Sister Catherine Tierney and Sister Kathleen Fanning

Catherine and Kathleen were among the first five of our Sisters who went to Bundi, a mission station in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Father Mike Morrison SVD, had been sent to Bundi in 1958 and, believing education was what would most help the Bundi people, set about establishing a school. Father Mike was a big man with vision and big ideas. Bundi school was an example of his vision and great faith.

When the Sisters arrived in 1963 the school, staffed by lay missionaries and five local teachers, already had a double stream of well-established classes from Standards 1 to 4. The mission station was on a small plateau high up in the mountains. The villages in the surrounding forest where the children lived were in some cases, a day’s walk from the mission along narrow winding paths around the mountains. The children all boarded at the school and went home only during holidays. With such a limited life experience it was amazing how quickly they learnt and adapted to school life.

Catherine and Kathleen were both gifted Infant School teachers and almost opposite in personality except that both were warm-hearted and generous. Catherine was rather out-going, talkative, energetic and busy. If something had to be done she would find a way to do it. Kathleen, on the contrary was quiet, even a little shy. She never seemed flustered or busy but achieved much in a calm, orderly way with great gentleness and a delightful sense of humour. These last two qualities endeared her very much to the children and Papua New Guinea people.

In Australia Kathleen and Catherine had used, with much success, “Words in Colour” a phonetic method of teaching reading and spelling. They had brought with them to PNG the charts and teaching aids needed, so, as they got to know the children, they thought “Words in Colour” could be well used to teach the little “Bundies”. They were not wrong. In a surprisingly short time the children were able to sound out, pronounce and read English words and when they had learnt the meanings their break-through into English was remarkable and provided a very solid basis for their future education. The Bundi children became well known for their mastery of English when, after Grade Six, they went to Madang for their secondary education.

In 1969 Sister Catherine and Sister Anne Crowley moved to Megiar, a parish on the coast, north of Madang, where Sister Catherine became Principal of the large school and staff of twelve local teachers. The following year Sister Kathleen was transferred to Megiar school and continued there until 1975 when the Government localised all Primary schools and expatriate teachers were withdrawn. Catherine, from 1970 till 1975, was employed by the Education Department as an Inspector of Schools. While continuing to live at Megiar she spent most of her time visiting schools in remote villages in the bush.

Sometimes a villager took her in his canoe to a school up the river – a very hot and rather fearful journey in the PNG sun with crocodiles lurking along the river banks. Sometimes, the school sent a horse and guide to meet her at the foot of the mountain where Catherine mounted and, more a passenger than a rider, was led up the slow climb along a mountain track to the school at the top. As usual, Catherine took all in her stride. When, five years later, she handed over her inspectorate to a newly trained local Inspector he inherited schools and teachers of a much improved standard.

When no longer needed in the Primary Schools the Sisters began a programme of pastoral ministry in Megiar parish. Visiting the villages along the coast and in the bush hinterland the Sisters became better acquainted with the people and their village lifestyle. They gathered data for the parish census and arranged Scripture study groups and programmes for parish leaders – all in Pidgin, of course, because few adults in the villages understood English.

One incident from this time highlights the undramatic way Kathleen and in this case, Johanna also, coped with the ever-present unexpected, Johanna and Kathleen were driving to one of the bush villages along a track well disguised by long grass, when suddenly the track ended and their small Suzuki toppled over the edge and came to rest against a large tree some fifty feet from the top. Thanks to their seat belts and the car’s strong hood the Sisters were able to scramble out unhurt and climb back to the top. Soon a group of villagers gathered to investigate the noise. Great was their concern when they discovered the cause. Soon others came and after a brief planning meeting the men set about retrieving the car. Using their knives – all PNG villagers move with their bush knives – they cleared a track up the side of the mountain; lifted the car back onto its wheels; tied it with thick vine ropes cut from the trees and with some pushing and others pulling they soon replaced the car on a safe part of the grassy track ready for the drive home. The Sisters got in, tried the engine and drove home. I recall Kathleen telling me how touched and comforted they were by the genuine concern of the people.

During the Sisters’ time in PNG all were given the opportunity for a time of spiritual renewal in Australia. Most opted for a Course that included some Scripture and Theology. In 1978 when the Archbishop set up the Megiar Pastoral Centre and invited the Sisters to staff it, Catherine and Kathleen felt their study had been a helpful preparation. Under their practical leadership the Centre flourished and became well known for its high standard. Training Courses in all aspects of Lay Leadership were provided for men and women from all the parishes of the Diocese. This proved to be the last project in which the two Sisters worked together and as with their previous endeavours, they left a lasting legacy to the people they served.

Kathleen returned to Australia at the end of 1980 and was appointed to St Christopher’s, Airport West.  In October 1986 she was moved to St Vincent’s Hospital Fitzroy and in 1987 was involved in setting up the de Paul detox centre attached to SVH.  In 1991 she was missioned to an extension of de Paul House, known as the ‘Comely Bank Respite Centre for Carers’ at Healesville. Her gentle efficiency and sense of humour that had won the hearts of the people in PNG had a similar effect on the two very different groups of people with whom Kathleen worked in Australia. Sister Kathleen died of cancer in Melbourne in 2002.

Catherine returned to Australia in 1981 and was diagnosed with cancer. Characteristically, she set about doing, with as little fuss as possible, what needed to be done. Sister Catherine died in Sydney in 1984.

There were many other Sisters who ministered in the Bundi and Megiar missions, though this account deals only with Catherine and Kathleen who were well known to the author and for whom her love and admiration grew deeper as the years went by.