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Wednesday, 03 August 2011 16:07

Good Sams mark 20 years in Kiribati

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"It was probably one of the most transformative experiences of my life." That's how Veronica McCluskie, describes the eight years she spent living and working in the Republic of Kiribati, an island nation straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

She says the simple lifestyle with limited access to resources challenged her to look at life anew and realise "how little you actually need to survive in this world".

In 1991 Veronica was the first Sister of the Good Samaritan to go to Kiribati (the former Gilbert Islands) at the invitation of the local bishop, Paul Mea MSC. He had written persistently to the then leader of the Good Samaritan Sisters, Helen Lombard, asking for personnel to help with the education and pastoral needs of the people of his diocese.

However, what began as a short-term ministry placement for Veronica, teaching theology at the Kiribati Pastoral Institute (KPI), quickly grew into something much more.

During Veronica's second year at the KPI, she was joined on staff by fellow Good Samaritan Sister, Veronica Griffith. Then, by the end of 1992, a small group of I-Kiribati women studying at the KPI asked if they could become Good Samaritan Sisters.

Veronica McCluskie recalls saying to the young women: "We'll only be here for five years; you're better off joining the OLSH [Our Lady of the Sacred Heart] or Marist Missionary Sisters". But the women were "most persistent" in their desire to become Good Samaritan Sisters, says Veronica.

After a meeting between Helen Lombard and the interested women, followed by a process of discernment at a congregational chapter, the Sisters responded with an "overwhelming yes" to accept I-Kiribati women - a significant decision according to Veronica because it meant a life-long commitment to the I-Kiribati Sisters and their country.

Over the past 20 years, 19 Australian Good Samaritan Sisters have ministered in Kiribati for varying lengths of time. A number of I-Kiribati women have also joined the Good Samaritan community. Currently there are eight I-Kiribati and Australian women aged between 20 and 64 living in two Good Samaritan communities. Of the five I-Kiribati Sisters, one has taken final vows and four are in various stages of their formation.

Since their arrival in the early 1990s, the Australian Sisters have become more attuned to the distinct challenges facing this remote nation of 33 low-lying coral atolls, and together with their I-Kiribati sisters, they are responding where they can.

Victorian-born Sister Marie O'Shea has been living in Kiribati since 2006. She feels enriched by her ministry experiences and the simple lifestyle. "I live in a beautiful location where I can truly cherish creation," she says.

At the same time, Marie recognises that the 103,000+ people who call this country home are faced with some weighty issues. In the long-term, rising sea levels caused by global warming will force the I-Kiribati people to relocate from their homeland.

But Marie names some of the country's more immediate challenges, such as maintaining sustainable fresh water supplies and sanitation systems, responding to the impact of over-population, and providing better health care, education and employment opportunities.

Marie lives in the village of Abaokoro on North Tarawa with I-Kiribati Sisters Kakare Biita and Tibwau Matia. The three women, each with qualifications in pre-school or primary education, work at the Good Samaritan Early Childhood Centre. Opened in 2009, the Centre provides pre-school opportunities for children from Abaokoro and neighbouring villages. The Sisters also run English classes for students at the local primary and junior secondary schools.

As Clare Condon, Congregational Leader, reflects on the twentieth anniversary of the Good Samaritan foundation in Kiribati, she is struck by the impact it has had on so many Sisters.

"Our presence has changed many of our Australian Sisters; not only those who have ministered there, but also those who have visited or engaged with our I-Kiribati sisters in Australia.

"The strength of family and community relationships in I-Kiribati society has much to teach us. I think this cross-cultural experience is assisting us in our self-reflection on Australian cultural values," she explains.

On a personal note, Clare adds: "It has opened up for me a new way of understanding the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the gift that the 'stranger' can be when I am ready to listen and to learn."

This is an edited version of Stephanie Thomas'* story, Kiribati foundation, a transformative experience, which was in the July edition of The Good Oil, the monthly e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters. For the full story click here.

Pathways July 2011