Sr Annette’s portfolio career in education and social justice


When Sr Annette Cunliffe joined the Sisters of Charity in 1959, she could have had no idea of the series of ministries – or their breadth – which would make up her life as a religious Sister. After all, those were the days when people in the general community had one job, and had it for life, by and large.

Sixty years later, Sr Annette was most recently co-executive officer of the Church’s National Committee for Professional Standards (NCPS), a joint committee of Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.  

The committee, established to oversee the development of policies, principles and procedures in responding to Church-related abuse complaints, was wound up when the Church set up Catholic Professional Standards Ltd in response to the report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 

Now, she sits on the board of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Sr Annette is also Chair of the Jesuit Refugee Service, a position which she has held since 2015, after joining the board in 2012.

In the forefront of leadership in education and social justice since she was professed in 1962, Sr Annette is also a Trustee of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

That’s rather a lot to do, with a lot of air miles as a consequence, but although Sr Annette is in her late-70s now, she has clearly no intention of abandoning her efforts.

But to start at the beginning of this impressive portfolios of ministries. Sr Annette was a “school” Sister of Charity, as opposed to the other strand, which placed young Sisters in the nursing stream. Her first assignment was in 1963, as a Junior Secondary teacher, at St Mary’s Liverpool, then in 1964 at St Vincent’s College, Potts Point. She then went to the University of New South Wales to the end of 1967, completing a Bachelor of Science degree. “It was thought that UNSW was better for teachers,” she said.  Science was her original metier – she loved chemistry, and what are now called the STEM area was a rewarding field for her.

That was a particularly happy time for Sr Annette, because there were a number of other religious studying – including Jospehites, OLSH Sisters, and De La Sallians like Br Bill Firman (who, until  recently worked with Solidarity with South Sudan – where Sr Annette went decades later to help teach the teachers) there at the same time. “Because we were all teachers, we knew how to play the game. We all helped each other out when necessary. We took the syllabus, and prepared notes on different sections of it.  We all had a similar background and we all did well.”

Sr Annette had commenced her teaching ministry around the same time as the Wyndham Education Scheme was put into effect in NSW. It changed not only what was taught and how,  but also who taught. In her early years of teaching in NSW teachers did not need to be certified. That meant anyone could teach? “That meant anyone did teach,” Sr Annette replied, who completed a Dip. Ed following her science degree.

In 1986, Sr Annette did a residential renewal year at the Assumption Institute in Melbourne, where the focus was on theology, spirituality and scripture. “That was a great year. We had the best lecturers, including  Fr Frank Moloney SDB, the-now Archbishop Mark Coleridge, and Fr  Jerome Murphy-O’Connor OP, the noted Biblical scholar of the Holy Land. It was a marvelous opportunity to have such wonderful guest lecturers, “she said. “Inspiring.”

She has devoted her life to inspiring and providing leadership in education, while pursuing social justice, as her CV shows: She was a teacher and principal in secondary colleges in several States, and then headed to Australian Catholic University in the Schools of Education and Educational Leadership. Sr Annette has also acted as a mentor for young teachers from South-East Asia. She has coordinated outreach programs for vulnerable community members, been President of the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) and Inaugural Chair of the Stewardship Board of Catholic Health Australia; was the President of Catholic Religious Australia until 2014. That same year, Sr Annette was NSW State Finalist for Senior Australian of the Year.

Included in her list of ministries is  twice being elected Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, from 1996 to 2002, and then from 2008 to 2014.

Clearly the Sisters liked her way of managing the Congregation to have her back a second time, it was suggested to Sr Annette. “Or perhaps 1) they thought I had earned a second chance, or 2) I had done well enough the first time round that they were giving me a second opportunity to get things right,” she said.

During her second stint as Congregational Leader, Sr Annette oversaw three major developments for the Sisters of Charity; two for the future and one relating to the past. The past was celebrated in the 175th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of the first Sisters in Australia  in 2013. The future was shaped by the establishment in 2008 of Mary Aikenhead Ministries to make sure the ministries of the Sisters of Charity – the schools and the hospitals, aged care facilities continued into the future. This was a plan which developed during the Congregational Leadership of Sr Elizabeth Dodds and on foot when Sr Annette took over as Congregational Leader in December 2008.

The second was a change to Sisters of Charity Community Care Ltd, established in 2000. Until 2014, SoC Community Care  provided support to ministries conducted by the Congregation in Victoria and Tasmania. After June 2014, it incorporated three ministries of the Congregation operating in Queensland and NSW – Downs and West Community Support (out of Brisbane), and Remote and Rural and Providence Homeopathy (both in NSW). Downs and West and Remote and Rural continue to operate to this day providing direct relief for suffering, distress, isolation, misfortune, destitution or helplessness to serve the people of Australia without discrimination and to carry on the benevolent activities of the Congregation.

While her day to day ministry with the Congregation concluded when NCPS was wound up, a ministry which she described as “confronting, rich, and frustrating,” Sr Annette is not in a position to say what her next ministry will be. There is little doubt, however, there will be one, and it will benefit from the global understandings developed during 50 plus years of ministry, and Sr Annette’s innate gifts.  

Portrait by Tim Bauer (

Image: Sr Annette in Rome at the Anglophone Safeguarding Conference 2018, 18-21 June 2018 at the Gregorian University. She is in the front row, below at left

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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