Congregation opens heart to Dubbo

Good neighbours in life, the Sisters of St Joseph in Dubbo for their rural conference are Ann Love, Leonie Wittmack, Mary Murphy, Marie McAlister, Virginia Bourke, Margaret Cusack, Pat Bartley, Kathryn Sweeney, Dianne Phillips and Madeline Breen. Photo: LOUISE DONGES
Good neighbours in life, the Sisters of St Joseph in Dubbo for their rural conference are Ann Love, Leonie Wittmack, Mary Murphy, Marie McAlister, Virginia Bourke, Margaret Cusack, Pat Bartley, Kathryn Sweeney, Dianne Phillips and Madeline Breen. Photo: LOUISE DONGES
Playing the drums as part of the conference: Sisters Leonie Wittmack, Marie McAlister, Kathryn Sweeney, Madeline Breen, Mary Murphy and Ann Love. Photo: LOUISE DONGES

Playing the drums as part of the conference: Sisters Leonie Wittmack, Marie McAlister, Kathryn Sweeney, Madeline Breen, Mary Murphy and Ann Love. Photo: LOUISE DONGES

THEY describe themselves as "good neighbours in life" who serve the community with love, an open heart and lots of laughs.

Over the weekend the Sisters of St Joseph gathered in Dubbo for the annual Josephite Rural Conference to spiritually recharge.

Sister Ann Love said it was a time to gather those based in rural areas across the country for prayer, play and fellowship.

From the congregation created by St Mary MacKillop, the sisters march to the beat of a different drum dedicating their life to the service of God and to those in need.

Whether at Aboriginal communities, music schools or at Catholic parishes the sisters served in diverse ministries.

"We do the ordinary things like taking out the garbage bins, cooking sausages and educate in the way Jesus did," Sister Ann said.

"We have the spirituality of the kitchen table, are very relevant and quite relaxed."

One of the sisters sitting in the circle added their presence in rural Australia was empowering and life-giving.

Sister Ann said their work was not serving others alone as they also received great blessings while lending a helping hand.

In some isolated places they were the only face of the church in any faith. A sister said she was touched when a lady from a different Christian denomination asked for her prayers as she was on her deathbed.

Another said how she took care of a sick man's dog and visited the nursing home to bring a smile to the faces of elderly residents.

The main work of education was still present today as it was in the foundation of the religious order.

"If we all disappeared in Australia, it would be a great loss," one sister said.

Sister Ann said the almost 1000 strong sisters across seven countries with 300 alone in NSW was rapidly decreasing.

The "full-on" life commitment of vowed sisters was not an option for some youth in the church today.

Most sisters joined when they were in their 30s and 40s and they were ageing, leaving little new blood in the order.

However, she insisted it was not a numbers game but one of long-lasting legacy from their work of love.

"It is the quality of the work we do that matters," she said.

Sister Ann said membership was still strong as people helped and joined in different ways.

She said this decline was a transition time and the sisters sought to keep the order relevant in the world today. She said they engaged with those marginalised in the community and the need was always present.

"I think there will always be devout sisters of St Joseph, the spirit will continue, but it will be a smaller group," she said.

The sisters some of whom were nurses, social workers and teachers used their talents to make a real difference in the lives of others.

Sister Ann said the best part of dedicating her life to God was being an integral part in people's joys and sorrows.

This also meant the most difficult times were funerals and at times when people invited her into their inner lives to help.

"We're not judgemental, we just sit listening," she said.

Sisters Frances McAleer, Janet Glass and Leone Wittmack Photos: JACKIE HUNT

Sisters Frances McAleer, Janet Glass and Leone Wittmack Photos: JACKIE HUNT

Sisters Mary Ellen O'Donoghue, Maureen McDermott and Kathryn Sweeney

Sisters Mary Ellen O'Donoghue, Maureen McDermott and Kathryn Sweeney

Sisters Therese Conroy and Patricia Duffy

Sisters Therese Conroy and Patricia Duffy

Sisters Yvonne McGettigan, Madeline Breen, Marie McAlister and Janet Cummings

Sisters Yvonne McGettigan, Madeline Breen, Marie McAlister and Janet Cummings

Sisters Jan Baker, Ann Love and Karen Muir

Sisters Jan Baker, Ann Love and Karen Muir

Sisters Bernadette Muscolino and Yvonne McGettigan

Sisters Bernadette Muscolino and Yvonne McGettigan

Sisters Catherine Histon and Julie Connolly

Sisters Catherine Histon and Julie Connolly