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Sunday, 15 December 2013 23:10

130 years of Loreto in Portland

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loreto in portland150The Loreto Sisters celebrated 130 years of service in Portland, Victoria coming to a close. Father Justin Driscoll’s homily on this celebration was a reflection on the significant contribution of the Loreto Sisters in the broader community, framed in the insight-filled story of the congregation’s early leader, Mother Gonzaga Barry, and the gospel story of Zaccheus.

Zacchaeus sought to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. Today, after 130 years of Loreto presence in Portland, we pause to ponder the glimpse of Jesus we have caught over those years. And just as the members of the Institute do this today, their presence here in such large numbers, testifying to the importance of this foundation and to the significance of this celebration, so too for this faith community of Portland, the broader Christian community and civic community.

For women whose spirituality is that of St Ignatius, there is a sense that this occasion provides the opportunity for us to do something akin to the review of the day – an awareness examen – to look back and to notice, to take stock and become aware, to linger over the glimpse of Jesus we have caught, Christ present amongst us, to give thanks for blessings received, to ask forgiveness where reconciliation awaits, to discern future action and to ask for the grace to begin anew.

Until this occasion I had never any cause to link Zacchaeus from today's Gospel narrative, with Mother Gonzaga Barry, leader of the first group of Loreto sisters to the Australian colonies in 1875. Further reading revealed that Mother Gonzaga was small, plump, profoundly deaf and increasingly dependent on the use of an ear trumpet. Yet during her 40 years in the colonies she became one of the most significant figures in Australian Catholic education, particularly for women. Ireland was in her soul and yet she identified with her adopted country.

A woman of extraordinary energy and faith, she embraced educational initiatives from kindergarten to tertiary level and founded teacher training colleges in Ballarat and Melbourne. In the last 20 years of her life she took a leading role among Mary Ward women worldwide in the cause of union. By the time of her death in 1915, Loreto convents and schools had been founded not only in Ballarat and Portland, but also in Hamilton, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. Loreto Sisters had also staffed and run Parish schools such as All Saints, established kindergartens and training colleges for teachers.

In so many ways we might say she was an unlikely candidate for such a task. In some ways, like Zacchaeus, she was an outsider, but like Mary MacKillop, known so well to you here in Portland, she was to Mother Gonzaga Barry a contemporary, correspondent and friend, she too was one whose glimpse of Jesus captured her vision. This is the vision of a God who calls and sends, invites and empowers, transforms and renews. This call continues, and it demands a response as it has from York to Rathfarnham, from Ballarat to Portland and continues today to East Timor, Vietnam, South East Asia and throughout Australia. Perhaps equally unlikely was Mother Boniface Volker, unusual in the group of pioneer sisters to Australia. German born, completing her teaching training in Cologne before joining Loreto in Dublin, she was 28 when she came to Australia and only a few years later was the first superior of the Loreto community here in Portland.

As in every mature relationship, there is reciprocity, mutual benefit. Today as we notice the glimpse of Jesus we have caught, the Loreto Sisters might become even more aware of what they have received through their 130 years here in Portland and from the beginning they found a place which would “revive their spirits.” Just as Bishop O'Connor had found respite here in Portland, so he encouraged Mother Gonzaga Barry, suffering from the strain of responsibilities and exhaustion from the considerable work she had to do, she wrote from Portland, of “the sea having its morning dance and laugh in the sunshine.” Portland offered a welcome break for generations of Loreto sisters.

Upon their arrival in 1884 the Portland Guardian reported:

“It is not at all unlikely that this new an important addition to the educational resources of our town may grow into considerable dimensions and prove permanent benefit to the town and the Western District.” And so it was – the Loreto presence in Portland was to be important both for the town and the Institute. Gonzaga Barry's founding intent was "Leave after you something on which others may build."

Loreto sisters PortlandThis is as true today, 130 years later, as was in 1884. There is so much upon which others have built and will continue to build in the future. There is such a rich Loreto tradition here that not only looks back today in gratitude, with some sadness as well, but looks with prophetic openness to the future. This was characterised back in 1977 at the official opening of what was then the Christian Community College, prior to it becoming Bayview, with the image of the breaking wave that features on the College crest which was identified with the creative energy of the Holy Spirit breaking into the future.

Margaret Silf, an English woman schooled in Ignatian spirituality, writes in one her books, At Sea With God, of “lighthouse people” – people who we know who are living true to themselves, who liberate our souls as we navigate life's seas. She says they beam out a steady signal and help us steer our boat. Such “lighthouse people” are found in exposed and rocky places themselves, and we look to them especially when there is, or has been turbulence and trouble, as they stand firm on that steady alignment that signals to others. That may be what the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been here in Portland.

Zacchaeus was the least likely person in Jericho to host Jesus at dinner. In fact, as this marvellous story goes, that was the last thing on his mind as well. If only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the arms to embrace, Jesus comes to us through the most unusual people, times and places. We are his People, he calls us by name and he dines with us as often as we choose to accept his standing invitation to this pilgrim table. But there’s a cost - we are to be transformed through this encounter, to be different people for this encounter, generous with all we have to offer the world and transparent in all our relationships.

The Iona community, another ecumenical Christian community gathered around the ancient monastic buildings of Iona Abbey, off Scotland, seek to bring together work and worship, prayer and politics, the sacred and the secular in a faith that seeks to continue the fulfilling of this challenging Gospel. This challenging community has written many prayers and songs. Allow me to read one as a way of concluding:

We believe that God is present in the darkness before the dawn

In the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands

conflict and caring link arms

and the sun rises over barred windows.

We believe in a with-us-God who sits down in our midst

to share our humanity

We affirm a faith

that takes us beyond the safe place:

into action, into vulnerability.

We commit ourselves to work for change

and put ourselves on the line;

to bear responsibility, take risks,

live powerfully and face humiliation;

to stand with those on the edge;

to choose life

and be used by the Spirit

for God's new community of hope.



This homily by Fr Justin Driscoll, Vicar General at the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat, on the occasion of 130 Years of the Loreto Sisters in Portland given at All Saints Parish Church, Portland on 3rd November 2013 was used with permission. 

(Left photo shows Fr Justin with Loreto Sister Denise Desmarchelier, Chair of Bayview Board and All Saints parishioner. Right photo shows Loreto Sisters in attendance at the Portland celebration.)

The full text including an account of the celebrations first appeared in the 28 November 2013 edition of the Ballarat E-News.