Katoomba goodbye: Colleen Holohan, St Canice’s last Sister

 In November, Sr Colleen Holohan was farewelled from St Canice’s Primary School, where she had ministered for morethan years, beginning as principal in 1986.

As the Congregational Leader, Sr Clare Nolan pointed out at the liturgy to say goodbye to Sr Colleen,  the ministry of the Sisters of Charity in Katoomba began in 1900 when the Sisters were invited to make a foundation by the parish priest Rev. Fr St Clair Bridge. In response to this invitation the Sisters of Charity purchased a brick cottage known as Glen Eric. It was near the presbytery and church, in Katoomba St. The first superior of the convent was Mother Kevin Purtell.

In 1898, Mother Xavier Cunningham was looking for a quiet country house to which the Sisters who were nurses might go when they were exhausted by fatigue, or run down in health, where they might gain “fresh vigour for God’s work”. She could find no more delightful spot than Leura on the Blue Mountains. So a property was bought on the highest summit of the Blue Mountains and it was named Mt. St Raphaels after the healing angel and special patron of the sick. It served its intended purpose well over the years and grew side by side with our education foundation in Katoomba. It was eventually sold.

The energetic and zealous Parish Priest erected a wooden school close to the Church and a short walk from the Convent. St Canice’s Primary School began in rented premises at the old hall in Bathurst Rd. Sr Domenica McMahon was in charge of the School. In 1902 the foundation stone for the new Church was laid and for the next ten years the Primary School was in the old weatherboard Church until it was demolished in 1912 to make way for an addition to the Church and this addition served as the Primary School during the week.

By 1908 the Katoomba site had outgrown Glen Eric and land was purchased to the north of the railway. Mount St Mary’s College and Convent was built on this site and opened in 1910.

In 1924 a parish primary school was built on the grounds of Mt St Marys. The Sisters of Charity staffed both schools. (Sr Clare’s presentation can be found here.)

Carolyn Armstrong, a parent at the school and a long-time friend of Sister Colleen, also spoke at the farewell. This is her salute to a religious Sister who means so much to her community:

I have known Sister Colleen for almost 15 years, both as a member of staff here at St Canice’s, and as a parent of children who have attended this beautiful little school. As my own son is about to leave St Canice’s and my ties here are finishing, I take with me a friendship with her that I hope will last our lifetime.

It is an utter privilege to be able to give this speech today on behalf of the parents in our school community. It’s a privilege, but not an easy task – for many reasons. Firstly, I am conscious that Colleen would not be wanting me to be going on too much about her, she would not be comfortable with the praise, the accolades or the attention. And that is one of the qualities that stand out about her. If I know Sister Colleen at all, I would guess that right now she is hoping that I am brief, I mention her as little as possible and get off the mic. I’m not sure I can do that today. Sorry Colleen!

Secondly, it is a difficult task because it feels as if, no matter how much I say today about Sister Colleen, there is so much more to who she is. To capture everything about her, and condense it into a five minute speech has proved challenging.

We have all seen Sister Colleen on morning playground duty, rain, hail, or shine — and, in our case, snow and sleet! — giving a little one a hug, sorting out a dispute, chatting to our kids, welcoming parents and students alike. We have witnessed her making, organising and running Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas stalls, too many to count, running craft group and tai chi classes for parents, a crèche for pre-schoolers, season for growth grief programs for our children, archiving photographs to record our school’s history, even helping people get jobs, cleaning, sorting, chucking, lending a hand where a hand is needed…… the list goes on. Huge and constant giving.

St Canice’s stands today as a welcoming community rich in caring and nurturing due largely to Sister Colleen. We have truly been blessed.

But there is another side to Sister Colleen and her work, not the public one we always see and so appreciate. It’s this side that allows us a glimpse of the depth and the reach of this woman, carrying out God’s work in her own practical, loving and unassuming way.

She works quietly and in places we don’t get to see. She goes about her daily work, touching people’s lives in profound ways, and we will only ever know the half of it. There are so many stories, so many acts of kindness I cannot possibly tell them all.

I can only speak of how she has influenced my own life, and hope by sharing some of my own and other people’s memories that you may know something of the calibre of this woman. I believe that everyone here today would have their own stories that would attest to her kindness, her sense of humour, her dedication, her unconditional acceptance and her practical, pragmatic ways of making a difference to the lives of those around her in the littlest and biggest of ways.

Without fail, every morning Colleen would walk around the school offering a very friendly good morning to all she encountered. Her smile gave a positive start to everyone’s day.

Colleen’s little room downstairs is one where a cuppa was available when needing a chat or a shoulder to cry on. Her door is always open. Her spirit of giving is evident in everything she does. That little room downstairs has been a haven, a powerhouse, place of ideas, laughter and support for so many parents. I know of mothers that now have returned to the workforce, or built their business due to Sister Colleens assistance.

Elizabeth Benham-Gestal, another amazing parent who has had a long association with St Canice’s, wrote: “For all the years we spent archiving the school and sisters of Charity history, for all the fun times when we cranked up the country music and sang along (hoping Mr Gerligs wouldn’t bust us) for the endless laughter, for our shared love of Leunig and the yummy morning tea treats from Sr Mary and the endless supply of chocolate that mysteriously appears in my locker but most of all for the quiet times and the comfort that comes from having someone so special in my life, I want to say thank you.”

We hope that they always call that room, Sister Colleen’s room.

As I have said, it was sometimes the littlest of things that made the biggest difference. When I moved to Katoomba from Sydney with my little family, I just landed my first teaching job at St Canice’s and was managing mothering, working full-time and surviving on a single income. When winter hit, the first question Colleen asked me was about my heating. I replied that we had none.

A few days later, she surreptitiously called me over to her car after school and slowly opened her boot…… to my relief, there were no dead bodies……. but in fact, two heaters she had procured for me. Quietly, privately and with no fuss. Those heaters kept us warm for many winters to come.

I was speaking with Pat Ritchie this week, another amazing woman who has had a long association with St Canice’s. She no longer has her children attend here, but has continued to come to Tuesday craft and more for many years, carrying everything on public transport to get here, largely she tells me, out of respect to the dedication Sr Colleen has shown the St Canice’s community and the kindness Sr Colleen showed her at a stressful time as a new kindergarten parent trying to cope with her little boy who preferred not to be at school.

Colleen met Pat on the playground every morning, invited her to craft group so she could get to know other parents, and feel a part of the community. Years later, she told me, when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States, Pat received a phone call from Colleen, who wanted to celebrate and share this momentous and hopeful moment with her. Pat hails from Jamaica, and most of her family still lives in the States.

You certainly can rely on Sister Colleen for an honest opinion, she calls a spade a spade.

In my second year here, I took up the kindergarten teacher position. Teaching kindergarten looks easy enough, I thought, how hard could it be? Boy, did I underestimate the role and work of a kindergarten teacher! I could not have gotten through that first term without Sister Colleen.

Every morning she would work with me, welcoming students, offering tissues to upset parents, peeling clinging children away from said upset parents, chasing 5 year old runaways and playing endless jigsaws and puzzles to settle the kindies in before our day of learning could begin.

The kindergarten room was then where the library is now. There were large windows all along the wall where parents would peer in, wave and call out to their little cherubs long after the bell. As a parent, I completely understand that, but as a teacher trying to settle a new class, it just was not working. After about a week of this, Colleen looked at me and said simply, but firmly: “I’ll get curtains.” Sure enough, the very next day when I arrived at work, Colleen was up a ladder hanging lace curtains. Problem solved. As I said, practical, pragmatic and always helpful.

Sister Colleen has been our spiritual mentor, our teacher, and our friend through some pretty dark and joyous places and personally for me through periods of profound doubt. I have sought her counsel on many convoluted questions, confusions and personal dilemmas. I have been affirmed again and again by her steadfast and resolute belief in the power of unconditional love that Jesus Christ represents and that she enacts. That above all else.

When my mother died, I was grief-stricken. I took to my bed for weeks, I did not come to work, I did not get out of my pyjamas, I was barely able to care for my children. After about three weeks of this, Colleen, in her ever-practical way, decided to do something about it. She came to my house, knocked firmly on my door and told me to get dressed. She was taking me out to lunch. I refused, I argued, I did not want to leave the house or my grief. But she insisted. So, I dressed, we went to lunch and I began the slow process of healing that she helped me begin. For that I will be forever grateful.

So, I can only surmise that what Sister colleen has done for me, she has done for countless others over the 24 years she has been part of this place. In fact, I know she has.

Mary Aikenhead, founder the Religious order of the Sisters of Charity, to which Sister Colleen belongs, is quoted as saying. “The Charity of Christ Urges us” and indeed Sr Colleen has shown this every single day as she moves about our school and our larger community.

The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity is committed to the service of the poor. In preparing for this speech, I looked more closely at the life of Mary Aikenhead, and was struck by how the qualities and the work of Mary Aikenhead so echoed the qualities we witness in Sister Colleen, and the work she has carried out in her own way, with humility, dedication, and hard work and in places it was needed the most.

Sister Colleen, we want to honour you today, acknowledge your huge legacy, and give thanks for having had the gift of your presence here, as a pillar of St Canice’s.

Colleen, you have touched all our lives in deeply spiritual, personal and practical ways. We love you dearly, admire you fiercely and we are grateful that you are our friend. And now it is time. It mustn’t have been an easy decision.

So, to the future, whatever it may bring, on behalf of all the parents, past and present we wish you health, peace and God’s blessing in all that you do.

To finish, I would like to share a reading from Mathew: 25 that says just about everything about you.

“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you received me in your home, naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me…. I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me.”

Thank you and may God for ever bless you, Sister Colleen.

You will find more images of Sr Colleen’s farewell  our Photo Galleries page.

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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