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Monday, 13 July 2015 14:09

Australian Aboriginal Benedictine Sister offers insight into extraordinary life journey

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Sr Veronica Willaway osb150There are still many unknown facts about the history of New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, situated 130km north of Perth. Many people, for instance, are not familiar with the story of Sister Veronica Willaway osb, an Australian Aboriginal Sister from the Yuat Noongar tribe who joined the Benedictine Missionary Sisters of New Norcia in 1958. Currently serving at the Norfolk Priory in Nebraska, USA, Sr Veronica returned to Western Australia in October last year to spend a year volunteering at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry of WA. She recently shared parts of her fascinating and eventful spiritual journey with the Communications and Media Office for the Archdiocese of Perth.

“I originally come from New Norcia where my family had lived since Bishop Salvado founded the mission in 1847,” said Sr Veronica.

“My parents placed me at St Joseph’s Orphanage under the care of the Spanish Benedictine Missionary Sisters at the age of six.”

Sr Veronica went on to say that it was the ‘fashion’ of the children living in New Norcia at the time to try the life at the orphanage and, with her parents’ blessing, Sr Veronica and her five siblings left home and moved into the orphanage.

“This became a sort of boarding place for us and we had the best of both worlds – going home each weekend.”

Influenced by the life of the Spanish-speaking Sisters and Monks at New Norcia, at the age of 14, Sr Veronica recalls it was then that she first felt called to the religious life and entered the convent run by the Benedictine sisters.

After a year of postulancy, Sr Veronica was given the white veil of Novice in 1960.

Two years later, she made her temporary profession, taking her final vows on 12 March 1966 at the age of 21.

While this transition into the formal role as a religious sister began a wonderful period in her life, it also presented numerous challenges – being seen as “different” to her friends first and foremost among them.

“It was initially a difficult situation to be in, and it was a lonely path for a while. It took time for people to get used to it.

“I grew up with many of the girls at New Norcia: they knew me as just another girl but, when I became a Sister, I had to explain to them that I had could not be with them [like before], I had things to do. I soon realised that life was going to be different for me, and it was hard to explain this to other girls.

“Years later, all my friends and peers were very proud of me because I was only the second Aboriginal Sister in the Congregation, Sr Cecilia Farrell being the first.”

Most of Sr Veronica’s early religious life was spent at New Norcia, working in St Joseph’s Orphanage – which later became a school – enjoying bush walks, excursions to Perth and memorable fortnightly holidays in the nearby town of Dongara.

In September 1974, she moved to Girrawheen to run a childcare centre for working parents, and was told she would be stationed there for the next 15 years.

However, barely a year into her service in Perth, things changed quite drastically for the young Sister as she was told that the Benedictine Sisters of New Norcia had decided to return to Spain and had invited her to join them.

“It was a moment of confusion for me, yet somehow, in the midst of this period of uncertainty, I felt a call to follow my vocation and go to Spain.”

On 24 March 1975, she boarded the ship Galileo in Fremantle for a six-week journey across the ocean to reach Barcelona, Spain.

Her feelings of awe at the splendour of the sights she saw on her trip were only overshadowed by a growing sense of homesickness and realisation at how far her family would now be.

Despite this longing for home, Sr Veronica kept herself busy by working at a childcare centre in her new hometown of Barcelona.

“My new ministry was looking after children aged between two and five. It is interesting to note that I learned most of my Spanish from them, ‘out of the mouths of babes’.

“I chuckle to myself thinking about those years now. I enjoyed my work and it was a wonderful time to experience how little minds and souls work, but how hard it is to be a Religious and foster mother at the same time.”

Three years later, during what she thought was going to be brief time on leave back in Australia, Sr Veronica was transferred to the Kalumburu Mission in the north of WA.

She worked in Kalumburu until 1982, when she returned to New Norcia to help the Filipino Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing.

From this point on, a number of shifts took place that saw Sr Veronica transition not only to other geographical locations, but into another branch of her Order.

“In October 1984, some of our Sisters from the Spanish Congregation were ‘integrated’ into the Congregation of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing… four years later, that community left New Norcia to work with Aboriginal students at the Pallottine Centre at Rossmoyne, in Perth.”

In the midst of so many shifts and movements, including a return to Kalumburu in 1987, Sr Veronica’s biggest transition was yet to come.

“On 27 April 1989, I was asked by the Generalate in Rome to go to the United States of America to help out in the Norfolk Priory. After three days in the country, I was sent to the Winnebago Indian Reservation to help the community in the school and convent.

“I enjoyed my time at Winnebago and felt right at home with the Native Americans. Their culture is very similar to my Aboriginal culture. The people used to tell me that they had quite a few Aboriginal people stay with them and they soon all became very dear friends.

“I could identify with the Native Americans’ sad past of having their culture suppressed and their children placed in white boarding schools to be integrated into white American culture.”

In mid-1991, Sr Veronica was transferred back to Norfolk, USA, where she remains stationed until this day.

Reflecting on her current experience of pastoral work at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry of Perth, Sr Veronica spoke about her repeated encounters with Aboriginal people whom she had previously known at New Norcia and Kalumburu.

She commented on how pleased she was to see many of them still in possession of the faith they received throughout those years.

“When these people come to Perth for hospital treatments, they ask for the Rosary, they recognise me and call me Sister because they are used to seeing brothers, sisters and fathers teaching them.

“It is incredible to see how they have kept their faith.”

Sr Veronica will be returning to serve at the Norfolk Priory in Nebraska in September of this year.

This article by Marco Ceccarelli and Jamie O'Brien was first published on 26 June 2015 at The Record, the weekly newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth.