I wrote this piece in February 2016. The place to which I refer has just been sold to the Diocese so that the school can be extended to include a senior section. Many people have no idea of what the likes of the Josephite Sisters laid as the foundation of quality Catholic Education available to all in the Dioceses in which they worked. Most of the convents were owned by the parish and the Sisters came into the parish at the request of the Parish Priest. They could also be “kicked out” by same!
I dedicate this piece by way of thanks, to those women – the ones I loved and the ones who scared the living daylights out of me – who gave their lives in dedication to the formation of children.
I had inside information! I knew it was coming so when the photo of the banner outside St Joseph’s Convent Lochinvar arrived in my inbox, I checked in out in great haste seeking the date!
A visit to the auctioneer’s website two seconds later indicated that the catalogue was not yet available.
Patiently I waited. Salivating at the prospect of getting a bargain from the cloisters and when I could access the information, I spent hours going over each item. Magnificent furniture, sideboards, cupboards, cutlery, crockery, crucifixes, sewing machines, a surgical bed, a 50’s day bed, wall hangings designed by a beautiful friend, table cloths, pots, pans, vases, a bundle of walking sticks, marble slabs, marble curved shaped things, old suitcases and more tabernacles than you could have poked all the old walking sticks at!
The Tabernacles fascinated me. Why so many? Who would want them? Where do you keep them? And then it struck me. Convent Chapels – all over our beautiful valley and beyond. Convents now closed, handed over to the Diocese for other works and off I went on a nostalgic journey to my own childhood as a cradle catholic in the 1950’s.
I spent my life surrounded by Josephites! Strong, faith filled, hope filled, intelligent women who taught thousands of children. Women who instilled in me a passion for social justice, a longing for peace, a desire to build community and a love of creativity. They were in my DNA! Two great aunts, my cousin and Godmother, more distant relatives – my Mother’s cousins. An incredible lineage including my sister. My children and theirs are part of that! I taught for 40 years having been shaped by them.
Tabernacles on marble altars covered with altar cloths made by the Sisters. Roses, gardenias, lavender lovingly arranged from convent gardens to honour and glorify God. Strengthening communities of women who went out to teach in the Spirit of Julian and Mary MacKillop.
And then there were the suitcases – chests, ports, bags. Young, faith filled women, fronting up to the impressive door of the convent! Suit cases in hand, dressed to the nines, parents in tow, dealing with the paradox of gratitude for the honour of a vocation to the religious life finding birth in their own offspring and the sadness of saying farewell as their young daughters entered into the enforced seclusion of Novitiate formation. Siblings, itching, sweating, hot, February in the Hunter Valley, not knowing what it all really meant, ushered into the “parlour” which smelt enticingly of furniture polish and holiness!
The young woman, my sister, beautiful – so beautiful, smiling and confident disappears behind the stained glass door.
“Courage, courage, trust in God who helps you in all things”
Cups of tea on silver service (soon to be auctioned!) in the parlour, orange make up drink with ice cubes for the kids and convent cakes! Mum and Dad, somber, not much conversation, stirring the sugar in the tea cup as a way of distraction! And then she emerges. No longer my sister by the name I have called her all her life but “Sister” with a new name, encased in black serge in February at Lochinvar!. I know what she is wearing underneath because with Mum and her I have counted the required number of everything and checked that the “name tag ” 384 is on them all. Her clothes, her stunning patent leather blue stilletos, even her underwear are handed back to Mum who hides her eyes behind sunglasses in spite of the somber lighting in the parlour, and we leave.
“We feel our crosses hard at times, but our courage should rise with them.”
Arriving at home, Mum gives me the dress to hang in the wardrobe in what was our bedroom. I take it out, I look at it, I am 13. I immerse myself in the folds of the electrically pleated “frock” and inhale her favourite “Tweed” perfume and I weep with the deepest sense of loss I had experienced in my life until that point, and anger!
All those jugs and glasses and cup and saucers, cutlery, serving trays, table cloths now neatly categorized and bundled in readiness to be sold or passed in. So many of them. Symbols of the hospitality that was the heartbeat of the Founders.
“Never see a need without doing something about it”!
Two harps! I salivate at the prospect of owning one of them somehow!
“A musician takes a flute, which has nothing in it and of itself, produces no sound. He breathes into it and the sounds which issue he modifies by the keys he touches.”
(Julian Tenison- Woods)
I remember my own music education in St Cecilia’s at Lochinvar in my last two years of schooling. Having been taught from year 2 by the sisters of Mercy, the transition was not really very easy. But in year 11, when Music was my main focus for the HSC, my music teacher Sr Justin – who became “Justine” as a result of the changes after Vatican II was sure I would pass with flying colours. Her very good friend Marjorie Hesse was the examiner.
The day for the exam dawned and I completed my daily duty of raking the gravel path at the front of the refectory, paying particular attention to the curve it took around the Bechstein Room. I had been given permission to do my exam on the Grand Piano (half stick) in that wonderful room with the magnificent rose window. My exam was timed mid morning. Marjorie had already had a couple of customers. I was very nervous!
The examiner was a rather rustic looking woman. Well past the “bloom of youth” but probably not as old as I am now. She wore big clothes. A big warm jacket, a Stetson kind of hat and sensible, clunky walking shoes! She greeted me warmly, invited me to sit and she enthroned herself at the round rosewood table. Scales and exercises completed, Lists A and B done I started on the List C – First movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Opus 10 No 3. I recently found all my music reports. Her comment on the day was “ a little tentative today.” No wonder!
In the middle of the Beethoven, Marjorie had finished her morning tea, served on what could be one of the beautiful silver services in the auction catalogue, got up, carrying the teapot and proceeded to empty it out the door, all over the pristine raked drive! That done, she came back into the room, shifted the silver service and proceeded to put her feet up on the rose wood table while I finished off Beethoven! I am hoping to purchase at least one silver tea pot! I did pass the exam!
As luck would have it, I am unable to attend the auction! I will have to miss out on the harp, the tea pot, and other things, but as I write this I continue to be inspired by the great women who remain steadfast to the call they answered when all those things were “ alive and active” in places all over our lovely valley and beyond. When children were taught with love and formed in faith. When families were supported by them. When Dads fixed up things around the convents or mowed the grass, or helped paint the classrooms and called the numbers on the chocolate wheels at the fetes. When Mum’s ran the tuckshops, covered the text books. When the first lay teachers at St Mary’s Gateshead were served their morning tea on silver services while their colleagues, “The Sisters” had to retire to the Convent, unable to eat in “public”!
Those same women, the sports nuts among them who tucked yards and yards of serge up into the thick leather belts, pinned their veils back with a couple of spare nobby pins and ran the legs off the opposition students in netball, tennis, as umpires and sometimes participants. Those same women, the musicians among them who taught generations of children and whose voices from the choir loft in the Chapel at Lochinvar were glorious at ceremonies of reception, profession, in farewell to their beloved deceased sisters offering inspiration that had the power to transcend separation and sadness! Those scholarly women who, in the early years without formal training in the craft of teaching inspired thousands upon thousands of children to embrace the opportunities that quality education provide.
Incredible Women who indeed did “teach more by example than by word” and who, in latter days, remain steadfast as they do all they can with the means at their disposal and “calmly leave the rest to God”, knowing that “God gives me strength for what is necessary”.
We are but travellers here.
February 26th 2016