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Thursday, 13 October 2011 14:27

Remembering a remarkable woman

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Lucky Me!

Ryan:  To Roger James and Lillian Ethyl, a daughter, Winifred Agnes, born Bridgetown Hospital, 11 September 1915.

This is how Agnes started a brief life story she wrote many years ago.   Lucky me, she wrote.

Agnes was the fourth child, the first girl, in a family of eleven: seven boys and four girls.  She was educated by the Sisters of Mercy in Primary School.  By the time she was ready for high school, the family had moved to Perth, where she was educated to matriculation level by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission.

Family interests included sport, religion and politics.  Agnes remembered evenings at home as alive with discussion on these themes.  She recalled: “Through these discussions, high ideals were passed on and Christian values absorbed.”   Her father and all her siblings were involved in sport, the boys in football, and the girls in tennis.   Agnes herself was an A grade tennis player.   Years later one of her brothers would video-tape football matches in which the Eagles were playing and send them to her.   She watched them with delight.

Upon leaving school, Agnes considered becoming a nurse, but decided on a teaching career.   Her teaching skills became legendary, and were much in demand also after she became a Missionary Sister of Service.   Observing her one day, the then parish priest of Franklin, Father Benneworth, remarked, “Isn’t she a wonderful teacher?”  I don’t know if she ever experienced unruly children in class.   It seemed to me she always had them “eating out of her hands”.

In her early twenties Agnes joined the Legion of Mary.  She loved the work of visiting families in the parish.   In her later twenties she considered becoming a full-time Legionary.   Speaking with the national president about this, the latter mentioned a new initiative about to commence in Tasmania.  The following Sunday, the Perth Catholic paper carried a brief article, announcing that Father Wallis was gathering a group of women for missionary work in Australia.   Twice in a few days her attention was drawn to something about to happen in the other end of the country! Agnes heard a call, and responded.   She wrote to Father Wallis.   Her letter arrived 8 July 1944, the day the first little group of women came together to start what became the Missionary Sisters of Service.  A few months later, 1 December, Agnes was on her way from WA to Launceston, Tasmania to join them. 

To give some adequate coverage of Agnes’ story as a Missionary Sister of Service would require a book of no mean proportions.   She was there as the Congregation was taking shape, contributing richly to that process.   She was on the Congregation’s first Leadership Team, influencing the development of its spirit and vision.  Never content with what was, she was always looking to further the outreach and depth of the MSS mission.

Agnes became a teacher of teachers.  She taught our Sisters the art of catechetics and pastoral work.  She trained people to take on the mission of religious education in State Schools.     She became convinced of the importance of the formation of an informed and competent laity if the Church was to fulfil its mission in the world of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the early 70s, she was invited by the Archdiocese of Brisbane to organise training and support for catechists, educators of faith, particularly, but not only, for children in State Schools.  Courses included theology, methodology and praxis of catechetics.    Fr Frank Lourigan, whom she recruited to assist in the work, says of her:  “She was a remarkable woman who made a big impact in the Brisbane Archdiocese....  She was a vibrant breath of fresh air in the exciting 70s.  Her work amazed me.  When Archbishop Rush arrived in May 1973 the Archdiocese exploded with activity and Sr. Agnes was a key figure.”

Agnes became the first woman in Australia to lecture in a seminary – at Banyo, Brisbane.   Her subject was the catechetical formation of future priests.  One of her former students reflects that she changed the ethos of the seminary to one of mission.   Some of her students nicknamed her “Sister Vital”, because she used that word so often in connection with what she was teaching.   Agnes was passionate about the mission of Good News of her Lord Jesus Christ, and saw it as vitally important that her students also caught that passion. 

In her later years, at an age where she could have been thinking about retiring, she embarked on the journey of spiritual direction and spiritual formation.   She had always been an avid reader and deep thinker.   Now she gave courses in prayer and meditation, and formed groups for discussion and reflection on books that nourished their spiritual life and sense of mission.   This was the work she loved most of all.   Some of the groups she started in Queensland are still meeting to study and reflect together, years after Agnes moved to Melbourne.   Earlier this year a letter arrived from Janelle Webster of Talwood, Qld.   She remarked that in her family, and also among her friends, they still talk about things Agnes taught them when she lived at Goondiwindi in the 1980s.

My own story with Agnes goes back to the early 1950s.   My family had not long moved to Tasmania when we were visited by the Sisters.   Living ‘in the bush’, their twice yearly visits to the parish were a highlight for us.   There were daily religious education classes, and for secondary students, an annual ‘weekend school’.   These days we would call it a camp.   The Sisters would come to our home for a visit and often shared a meal with us.   Agnes was generally one of the two who came.    When I was in the novitiate, Agnes became novice directress, and later, in Parkes NSW, she was my first superior.   I went on my first parish missions with her.   I have much to thank her for.

Though I had known Agnes for many decades, it is only in recent years that I came to know her more personally and intimately.   This was after she moved to St Catherine’s Aged Care at Balwyn.   Her spirit of mission was as vibrant as ever, but she could no longer physically sustain the work involved in her previous ministries.   This was a challenging time for her.   Agnes was no stranger to the “dark night of the soul”.  There were periods in her life when she suffered intensely, when God seemed to have abandoned her, and doubt and loneliness filled her.  Now, without the work that had been her life, that loneliness intensified.   During these years she often spoke of love, with a hunger to be loved herself, as well as to truly love those around her.   But she could not feel what she longed for.    The sense of abandonment seared her soul, purifying it as gold is purified in a furnace.  

When we were novices, Agnes used to give us a weekly spiritual conference in the chapel.   I still remember one of those conferences.   It took place on the feast of Mary Magdalen – her feast day, because her religious name was Mary Magdalen.   She spoke about the first reading for the feast, from the Song of Songs:

On my bed at night, I sought him whom my heart loves.
I sought but did not find him.
So I will arise and go through the City;
In the streets and the squares I will seek him whom my heart loves.
I sought but did not find him.
The watchmen came upon me on their rounds of the City:
“Have you seen him whom my heart loves?”
Scarcely had I passed them than I found him whom my heart loves.
Song of Songs3: 1 - 4

Agnes loved her God passionately.    This was the source of both her joy and her suffering. 
‘She sought him, but did not find him.’    Yet all the   time the Spirit of God drew her more and more deeply into the Divine Mystery.   And the more deeply she was drawn in, the more the Divine Lover’s love was evident in her love for those around her.   Visiting her about a year ago, she said to me: “I can’t seem to pray, but as I lie here I find gratitude pouring out from every part of me.”   What more beautiful prayer can there be?
Together with gratitude, she also experience deep joy and peace in this final period of her life.   Having had to let go of so much that had been her life, she surrendered to Love.   The One her heart loved had lifted the clouds of darkness and filled her with a deep sense of contentment.

Last week, while we were sitting with Agnes as she was dying, members of the nursing staff would come in to check, and sometimes just to be in her room for a few moments.   They told touching, sometimes amusing stories of her.   A constant theme in their stories was the love they experienced from Agnes, her consistent gratitude for everything they did for her, and her encouragement of them.  

Some of the residents, too, came to sit with her for a while.   I asked one of them if she was a friend of Agnes.  “No,” she said.  “I have been here only a few months.  In the dining room I sit with the people who were Agnes’ companions at table.   The way they speak of her makes me want to sit in her presence for a while.”

Agnes, thank you for the woman you have been in our midst, for what you have been for us and with us in our journeying into the highways and byways.   You have found the One whom your heart loves, and we rejoice with you.   Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your God.  

Lucky you!   Or rather, Agnes, blessed are you!