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Monday, 05 March 2012 14:40

A bridge-builder between Christians and Jews

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Born in Sydney in the 1920s, Shirley Sedawie grew up the granddaughter of Syrian migrants. At the age of 22, she was formally admitted as a Sister of Our Lady of Sion as Sister Callistus and went to teach at Ascot Vale.

But teaching in a parish primary school was not to be her path in life... and it was her choice of order which sent her in an unexpected direction. The Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, a teaching order, was founded in the 1840s by, a French-born Jew named Theodore Ratisbonne. He believed it was his vocation to convert Jews to Christianity.

When details of the Holocaust, became better known In the 1950s, his order made the decision to accept as its mission the task of furthering understanding between Jews and Christians and combating anti-Semitism.

Sr Shirley had been teaching during the period of change leading to the Second Vatican Council and the historic document, Nostra Aetate, which declared: ‘We are called to be in relationship and to dialogue with the Jewish People’.

She spent time studying in Jerusalem, lecturing in Rome, and came back to Australia. That, according to Rabbi Raymond Apple of Sydney's Great Synagogue was '’the breakthrough (establishing the Council of Christians and Jews)... (it) occurred in 1988 when Sister Shirley Sedawie returned to Australia’.

Sr Shirley returned to Melbourne in 1990 and was re-elected to the executive of the council in Victoria. She was made an honorary life member in 1995, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services '’to the promotion of interfaith relations and understanding'’.

At the time, Archbishop Denis Hart wrote: 'You have been a remarkable leader in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations, bringing your warmth and welcome to the relationship … and I consider myself lucky to have inherited so much of what you built. You have emphasised the dignity of every person and the sincere nature of our relationship of common belief in the one God.'

Sr Shirley died on New Year’s Eve of dementia at the St Vincent de Paul Nursing Home in Box Hill, Melbourne. She was 87.

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