ROWENA McNally was moving on from a successful career as a lawyer including a term as Queensland Sugar Industry Commissioner when she asked God in prayer if He had any work for her.
The answer was not long in coming.
Starting 2005, her roles within Church organisations would soon include director of Professional Standards for the Catholic Church in Queensland as well as trustee of Mary Aikenhead Ministries which now continues a number of works established by the Sisters of Charity of Australia.
In the former role, she confronted the dark side of Church history meeting with victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse.
By 2012, she was also chair of Catholic Health Australia. As a young girl in Papua New Guinea, Rowena’s initial response to Church life gave little indication of the intense engagement to come.
Indeed, the Sacred Heart Missionary Sisters at her Port Moresby primary school had aroused a secret fear.
“They were wonderful women, but alarmed me with talk of ‘getting the call from God’,” she said.
“I was terrified of getting this mysterious call to become a nun or get involved in any sort of religious life, so I very determinedly tried not to hear anything of the sort.”
“She used to take me to church on Sundays and she’d walk down hill to church and walk back up in the heat and dust.
“I certainly hated it and I didn’t like my grandmother much at times then either.
“But I’m grateful every day now that she took the trouble to do what she did … she would have been well into her fifties when she did the walk to church with me in that terribly oppressive climate.
“It would have been quite a sacrifice and I was the only one she took, out of me and my younger brother and sister.”
Rowena now sees a certain irony in this early indifference given her current involvement in the Catholic Church.
But she can also point to many positive experiences in Church life which changed her outlook.
These include time at a Sydney boarding school where as “an indifferent student” she received “tremendous support from the Mercy Sisters”.
Then there was Brisbane priest, the late Fr John Clarke, Red Hill’s parish priest who guided her wisely and well through a “troubled time” in her early twenties.
Some of Rowena’s earliest memories of Church life in PNG revolve around cleaning St Mary’s Cathedral.
Port Moresby’s Archbishop Virgil Copas was a profound influence.
“He was an extraordinary man, a wonderful man … many including myself saw him as a saint,” she said.
“As a girl I loved going in to help clean the cathedral.
“I would polish various brass items and so on which made me very familiar and comfortable in church.”
Meanwhile her mother Beryl was working as a secretary to Archbishop Copas while her father Ron juggled two different jobs – a dentist during the week and managing a timber mill on weekends.
By “age 11, turning 12” Rowena was at the Mercy Sisters’ Monte Sant’ Angelo boarding school in North Sydney.
“Mum, as a young girl, then a Protestant, used to pass this school and think how much she would love to send her daughter there,” she said.
“She got the chance to do this when our family was living in PNG.
“Sending children to boarding schools in Australia was normal back then.”
Within four years, her family had moved to Brisbane permanently.
The Mercy connection continued when Rowena was sent to All Hallows’ School.
Once again the Mercy Sisters “were fantastic”.
“They did their very best with fairly poor stock,” she said with typical humility.
Yet this “poor stock” quickly got ahead once into the workplace.
“When I left school, Mother sent me to secretarial college,” Rowena said.
“Then I got a job as a junior receptionist working for a whole bunch of young male articled clerks.
“A number of them couldn’t spell and couldn’t put a sentence together and I thought if these boys can do law anyone can, so went back and did senior and then on to uni with the encouragement of some of the barristers I was working for.”
Her success in these studies grew into a career as director of many organisations including Burnett, Gladstone and Mount Isa water, St Vincent’s and Holy Spirit Health Queensland, Ergon Energy, Cerebral Palsy Australia and North West Queensland Hospital.
Rowena also served a term as national president of Australian Corporate Lawyers Association and is the national president of the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators Australia.
After her prayer for guidance on future direction, Rowena was swept into one of her most challenging roles when she became director of Professional Standards for the Catholic Church in Queensland.
She held this role from 2005 to 2009.
On the eve of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, her words on the experience had particular relevance.
“It was very important work,” she said.
“I was involved in mediation and dispute resolution – just as I was in the sugar commission and other places. “Except now I was trying to bring peace and resolution to people who had been abused within the Church.
“I met some wonderful people such as the victims who were often so outstanding in terms of their Christian outlook and maturity.
“Another tragedy dealing with the abuse process was working with Church people now having to wear the brunt of animosity and abuse – the very best of the Church. “In fact Satan could not have found a better way to attack the Church.”
There was another challenge – how to deal with the perpetrators.
“It’s difficult for the public to understand, but the Church also has a duty not only to the victim but also to perpetrator – love the sinner, hate the sin,” she said.
“We have a duty as Christians to offer support to the people who commit these terrible sins.
“At the end of the day, that’s incredibly hard.”
Rowena is still maintaining a cracking pace.
As well as being a trustee of Mary Aikenhead Ministries, she is the chair of Catholic Health Australia.
“It’s very exciting being involved in CHA – the opportunity to influence public policy at a federal level for the betterment of the whole of society is an extraordinary thing,” she said.
“CHA’s Health Blueprint with its six key priority areas for further health reform is crucial.
“For example, CHA is calling for an increased focus on preventative health and health promotion.
“It’s also looking at the social determinants of health in order to reduce the gap in health outcomes between the most and least disadvantaged.”
As we wound up the interview, I asked Rowena what next week’s timetable looked like.
“I’m in Sydney, on Monday and Tuesday to attend a meeting of Mary Aikenhead Ministries,” she said.
“On Thursday and Friday, I’m in Mount Isa as chair of the hospital’s quality risk and safety committee to discuss a number of issues including the increase in cases of syphilis and also the problem of diabetes in the Aboriginal population.
“The week after that I’m back in Mount Isa for meetings on water issues.
“Then there’s choir practice in my parish at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Kenmore.
“There’s also my husband John who is also very much involved, and my son Sean and a menagerie of animals.
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