SR Mary McDonald loves teaching; she also loves being a Good Samaritan Sister, the wonder of Creation, gardening, being with people … and croquet.
She simply loves life.
She’s come late to croquet, though, as a result of having to give golf away.
“I used to play golf … I wasn’t a bad golfer actually,” she laughs.
“But then I had a cerebral haemorrhage (six years ago), and I had to give that up.
“So that’s when I went looking for croquet.”
Sr Mary found a club not far from her Lourdes Hill convent in Hawthorne, beside the Brisbane River, and she’s so glad she did.
She plays twice a week
“The people are lovely,” she said.
“I really enjoy the people there. It’s a great social aspect of my life as well.”
You’ll also find Sr Mary pottering in the garden for an hour or so each day.
Having time for such pleasures comes after busy years as a teacher, school principal and a leader in the education sector, and in environmental education and social justice.
Teaching was her first love.
After leaving school Mary worked for a year in the city library in Townsville where her family lived, but she knew that wasn’t for her.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, so I joined the Good Sams,” she said.
The Sisters of the Good Samaritan were the natural choice, with young Mary having been a student of the sisters in Townsville and as a boarder in Charters Towers.
“I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to go to Africa, because I wanted to be a missionary,” she said.
“I suppose it really just grew in me – a desire.
“And when I was finishing up and leaving school – and I had applied for a scholarship for the university – one of the sisters asked me about my plans.
“I said ‘I’d like to go, perhaps not to university, but to the teachers’ college and then go to university’.
“And she said, ‘What do you want to do then?’
“I said, ‘I want to go to Africa’.
“She said, ‘Well, why would you go to Africa when there’s work to do for the Good Sams, both here in Australia and in Japan?’
“I said, ‘Oh no, Africa’s where I’d like to go’.
“She said, ‘Well, go away and think about it …’
“So that’s how I became a Good Sam.
“It was kind of a desire to teach and to do something for others, and I thought I’d go to the poorest place that I could think of – it was Africa.”
After years of teaching and being a school principal; director of Catholic Education in Townsville diocese; masters studies in theology at Northwestern University, Illinois; and a year as a consultant at Sydney Catholic Education, Sr Mary found a new way “to do something for others”.
She was back in Nambour, Queensland, for her second stint at the Good Samaritans’ Najara Centre for Spirituality and Ecology.
She had been at the centre before becoming Townsville Catholic Education director, and after her time in Sydney she was asked if she would like to go back to Najara, “and I did with open heart and open hands – loved it”.
That’s when she became involved with Cittamani, a Buddhist-run home hospice for the terminally ill.
They asked her to join their teaching program for new volunteers.
“I said, ‘Yes, but I’d also like to be a volunteer’,” Sr Mary said.
“So I did the Christian approach to death and dying, and the Buddhists did the Buddhist approach to death and dying.
“That was my segment in the teaching part.”
But it was her ministry as a volunteer that had most impact on her – “the privilege” of being with the terminally ill and their families.
Sr Mary wrote about this in a recent column on euthanasia which was published first in the Good Samaritans’ The Good Oil online magazine, and then in The Catholic Leader.
She said she “had such good feedback” from that article.
“After an initial training program, volunteers commit to three hours a week to go to the home of the person who is terminally ill,” she wrote.
“Sometimes it was to give some respite to the primary carer, but often it was to sit and have conversation with the dying person, or just be a silent companion.
“I was privileged to accompany many people in the last months or weeks of their life.
“I witnessed some extraordinary experiences of the healing of life’s hurts, gifts of grace and peace, struggles to forgive and be forgiven, regrets acknowledged, shifts from despair to hope.”
Sr Mary said sometimes people who’d lost the ability to read “would like to hear me read something”.
“Sometimes they’d ask for a piece of poetry,” she said.
“Often, it was Catholics who would ask for prayer, especially the Rosary.
“But some of the other denominations would like me to read just a piece of Scripture, which I always did, and a little prayer with it.”
Commitment to environmental awareness and social justice has always been strong for Sr Mary as well, so much so that she completed a Masters in Environmental Education “so that I have the knowledge to go with the practice”.
She’s organised petitions, “been spat at” standing up for a cause, and volunteered for land-care work and to help at Boondall Wetlands.
“And the garden – it’s my joy,” she said.
As a teacher, she still keeps her hand in by helping three students with learning support at Lourdes Hill College.
“I love teaching,” she said.
“And when I was in Sydney recently a woman got in touch with me who I haven’t seen since I taught her in Grade 6, 43 years ago.
“And she said, ‘I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you … I just really would like to see you and say thank-you’, so we went out for coffee one afternoon.
“The relationships make it … Whatever you do it’s how you make relationships, I think.”