CANOSSIAN Daughters of Charity Sister Melissa Dwyer, once a javelin thrower with Olympic aspirations, now uses her love of athletics to inspire young African women.
Thirty-one-year-old Sr Melissa was recently back in Brisbane after four years in Malawi to make her final profession of vows at a Mass celebrated by Fr Wally Dethlefs.
In Oxley’s Canossa Chapel on December 8, surrounded by Australian family and friends, the taking of these vows filled her with “absolute joy and contentment”.
“This final step felt so incredibly right,” she said.
“Many people who saw me that day say I was beaming.”
With her were the leaders of the Canossians’ North-eastern Africa Province – provincial Sr Giovanna Tosi and vice-provincial Sr Immaculata Rugumila.
The presence of the African Canossians on her special day was most fitting.
As Sr Melissa explained, the people of Balaka village in Malawi have become like a second family to her.
In Malawi, she is head mistress of Bakhita Secondary School, a girls’ boarding school of about 400 students.
“I’m extremely happy and love my mission over there,” she said.
“Also, I’m very much supported by my fellow Canossian Sisters.
“We all share the desire to radically follow Christ and bring the Gospel to others.”
The community lives in the convent about 500m from the school in the same compound.
Sr Melissa describes the people of Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations, as “beautiful and welcoming”.
“Malawi is known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’,” she said.
As well as teaching English, social studies and life skills, Sr Melissa coaches in netball and athletics.
It is a huge change from the direction her life seemed to be heading about 12 years ago.
The former Moreton Bay College student and Queensland University of Technology physical education teaching graduate, was selected for the 2000 Olympic trials for javelin and trained full-time.
Her selection was the fulfilment of a dream she had had since five to compete in the Olympics.
She planned to build up to competition in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Then in 2000, the sports fanatic travelled to World Youth Day in Rome as a volunteer with the Canossian Sisters.
Some words of Pope John Paul II completely changed her life direction.
The pope quoted Catherine of Sienna: “If you are all that you should be you can set the whole world ablaze.”
Six months later after hearing these words, the young woman entered the first stage of formation for religious life with the Brisbane Canossians.
The former Olympic hopeful said she had not sighted, much less hurled, a javelin since arriving in Africa.
“My role is no longer as a competitor,” she said.
“It’s to keep the young girls here healthy and active.
“I’m also teaching English and other subjects to help empower them to have a better future.
“My motto is to dream big dreams and to work hard to make them possible.
“Young African girls dream of becoming doctors, nurses or teachers.
“We also encourage those who are successful to come back to the school to talk to the students.
“In this way, they encourage other young girls who are still at school.”
Sr Melissa may no longer dream of Olympic stardom but she has dreams nevertheless.
“On a personal note, my dream is to continue to grow in love and to become more faith-filled in my vocation,” she said.
“It’s no longer about doing my own thing.
“Working together as community is beautiful as is the sense of family I receive as we support one another in our mission.
“There are challenges but these are stepping stones on the way.”
On Boxing Day, she was due to head back to Africa for another three years before her next trip back to Australia.
Sr Melissa’s final words summed up her strong sense of mission: “I hope to stay in Malawi forever, and to continue to make a difference there alongside my Sisters through the way I make Jesus known and loved.”
She is keen to make contact with schools in Brisbane archdiocese who might be interested in being a sister-school to Bakhita Secondary School and in assisting her and the Canossian Sisters in their mission at Bakhita.
Interested schools can obtain contact details through The Catholic Leader by phoning 3336 9100 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org