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Tuesday, 15 December 2015 11:13

Sister Sally's mission of hope

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Sr Sally Duigan olsh xmasA South Australian nun is battling poverty and a crippling AIDS crisis to bring life and hope to children of South Africa. Sr Sally Duigan says she’s simply living out her congregation’s charism of love and compassion. Jessica Braithwaite reports from Ofcolaco, Limpopo.

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon at a remote orphanage in southern Africa and Adelaide’s Sr Sally Duigan has drawn a crowd. With one hand holding an eleven month old baby and the other playing an imaginary guitar with a stick, she sings a song about a broken banjo. More than 70 pairs of eyes light up and the sound of laughter lifts and carries on the bush breeze. That simple sound – of a child laughing – is one thing that keeps Sr Sally so dedicated to the cause, some 26 years after she first arrived in the impoverished province of Limpopo.

Sr Sally is Director of the Holy Family Care Centre. The place is a haven for orphans and vulnerable children, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise be alive. Some of the children have lost their parents to AIDS, others were abandoned as newborn babies or sexually abused by villagers and family members. The wounded souls arrive at Holy Family with different harrowing backgrounds, but one thing in common, they all need a place to call home.

This is a unique family and as is tradition within the confines of the sanctuary, children’s birthdays are celebrated on the last Sunday of each month. On this particular day, a little girl named Lerato marks her first year while another young girl reaches a different milestone – becoming a teenager. The children perform a traditional dance and recite poetry, then Sr Sally dishes out the birthday wishes and highest of hopes for the year ahead under the shadow of the nearby Drakensburg mountain range.

Ten thousand kilometres from home, surrounded byw baobab trees and barbed wire fencing, it’s not the kind of setting one might imagine a 64-year-old nun from Adelaide. But for Sr Sally, this unconventional home is where her heart beats. “Often the greatest need is in some of the most remote places,” she said.

Sr Sally arrived in South Africa as a fresh faced missionary in 1989. She began teaching English at the newly established St Brendan’s School where she later became principal. In 2001 she was asked to coordinate the Tzaneen Diocese HIV/AIDS response in each parish. But long after the international shock of the AIDS crisis subsided and many of the first responders returned home, Sr Sally and her Sisters remained. Despite worldwide advances with HIV/AIDS treatments, the destructive power of the disease lingers in poverty stricken regions. The deaths are daily and the children suffer endlessly.

“We often receive children who are near to death,” said Sr Sally. But that despair can lead to moments of joy. “To see how within a few weeks these children can be bouncing and laughing and squealing with Southgdelight – it is something you never really get used to.” The orphanage has a clinic on site where HIV positive children can begin to receive the Antiretroviral medications that will keep them alive. “To witness the change in children as they begin to have their basic needs met, and see them begin to play and be children – it’s amazing.”

Sr Sally grew up in Mount Gambier and remembers arranging concerts with her friends at school to raise money for the missions. The Sisters of Mercy would tell stories of their work in Papua New Guinea and show the children slides. Now a Daughter of our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Sr Sally says her desire to be a missionary was shaped by the Sisters of Mercy. “Helping others in need is something that’s been really close to my heart since I was a child,” she said.

Fundraising is still central her work. While the South African government provides a subsidy, the payment is irregular and unreliable. At times, staff are not sure from where the next funds will come. Sr Sally is often forced to rely on emergency donations from the community and nearby farmers. She maintains hope by focusing on what she can do each day to keep the centre running. “You can’t do everything but you can focus on the children in your care and try and do your best for them,” she said.

Anyone wishing to help or donate can visit

This article by Jessica Braithwaite first appeared on the December 2015 issue of The Southern Cross, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Adelaide.