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Extending hand of unconditional friendship

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Inspired by Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley, who was called to minister to those in need, Sr Kate Conley OAM has spent much of her life working with women living on the edge of society.

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Ask any of her fellow Mercy Sisters and they will tell you that Sr Kate Conley has many wonderful qualities. She’s a great storyteller, has a good sense of humour, a fun-loving personality, is a mover and shaker, a woman of deep faith and someone who has never been afraid to reach out to those in need. And above all, she is a friend.

Her willingness to extend the hand of unconditional friendship to women prisoners was just one of the many reasons Sr Kate was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Queen’s Birthday honours last month.

For the 85 year old, who is currently ‘restoring’ her health with a stay at the new Carmelite home at Myrtle Bank, receiving the honour has been a humbling experience – and a much different one due to COVID-19. Personal visits by many well-wishers and face-to-face celebrations have had to be put on hold until later this year when she will be presented with her medal.

“I must admit I got a great surprise when I found out I had been nominated,” Sr Kate told The Southern Cross, adding that the OAM was really recognition for the work of all Sisters of Mercy.

“What has made my work worthwhile is that I did it from the heart and from my Mercy life, with the backing of the Sisters.

“I am very proud of the Sisters I have lived and worked with, their friendship, their faith and often their own courage in tackling new places and new things that need to be done.”

Sr Kate’s journey began in Snowtown, where she was one of a loving family. Her father Oz was the chemist for the region and her mother Anne was involved in the life of the community and the parish there. The four children – Kate, Bill, Moira and Joanne – all had a “very happy” childhood. Sr Kate attended the local area school and in the second year of high school she was sent to board at St Aloysius College, where the influence of the Mercy Sisters began to resonate with her.

While a calling to religious life was on her radar, Sr Kate fulfilled her mother’s wish and completed a teaching degree before making a decision to join the Order.

“It was a sacrifice, but I was making a definite stand in totally giving to that work, to that way of life and I did have a deeper sense of faith in me,” she said.

“I can still see my parents sitting there the day I told them in the kitchen; they were both pretty flabbergasted really, but they didn’t stop me.”

Dressed in the “long black habit and lacy curly bonnet” of postulants at the time, she began her teaching career at St Aloysius and six years later was professed a Sister.

Teaching appointments followed at Parkside, which was receiving its first big influx of Italian immigrants, then Albert Park, where she served as principal. Sr Kate then headed Mercy schools in Millicent, Mt Gambier and Elizabeth, before being granted a sabbatical.

It was this time spent in the Philippines that became a formative point in her life.

“I went to the Philippines because I heard from a Jesuit priest that there was a group of Sisters from different orders who joined together for two years to work among the really poor… and I mean the poor were really poor.

“I slept on floors and they showed me how to work in the sugar cane fields and then in the fishing villages, where we slept on little mattresses and were up early to visit the different families, often praying with the people.

“I remember going in the morning to someone’s hut and they had a little lantern and I still remember reading the gospel, ‘you are the light of the world’.

“I learnt a lot and the experience changed me. I thought if there was any way I can work with people who are needy in the community, I will.”

Perhaps it was God’s will, as when she returned to Adelaide and was preparing for another principal’s appointment she received a visit from a Josephite Sister asking her to consider taking over her role as the Catholic chaplain at the Adelaide Women’s Prison.

Sr Kate had found her niche, and for 15 years she supported and walked alongside women considered outcasts.

“I never asked them what they had done, I just came in as a friend and they knew I would listen to them and sometimes we would have a little prayer service.

“I am proud of the friendships I was able to develop with people living on the edge. I always think of them as human first and that’s very important to me in my work because it means you can come into their lives as they wish. I also valued connections with staff and other chaplains there.

“What I learnt in all those years is that friendship is so important, but I also learnt the mess people can get into with drugs, what crime did to their families and how hard it was for families to forgive them. In some cases I would work with the families as well as the women.”

During her chaplaincy work, Sr Kate took another sabbatical, this time living by herself in small shearer’s quarters in the Barossa Valley. There she found her love for painting and joined a local art group that she still attends once a month. She also used the time to write a paper which she presented at an international conference of prison chaplains in Canada. Called Human First, it included stories of her experiences working with those in need in the prison and the Philippines and summed up her philosophy in life.

“Once you live by that principle that everyone is ‘human first’ then it makes a big difference, you begin to form friendships that way.”

Sr Kate’s ministry also extended to Catherine House, where she served as chair of its board in the early years.

Together with a social worker at the prison she helped establish Taryn House, a halfway house for women being released.

Sr Kate was the industrial chaplain at Actil and Central Linen for two years and in more recent times has conducted retreats for staff from Mercedes College. She has been involved in other retreats for groups and individuals.

In addition to her Queen’s honour, perhaps one of the greatest acknowledgements of Sr Kate’s willingness to meet people ‘where they are at’ is that some of the women she once supported in prison still write to her. It was an ex-prisoner who initially nominated her for an OAM.

“I am still in touch with quite a few of the women,” she said.

“I guess I am a good listener… and they saw me as their friend.”

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