HANDMAIDS of Our Lord Sister Mary Garnier celebrated her golden jubilee of religious profession not long ago, but sees no reason to slow down.
Sr Mary joined the order – founded in Papua New Guinea in 1918 – in 1960 and was professed three years later in 1963.
“My golden jubilee is from the time I was first professed so that’s almost 53 years,” she said.
Sr Mary has notched up a couple of significant milestones in those 53 years.
She was general of the order for two terms, she is credited as the first Torres Strait Islander to receive a university degree and she was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her work in Papua New Guinea.
The latter two milestones are apparently not that important to the woman who has spent her life serving God.
Mary was born on Poruma (Coconut) Island in the Torres Strait and moved to Thursday Island for a couple of years, and then to Hammond Island where she grew up. Her grandfather was Catholic and her parents Anglicans, with Mary choosing to be baptised into the Catholic Church when she was “about eight years old”.
“My grandfather was French, he was a pearl diver and decided to settle on Coconut Island and that’s where he brought up his family but my mother’s family are from Iama (Yam) Island,” she said.
Mary’s early education had a hand in her choosing her faith.
“My parents put me to school with the Catholic sisters (Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart) on Thursday Island and I just felt strongly that I wanted to be a Catholic,” she said.
Her education with the sisters continued at St Joseph’s school on Hammond Island before she moved to mainland Australia for secondary studies.
“For me there was no high school on Thursday Island and I wanted to go to what you call secondary school, and the priest and the sisters helped me to go to Charters Towers to St Mary’s as a boarder,” she said.
While at boarding school Mary enjoyed languages, but was to later study maths and science at university.
“My first interest was really learning French and English, it wasn’t science and maths. That came later,” she said.
So why did a teenage Mary who had been educated by other orders choose to join the Handmaids of Our Lord?
“I had an aunt who joined the order,” she said. “My parents found out when I was a child that my aunt was still alive in Papua New Guinea and she had gone across to join the Handmaids, and four of them returned to visit us in 1953 and ’54 and that was the first time I saw the Handmaids and I thought about being like them.”
Mary was still a teenager when she moved to Papua New Guinea and entered the order. Her first ministry was teaching primary school. She returned to Hammond Island for a year after her profession and taught with the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart before heading back to PNG to continue her teaching ministry. It was several years later that she headed back to her own studies and became the first Torres Strait Islander to receive a degree.
“Well that’s what they say anyway,” Sr Mary said.
She began her university study in 1967 and was one of only the second cohort of students to enrol at the “new” University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby.
“After that I taught in two secondary schools,” she said. “The first one was Gordon International High School which later, after I left, converted to a Papua New Guinea high school. “Later I went to De La Salle high school (Port Moresby), an all-boys’ school. Gordon high school was co-ed.”
After a half-dozen years teaching secondary school students Sr Mary’s ministry led her into the administrative side of the order and during the next 23 years she was to fulfil many roles including two, six-year terms as general from 1997 to early 2010. Sr Mary said those years were spent in Papua New Guinea where the Handmaids of Our Lord started.
Following her terms as general, Sr Mary returned to Australia for a year of renewal before finding herself back in the schoolyard.
“I did a couple of years working at Mount St Bernard College (Herberton), two days up there and two days at the Flexible Learning Centre (run by Cairns Catholic Education Services). This year I transferred down here, (Bentley Park) and I’m doing a couple of days in two primary schools (St Therese’s, Bentley Park, and St Michael’s, Gordonvale) and the Flexible Learning Centre.”
Sr Mary’s OBE is not something she dwells on.
“Do we have to talk about that?” she said.
She received the award for her “work in PNG in the area of education and my other services up there”.
Sr Mary said her vocation led her to achieve the desire to give and to do more with her life.
“I had the desire to be educated, I had the desire to go further than what they were offering us on Hammond Island and on Thursday Island, and I wanted to do something to better myself maybe not fully understanding what it meant at that time but I wanted to go further,” she said.
Her message to today’s young Torres Strait Islanders is not to just settle for the way of life they have.
“Don’t just settle for that. Go for something that you can do, that you can contribute to society in using your skills,” she said. “Your skills are given not only for yourself; it’s for everybody too, to use for other people. I think if you can develop whatever talents you have then you can use it to help other people and also to better yourself.”
Sr Mary has no plans for retirement just yet.
“I’m not requiring a walking stick or anything yet, I’m going alright, and I feel energetic,” she said. “I’m happy with what I’m doing now and I think when things begin to show something different I will think of something different to do but I like to work with the children.”
– Robin Williams