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From Ceduna to missionary Sister


Sr Eileen van der Lee fdnsc - Born: March 5 1930 | Died: January 21 2022

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I have loved you with an everlasting love. I am constant in my affection for you.

These words from the prophet Jeremiah capture well the driving force behind Sr Eileen as she had  absolute confidence in the one who called her into life and loved her unconditionally.

As a Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart her ministry in health showed care, concern and compassion for all who came to her, especially the people of Papua New Guinea. Her dedication as a nurse came from her closeness to Jesus to whom she dedicated her life for 71 years.

Eileen was born Aldagonda Eileen in Ceduna on the West Coast of SA to Petrus and Suzannah. Her parents grew up in Europe through the war; after marrying, they migrated to Australia from the Netherlands. Eileen’s father was a labourer and in the 1920s he helped build the jetty at Cape Thevenard in Ceduna.

It was in Cape Thevenard, an isolated coastal village, that Eileen attended school. The family had a strong Catholic faith and it was this faith in God that supported them during the difficult years of the Depression. Eileen recalled attending Mass with the family every two months when a priest was able to travel. She had no formal religious instruction, the example of her parents and the many holy pictures on the walls of her home educated her in her faith.

The Annals was one publication the family received and here Eileen delighted to read about the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. No doubt at this time she started to dream about being a missionary Sister. No doubt her early years living in an isolated town prepared her for life as a missionary.

In 1946 Eileen moved to Adelaide for work as a telephonist and it was here that she met Fr Cuthbert Hoy MSC and the Sisters at Kilburn. Eileen had a deep sense God was calling her to be a Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and she was determined to enter the novitiate. Eileen’s mother did not agree to her entering the convent and even took Eileen to the police to try to prevent her from entering.  As she was 18 years old, the police said they could not prevent her from going but she could not take any permanent vows until she was 21. Eileen’s father was agreeable for her to go and told her that if she wanted to come back, there was always a home for her.

In1948, she entered the novitiate at Hartzer Park and made her first vows in July 1950. She was given the name Sr Cuthbert; thus, began Eileen’s lifelong ministry and her epic journey as a passionate, enthusiastic nurse and missionary Sister.

Eileen did her general nurse training at St Vincent’s Hospital from 1951 to 1954. From 1954 to 1956 she worked at the leprosarium at Chanel Island and East Arm in the Northern Territory. This was followed by four years nursing at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hospital, Randwick. During this time she studied as an operating theatre Sister at Lewisham Hospital and, with Sr Constance Daley, started the theatre at Randwick. She also trained as a midwife at Calvary Hospital.

In 1964 her dream of going to the missions was realised and with joy and enthusiasm she accepted a move to Papua New Guinea. After a year at Paparatava, Rabaul, she was appointed to the newly opened Mission Station of St Paul’s Boregaina in the Rigo District east of Port Moresby. Sr M Paul had started a small clinic for the people but with the arrival of Eileen a very good general clinic was established and provided prenatal care for the women. Eileen began going to nearby villages to provide health care for the people and trained a young woman to be her helper. She showed herself to be an excellent nurse and had a special skill in diagnosing illnesses.

In 1969 Eileen commenced her many years of community health nursing and maternal child health at various mission stations on New Britain Island – including Kilenge, Vunapope, Paparatava, Uvol and Napapar. Many of these were very isolated with no doctors nearby and when necessary she would seek advice from a doctor over the mission radio. Usually there were two or three Sisters in the community. Eileen was often called upon to care for the needs of the German MSC priests and brothers, including preparing meals for them. Some of the Sisters were Dutch and with her Dutch heritage she would have felt a special bond with them.

Eileen was an excellent nurse – compassionate, resilient and hardworking. She endured many difficulties with living in isolated missions through her reliance on the Grace of God.

When she was at Kilenge, a station at the very tip of the west end of the island, she was in charge of the mission hospital where medical help was many days by boat away.  But she had an interesting ‘sideline’.  Kilenge has a very active volcano, not very far from the mission, and Eileen was the one who reported its activity daily to the vulcanologist in Rabaul via the two-way radio.

In 1990, after 37 years and after independence in PNG, with many trained local people in the country, Eileen transferred to the Australian Province. She said that in many ways she found this move quite difficult after working a number of years in the conservative Archdiocese of Rabaul. From then until 2008 she nursed at St Joseph’s Aged Care Facility.

Eileen was a good friend to many, she enjoyed walking, knitting, reading and swimming. When it was becoming apparent that Eileen’s health was failing, she asked to transfer to St Joseph’s Aged Care. She accepted her ageing with her typical resignation. It was here that she was beautifully cared for until her death at the age of 91.

– An edited version of the eulogy by Sr Philippa Murphy fdnsc


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