SHE danced before taking a step.
That’s what Presentation Sister Carmel (Jean Marie) Hodgkinson knows about her early years.
“My parents said I’d hold onto the bar near the radio and bounce, up and down, to the beat,” the sprightly 76-year-old said from Holy Spirit Home, Carseldine, in Brisbane’s north.
“I’ve got rhythm, I’ve always had it.”
The toe-tapping sister had shared Eucharist, as she does each Sunday, with other religious, residents and a number of the home’s visitors.
There was a certain buzz in the cafeteria after Mass as the camaraderie continued.
Sr Carmel was in familiar company, warmly greeting every passer-by by name and delighting in sharing a memory or two, and even a nickname for each of them.
Addressing an engaging passer-by, she turned and said, “We sometimes call her ‘fruit cake’ … (as) she makes thousands of them. Thanks to her I have a little piece in the morning,” motioning what that “little piece” might look like.
“A little piece like that?” the friend said.
“Well, a little more than a little piece,” Sr Carmel said, broadening the piece-size.
The jovial sister said her nickname was “Carmel, the dancer” and inserted a vocal “click, click, click” into the comment.
“(And) I love to sing, I can’t stop sometimes,” she said.
The women were in fits of laughter, offering no doubt that Sr Carmel had settled well into her new address since relocating from retirement premises in Nudgee last September.
Born in another northern suburb, Kalinga, she’s one of three remaining siblings among a family of six children.
The seventh child of Irish-born parents Albert and Elizabeth Hodgkinson lived not even two hours.
“She was Joan Veronica,” Sr Carmel said. “(And) she’s our little angel, looking after our family.”
Two other siblings died in March and April this year while another passed away last year. Sr Carmel accompanied them through the trials of cancer treatment and varying ailments, considering it a privilege and assured of their heavenly homeland.
She delights in a continued “spring” in her step saying, “I have to try and remember how old I am”.
“I’m going to be double numbers next month, 77. I like double numbers.”
Double the fun was another resident who breezed by, quick to share recent purchases of mud cake and musical movies, over which both residents delighted with a vocal, “Click, click, click”.
Eventually, the conversation resumed about Sr Carmel’s primary schooling at Holy Cross, Wooloowin; St Anne’s, Kalinga; Our Lady of the Angels, Wavell Heights; and then St Rita’s College, Clayfield, for the high school years.
Her entry into the novitiate, or first formation stage of her religious vocation as a Presentation Sister, was a musical one, for the occasion of our conversation and perhaps even then.
“I was 16 going on 17,” Sr Carmel sang of that step, to the tune of the famous Sound of Music song of the same name.
A litany, or well-loved and looked-at list, of handwritten appointments as a teacher was soon presented, more than five decades as an early-years teacher.
As a postulant, Sr Carmel taught in Manly (Queensland) and, after her final profession, she was sent to Norman Park and then Herston, both in Brisbane.
Eventually, she took up regional placements, which she enjoyed because “it meant getting to know the families so well”.
A 31-year placement at St Joseph’s School, Murgon, north-west of Brisbane, was significant because she was “part of the furniture”.
Reflecting on those years, Sr Carmel spoke plainly yet poetically saying, “In teaching little children, they taught me”.
She spoke of the blessed opportunity to teach children from the nearby Cherbourg Aboriginal reserve, including families among the Wakka Wakka people, who first occupied the area.
“I asked the class one day if they loved God but this little one from Cherbourg didn’t put his hand up or nod,” Sr Carmel said.
“I asked him who he loved and he said, ‘You’. I carry that in my heart to this day as he was seeing Jesus in me.
“The boy gave me this beautiful stone and I always kept it. We later found out he was deaf.”
Musical Murgon parish priest of the time Fr Paul Kelly sang similar toe-tapping tunes as Sr Carmel and she said the community enjoyed a time of presenting musical entertainment like a form of a theatre restaurant and at a policeman’s ball.
Her dancing skills were also called upon, and this was a self-taught art.
“My mum first said I was too cheeky to have dance lessons,” Sr Carmel said.
“It was the time of The Great Depression and they didn’t have any money, I realised much later.
“I taught myself dancing and my sister taught herself the piano.”
It was a dancing instructor in Murgon who gave Sr Carmel her dancing shoes, a treasured possession.
Sr Carmel admitted to “not being able to keep up with the children” in the dance classes however, certain testament to her individual style.
Her aim was to “dance into the hearts and minds” of each student throughout her teaching years.
“God gave me a special gift,” she said.
“It’s a gift to be a teacher and I seemed to be able to put together lessons in a way children enjoyed.
“I love children, I always have.”
Anyone who remembers Sr Carmel might like to attend 9am Sunday-morning Mass at Holy Spirit Home, Carseldine.
She’ll be there, God willing, singing up a storm, keeping the beat in one way or another and ready for a catch up after Mass.
And just in case she’s out of fruitcake, Sr Carmel can dance and sing her way to more, and I can already hear the click, click, click.
By Selina Venier