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Dominican vine still bearing fruit

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Last December the Dominican Sisters celebrated 150 years of ministry in Adelaide, Melbourne and Port Pirie Diocese. This is an edited version of the reflection given by SR BERNADETTE KILEY OP in the Cabra Chapel.

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On December 5 1868, the Orient docked at Port Adelaide after a three-month voyage from England. Among the passengers on board were seven young Irish Dominican Sisters from Cabra, Dublin.

Their mandate from the then-Bishop of Adelaide was to establish a secondary school for girls – something the young colony lacked. This they accomplished at St Mary’s, Franklin Street, in a very short time and with remarkable insight into what then constituted a contemporary education for girls.

The founding prioress, Mother Teresa Moore, at 28 years of age was among the oldest in the group. We know that at least five of them would never see their homeland again. The sixth, Sr Mary Catherine Murphy, fell foul of the local Church authorities and was sent home for what is described in our records as “independence of thought” – something we’ve all since aspired to – and the seventh, Sr Mary Thomas Molloy, disappeared from the community eight years after it was established. As yet, we know nothing definite of her subsequent life. These two cameos of Catherine Murphy and Thomas Molloy suggest that the coming of the Dominicans to Adelaide was not without controversy. In fact, the fledgling community led such a precarious existence that there was a time when the Sisters in Dublin seriously considered recalling them home.

They didn’t – and so the tiny seed, the seed that belonged to Christ, found its home in Australian soil. God, the vinegrower, the God who has tended this Dominican vine, enabled its roots to grow deeply into the earth, pruned it from time to time, and prepared it to bear fruit.

After the establishment of St Mary’s, Franklin Street, in February 1869, the congregation opened a further 19 schools in South Australia and Victoria including schools and services for children with special needs. Some of our Sisters served in the Solomon Islands from 1956 to 1988. Many worked in ministries beyond the schools, both locally and overseas. In 1991 we established Sophia, an ecumenical feminist spirituality centre which continues to flourish on the campus of Cabra Dominican College.

I think it’s fair to say that among us have been Dominican Sisters whose love for their students was palpable, whose ability to enthuse them as learners was extraordinary and whose humanity simply shone. There have been others of us whose different work enabled them to reach out to both adults and children whose needs required a particular kind of courage and compassion. And then there have been those blessed and burdened with congregation leadership in times of rapid change whose vision and commitment inspire us still.

In the communities where I’ve lived, I’ve known, and continue to know, women whose wisdom, kindness, creativity, patience and ability to laugh make the days memorable.  Such have been the abundant blessings of a generous God.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that we have not always been at our best – whether in community, in the classroom or in other places where our work has taken us, and there are those who have suffered because of us. As a congregation we have to reckon with these failures as the harvest is gathered in.

I’ve often thought about our seven pioneer Sisters and wondered what they might have hoped for the future of their work as educators. As I joined end-of-year celebrations at St Mary’s and Cabra this week and saw the beauty and energy and particular spirituality that marked each one, I decided that their dream for Dominican education here in South Australia has well and truly been realised.

And as for that fledgling community of 1868, a total of 256 Sisters joined them over the past 150 years. Unless the Holy Spirit has something surprising in store for us, it now seems that our work and life as a congregation is coming to fulfilment, and that this is a time of harvest rather than of planting. No matter: both the seed and the harvest belong to Christ, as our theme suggests. For us, this moment of harvest is as much grace-filled as the time for planting no doubt was for Teresa Moore and her companions.

The 31 of us remaining consider ourselves blessed to see this time. We give thanks to the God of abundance for 150 years of Dominican life, for all who have been part of this life with us and in whose legacy we share. We can’t see the future with absolute clarity. Indeed, who can? Our pioneer Sisters couldn’t, but we believe, as they believed, that whatever the future holds, it is already held in God.

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