At 93 years of age, Sr Deirdre Jordan is old enough to have known some of the first Mercy nuns who arrived in Adelaide from Argentina on May 3 1880.
The years have not dimmed her memory of those nuns, nor has she lost any of the fervour and sharp intellect which saw her become a college principal at the age of 27, the first woman to complete a Master of Education at the University of Adelaide, a lecturer in sociology and Chancellor of Flinders University.
Reflecting on her 71 years as a Mercy Sister ahead of the local chapter’s jubilee year, Deirdre said as a young girl growing up in Loxton, “not in 100 years” did she expect to achieve what she had.
While her marks at primary school were excellent, she and her parents had no idea that a teacher had put her name forward for a scholarship at St Aloysius College (SAC) in the city.
As a 12-year-old boarder at the Mercy school, Deirdre “hated the idea” of becoming a nun but by the time she was 15 something had changed and she clearly remembers the moment she knew she would have a religious vocation.
“I was cleaning my teeth at one of those long basins in the dormitory and I suddenly had this absolute conviction that this is what I had to do,” she recalled. “I stuck to it and didn’t ever change.”
Always one for a challenge, she initially planned to “do the hardest thing possible” and enter the Carmelites’ cloistered community but her spiritual adviser gently persuaded her that she might be better suited to the ministry of education and hence her decision to join the Sisters of Mercy.
However, it was not without a fight as her father refused to give her permission, insisting she wait until she was 21.
“He loved me beyond anything,” she said. “He told me it would be like going into prison and that I wouldn’t be happy.”
Fortunately for Deirdre, when she was 19 and her elder brother was 21 her mother had another baby. “They couldn’t care less after that,” she chuckled.
While much has changed for Religious women over the past seven decades, Deirdre said the key motivation for her then and now was “commitment, commitment, commitment…to serve the needs of others in whatever capacity I could”.
“I’m a great believer that everyone has a different talent…and so the commitment to serving others as a group, in all different ways, has evolved since I started,” she added.
As for her own talents and commitment, recognised at the highest level through an MBE and AC (the first South Australian woman to receive the latter), Deirdre stressed that many of her opportunities were “totally unexpected”.
For example, when she was appointed principal of SAC she was younger than every staff member and there was “no way” she wanted the position.
“My nose bled I was so scared; I never stopped but I didn’t necessarily aspire to it,” she said.
“In some ways I found all my life that things presented themselves that I didn’t look for, like being on staff of the university.
“I think it’s a great help that in a mad sort of way you are a neutral person; when you think of the women’s movement where women were seen as a threat, well I was never a threat. I had no aspirations of grandeur, I just wanted to get the job done.”
Deirdre said when she was appointed chair of a government committee looking at heritage-listing Lake Eyre, she was chosen by the Greens, the pastoralists, the heritage officers and politicians because “they couldn’t find anyone else that the whole committee would agree to”.
While she doesn’t describe herself as a feminist, Deirdre said “I probably am” and pointed to her time at Flinders University where she furthered the cause of women both as a role model and by encouraging them in their academic endeavours.
To this end, the Mercy Sisters were influential in that “every little bit of talent you had in you was squeezed up the surface and people met their responsibilities”.
Deirdre is also very conscious of the legacy of the founding Sisters of the Adelaide Mercy community – the 24 nuns who took the “enormous” step of moving from Argentina to Australia in 1880. Some were born in Ireland, others in Argentina. With their safety threatened by the repressive Argentinian regime, they accepted the invitation of Adelaide’s Archbishop Reynolds to come to South Australia to establish Catholic schools.
Deirdre recalled being taught by a nun with a Spanish accent, Sr Margaret Mary, when she first came to St Aloysius, and Mother Cecelia Cunningham who was a postulant when she first arrived.
“I still remember them, very much so,” she said. “Mother Cecelia was a very tiny person and very humble, just beautiful.”
The chapel at Angas St is named after Mother Cecelia’s parents who were extremely wealthy and whose inheritance was used to build the chapel and classrooms at St Aloysius as well as schools and convents at Parkside and Henley Beach.
Deirdre said the 140 year celebrations would be a “great chance to go back and look at the archives and establish a real picture of what was going on”.
It would also be an opportunity for the other Sisters to meet three Sisters coming over in May from Argentina, two of whom Deirdre knows well.
Both she and Sr Judith Redden, her housemate and former principal of SAC, have visited Argentina several times.
When Deirdre first travelled to Argentina in 1977 while on a study tour in South America, she was struck by the courage of the Sisters in Buenos Aires who had opted to leave the comfort of their convent and go and live amongst the poor in the barrios. Under the Pinochet dictatorship people were “disappearing” and gatherings of more than three people were forbidden.
“A wonderful Sister who spoke English, Sr Isobella, took me aside and explained what the government was doing – we hired a car and because there were three of us every time we went through a checkpoint we were stopped,” Deirdre recalled.
“The poor were living on railway lines, wherever there was some wasteland to build a shack on. The Sisters took the novices, who were the most beautiful group of young women you would ever find, and went to live in one of the barrios.
“I had the privilege of living with them for a week which was a huge honour.”
Deirdre’s next trip to Argentina was with Sr Judith who, after her appointment to SAC, initiated a program for students to visit Buenos Aires and help the Sisters working in the barrios.
With the generous support of Deirdre’s younger brother Tony, they helped expand a women’s shelter and build a community centre which was opened in 2009 by the Australian Ambassador to Argentina.
Equally important has been the effect on students, many of whom are now “brilliant” professionals and are planning to return and work in the barrios.
“That’s the other side of religious life,” Deirdre said. “Young women won’t take vows but they are a substitute for Religious. I can’t see any point in worrying that there are fewer Sisters – it seems to me that there is a time and tide for everything and every religious group has a history of facing what the call was at that time.”Jump to next article