Mary Ryllis Clark, Heather O’Connor and Valerie Krips, eds, Perfect Charity: Women Religious Living the Spirit of Vatican II, Morning Star Publishing, Northcote Vic., 2014. ISBN 9781 925 208 399 (paperback), pp.9-214.
Reviewed by: Catherine (Kit) Smith, Glenhaven, The Golding Centre, Australian Catholic University Strathfield NSW, March 2015.
This unusual volume is organized into ten chapters representing eight apostolic Orders of religious women, and two contemplative Orders of religious women. While it is aimed primarily at the general reader, it will undoubtedly provide valuable material for scholars and historians. The editors have interviewed individually fourteen religious women with diverse backgrounds, talents and experiences. Common threads are the dramatic changes required following the Second Vatican Council, and the generosity and practical spirituality with which these women responded to that challenge and shared their stories.
In describing her journey towards entering religious life, Stancea Vichie MSS (The Missionary Sisters of Service) presents a fascinating profile. Stancea was twenty years of age before she felt ready to commit, and knew that she ‘was meant to be with a group that was free . . . to go where the need was, outside of the institutional framework’ (p. 26). Her formation years soon confirmed her delight in joining an Order founded to meet the needs of people in rural and remote communities. Stancea’s story is marked by remarkable experiences and achievements, which this reviewer found spiritually uplifting.
Anna Warlow SGS (Sisters of the Good Samaritan) entered the Order at the age of 26 and taught for fifteen years in primary schools. For the Good Samaritans the post-Vatican II years meant responding to change, and when Anna realised that questions about faith development were being asked at school staff meetings she responded to that need. The result has been, over a number of years, the formation of countless adult faith groups throughout Australia, always respecting the flexibility of widely diverse needs and spiritualities based on friendship and a common faith.
Clare Condon SGS explains that, over time, her Order had lost some connection with their Benedictine roots, and the call of Vatican II to reclaim their founding charism has been taken very seriously. The Benedictine vow of stability for the Good Samaritans means that the communal dimension is vital in their lives. Clare regards the education of the sisters as one of the order’s greatest strengths, and she herself is certainly proof of that. In more than 40 years of religious life Clare has been typical of all Good Samaritans who not only reach out to strangers, but strive to offer traditional Benedictine hospitality and kindness.
Maria Casey RSJ (Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart) was born in County Clare, and entered the Josephite Novitiate in Baulkham Hills in 1958. At that time there were Sisters still living who had known ‘Mother Mary,’ and who were able to relate personal stories of the foundress. Throughout a long teaching career, Maria undertook further study, including qualifications in Canon Law. In 2001 she was invited to become Vice-Postulator for the cause of Mary MacKillop, and in 2008 the Vatican appointed her Postulator. Maria is typical of the spirituality of Mary MacKillop and of her Josephite Sisters, by going where the need is, whether in Rome, or whether it means being with people who are marginalised and suffering. That, she says, is Mary MacKillop territory.
Anne Derwin RSJ has been a Josephite for more than 40 years. She was educated by the Josephites and it was in high school that Anne first learned about the Second Vatican Council. In 1969 Anne entered the novitiate in Baulkham Hills, the same year that the Sisters of St Joseph held their renewal chapter after Vatican II. One of the most powerful edicts arising from Vatican II was to go back to the spirit of the founder, and this rediscovery of Mary MacKillop was truly liberating for the Josephites. Anne’s years of teaching came to an end when she was asked to take on a series of leadership roles that would occupy her for almost 25 years, culminating in her election as congregational leader in 2008. This meant that she became a prominent figure because of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. Hopefully, Anne’s wonderful sense of humour made the process a little easier.
Biblical scholar, Veronica Lawson RSM (Sisters of Mercy) entered the Ballarat East Sisters of Mercy in 1960. Her secondary school education at Sacred Heart College, run by the Sisters of Mercy in Ballarat East, reveals remarkable educational experiences. Students were studying the liturgical renewal movement well before Vatican II, as well as undertaking critical biblical studies. Veronica was 19 years old when she entered the novitiate, and was delighted to be allowed to continue her university studies as a postulant, and later completed her degree as a second year novice. The story of her life as a Sister of Mercy, and as a scholar, is breathtaking.
Patricia Powell RSM entered the Bathurst Sisters of Mercy in 1960, having presumed that her life would be spent as a schoolteacher. Her generation was the first to leave the convent to study, and she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Sydney University and a Diploma of Education at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1966. In 1974, aged only 32, Patricia became superior of St Joseph’s Mount community and novice mistress, as well as principal at St Philomena’s primary school – a heavy load indeed. She became aware of the inadequacy of her own pre-Vatican II theological and spiritual formation, and was eventually able to embark on a deeper spiritual and intellectual journey.
It is widely known that music and Deirdre Brown IBVM (Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) are regarded as synonymous. From her birth it was her first language, lovingly sustained within an accomplished and encouraging family life. Deirdre recalls that music fed her soul as she learned to be ‘deeply quiet and to listen, as well as to be lifted out of the here and now’ (p. 115). She began learning the piano as a very young child, and later developed her musical gifts with violin, singing, choir and orchestra. Deirdre entered the Loreto novitiate in Ballarat the age of 17, and after a few brief years of teaching, a wise provincial sent her to study at the Conservatorium of Music at Melbourne University. To her delight, Deirdre was able to become fully immersed in music, and was studying with some of the finest teachers in Australia. The rest of Deirdre’s story in this superb chapter is unique, and her impact, both spiritually and musically, has been incalculable.
In 1968, Libby Rogerson IBVM, entered the Loreto Sisters novitiate at a time when they were wrestling with immense changes including a return to the vision of their foundress, Mary Ward. It was a turbulent period with regards to issues of social justice, and Libby became actively involved in Action for World Development, as well as working with the Jesuits’ Asian Bureau Australia. Libby believed that for the Loretos and other religious congregations the need was to find new ways of supporting and working with, rather than for the poor and marginalised. After many years Libby continues to be a passionate and courageous advocate for social justice issues wherever they lead her. She has always believed that God inspired her to join the Loreto Sisters because they would offer the means to make a difference in the field of social justice.
Brigid Arthur csb (Brigidine Sisters) was born into a family with a strong work ethic and a sense of justice. She entered the Brigidine novitiate in Malvern in 1953. Her wonderful sense of humour is beautifully reflected in this chapter, making it a delight to read. Brigid loved teaching and had an inexhaustible energy for study. Endless meetings became a feature of religious life in the post-Vatican years, and Brigid’s outspoken input often caused alarm and disagreement. Her capacity to annoy authority figures, when she believed it to be important to do so, has not diminished over the years, but neither has her passion for challenging social justice issues.
Maryanne Confoy RSC (Sisters of Charity) is remembered by former school friends as a ‘real wag,’ and they were astonished when, in 1956 at the age of 17 she entered the Sisters of Charity Novitiate at Wahroonga. Maryanne would have been content to continue teaching for the rest of her working life, had it not been for Vatican II. It is endearing to read that Maryanne’s love of literature always gave her not only mental stimulation but spiritual guidance and human understanding. In the 1970s she went to Boston to study faith development and psychology, and has since studied and travelled widely. Maryanne is a member of the Jesuit Theological College, and her courses at the United Faculty of Theology at the University of Divinity in Melbourne are primarily about being authentic. Maryanne teaches, she says, according to the needs of the student.
Bernadette Keating PVBM (Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) entered the Presentation Sisters in Victoria in 1966. A year into Bernadette’s novitiate Mother Eymard Temby, a famous educator, became Mother General, and under her guidance a great shift relating to Vatican II began to occur in the congregation. The move to alternative ministries ‘among the people’ happened slowly and Bernadette was one of the first to move out of teaching and volunteer to take on new ministries. When her term of leadership within the congregation was over she was able to go to the University of Loyola in Chicago to undertake pastoral studies; a transformational time for her.
The Benedictines of Jamberoo Abbey are Australia’s oldest enclosed order of nuns. The story of the vocation of Joanna Bagot OSB (Benedictines) ‘unfolds like a cliffhanger’ (p. 194). The process of discerning and deciding a vocation to a contemplative order often takes many years. Joanna was 42 when she began her new life at Jamberoo in March 1995, making her solemn profession in 2001. In Joanna’s experience, the big difference between contemplative life and that of apostolic communities is that the apostolate in the Church is primarily prayer and worship on behalf of a suffering evolving world.
Carol Hogan SSS (Servants of the Blessed Sacrament) entered this contemplative order in 1953 aged 22, and made her final vows in 1958. By 1968 life for the SSS nuns had changed dramatically in accordance with the renewed theology of Vatican II. Carol recalls a sense of newfound freedom – the possibility of continuing contemplative lives, but at the same time incorporating the transformative thinking of Vatican II. For many nuns this was a difficult time, for others it was exhilarating and exciting. In 1973 Carole was able to study theology at Melbourne University – a move previously unheard of for a contemplative. She was later appointed as a chaplain at Melbourne University, holding the position for 24 years. Carol’s loyalty is still to her own sisters. They are in constant contact and committed to caring for each other. For Carol there is no separation between the spiritual and the secular.
The editors of Perfect Charity have accomplished a skilled and meticulous task, and gifted readers with this fascinating and informative collection of biographies. It will prove to be a privilege and a joy for all readers to meet and study the diverse experiences of these remarkable, courageous and inspiring Australian women.