Most people love a story. As a nurse and academic at Australian Catholic University (ACU) in Brisbane, I too, love a story. This is my story of personal transformation because of a chance invitation by Sr Maureen Andrews, mfic, to go to “the bush” (Cunnamulla, in south western Queensland) to teach a 2 day course to local hospital staff and lay people during our University mid-semester break in September. Another Franciscan sister travelled from Toowoomba to Cunnamulla to assist with my class, which was held in the Sacred Heart Church. The church is also used as an assembly hall by the Catholic school which is next door. I stayed with Maureen and her Franciscan colleague in the Catholic Presbytery which is down the road from the church. The Presbytery had seen better days but had been made habitable by Maureen after her arrival with the assistance of the community.
My visit to Cunnamulla gave me an unexpected opportunity for reflection and a much deeper understanding of how health care professionals, including students, can help to assist and change a community in which they become engaged/ involved. However, in the involvement/ engagement with the community, the health care professional is also changed. My story is also about the intertwining of my experience in Cunnamulla within the framework of Catholic social teaching and the Mission, values and recent initiatives at ACU to incorporate these values into the culture and activities of the University, and its staff and students.
The framework for my story begins some time ago and far away with the reign of Pope John Paul II, when Catholic Universities worldwide were presented with a constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae or “The Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities,” which set out the broad framework and the nature of the meaning of a Catholic University. The challenge was for Universities to translate the broad document to the specific culture, needs and context of their country. The question of how Australian Catholic University could express its Catholic identity more clearly has been considered frequently through a number of conversations at many levels in recent years. One answer has been to advance the Mission of ACU by establishing two Institutes within the University. Firstly, the Institute for Catholic Identity and Mission was established to implement a University-wide Core Curriculum in which all students in the University study several units (subjects) in which the values of a Catholic University and Catholic Social Teaching are framed. The intent of the Core Curriculum is to develop graduating students who are highly ethical and capable of contributing to the common good of society through their profession. Secondly, the Institute for Advancing Community Engagement was established so that community engagement principles could be embedded in the life of the University, including its governance, operations, budget, curricula, plans and policies. The focus of my story is framed within the values of Community Engagement (CE) at ACU which include the following – a preferential option for poor people; an appreciation of the sacred in life; a commitment to serving the common good; mutuality of respect; and finally, inclusiveness. Now I will continue my story.
As a city-born and -bred person, I was excited about travelling to Cunnamulla and open to whatever might happen. Sr Maureen drove 200 kms from Cunnamulla to Charleville to collect me from the airport and then 200 kms back to Cunnamulla along a totally straight road with roadkill apparent every couple of kilometres. As we drove along, and later as we enjoyed a simple meal at the Catholic Presbytery, I heard about Maureen’s work with the rural community which extends beyond Cunnamulla to places such as Thargomindah, Hungerford, Charleville, Yowah and Noorama. When Maureen arrived in Cunnamulla approximately two years ago, it was to replace Father Rod McGinley, who had been transferred to Clifton. Maureen asked the Bishop of the day where was his greatest need for help. He replied that it was Cunnamulla because of its remoteness. So Maureen arranged to move to the town to help the people as best she could. Cunnamulla currently has a visiting Priest who says Mass once a month as part of his travel circuit around a vast area that includes a number of outback towns.
Maureen prepares the families/children for Baptism and First Communion, conducts weekly liturgies, and also conducts funerals. People come from many kilometres away to attend these events which are an opportunity for community gathering and building. Maureen told me she is hoping to obtain a civil celebrant’s marriage licence so she can marry local people desirous of matrimony, as “there’s no one else to do it!”
While I was there, Maureen was waiting to hear from an Aboriginal family regarding the funeral for a family member who had died in Rockhampton. The man’s body was being brought back to his community in Cunnamulla and the family wanted a Catholic funeral. However, after several postponements, his funeral was eventually held about four days after I had returned to Brisbane. I marvelled at Maureen’s patience and understanding of the Aboriginal culture that meant she had to appreciate their different priorities and understanding of time from those of Western culture.
An excerpt from a newsletter written by Maureen on 30th October gives some colour to her work and how the events and celebrations help to create community in the rural area –
This year there are 11 children preparing for First Communion. Nine will make communion in Cunnamulla whilst the other two will celebrate with family and friends at Hungerford during the Christmas celebrations. It means an overnight stay for me as the road is simply large and small ruts and with the animals it is wiser to stay behind (overnight). This event provides us with the opportunity to bond as a community as after the ceremony Santa arrives and delivers presents before we sit down to a huge meal.
The above excerpt gives an idea of how Maureen has embedded herself in the community in a relatively short time. During my visit, I saw that she was loved by the local community, as I saw that she was known and welcomed wherever we went. And I was welcomed and made a part of the community because I was with Maureen.
Maureen is a social worker who travels around a huge area visiting people living in isolated areas to promote health in its most holistic sense. She calls in to see how people are faring, to check on them if they have had bereavements, sickness, hospitalisation, etc. On the day I was leaving, Maureen drove me around the town and the local area. I found she had an intense knowledge of the people in the local community - who lives in which house, who owns the businesses, who is in hospital, who has just been discharged from hospital, who is about to go to hospital and why, who has just had a baby, who has a sick/disabled child or spouse, who has serious financial problems on their properties, and who has depression, which very sadly, is a common problem. Maureen knows and understands the deep poverty of the area and of the people who live there. She said to me “they are very poor people here! There is no money, there’s lots of unemployment and lots of depression!” She knows the suffering and the struggles of the people…..as well as their joys, loves, hopes and celebrations. I was aware that Maureen was a woman who was deeply immersed in her community and who knew the community – it wasn’t their community – it was her community too. I now have a better awareness of the day-to-day struggles of people who live in these now depressed and struggling areas of Australia, and how Sisters, such as Maureen, are the backbone (often unknown and unacknowledged) of the Church in Australia. She is not alone. There are other Sisters from religious orders who do similar work with vulnerable people in many depressed areas in rural, regional and metropolitan areas of Australia.
When I reflect upon my experiences since my return to Brisbane, I am aware that my short visit of four days and three nights in Cunnamulla has changed me. I wonder at the greater possibilities for personal and professional transformation for my ACU colleagues and students who might engage with a community for a longer period of time. My experience has shown that if a person enters and becomes involved in a community with a sense of humility, openness, inclusiveness, a commitment to contributing to the common good, and respect for the people in the community, transformation occurs in the community as well as in the person engaged in the community. Maureen and her Cunnamulla community are a perfect example of this mutual transformation. I could not wish more than this for my colleagues and students at ACU as we work to accomplish the University Mission through meaningful engagement, presence and action in the local and wider community.
I am privileged to finish my story in a most appropriate way by quoting the end of Sr Maureen’s newsletter of 30th October in which she so clearly and humbly shows her embodiment of the values of community engagement:
Every day is now and presents a new challenge. The people of this dry, dusty and sandy land are great teachers to me in accepting what unfolds in your life and embracing it with joy. I count myself so fortunate. With blessings of hope, joy and love.