The young Esther Leigh (as she was then) had arrived at school late after walking three miles from the family farm in Carlow when she found two Presentation Sisters addressing students in St Mary’s Hall.
She heard them speak of a place where “kangaroos hop around the street and emus run up trees” and at the end of it the nuns asked who would like to join them in Australia.
“I shot my hand up but when I looked around none of my mates had, so I quickly put it down,” Esther recalled in her still strong Irish brogue.
“But the damage was done and at lunchtime I get this letter to take home to my parents.
“I walked the three miles home and my mum read the letter and started crying and she said ‘wait until your father comes home’.”
Esther went and sat on a haystack while she waited for her dad, who was a horse trainer. As the only girl she was his “pet” and she was sure he’d say no.
James Leigh asked his daughter if she wanted to go to “that place Australia, wherever it is, and be a nun” and when Esther nodded yes he said “well I won’t stop you but I’ll give you three months – a month on the water, a month there and a month coming home, you’ll never stay there”.
To Esther’s astonishment, he added “if you do stay, we’ll follow you in 12 months”.
Six weeks later and with eight other young girls from all over Ireland, Esther set sail for Australia, stopping at Naples and Ceylon and arriving in Fremantle on June 22 1951.
They stayed in an orphanage over the weekend and then took the train 300km north to the Presentation Sisters’ convent in the Geraldton Diocese where Esther remained for the next 12 years.
True to his word, James brought his wife and two sons to Australia in 1952, but blissfully unaware of the vast distances between places, he thought he would be close to his daughter after gaining work on Bungaree Station in South Australia’s Mid North.
Sadly it would be 10 years before her family could afford to come and visit her in Western Australia.
Asked if it was Australia or religious life which prompted her to make such a momentous decision to leave home, Esther emphatically replied it was her desire for a vocation.
“I had no idea about Australia, it meant nothing to me,” she said.
“The year before was the Holy Year, 1950, and Sr Brigid put on the play the Message of Fatima and I was an angel.
“Something happened to me during that month in May that made me think, I had the greatest respect for the nuns, they were beautiful, and I thought a lot about it afterwards.”
Esther said coming to Australia was “a real novelty” initially but when she and the other novices experienced their first summer dressed in black habits with only their faces visible “we thought we’d nearly die”.
“We were all ready to go back, but that changed,” she said.
“It was totally different, but a beautiful country.”
Esther taught at a number of towns in the diocese, including three years at Wittenoom Gorge, a blue asbestos mining town that doesn’t exist anymore.
“I loved it,” she said.
”We used to flick the specks of asbestos off our habits. And there was a big pile in the schoolyard!”
A highlight of her time in Geraldton was running summer school for Aboriginal children: “They taught us so many things…to this day I love them,” she said.
In 1963, during the turmoil of Vatican II when Pope John XXIII “opened the Vatican and all the moths flew out”, Esther said she became “very unsettled”.
“There was anger, there was arguing over the length of the habit, the colour of the habit, whether to show your hair or not; I couldn’t give a hoot about any of that.”
After deciding to leave the order she went straight to her parents’ house on Bungaree Station where her mother was so happy to have her back that she’d lay out her clothes and polish her boots every day as she did for her brothers.
The stress of leaving the convent had affected Esther’s health and her Dad used to give her half a glass of stout and milk to “fatten me up”.
For three months she “didn’t lift a finger” but soon tired of being idle and won a position at Loreto College in Adelaide where she taught for four years.
When she left Geraldton the local bishop, Francis Xavier Thomas, “a wonderful man”, told her: “You’ll go out into the world, you’ll meet a good Catholic man, and you’ll marry him”.
She replied, “your Grace that is the last thing in the world I want”.
But the Bishop continued: “With some of us God wanted all of our lives, with you He only wanted 12 years and you’ve given the best years of your life to God and you’ll never look back”.
Sure enough, in due course Esther met her husband, Jack Jordan, in the Irish Club in Carrington Street. Not only was Jack a good Catholic, he was an ex-Christian Brother.
“His father came from my hometown, and the ironic thing about it is that his father had five brothers and a sister who became a midwife and brought me into this world,” she said.
“Whether it was providential we met, I don’t know.”
She stopped work to raise her three daughters while Jack taught at St Ignatius’ College and returned to teaching at St Joseph’s Hectorville in 1973 until she had a son four years later, followed by another daughter. The family became parishioners at Dernancourt parish where Esther taught the sacraments for 14 years.
By this stage the family was living at Hazelwood Park but that didn’t stop Esther from taking a job on the other side of town at St Joseph’s Ottoway, a move which has shaped much of the past 30 years of her life.
As the Religious Education teacher she would tell the students the time for Sunday Mass at the local St Maximilian Kolbe Church and one day a child asked Esther if she would be present.
“We spoke about it round the table at home and Jack said ‘you will have to go to Mass down there because you can’t be telling the kids to go if you’re not there’.”
Jack continued to take their children to Pius X Church at Dernancourt while Esther began her long and very active involvement in the Ottoway parish.
After 23 years of teaching and running the sacramental program at the school, Esther began teaching catechism to public school children at the Ottoway church on Sundays.
With a predominantly Polish congregation, and increasing numbers of Vietnamese and Africans, Esther is the only Irish parishioner – and proud of it!
Her passion for guiding children in their faith hasn’t waned, whether it’s introducing them to the saints as they prepare for Confirmation, telling stories from the Old Testament or putting a holy picture on the cover of their books.
She also plays the organ at Sunday Mass, takes marriage preparation classes and assists with any annulments, as well as spending two days a week volunteering for the local Vinnies conference.
Esther received a papal blessing when she retired from teaching in 2003 and again last month for her voluntary work as a catechist.
Now a widow living at Magill after Jack died 12 years ago, Esther goes to Mass every morning at Dernancourt before setting off on the 20km trip to Ottoway. The grandmother of 12 and great grandmother of three somehow fits in ukulele lessons and a walking group around her church activities.
“I go to bed at midnight and am up at five,” she said, adding that she is slowing down a little.
“My mother lived to 96 and always said if you want to live a long time, keep away from the doctor.”
Her parents moved from Bungaree Station after 17 years and bought a small farm called Armagh just out of Clare, then to a property known locally as The House that Jack Built.
One of her brothers John died in a tractor accident at the age of 29, a week before Esther’s wedding.
Her other brother, Michael, went deaf overnight from influenza at the age of four and attended deaf school in Dublin and for a short time in Adelaide. The family learned to sign and Michael can lip read so well “you wouldn’t know he was deaf”.
In another twist to the Leigh family’s story, Michael married one of the eight young Irish girls who came to Australia with Esther and the Presentation Sisters. She met him while visiting Esther on the family farm.
Jump to next article