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Tuesday, 19 March 2013 23:44

Sr Anne sails home

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When the small Norwood community of the Faithful Companions of Jesus was called back to Melbourne in 2010, Sister Ann Connolly fcj asked if she could stay on to continue her pastoral work which she had recently begun in the Elizabeth Parish.

Even though this meant living on her own, the 76-year-old nun was convinced that Elizabeth was where she should be.

“That’s where I found God at that moment and I didn’t want to leave Him alone,” she said, just a few days before her 79th birthday. “I was working with the people and I could see that this was where I could really do something.”

A one-year extension to her stay stretched out to two years, due to her much-appreciated work with the Baptismal program which involved countless visits to the homes of families wanting to baptise their children. “You have to meet people where they are,” she said. “You have to go to them.”

Last month the parishioners of Elizabeth said their final farewells to Sr Ann, who is moving to the Order’s community in Epping North, Melbourne. When she first came to Adelaide in 2007 her work was in Aboriginal ministry and teaching English to migrants and refugees but she was approached in 2008 by Fr Michael Trainor to join the Elizabeth Parish pastoral team as Baptism co-ordinator. She commuted from Norwood for two years, sometimes staying overnight with parishioner Peg Clarke, before moving to Smithfield in 2010.

Asked what she would remember most about the past few years, Sr Ann said it was the “whole feel of the people” – not just the parish community which she had become more and more a part of, but also the “incidental” friendships, from the Vietnamese baker who used to give her free rolls to the coffee shop waitress who called her “that dear old lady”.

Despite various courses and seminars on theology and spirituality and a wealth of experience in education and pastoral work, she attributes her ability to get on with people to her parents and family.

“They always welcomed people into our home – Dad would bring home Irish immigrants from work and he and Mum taught me to get on with people no matter who they were or what they did,” she said.

Sr Ann’s earlier work with women suffering from AIDS in Melbourne and with Timorese refugees in Puckapunyal put her people skills to good use. “Sometimes you don’t have to talk to comfort people, you can just be with them,” she said. “You can’t take away what’s happening to them but you can be with them, just holding their hand.”

Sr Ann’s decision to join the Faithful Companions of Jesus, an order founded by a French widow in Amiens, France, in the early 1800s, came at a time when the order was at its peak in Australia. As a young girl growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg, Sr Ann attended the local parish school but ventured further afield to Vaucluse College FCJ, Richmond, for her secondary schooling.

She felt drawn to a vocation but her mother wanted her to find out more about what life was like and so she spent time going to dances, making her debut and “having a good time”. After a two-year stint in the public service she thought “entering the convent couldn’t be as bad as this” and in 1954, just before turning 20, she entered the novitiate at Genazzano in Kew.

Her first position as a student teacher was at St Ignatius, a parish school in Richmond, where she had 80 children of different nationalities in one class. Guided by Mother Augustine as principal, she learnt how to relate to the children despite their lack of English and after about eight years she ended up principal of the school – a role that included a wide range of duties, from running the netball to fund raising.

After 12 years at St Ignatius she became a sports mistress and boarding house supervisor at Genazzano College and then spent 18 months visiting FCJ schools in England (where she taught young boys in Manchester to play Aussie Rules), Ireland, Scotland and the United States, before returning to Genazzano as Year 7 co-ordinator.

A period as Religious Education co-ordinator in the Frankston Parish was followed by pastoral work in Benalla before her move to Adelaide. She proudly recalls the day she moved to the northern suburbs in May 2010: “It was the day Jessie Watkins sailed into Sydney Harbour and I sailed into Elizabeth where I was to begin a very special time in my life – living and breathing with the people of the parish who in many ways have shown me the face of God.”

After a well-earned holiday with her sister on Norfolk Island, Sr Ann will talk to the parish priest in Epping North about how she can help, but she has a few ideas already.

This article was first published in the February 2013 edition of The Southern Cross.