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Friday, 05 August 2011 00:21

A vital life for Sister Zita

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In April this year she moved into Brigidine House, a residential aged care community for older Religious and lay people run by Catholic Healthcare.  While for some that might mean the start of the end for Sister Zita it has given her a renewed lease on life.

"We have lovely carers, a wonderful chef and there's no shopping. I love my bedroom and my balcony garden outside my room gives me a lot of joy."

A former chaplain at Long Bay Gaol, which she took up when she was 70, Sister Zita returns to the gaol each Sunday to assist with Mass.  She also works as a pastoral carer at a nearby aged care facility and is helping a young girl with her reading.

"I thought I would have plenty of time here, but you keep going," she says.

Hailing from the Cooma area of NSW near the Snowy Mountains, Sister Zita joined the Brigidine Sisters in 1945. For many years she worked as a primary school teacher and later as a chaplain at a hospital in Redcliffe near Brisbane.

In 1996 when she returned to the Brigidine's base in Sydney's Randwick for her golden jubilee there was an opening for a Catholic chaplain at Long Bay Gaol.

"I thought this is another group of people who need compassion," she says.

After five days orientation including visiting five different gaols she was selected for the role.

"I had the heart and feel for it," she says, "and I never regretted it for one minute."

In fact, she says it has been the best job she's had in her 65 years as Religious.

"There have been challenges along the way but I have been very happy," she says.

"When you are in a school you can't please everybody - the staff, the parents, the kids. Out at Long Bay everybody is happy to see you. Times might be that they are all lined up to see you; like queuing up for a Myer sale."

She says people often ask her how she can go into the gaol.

"They say, 'don't you feel scared?'  I say I am safer there than I would be on the footpath. No one would touch you because you care and treat them with respect."

Care and respect is something Sister Zita says that most of the inmates have rarely experienced in their lives.

"Mostly they don't share their crimes as maybe they feel I wouldn't speak to them if they did.  But I have no sense of judgement when I go there and I don't ever put them down because some of them have had nothing. They feel like they are a human being if someone talks to them who are not in green or an officer. It gives them a bit of hope."

And while Sister Zita's full-time chaplaincy days are over, she still makes the trip down Anzac Parade on Sundays to help organise Mass.

"We always have beautiful music after communion," she says.  "They seem to want it to go on for longer as it's a really prayerful time. There are a lot of good musicians there and last Sunday a man took out his mouth organ and played the most beautiful music."

After Mass she might have morning tea with one of the older inmates who has been in gaol for the past 34 years.

"They have a buy-up once a week and he'll get a packet cake which he makes in an ice cream container in the microwave and then we have it on serviettes.

"When I visit one of the other fellows yells out -'here to see your hubby again?', Sister Zita laughs.

She also maintains contact with the prisoners and former inmates through letters. Anything she reads that is inspirational she'll photocopy and send to them. One former inmate recently helped her establish her balcony garden of potted geraniums at Brigidine House, while others drop by for a cup of tea or take her out for coffee.

As I left Sister Zita reflecting in the chapel at Brigidine House, the mail arrived. As usual there were a number of letters from 'her men'.

Her ministry continues.

Pathways, December 2010

Have your say...

"I LOVED READING ABOUT YOUR WORK SISTER ZITA, AND HOW YOU CARE FOR EVERYONE WITH RESPECT. I AM IN AWE OF ALL THE WORK YOU HAVE DONE AND CONTINUE. I AM 80 AND I THINK YOU ARE A RAY OF SUNSHINE AND HOPE.THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS YOU."
- Dr Christine Wood, 19-12-2010

"Sr Zitaq, I am very proud to be in the same congreation as your good self. Your are an inspiration for us all.Thankyou. "
- Doris Testa (CSB), 21-12-2010

"I'm in my 70s and, for the few years I've known you at Holy Family Parish, you have been an inspiration to me. Belated happy birthday!"
- John Shervington, 21-12-2010

"Zita, warmest congratulations! It was a joy and an inspiration to share three wonderful weeks with you as part of our sabbatical in Galong last September.Thank you."
- Florence Holligan SSJG, 21-12-2010

"Zita you are a star in more ways than one. May your light shine strong and clear in 2011.Love from Helen "
- Helen Barnes r.s.j, 28-12-2010