1 April 2009: Josephite nun Sister Joan Healy was awarded Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) highest honour yesterday, Doctor of the University, in recognition of her significant contributions to social work, particularly in supporting community-based care for children and families in need, both in Australia and overseas.
Honorary Doctorate Sister Joan Healy
Sister Joan grew up as part of a strong Catholic working family, and trained at the then Melbourne Teacher’s College.
She taught in state schools, many in poorer western areas of Melbourne and was involved with the Young Christian Workers Movement for a time – giving up teaching to live with and help homeless girls.
Choosing to dedicate her life to helping others, Sister Joan joined the order of St Joseph’s, whose work focused on communities of the poor and marginalised. In her early years of Josephite life she completed a secondary teaching degree, then her graduate Diploma of Social Studies and Psychology Honours at Melbourne University.
At the time, the order was looking at alternatives to institutionalised care for children in their orphanages – most of whom were not in fact “orphans” but children whose parents could no longer look after them.
Sister Joan, with the support of the order, believed that the best situation for children was to stay with their family, and that those families and communities should be supported in order to achieve this.
She undertook numerous feasibility studies of non-institutional care of children, and tested out the resulting models personally, living in an old convent in Footscray with young mothers and babies –observing the “lacks and gaps” in their lives that needed to be filled.
Sister Joan continues to use her findings today through her involvement with Indigenous families in Melbourne and central Australia – encouraging the natural leaders of each community develop their strengths and outline the support they would like.
“My job has always been to listen to the people and see what their strengths and weaknesses were and to see how the community could come together,” she said.
From 1989 to 1995, Sister Joan volunteered with the Overseas Services Bureau in Cambodia, where she worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service during the war, and with villages after. In each case, her model for community consultation and support was the basis for action.
Vice-Chancellor of ACU, Professor Greag Craven, said during her time in Cambodia, Sister Joan had written a book on Mary MacKillop.
“In the book Sister Joan said Mary believed that God’s love could direct her life in the ways of great goodness,” he said. “And so it has been with the widely admired Sister Joan Healy.“