By ROBIN WILLIAMS
QUEENSLAND Josephite Sister Monica Cavanagh is off to Sydney next year where she will take on the Josephite’s congregational leadership role for the next six years.
Born in Allora on Queensland’s Darling Downs, Sr Monica has a deep love of the Australian bush and says it will be one of the things she will miss most during her time at Mary MacKillop Place, North Sydney.
She said the community she grew up in had always been a significant part of her life.
“I’m shaped by my rural context. I always say I’ve got a rural heart,” she said.
Sr Monica was the third of 10 children, six girls and four boys, born to a dairy farmer father and a teacher mother.
“My father’s side of the family was Irish so we inherited all the Irish realities and this year (2013) we celebrated 150 years since our Irish grandfathers John Cavanagh and John O’Dea arrived in Australia,” she said.
Sr Monica said her great-grandmothers arrived a little later.
“We had a big family function on the September 27-28 up in Allora and there were about 250 of us there,” she said.
Sr Monica said she learned her love of education and her tolerances from her mother.
“She would have grown up in an ecumenical context as her mother was a Catholic and her father was Lutheran,” she said. “I think she gave me the gift of keeping the eyes open in that way, a much more tolerant attitude (to differences).”
Sr Monica’s mother also gets the credit for developing her social justice conscience.
“I’ve always had a sense of the missions and Mum would have instilled that in us,” she said. “I remember pestering them (her parents) to give us 10 cents for the missions and in later life I realised that would have been a big thing for them to do when they were trying to look after and feed us.”
Sr Monica was educated by the Josephites at St Patrick’s primary school, Allora, and then Mary MacKillop College (formerly Corpus Christi College), Nundah, and she first began to consider a vocation around her mid-teens.
“I was around 14 or 15 and can remember being in the church in Allora and there was a mission on and the priest said something like ‘There have been priests and religious from here before so where are the next ones?’, and something in that influenced me,” she said.
She said she was also influenced by a Josephite postulant who taught her during Year 4.
“Not that I was really thinking about being a nun then but I carried that memory around and it was probably the first time I realised that nuns came from families,” she said.
Sr Monica’s first ministry was primary school teaching.
“Actually teaching was quite significant in the family story because there were six girls and four of them were teachers which is quite remarkable for their era,” she said.
Sr Monica started teaching at Our Lady of the Rosary, Acacia Ridge, but always wanted to be like Mary MacKillop and go to the bush.
“I got to Dirranbandi and then started doing summer schools for the motor mission, that was religious education for kids in state schools, and I used to help out with them,” she said.
In 1979, Sr Monica was inspired to write a letter to the provincial offering her assistance if ever needed for the motor mission.
“It was probably only a month later I got a phone call to see if I would go to Caloundra, so I began on the motor mission and that led me into training catechists, then I spent time in Cairns and with faith education services in Brisbane and haven’t been back to the classroom full-time ever since,” she said.
Over the years Sr Monica has served the Josephites at the leadership level both locally and nationally, but she said she was an educator at heart.
“I do a lot of education evenings and I do education in schools and I’ve worked in parish ministry as well, but my focus would have been in sacramental programs and faith education, that type of thing,” she said.
There have been more than a few defining moments in her life including the day of St Mary MacKillop’s canonisation which Sr Monica spent in Sydney.
“I remember getting up that morning and it was such a beautiful sunny day and it felt to me a little bit like the resurrection,” she said. “It’s come, it’s a beautiful day and God has gifted us here today.”
Sr Monica said her annual retreats were also “marvellous opportunities” where she had a sense of God calling her “again and again”.
“It’s looking very deeply at your life and seeing how God had been present,” she said. “Even as a child just growing up in the country (I had) that wonder at nature, it has always been part of who I am.”
Sr Monica said her home community of Allora had played a huge part in her life and helped shape her into who she was today.
“I feel that whole community of Allora has shaped me and contributed a significant amount to my life,” she said. “I have always felt enfolded by the love of that community.”Sr Monica said friends and fellow Josephites had also been important.
“And of course my family and my extended family and the places I have lived have also shaped me into who I am,” she said. “I’ve always had a heart for rural communities and life has been good, not without its struggles, but it has shaped me into what I have become and I imagine I will be shaped even more by the end of this next six years.”