The Congregational Leader, Sr Clare Nolan, reflects on her life as a ReligiousPrint
- When did you know you had a vocation?
That’s an interesting question. I was restless… concluding nursing training at the Mater in Brisbane. All my friends were getting engaged or making preparations to go interstate or to the Mater Mothers to do midwifery. What was I going to do? I loved my vocation as a nurse but I was unsettled. I was on night duty one night and went into the chapel – which was very unusual for me. I remember asking the Lord: “What do you want of me, Lord?” That question was a niggle; it was inescapable. Going into religious life was so “not me” – and I couldn’t share the feeling with anybody at that time.
One of my friends, who was also on night duty, had three aunties in religious life – one a Sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart and two Carmelites. I eventually shared with her how I was feeling. “Why not go out to the Carmelites?” she suggested. I needed a pass, so I went to see one of the religious Sisters and told her I needed a pass because I had an appointment with the Carmelites. She got a real shock.
Then I got the shock of my life when I went over to see the Carmelites. I had cold feet instantly but I didn’t have the courage to say I didn’t want to come again. I almost ran out, went to the first phone box, called and cancelled the second appointment.
Whatever was happening within me was related to prayer. So I just kept on praying, nursing, and then we graduated… but the feeling continued. That same Sister of Mercy asked if I wanted to talk to the Mercy leadership but I thought that if I were going to talk to anyone, I would speak to a Sister of Charity, who had taught me at school.
Around Easter, I went up to the convent at Mt St Michael’s to speak to an RSC. She said to me, Mother General is coming up and it might be worth you speaking to her.
I said I would see Mother St Agnes when she came up … and when we met, she said it was worth exploring my vocation further. I knew I had a vocation for nursing, and I loved Jesus… but it was a big shock that was there was an intake in July – and this was Easter! My stomach was in knots… but the feeling of wanting more wasn’t going away.
2. How did your family react?
I knew my mother would be really upset – she said she would never encourage her children to explore a vocation in religious life or priesthood until we were 21. That was the toughest thing I ever had to share with my mother. I didn’t have the courage to tell her. I told my brothers and sisters first – they thought “great, more room in the house for us!”
I knew how much mum loved my nursing friends and stories of the hospital and how much she would miss them if I entered.
One day, my brothers and sisters went to the football and told me I wasn’t going… I had to have the talk with Mum. I remember telling her I am just going to try this out. I was feeling a deepening of my faith, while she was worried I would change my personality. She was broken-hearted.
Then it came time to go to the novitiate in Sydney, and with some friends, I went up from Sydney to Wahroonga by taxi. I remember I gave the driver my cigarettes. They weren’t allowed.
3. What was the process like in 1964 of joining the Sisters of Charity?
The Mother-General offered me an invitation. Clothing, what I had to take, was a problem. I had to hide it all from Mum. I had enough money in the bank to buy a TV set – the first one we had – and to pay the dressmaker. It was the toughest thing I had ever done leaving Mum… she had never seen me so determined.
4. How many joined with you, how many left?
There were eight on that first day; one left overnight. Only two of us are still Sisters of Charity – Margaret Guy and me. Five of us from that intake still meet once a year. They were 17, I was 21 but knew nothing. Mum came down to my clothing – she was devastated. My niece and nephew pulled my veil back and asked, “Aunty Clare, got any hair there?” Mum almost passed out. I don’t know why; my Dad had an aunt – Sr Ita – who was a Mercy so she knew about that stuff. Sometime after Profession I was moved to Lismore, which was then part of the Queensland region. I was in Brisbane one day and the Superior said to me “Would you like to call in on your mother?” When I arrived, Mum collapsed at the front door! But she still put on a barbecue at home for the family. I was able see her and family more often and Mum could see that I was normal and so were my friends.
5. You were a nurse – what were you keen on pursuing?
My vocation as a nurse has always enabled me as a Sister of Charity to live out the charism – the healing ministry of Christ. I loved the companionship we had. You love community, you love your ministry. I loved nursing but those early years were tough.
6. What is the major difference you see in Religious Life compared to when you first entered.
Everything has changed: The call of Vatican II. Living the joy of the Gospel, that hasn’t changed. The daily “yes” to Jesus and the following of that to wherever it leads me, that hasn’t changed. It’s a rich and textured life in loving service.
7. What was your most challenging time?
The 12 years as a member of the leadership team from 1984 to 1996. It was huge period of change within the Congregation… The Congregational Leader Sr Mary Maguire told us we couldn’t continue doing things the way we had been. It was a heralding in – incorporated health and aged care and our education, national health service, the Mary Aikenhead Ministries, trying to bring the Congregation along with us. Boy, was it hard!
8. Was there a time that was more than usually rewarding?
Each day is rewarding. I can wake up and thank God for my vocation and the privilege of living the joy of the Gospel. In the evening, as I put my head on the pillow, I can be overwhelmed with gratitude for the miracles of the day.
9. When people discover you are a Religious Sister what is their reaction?
Sometimes puzzlement. What does that mean? Often, they say there’s not too many around these days, and ask how we are recruiting. There are always loads of questions.
10. What do you see as the future for apostolic religious life in Australia?
We are sowing seeds of hope. Within Australia, 85 per cent of the Congregations have 20 or fewer members. With Catholic Religious Australia, we are looking at emerging futures. There is always hope… interculturality is the future of religious life.