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New principal inspired by Australia’s first saint


Newly-appointed principal Sonia Nelson says she has a lot to be grateful for in life, especially her late parents who gave her such a strong faith foundation and sacrificed so much so their three daughters could have a good education.

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Recalling the impact they had on her life, Sonia believes mum Anna and dad Nevio would be so proud that she is now leading Mary MacKillop College – which has strong ties to Australia’s first saint – into its next chapter.

“Mum and Dad were from Italian migrant backgrounds and they were so hardworking,” Sonia told The Southern Cross during an interview in her office overlooking the picturesque Mary MacKillop Precinct.

“My two sisters and I know how much they sacrificed to give us a good education. The opportunities they didn’t have that they gave us so we could have a better future.

“I think that it is important to encourage others to have an attitude of gratitude and be aware of what you are grateful for in your life and who the people are that have enabled that or are supporting you.”

With a strong Catholic faith, Sonia is also grateful that her new role is enabling her to reconnect with the rich Josephite charism and tradition that shaped her as a student at a primary school run by the Sisters of St Joseph. And she believes it is a “blessing” to have the inspiration of Mary MacKillop and the Sisters who live nearby permeating throughout the college.

“With our proximity to the Mary MacKillop Precinct it enables that closer, deep connection with the Sisters of St Joseph and it’s not lost on us that when we’re in St Joseph’s Chapel or on these streets that we are literally walking in the footsteps of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. How amazing is that?” she said.

“It’s also really important for us as a college to empower our girls, empower these young women to be confident, capable, compassionate leaders who, like Mary MacKillop, can forge their own pathways to success and make a positive difference in the world. Mary continues to be an inspirational role model for our students, our staff and families.”

Coming to Kensington after eight years as deputy principal at St Francis de Sales College in Mount Barker, Sonia reflected on the influence the Josephites had on her eventual career choice.

As a student at St Monica’s Parish School in Walkerville she was inspired by then principal and Year 6/7 teacher, Sr Kerry Keenan, describing her as “young, vibrant and really resourceful”.

“That was the first time I recognised the influence of that service vocation,” Sonia said.

“Her care and support of each student to bring out the best in them was obvious.”

“I was then fortunate to have other influential teachers who had a great impact on me personally and where I ended up professionally. Interestingly, they were all women!”

“Not only were they deeply passionate about the subjects they were teaching but as educators they had the ability to give young people real opportunities for their successful future lives by providing a holistic and caring education.”

After her secondary education at all-girls Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College in Enfield, Sonia went to university and completed a Science degree, majoring in Chemistry.

Initially planning to don a lab coat and pursue a career as a researcher, she felt the “call of education” and instead went down the path of teaching.

Her first appointment took her to Cabra Dominican College for more than 20 years. It was there she experienced the joy of the Dominican charism.

Sonia remains linked to the Dominicans, celebrating her faith as a member of the Cabra Chapel Eucharistic Community, through which she witnesses the determination of the members to advocate for social justice issues, particularly asylum seekers.

From the south of the city she moved to Kildare College in the north – again relishing the opportunity to learn about the Brigidine charism – before taking up the position of deputy at Mount Barker in 2015.

Now back in the eastern suburbs and much closer to the home she shares with husband Ian in the city (their two adult children now living independently), Sonia is full of optimism as she leads Mary MacKillop College into the future.

With a staff of 60 and 350 students she describes the college as a “hidden gem” but believes it is time to “get this secret out, because we know this is a beautiful place for these young women”.

Her scientific background means she is eagerly awaiting the completion later this year of the new Tenison Centre, which will be a hub for Science, Art and innovation.

Sonia said the centre will provide the opportunity for students to “create and innovate” so they can gain the “knowledge, skills and capabilities to prepare them for careers in STEM and the Arts”.

“I feel truly blessed to be in this community…and as a new principal my focus will be how do we step up to the next level, honour the tradition, build on the reputation and continue to grow and flourish – that will be the delicious challenge.”

Ever grateful, Sonia also knows that her parents – and St Mary MacKillop – will be with her every step of the way.

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