Sr Cate O’Brien: The Sisters of Charity were in her family’s DNAPrint
- When did you know you had a vocation?
In my teenage years I realised I had a vocation but the trouble was I did not know which one. After leaving school and joining the workforce, my life seemed planned out leading me in a certain direction. I enjoyed the social life with my friends, my old school friends and new work friends. At this stage, Religious life was certainly not on my radar.
My life, as it was then, changed with the death of my mother and the illness of my father. I bought a car and changed jobs so I could be closer to home which enabled me to care for my father and a brother who was still at home. I didn’t see it at the time but these events that were happening were heading me towards another path. After struggling with which direction to take, I came to the conclusion that I would never know if I didn’t at least try!
Nursing had always appealed to me and in the position in which I was working gave me many opportunities to experience the sick and elderly in their homes and thus kindled the flame for nursing.
Around my 21st birthday was a significant time because I felt somewhat pressured to sort myself out as to which path I to take.
2. How did your family react?
I was the youngest of five, three brothers and a sister.
I broke the news to my father just before I had an interview with Mother Agnes which was a bit of a shock for him. I knew then if Mother Agnes asked me about what my father thought I would have an answer for her even though I didn’t know at that stage what he really thought. I didn’t t score a vote of confidence from my brother or father.
My brother told me that he was around when Margaret entered and I wasn’t like her.
Years later I was told what my father said as I was farewelled at the station when he was asked how he felt seeing his second daughter enter the convent, His reply was: “She will be home by Christmas.”
Deep down though he was very proud; he not only had two daughters enter the Sisters of Charity, he had a sister as well who was know as Sr Fabre. She was professed in 1932, Margaret in 1952 and I was professed in 1972.
3. What was the process like in 1969 of joining the Sisters of Charity?
Five had entered in March of 1969 and three of us joined the group in July and were known as one batch. In the two and half years of our novitiate the numbers dwindled and also in the congregation the numbers were dwindling as well. I can recall how I was struck by that fact and thought it was odd – more were leaving than coming! What am I doing here?
Our days in the novitiate were structured with prayer, reading, lectures and manual work around the house as well as gardening. Novitiates in the area which also had small numbers joined us for the lectures through the year.
In the second year we travelled to North Sydney three days a week to the Xavier Institute with novices from the various Congregations.
We were kept busy but did find time for some relaxation, tennis, netball and swimming.
4. How many joined with you, how many left?
There were eight in my batch. Four professed and one remaining..
5. You were a nurse or teacher (in the making). What were you keen on pursuing?
Originally I was interested in being a nursing sister but that changed during my novitiate when we used to visit a sister who was very ill in hopsital and I found myself feeling quite faint only after a few minutes in her room and had to make a quick exit.
I never mentioned nursing after that as I thought I would spend more time on the floor than nursing and could be sent home. Just before profession I was offered a place at Catholic Teachers College, North Sydney. In a split second, I did a quick discernment and said “Oh, that would be lovely.”
Once I was professed it wasn’t the end, it was embarking on a life long journey of my whole life living as a religious deepening my own personal relationship with God and then bringing God’s love and compassion to those with whom I ministered.
6. What is the major difference you see in Religious Life compared to when you first entered?
In around 1968 and 1969 changes were happening in society and I saw some changes in Religious life with my sister being allowed to stay at home with us, changes in the habit and much more freedom. All the changes were a contributing factor to my decision in joining the Sisters of Charity.
Religious life has changed so much over the last fifty years.
7. What was your most challenging time?
Every time there is a change, there is a certain challenge that goes along with it. Change has been constant in my life as a Religious, moving from State to State, changes in ministry, changes in community, and community living.
My most challenging time was when I was asked to be principal of a new school beginning with 48 pupils in Kinder and Grade 1. Each year a new Kinder Class was added. I was told the new school had nothing going for it except the enthusiasm of the parish priest and the parents. I have celebrated my 40th, 50th while I was at the school and been back to celebrate my 60th and 70th birthday. I tried to cancel the upcoming 80th but they said, ‘No way!”
8. Was there a time that was more than usually rewarding?
My years as Principal in three Parish Primary schools and my missionary experience in PNG and Nigeria stand out as being most rewarding for me. I have been blessed in my years as a Religious in working alongside wonderful, committed people.
9. When people discover you are a Religious Sister what is their reaction?
When people meet me as a Religious today they can see that I am human, caring and joyful. It is a reminder to them of what is important.
10. What do you see as the future for apostolic life in Australia?
I believe God wants religious life to continue in some form and we will find new ways of moving forward so that we can serve God and the Church by being witnesses of his love and mercy.
Images 1 and 2: Sr Cate; 3, Sr Cate and Sr Suzette Clark; 4, Sr Cate and Sr Margaret Beirne at the liturgy for the opening of the Heritage Centre; 5, Sr Cate and Sr Josephine Cannell at Sr Jo’s 100th birthday