Sr Adele Cottrell-Dormer: A life of faith in action


For Sr Adele, one of the four new Councillors of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, her life as a Sister mixed pastoral care with postings in dangerous, war and civil war-ravaged spots around the world.

As a child, Sr Adele’s initial thoughts about her future revolved around becoming a religious Sister. It was not an idea generally accepted, so she learned to keep her own counsel about that. There was also a growing consciousness that she wanted to go to remote and mysterious places, and to make a real difference in the world.

So, she took the first step: When she left school, she went to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, and began her nursing career, which included completing her midwifery qualification and mothercraft.

By 1971, she soon got her chance to see what might be possible when she was invited by her cousin, a Society of the Divine Word missionary, to come on holiday to Papua-New Guinea. She soon went back, as a lay missionary with PALMS, and spent four years in the East Sepik district.

Sr Adele worked with mothers and their infants in particular. In a place where infant mortality has been high, “I delivered live babies,” she said. “We prevented mothers from developing TB, and we ran early intervention programs in maternal health.”

She was in the Sepik from the ages of 23 to 27 before she returned to Sydney. She went back to St Vincent’s, assigned to the general medical ward, and accident and emergency, and working with Sr Annette O’Connor RSC. “She was very good to work for, said Sr Adele. “I learned a lot from her during that time.”

By the time she was in her late 20s, however, the call to religious life was undeniable. Sr Adele’s impulse at this time was to join a missionary order, but the missionary orders in Australia were not what she was looking for. So she went on retreat to the Sisters of Charity novitiate and found her answer.

Telling her family was not without its challenges. “There was a bit of resistance,” she said with a degree of understatement. But she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Australia in 1982 at the age of 29 and was professed in 1984.

At this stage, Sr Adele joined the nursing staff of St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, where she began ministering in general surgical wards and the x-ray department.
On her return to Sydney, she began her ministry in palliative care, seeing patients at home as a community nurse. At that time, she said, the volunteers with the newly set up Ankali Project taught the hospice nursing staff how they cared for these most vulnerable and, at that time, marginalised patients with HIV/AIDS.

Sr Adele went further down the path of bereavement counselling and went to Brisbane to join the team at Mt Olivet at Kangaroo Pt, then a hospice established by the Sisters of Charity for the sick and dying, particularly for those who were poor.

By August, 1994, Sr Adele was off to one of the places which had spoken to her when she was a child – Africa. With Sr Leone Wittmack, she went into east Africa in the aftermath of the brutal tribal war between the Hutu and the Tutsi groups. An estimated 500,000 to one million people had died in the hostilities between April and mid-July. They worked with CARE Australia first at Goma on the Zaire/Rwandan border, in a centre for unaccompanied children. The Sisters then went to Butare in Rwanda to set up a similar camp there to return children to their families and villages.

“People came to us when they heard we were there and what we were doing,” said Sr Adele. “My job was to source food and firewood for the camp, but I had to stay hidden when we went to the markets because if the sellers could see their goods were being bought by foreigners, the prices skyrocketed.”

“We also had to report the deaths of children. We had to bury children and we couldn’t even give many of them the dignity of a name on their graves.”
She was in the Goma camp for one month and in Rwanda for two months and came back to Australia traumatised by what she had experienced. But in 1996, she was back in Rwanda again, as part of CARE Australia’s mission to deal with an expected influx of survivors streaming across the border back into the country. It was done in such an organised fashion that the medical team found something else to do.

They were deployed into the countryside to assess the damage to the local health centres, write reports, and then refer to other NGOs tasked with fixing the problems.
In 1999, Sr Adele was in Macedonia, again with CARE Australia, where she worked in a refuge camp for Albanians wanting to return to Kosovo. “It felt the camp held some 57,000 displaced and emotionally shattered people.

“My role in the camp was to provide for the needs of women with babies and young children, supplying them with nappies, soap, clothing, milk, baby formula and food…” The return to Kosovo soon became a race against the seasons – the land of their natal villages had to be cleared of land mines before the refugees could return, and the refugees had to go before winter set in because there were no winter tents for them.

On her return to Sydney, Sr Adele was assigned as a prison chaplain at the Silverwater remand centre. It was three years which she found very challenging.
From 2002 to 2009, her next role began: Six years at the Luddenham-Warragamba parish as a pastoral associate. “I really enjoyed that – there was parish visiting, and I did a lot of funerals, as well.”

She spent some time in 2009 in Outreach (now Open Support) at St Vincent’s in Sydney, and 2010 saw her join St Brigid’s Parish in Dubbo as a pastoral associate for some years. Next came time for a sabbatical, at Tantur Ecumenical Institute for a six week program in the Holy Land.

Most recently, she has been ministering at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney in pastoral care, but in March, 2021 she was elected a Councillor of the Sisters of Charity of Australia.

Photographs: Tim Bauer
When we have so much to praise the Lord for, we must not complain.
True affection is to rejoice in the happiness of our dear ones. Never allow a sentiment of resentment to enter into our hearts.
Pray, reflect and consult – and may the divine spirit direct all to God’s greater glory.
May our dear Lord Jesus fill your hearts with His own love. Amen!
We must have patience with others as He has patience with us.
Under every difficulty try to pray fervently.
We have much to thank Him for, even for those little drawbacks on our comforts and conveniences.
Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail.
Go on now as steadily as you can, relying on the Divine assistance and fear not.
What we do ought to be done well.

The Sisters of Charity acknowledge the First Peoples and traditional custodians of this land where we live. We respect, value and honour their history, culture and spirituality. We are committed to standing in solidarity and to actively working for justice, peace and harmony in this land.

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