strengthening rural communities
  • Hours of visitation, caring for the poor needy and marginalised in society
  • Provision of boarding facilities for rural and remote girls
  • Working in indigenous communities both in Australia and overseas, and a myriad of other ministries never envisaged when those early Sisters set out inspired to do God’s work through the vision of Father Julian Tennison Woods and Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

My knowledge of the Josephites is a very personal one. I began working with them in Gilgandra in 1974 and my children were educated by them in Primary School. I suppose being an adult rather than a student made the connection a little different from my previous relationships with the Poor Clare and Mercy Orders, but I felt an immediate kinship with the Josephites.

The MacKillop charism, which I now readily recognise, was what I felt – the warmth, the practical down-to-earth approach, the ability to appreciate humour, the dedication to education of children in country areas, the concern for the wellbeing of the needy, the willingness to go where there was a need and to accept all comers.

In 1984 as part of the celebrations for the 75th Annniversary of Josephite presence in Gilgandra a short history was compiled to mark the event. From the archives here’s a snapshot I feel would mirror the experience of Catholic communities large and small across the Diocese as the nuns spread out from Bathurst in those early days.

To give a background, the first nuns arrived in Gilgandra by train from Bathurst on Australia Day, 1909 on a typical western, summer day dressed in their black habits with the braided, blue monogram across the front. The warmth of the reception from the locals well matched the warmth of the day.

On February 1, 1909 school opened and Sr Agnus Mary Bourke one of the three original pioneers wrote, ‘Opened school in the church, a small wooden building, which, with the convent, occupied half an acre of land in Morris Street. Provision had been made for 30 children and 70 came including non-Catholics.’

So, no question about the need!

The lives of the early sisters, were extremely difficult – challenging climate, poor, cramped accommodation and impoverished circumstances but with all the potential, yet unrealised, of their young lives dedicated to God and to making a difference in rural and remote areas.

The development of this potential I feel has been a core factor in the success of the Order in the Bathurst Diocese. There is nothing like need to bring out the latent or existing talents!

They brought non-judgemental, inclusive education to schools, music and music tuition to areas starved of culture, they became event organisers – the St Patrick’s Day concerts, fetes, sport/athletic coaches (I recollect the awe in which Sr Patricia Ryan’s league teams were held), they became building overseers, administrators. Their choirs (both choral and vocal) often scooped the pool at eisteddfods in the larger areas. Many of the beautiful banners we still use in Diocesan churches are the work of creative and artistic Josephites. They formed an essential link between parish and school and school and the community.

The Perthville Foundation was notably dynamic as evidenced by the first faltering steps into the unknown. The Sisters were able to operate in a community, adapt temporarily, find ways to improve and respond to change. Their initial calling was to bring education and a love of God to children in outlying areas and they did that. At the same time, while educating children was a priority, a similar emphasis was given to the education and training of the Sisters.

Major events from outside such as Vatican II no doubt caused pain and anxiety but the Josephites, like many other orders, took up the challenges and adapted.

While this was happening and lay teachers were increasingly taking up positions in Catholic schools the Perthville Josephites in their General Chapters were discerning other ways to keep the charism alive in their hearts and continue to work for all.

From these discernments the Josephites have ventured into areas never envisaged all those years ago; as pastoral assistants, academics, historians, authors, counsellors, lecturers, social workers, nurses, theologians and directors to name but a few professions. They set up aged care facilities and structures to enable No Interest Loans (NILS) for the disadvantaged in the Diocese. They coordinate and support programs for refugees, and they have revamped St Ann’s Nursing Home into a multi-purpose Conference Centre, ‘The Vale Lodge’.

The Josephites have never shied away from ‘the work’ they joined up for in rural communities. They gathered around them wonderfully supportive communities and committed Associates who worked with them. Today, almost removed from their primary education focus in schools, but with the same spirit and dedication, the dreams weave on. I have no doubt that the historic decision that is playing out today though, arrived with some pain and much prayer, closes the circle opened those many years ago.

Congratulations and thank you to the Sisters of St Joseph Perthville for the many years of exceptional service in the Bathurst Diocese. I’m sure that Fr Julian Tenison Woods and St Mary of the Cross MacKillop would give full approval to this Fusion with The Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

In Mary’s own words, ‘See the hand of God in all that happens’.

Judy Kilby
MacKillop College Hall
Gorman’s Hill Road, Bathurst

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