The term ‘senior’ doesn’t sit well with the energetic Sister who returns to Adelaide this week after two weeks in Cambodia helping to build homes for land mine survivors.
But the 75 year old confessed that these days there’s not a lot of hands-on building work on her part; she leaves that to the “amazing” Young Mercy Links women who accompanied her to Siem Reap.
At home she is kept busy responding to a barrage of calls for assistance from refugees and asylum seekers struggling to navigate the legal system and provide for themselves and their families. Delivering furniture and food parcels, driving people to appointments, accompanying them in court is all in a day’s work for Meredith.
Blind-sided by her nomination for the State award, she said it was a tribute to everyone she worked with and hoped it would be a platform to promote the “very things that myself and other people are really passionate about – to create a more just and equitable Australian society”.
Her interest in social justice began when she was an idealistic young student at Marymount College in southwestern Adelaide. As a member of the Brighton Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement she received a good grounding in theology that wasn’t an “airy fairy spirituality” but focused on “what Jesus was about”.
She was heavily influenced by Sr Patricia Pak Poy RSM who won a Nobel Prize for her involvement in the International Campaign against Land Mines.
“Sr Patricia came to talk about spirituality and theology, of how to be your best self…she spoke in a language that I understood as a 20 year old,” Meredith said.
“I was always thinking you only get one shot at this life and I wanted to give it my best to make a difference in the world we’re living in.”
After talking to Sr Patricia about her aspirations she thought perhaps the best way to achieve her goals was through religious life, but she was by no means sure of this.
“I thought I’ll give it a go – I’ll get this out of my system and then I’ll do something else with my life,” she said.
But Meredith soon found herself immersed in the exciting period of change after Vatican II when there were new possibilities for religious women and how they could contribute to the Church.
After studying Community Development at the Institute of Technology she commenced a Bachelor of Theology at the seminary – the first time religious women were allowed to study alongside men training to be priests.
She took her first vows in 1973 at the Angas Street Chapel and began living amongst the community at Morphett Vale with Sr Ruth Egar, at the invitation of Sr Ruth’s brother, the late Mgr Rob Egar, who was parish priest.
“It was such a different model, we had an open house with people coming and going,” she explained.
“In those six years in the south we started groups, ran activities, we did loads of things.”
Her desire to live amongst the people continued as she moved to a house with YCW people at O’Halloran Hill and then lived and worked with disadvantaged people at The Parks and later at Hackham West.
But in 1995 she was invited by Archbishop Leonard Faulkner to join the Diocesan Pastoral Team – an innovative model of Church leadership giving women and laity a role in governance.
“I made that decision because I felt that what we were learning about the lives of people on the fringes of society; I didn’t have any pretensions about that but there were so many learnings about what makes people grow and flourish, and what inhibits them from flourishing,” she said.
“I thought maybe I’ve got something to offer the team.”
Meredith had five “wonderful” years on the Team and then became leader of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy for 10 years.
“That changed my life but I brought all those aspirations with me,” she said.
“I tried to hold on to the principles that had shaped my life and I learnt so much about how we can really be Church in the world today.”
It was another period of change as the Congregation moved to an Institute and with freedom to come up with new ideas. This included the Young Mercy Justice Tree for students at Mercy schools, a precursor to Young Mercy Links which Meredith is so passionate about today.
When the Inverbrackie Detention Centre opened in 2010 she began working with respected Mercy Sister Maryanne Loughry and the Jesuit Refugee Service.
“They approached me as someone who might journey with those people (at Inverbrackie); I thought ‘oh well I’ll give it a go, even though I don’t know anything about refugees’,” she said.
“It was a conversion for me, I had no experience of people who had suffered trauma and torture in their home countries, their well-founded fear of persecution – that’s the definition of asylum seeker – it was overwhelming but I started to really listen to people and I started to love them.
“I thought this is meant to be for me right now.”
One thing led to another and when Inverbrackie closed in 2014 Meredith helped lawyer Julie Redmond form a Circle of Friends group to continue supporting people who had been living in detention and had moved to Adelaide.
The advocacy group Justice for Refugees SA was born out of this experience of standing with refugees and asylum seekers.
At the same time, Meredith “somehow got caught up” with St Aloysius College old scholar Gabby Kinsman, and together they decided to see what could be done for young people who wanted to continue their interest in social justice after leaving school.
“It’s been an amazing experience to tap into young people’s aspirations and hopes…I think it’s an extraordinary gift to me, I’ve had some wonderful young people working with me,” she said.
“I suppose I’ve always had a commitment to young people, that’s never disappeared.”
Meredith said naturally there have been times when she’s thought about having a family, and there have been times of loneliness.
“However, it’s part of human condition to feel lonely sometimes; I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had over these 50 years in the world and the Church,” she said.
“It’s been a precious and wonderful journey.”