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Marie at home in the place ‘where it all began’


It’s been a strange start to her new role as coordinator of the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre but Marie Valenzuela is taking some positives out of the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the centre to close a few weeks after she began work.

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While the closure has enabled some necessary refurbishment of the building to be undertaken without disruption to visitors, Marie also hopes that the story of Mary MacKillop will have even more relevance to people once the centre reopens on August 1.

“I think with world events at this time and post-COVID-19, people may be looking for some inspiration and meaning; here we find a wonderful example of a life dedicated to service to others and the call to do God’s work,” said Marie, who was appointed to the part-time position in February following the retirement of long-time volunteer coordinator Claire Larkin. Sisters Sue McGuinness and Loreto O’Connor were the interim coordinators.

Born and educated in California before embarking on a career in human resources, Marie has been a regular volunteer at the centre since moving to Penola from Adelaide 21 years ago to work on a two-year vineyard development project. Her two children attended Mary MacKillop Memorial School in Penola and Marie said she liked the area so much she decided to stay.

“It’s wonderful to be involved in this lovely community with so much history and atmosphere about the place,” she said.

“I feel very privileged to be able to help at the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre and contribute to keep her spirit alive.

“Penola was ‘where it all began’ for the Sisters of Saint Joseph and we are keen for people to come here and learn more about the lives of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and co-founder Father Julian Tenison Woods.

“It is a beautiful and peaceful place and everyone is inspired by the story of Australia’s first saint and takes away something from their visit.”

As a committee member and volunteer, Marie assisted with IT, website management and some graphic design, as well as taking photographs for events.

She felt “ingrained with the ethos and spirit of the people and the place” but added that she had big shoes to fill after the centre had been run so successfully for more than 22 years.

In addition to the recent repair works, there are plans to enhance and revamp the displays in the Mary MacKillop gallery over the next few years.

In August there will be two new displays open which focus on the early parish of Penola as well as the pioneer priests, and will include historically significant vestments and articles of interest.

Over the past five years, the centre has averaged about 7300 visitors per year. Marie said numbers may decrease because of less bus tour groups in the current climate but she was hopeful that the centre may be introduced to a “whole new group of people seeking tourism with meaning or significance in these times”. She said the centre was fortunate to have some “amazing volunteers each bringing their own unique gifts and talents. Many of our visitor comments are about how welcome they are made to feel when they visit here,” she said.

Approximately 40 people volunteer from the region including Penola, Mt Gambier, Naracoorte, Tarpeena and Millicent. With many aged over 70, the committee decided to delay reopening the centre until August.



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