I have had the privilege of journeying with Sister Margaret and a group of parishioners over the last three weeks through the Advent Mystagogical Reflection. It has been through this process and recently visiting Margaret in her home that I have come to know and appreciate her creativity as a photographer, writer and lover of life.
What strikes me about Margaret is her deep love of the country and all its natural and human elements. During my visit she proudly showed me her garden, pointing out some of the bush tucker she grew up on as a child. Her beautiful photography of the natural world hung on the walls and her nativity scene included a stockman, cattle dog, cockatoo, echidna, pelican, blue wren, kookaburra, frilled neck lizard as well as the traditional figures.
Margaret’s love of the natural environment is deeply connected to her upbringing on the beef cattle farm of Pee Dee which is positioned between Armidale and Kempsey.
Margaret remembers that she did not realise that it was part of the Catholic tradition to go to Mass each weekend, as this was only available once a month in the area in which she lived. It was the landscape that provided the sacrament every day.
On reflection Margaret writes:
“Mountains were part of the landscape of our lives as we grew up and they could very easily be taken for granted. We lived on the Eastern slopes of the Great Divide. It was here in this place that I found my first symbol of spirituality. As well as it being part of our enormous playground, the mountains and the hills became for me at a very early age a place of refuge and escape, a place of retreat. I loved to walk and play up and down the sides of the hill and ride my horse, I had a great sense of freedom. I love those precious hills, they were a place of solace, a place where I could go if I needed space and to disconnect for a time or find peace. I could just be amongst the trees and the birds and simply sit and wonder. From that sacred place, I could look out onto another mountain that seemed unreachable. I loved that it was unreachable, a mysterious mountain. In my simplicity, it reminded me of an old man, a kindly grandfather type, even though I didn't even know either of my grandfathers. I remember thinking the mountain was what God was like. The mountains and gullies were like all-embracing arms capable of hugging someone particularly in times of sadness and loneliness, especially when I would be getting ready to go back to boarding school, or simply when I needed space I'd hide and secretly wish. I would imagine that I was being held in the arms of the mountain, which for me was when I felt most connected to God.”
Margaret was only six and a half when she was sent to boarding school at Port Macquarie. The third child of six, she later developed a sense that her mother was unwell after having six children in seven years. Her mother felt confident sending such a young child to boarding school as a close friend Sister Emmanuel would be there to look after Margaret.
She remembers that day her parents dropped her off at the school and it has left deep scars of abandonment and sorrow. Sister Emmanuel never had the opportunity to look after little Margaret as once promised as she was sent back to Lochinvar as they thought she might have contracted tuberculosis.
The years in boarding school were difficult but one favourable memory was hearing the singing at Mass from the gallery inside the church. Having only experienced Mass in a small country church and in the home, this type of singing was new to Margaret and one that brought such joy.
It was not unusual that Margaret entered the order of the Josephites as she was standing on the shoulders of her great uncle John O’Sullivan, who was the first parish priest in Kempsey in the mid-1800s.
When John wrote home to Ireland writing about the beauty of the mid north coast, it was only Cornelius (Margaret’s grandfather) out of eleven brothers and sisters that took the opportunity to travel abroad to make Australia home.
Margaret moved from boarding school to Lochinvar to complete her final years of schooling, and like many young women at the time, entered the Josephite order and moved into teaching.
Margaret was principal of several schools in the ’70s within the Diocese. She had a desire to make the schooling experience real for the children. She remembers being a principal at Gloucester and several of the students had real difficulty in reading. Taking a different approach, she planted a vegetable garden and differentiated learning so students could verbally talk about what they had achieved as the plants began to flourish. This later led to her students successfully joining a public speaking group.
Margaret then went on to develop a resource centre in the Lismore Diocese and worked as a Pastoral Associate for eighteen years, which she absolutely loved.
After a short sabbatical in Melbourne, Margaret’s journey led her to Mission Australia and drop-in centres in Redfern and Kings Cross. These moments were truly eye-opening and learning experiences, Margaret did not elaborate on these, but the smile on her face spoke of a thousand real-life stories.
Before she retired only seven years ago, she worked in Auburn in a hostel/aged care, a ministry that she feels was a blessing. She recalls a resident who on several occasions placed a piece of toast wrapped in a napkin into Margaret’s bag as a gift, he believed hearing the Lord’s Prayer, give us this day our daily bread it was the right thing to do. This same man who only received $5 each week pocket money would give a portion to the Orthodox church which was across the road.
Margaret has fond memories of returning home from school to celebrate Christmas as a family. All members would re-enact the journey to Bethlehem and take turns in being Mary, Joseph and even the donkey. Margaret’s mother who died tragically when Margaret was only fifteen remembers her saying, do not forget the true meaning of Christmas. It is not all about Santa Claus!
I would like to thank Sister Margaret who shared so much of her story with me. This is only a portion of her amazing story, to fully capture it, a book would need to be written.
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