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Claire leaves Penola centre in good hands

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‘Look back a little and see what our good God has done for us.’ (Mary MacKillop 1880) These words provided an apt backdrop to a Mass of thanksgiving for Claire Larkin OAM in St Joseph’s Church, Penola, last month. In her unassuming, humble way, Claire has expressed God’s love through her generous commitment to the Mary MacKillop Centre Penola.

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It’s hard to imagine the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre without its esteemed leader Claire Larkin but she insists the interpretive museum in the South East of the State will continue to flourish after she retires this month.

“It will continue because so many prayers have been directed at Mary and with such good results,” said 82-year-old Claire who has volunteered her services to the centre for the past 24 years.

Her role as committee chairperson and centre coordinator has involved thousands of hours working to transform the visitor experience from the humble schoolhouse where Mary first taught to a world-class tourist attraction.

In the weeks leading up to Mary’s canonisation in 2010, Claire was at the centre from dawn to dusk, not to mention being on call 24/7 to respond to media inquiries.

Her knowledge of Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods, who co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph, and her ability to communicate Mary’s work with the disadvantaged and her legacy today made her sought-after ‘talent’ with journalists around the world.

Like any good leader, Claire is leaving the centre in the capable hands of an experienced committee and team of 30 volunteers. But more importantly, she is thrilled that the committee has decided to appoint resident Josephite Sisters Loreto O’Connor and Sue McGuinness as her replacement.

“It’s absolutely wonderful that they (the committee) have made the right decision of appointing Sr Loreto and Sr Sue as chairperson and coordinator,” she said.

“They have been here for  five years and are absolutely marvellous.”

A great believer in Mary MacKillop’s words ‘God will provide for the future’, Claire is confident that the challenge of finding the next generation of volunteers will be met.

“We don’t have many young volunteers – people always say they will help when they get the time – but Mary MacKillop finds people for us. When things are desperate she always finds the answers and solutions.”

Her own decision to volunteer was an easy one when she was approached a couple of weeks after retiring as administrator of the local hospital where she worked for 37 years.

“I jumped at it,” she said.

“My three children went to the (Mary MacKillop) Memorial School and I had always been interested in Mary.”

As secretary and then chairperson, she became heavily involved in the design and building of the new interpretive centre and the beatification.

“It was a really wonderful time,” she recalled. “The government did a survey of all the important sites related to Mary MacKillop and found Penola was the most significant.”

Unlike other sites, the old schoolhouse was owned by the Adelaide Archdiocese, not the Sisters of St Joseph. Under the leadership of Archbishop Leonard Faulkner, who was “very keen to have something here”, the Archdiocese agreed to fund the development. The Tourism Commission provided a grant and Adelaide architect Michael Fielder was selected from a national competition to design the new centre. Described as “our architect” by volunteers, he remains involved today.

“Most people who start doing things for us keep going,” Claire said.

Claire and Brian Larkin with their daughters Janet and Catherine in St Joseph’s Church, Penola.

While visitor numbers peaked during the canonisation, Claire said there was a steady flow of about 8000 pilgrims a year now.

“People are very appreciative of her story,” she said. “They are strongly affected by her and by Fr Woods…he is very well-known in scientific circles.”

In the local community, many parishioners “hold them both in their hearts” because they had grandparents who knew them, said Claire. “There’s a real connection.”

There were times when Claire wondered if Mary’s canonisation would take place in her lifetime and when it did, it was an “absolute highlight”.
But she has been equally inspired by the stories of people from all over Australia who come to visit Penola. “It’s very moving, you never know who is going to come through the door,” she said.

“There are people of faith who have prayed for certain things and then they come back every year with prayers of thanks.

“The Church is a very important part of their lives. Many of them were taught by the Sisters of St Joseph and they come here in awe.”

Claire never had any expectations when she started the role: “I thought I knew a lot but I just kept on learning,” she said.

“It became such a big story – doing all the media was unusual and I would get very nervous but they (the reporters) were so good. They might not take to the religious side but I was myself and I never had a bad experience.”

Describing Brian, her husband of 60 years, as her “rock”, Claire said he was always the “odd job man” and someone she could call on when things went wrong.

While Claire is keen to make a clean break from the centre, she will always be close to her beloved Mary MacKillop.
“You don’t turn it off,” she said.

“She’s Australia’s first saint and this is where it all began; if she hadn’t come here as a governess and if she hadn’t met Fr Woods, who knows what would have happened…

“It’s been a joy. I have enjoyed it tremendously and I have been privileged to work there.”

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