“(But she had) an all consuming love of Mary, our Lord’s Mother, and a passionate desire to reach out and help the sick poor in their own homes.”
Known as the “Brown Sisters” because of traditional long coats and nurses’ caps, (Blessed) Mother Teresa asked to stay with them in Coogee when visiting Australia.
The order has had a presence in Brisbane, Newcastle, Minto and many Sydney areas with their focus nowadays being in and around Sydney.
The former student of St Ignatius’ Primary School, Toowong, and All Hallows’ School, Fortitude Valley, said the Brown Sisters “seek out the sick and poor, to love and serve them”.
“None so poor as those who have lost their faith,” she added.
“Their poverty follows them wherever they go.”
Sr Margaret is rich in faith, no doubt the reason she’s leading the order for a six-year term.
“As a child I was surrounded by love in my family,” she said, soon speaking of her parents who married in St Stephen’s Cathedral in 1935.
“My father died when I was only seven years old but through my mother, my three brothers and I were brought up with great love – love for each other and love for our faith.
“Daily devotion to our Blessed Mother, Mary, was a way of life.
“It was developed then and continues to this day.”
Sr Margaret said prior to her nursing and novitiate studies she witnessed firsthand the life of the poor.
“I was brought in contact with the lonely plight of elderly ‘shut-ins’ and more impressionably with the fact of the deep and desperate poverty of people in the very midst of some of Brisbane’s more affluent and comfortable addresses,” she said of that time, then of accompanying another Brown Sister for a home visit.
“We visited a lady in Wickham Terrace (and) the floor of her home was dirt, shelves were hewn into dirt walls and the lady walked on her hands – she had no legs.
“I couldn’t believe that someone in such poverty lived a stone’s throw from great affluence.”
Motivated to make a difference and feeling a call to nursing, she also “had a persistent call to religious life”.
“(It was) a simple desire to love the Lord and peel potatoes and swell the numbers – if that was His will,” she said.
“Because I had been given so much love I felt I had so much to give.”
The highly accomplished pianist said the Brown Sisters, even then, “were small in numbers” but working in a way with which she “had a close affinity”.
Her final profession about 45 years ago brought “such a sense of spiritual peace”.
Throughout the first 18 years of her ministry Sr Margaret transferred 15 times.
She said she came across people “who had nobody but the sisters”.
“We were dealing with the poorest of the poor, which was heart wrenching, often physically draining and, yes, at times, repelling,” she said.
“Many times we have buried them (as) the only ones standing by their graves in silent prayerful witness to their precious existence as a worthwhile person.”
Asked if the needs of the sick and poor are different today than during those initial decades, Sr Margaret again spoke confidently but with her certain brand of calm.
“Yes and no,” she said.
“When we first began, welfare services, government and non-government, were not as prevalent as they are now.
“But many of the poor, sick and disadvantaged lack the skills, the motivation, the education and the sheer physical capability to reach out and make their plight known. “Poverty, mental illness, physical pain, all of these conditions, are a real retardant and inhibitor which means a great number of those most in need are actually hidden within our communities.”
Sr Margaret spoke specifically of “mothers with children (who) face the grim reality of poverty on a daily basis”, and other disadvantaged groups.
“The mentally ill, often homeless, certainly marginalised, is one of our greatest poverties in Australia today,” she said.
“Our isolated aged without families, the sick and neglected (are others).
“Too many of these people lack the expertise and even the spirit to access formal welfare services.
“They are literally beaten before they even start.
“These are Eileen O’Connor’s special poor and that is where we are most needed and try so hard to be.”
“Inspired by the love and generosity” of the order’s benefactors and “committees of men and women who work tirelessly to provide financial assistance”, Little Mother’s dream continues.
“Many good people really want to help the poor and they do through us,” Sr Margaret said.
“We couldn’t survive without their vision and assistance.”
While they certainly aren’t “dead yet”, the order’s numbers are fewer than 15.
“God’s love gave me my religious life and it continues to sustain me today,” Sr Margaret said of her approach to a person’s vocation.
“It all has to begin with a young person’s relationship with God and that love.
“And then it is a matter of being big enough to sacrifice.
“The way has been shown, the need is there, all that is missing is the willing labourer.”
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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