Books etcetera

review: Pitch Your Tents On Distant Shores
launch:  An Acorn Grows Among the Gums

Pitch Your Tents On Distant Shores

Catherine Kovesi
Playright Publishing
Isbn 0 949853 98 4
460p  hardback

reviewed by Richard Leonard

Let me disclose that I have an interest in this book. While I have never met the author, Catherine Kovesi, I am an unapologetic fan of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Having seen them in action on the streets of Kings Cross in the 1990s, I came to greatly admire their commitment to a faith that acts justly.

So I did not come to Pitch Your Tents On Distant Shorestabula rasa.

At its sparest, this book chronicles the extraordinary faith and hard work of generations of Good Shepherd sisters and their co-workers as they committed themselves to the welfare of women in Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti over the last 143 years.

It is easy to read on to social, welfare and healthcare histories today’s bias and knowledge. In this book it jars to read about grown women described as “children” or “inmates”, but the sister’s contemporaries, throughout the latter part of the 19th and most of the 20th century, would have had no such problem with these titles, and the care and custody that accompanied their use.

Kovesi helps to ease these tensions in the early chapters by providing an excellent sketch of the fate of unmarried mothers and, often, poor neglected and abandoned women in Melbourne in the 19th century. In this climate of disease, destitution and public disgrace, the Good Shepherd sisters provided a compassionate refuge and security.

As she relates the foundation of the sisters’ first work in Australia, the author deals with the accusation that their institutions were prisons and sweatshops. Some of the women sent to their homes were under the orders of the courts, but Kovesi finds no evidence that women were incarcerated against their wills. Other social, mental or personal issues saw some women stay within Good Shepherd homes for their whole lives.

Another striking feature of this history is the context of the development of religious life within which Kovesi locates the emergence of the Good Shepherd Sisters in France. I am yet to read a chapter on these complex issues as economical in description and accurate in detail. It is a gem on its own.

Given Kovesi’s previously acclaimed biography on the Australian Mercy foundress, Mother Ursula Frayne, it is also pleasing to note the pivotal role she played in bringing the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to Melbourne. For those who read this book for salacious details about the physical abuse of women, akin to what has emerged out of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, these issues are dealt with when the allegations arise in the 1994.

Kovesi, however, makes two points earlier in her work that mark out the Good Shepherd institutions from other similar works conducted by other congregations of nuns. The first is that corporal punishment was forbidden by the Good Shepherd’s Rule. Indeed one of the sadder elements within this story is that given the constraints of the “non-touch” rule for nuns, vulnerable and very needy women did not receive the sort of physical comfort they deserved and needed.

Secondly, the sisters did not just supervise the work of the women in their laundries, kitchen, gardens and other industries, but worked hard along side their charges.

This may be why, given the number of institutions they ran for so long, the Good Shepherd Sisters have had, relatively, so few allegations made against them. And long before any national Catholic child protection protocol was in place to deal with these allegations, the sisters worked to attend to these allegations as justly as possible.Kovesi's highly structured work describes the reasons for the foundation of each of the sister’s 17 institutions, and their eventual closure. Her affection for these women is palpable, as they pragmatically respond to the needs of poor women in a tough world. But the sisters knew the limits of their abilities and could read the signs of the times.

The 1970s saw a dramatic shift in understanding the effects of institutional residential care. Society was changing, the pill meant fewer teenage pregnancies, and there was now greater support for unmarried mothers and women going through other tough straits.With mixed emotions for some, the sisters withdrew and sold all their institutions in a very short period of time. And they also rediscovered their charism in caring and advocating for women and young people on the streets or at home. This is attested to by the list of the large range of works the sisters presently run, supervise or support. 

Pitch Your Tents On Distant Shores is filled with fascinating details. One will suffice here.

Ronald Ryan’s mother, who was a past pupil of the sister’s Abbottsford Convent in Melbourne, returned and stayed there during the dreadful months leading up to her son’s hanging in 1967. He was the last man capitally punished in Australia.

There are also some details left hanging that cry out for further explanation. Why was Mother St Brigid forced from office? And what ever happened to the breakaway group in the late 1960s?

The greatest weakness in this splendid book, however, has to be a deliberate decision. A professional and capable historian like Kovesi knows that the voices largely missing from her history are the women who lived in the Good Shepherd homes in Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti. Granted that some of them were not literate and therefore written archives do not survive them, others are still alive. I know some of them, and their reflections on their time as recipients of the Good Shepherd ministry are a vital ingredient that would have provided an even more complete picture.

What’s not in this book, however, does not take away from what is included. This meticulously researched and well written volume is replete with magnificent photographs. It is interesting to note that in these photos the nun’s habits are appropriately clean and crisp. These images give a face to the narrative, and attract a readership that will enjoy the coffee-table visuals of this book as much as its story.

Pitch Your Tents puts words around why I admire the Good Shepherd sisters so much. Both this book andthe sisters are tenacious, expansive and not afraid to hold several things in tension at the same time.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting. 

Humble grave marks historic beginnings

A humble grave marked by a white cross, near a wall of St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart, has immense significance for the Catholic Church, not only in Tasmania, but Australia.  It marks the resting place of Mother Xavier (Ellen) Murphy, who led a small group of women halfway around the world to begin, in Hobart, the first Presentation foundation in the southern hemisphere.

Their story, and those who have followed in the 140 years since, is told in rich detail in An Acorn Grows Among the Gums, written by Dr Noela Fox PBVM and launched recently by the Archbishop of Hobart, the Most Rev. Adrian Doyle.

It is a story of courage, commitment and faith which continues today in the Tasmanian Presentation Sisters under the leadership of Sr Gabrielle Morgan.

“It is a remarkable and wonderfully compelling story,” Archbishop Doyle said, as told primarily through the lives of individuals.  “Through these individuals we see the real history of the Presentation Sisters.”

Sr Noela asked people to read An Acorn Grows Among the Gums with the “eyes of your heart” so that they might discover the treasure the Presentation Sisters have been to the people of Tasmania, and Australia.

“Step into the story,” she invited. “What motivated these Sisters to choose freely to come to the most distant, the most needy, the most dangerous British colony of the time? What has motivated them to meet courageously the challenges of every decade since 1866?”

Sr Noela said that it was impossible for words to do justice to the story. However, inspired by the immense courage and faith of the Sisters whose story is told, she said she had come to a greater understanding of the substantial contribution the Tasmanian Presentation Sisters had made to nurturing the faith of the people and to the development of society itself.

The Congregational Leader, Sr Gabrielle Morgan PBVM, pointed to the close collaboration between the Church and Sisters that brought the first Presentation Sisters to the island – Archbishop Daniel Murphy inviting his blood sister Ellen and her religious sisters to educate the children of the young colony.

“We continue to enjoy today a close association with our Archbishop – a former student – as we work together for the mission of the Church in this diocese,” she said.

“These 140 years have seen the loyal and faithful service of many Sisters with and among the local church, faithfully striving to nurture the faith in the lives of the young and their families, and especially in more recent times, in various other ministries, alongside the many other committed members of our Church in Tasmania.

“Who knows where religious life, as we know it, is going in the future? One thing I know for sure, is that God will continue to call women and men to leave all that seems secure in their lives and step out onto the pathway on which the Gospel leads us.

“We give thanks to those, Sisters and co-workers, who have gone before us in these past 140 years, and we pray that in reflecting on the story that is told in this book, we will catch glimpses of what it is that we as Church in Tasmania, are called to in the future.”



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