But the 91 year old has an enviable attitude to life as she lives each day “in the present” and thankful for all God has given her.
“The words ‘thank you Lord’ have always come “very easily” to me,” she told The Southern Cross.
“The love of the Lord is certainly very real.”
When talking about the strong Catholic faith instilled in her as the youngest child of Irish immigrants in Port Lincoln, she is matter of fact.
“We just had the faith, there was no big show about it,” she said.
Her childhood memories are happy ones; growing up with her two older siblings a stone’s throw from the ‘back beach’, spending care-free days swimming and jumping off the town tower, and riding her bicycle to school and daily Mass.
Her father, Paddy, came to Australia in 1924 and helped lay the rail line to Port Lincoln where he bought a house and “got things ready” for his bride-to-be, Ellen. She arrived in 1927 and within a week they were married in
St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral before heading to Port Lincoln.
Educated by the Josephites until the age of 12, Norah caught the attention of the inspector of schools (“but don’t print that”, the modest Sr Norah said) and she gained a scholarship to complete her schooling as a boarder at Cabra Dominican College in Adelaide.
She would travel on the MV Minnipa to and from Port Lincoln for holidays, an overnight trip which she described as “a lot of fun…all those kids from down the coast and the Rostrevor lads”.
After school she remained at Cabra as a ‘parlour boarder’, living in a house with three other girls who were finding their feet while they worked or studied.
Norah enrolled at the University of Adelaide to study arts but at the age of 19 she decided to enter the convent.
Asked what prompted this, Sr Norah said “I’ve no idea”.
As a child she hadn’t contemplated religious life: “I always just lived in the present and was happy for today, I didn’t give a hoot about tomorrow.”
She recalled being reluctant to tell her parents when she visited them during the holidays and so decided to write of her decision instead.
“My brother John was there when they read the letter and he wrote back to say ‘Dad’s doing handsprings, he’s so delighted’,” she said.
Being an ‘enclosed’ order, the Dominican choice was a surprise to some, including her mum who would have liked her to join the Josephites because of their presence in Port Lincoln.
“In those days we couldn’t even walk down the street, we always had to be in pairs, it was a very different world,” Sr Norah said.
But any trepidation was put to rest when she told the parish priest, Fr Nesdale, of her plans and he said ‘I’ve been waiting for this’.
“That kind of helps me, even now, the fact that he thought I was doing the right thing,” she explained.
After her final profession on December 15 1953 she completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Canberra when a new house was being established and then obtained her teaching qualifications in Adelaide.
She took Damian as her religious name because she knew a Passionist priest with that saint’s name, and she was known as Sr Damian when teaching in Dominican schools including St Mary’s Memorial School at Glenelg, St Mary’s College, Cabra and Dominican Convent School, Kapunda.
When she was in her early 30s the Mother Superior said the order was thinking of sending people overseas to study and ‘your name has come up’. Knowing Sr Norah would probably say ‘no’, she told her to think about it.
Her brother John had also pursued a religious vocation and was with the Columban mission in Korea for 30 years. The prospect of spending time with him on her way to New York to study a Master of Science in Education at Fordham University, was too great.
“On the way to New York I went to Korea, it was just marvellous to be where John worked,” she said.
“It was a year’s course but I stayed an extra term…and I had to go home via Korea didn’t I.”
She thoroughly enjoyed her time at the Jesuit university and a priest gave her a holy card at the end to thank her for making the class so enjoyable.
The image of a Dominican nun travelling every day on the subway to university in one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities is lost on Sr Norah.
“I never felt scared, the people were always marvellous, and I wasn’t looking for any special treatment,” she said.
“I was old enough to just take my place wherever.”
Her only other overseas travel has been to Ireland where she met her relatives in counties Sligo and Wexford.
After her studies at Fordham she changed from teaching to school counsellor at Cabra for 14 years, during which time she became a Justice of the Peace.
“I didn’t leave my life there,” she said, referring to her decision to study nursing in her early 50s.
This pathway was prompted by spending time with her parents when they were cared for by the Little Sisters of the Poor at Myrtle Bank for six years. Paddy died four months after Ellen, who had a bad heart, and Sr Norah is grateful for the time she spent with them.
Recognising the need for aged care amongst her fellow Dominicans, she applied to train at St Andrew’s Hospital where her sister Mary had taught. “I guess the matron was well disposed and took me in, even though I wasn’t young,” she said.
“It was a very happy year.”
She worked at Southern Cross Care at Glandore and continued volunteering there after her retirement as well as for Meals on Wheels.
These days she likes spending time in the chapel: “I’m sure the Lord helps me go to sleep sometimes,” she quipped.