Mother Giovanni AckmanPrint
Amy Vera Ackman – her names mean Beloved and Truth – was born of Jewish parents in Sydney. As a child she went to a Mercy convent school and as an adult was baptised into the Church.
After qualifying as an optometrist, she established her own practice in Collins Street, Melbourne. In this capacity she used to practise at the Out Patient’s department of St Vincent’s Hospital, thus becoming acquainted with the Sisters of Charity.
She decided to join the Sisters in 1914. She soon assumed important roles in the Sisters’ hospitals. It was when she was in charge of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney that she was asked by the leader of the Sisters, Mother Alphonsus O’Doherty, to travel to Brisbane to buy the land for a proposed hospice at Enoggera, to meet with Archbishop James Duhig, and later to visit Miss Mary Bedford (image below Miss Beford driving Brisbane’s first female registered doctor, Dr Lilian Cooper) and assess the Kangaroo Point site. In 1953 she took over the organisation of the Mount Olivet Hospital project.
Mother Giovanni, with her Sister companion, resided initially at Ashgrove, then (from 1955) at the Notre Dame Convent, Coorparoo, where the Sisters of Charity had taken charge of a small primary school. This meant getting to the city each day. At first, to save fares, Mother Giovanni and her companion would walk part of the way and then take public transport. It was when they were trudging along one day that a well-known businessman, Mr J. Josephson, offered to drive them to their destination, hearing en route the nature of Mother Giovanni’s project.
Mr Josephson became one of Mount Olivet’s greatest helpers and later recalled his thoughts that first day: ‘Whatever can the superiors be thinking of! From a business point of view, this cannot possibly succeed. The Sisters speak warmly of the generosity and hospitality of the Queensland people, for they were rarely turned away empty- handed. Purse or pocket would be emptied of change.”
Mother Giovanni was grateful for even the smallest amount and, at first, the donations were quite small – in fact, the immediate goal was to get enough to pay the typist and other weekly expenses. It was hot, thirsty work, especially in those days when the Sisters wore long black serge habits, and a cup of tea was always appreciated. Mother Giovanni made it a rule never to refuse one, though the Sisters ordinarily did not take refreshments when away from the convent. One Sister recalls how one day they bought an ice -cream in a little shop and consumed it behind a cretonne curtain; on another tea-less day a packet of biscuits sustained them. One of the companions kept a diary, including a record of places visited: Sandgate, Woody Point, Clontarf, Redcliffe; and amounts collected: 4/-, 2/-, 5/-, 2/-, 2/6, 6/-, £1-0-0, and so on.
There was more to it than raising money. People warmed to Mother Giovanni and grew interested in this hospital they had never heard of before. Gradually she became known as the little, smiling woman whom it was a pleasure to help. Later she and her companion went into the countryside, where they met the same kindness; anything was acceptable from vegetables to diamonds.
At night, Mother Giovanni would entertain the community by recounting the day’s events. She had a great gift of story-telling and enjoyed doing it, even when the joke was against herself. One night she was excited to tell of a wonderful gift of a valuable diamond ring. Down went the hand into the deep pockets (most of the Sisters had one; Mother Giovanni had more), but there was consternation – no ring, but rather a hole in a pocket. All were asked ‘pray’. That night, on retiring, she had another look and found that the ring had slipped not through the hole but into the hem. In time the ring was raffled and raised hundreds of pounds.
Mother Giovanni had no sense of direction and was always getting lost. On one occasion when it was growing dark, she said, ‘I have no idea where we are. We must be miles from home. I will ask in this house’. When the owner opened the door, Mother Giovanni recognised him: ‘Oh, Mr So-and-so, what are you doing here?’ to which he replied, ‘Well, 1 live here’. It was the house at the back of their small convent. One Sister recalls how Mother Giovanni announced her intention of finding a shoe- repair shop and once there, further announced, ‘We’ll have to wait’. She possessed only one pair of shoes.
When Mr Bill King became organiser, he and Mother Giovanni would ‘do’ a street of the business centre, one along each side, and then compare results. It was a competition that Mother Giovanni almost always won, because she could always empty out another pocket. Gradually the donations became bigger. Some donors promised to help later and kept their word, in the form of cheques and even bequests which came in just when they were most needed. Mr King described the generosity of the people as phenomenal, with Mother Giovanni the magnet, attracting help and friends.
The foundation stone of the hospital was laid on 24 October 1954 and the opening was held three year later on 8 September 1957. The hospital, however, was not debt free: £57,000 had to be found. It was a most serious situation for Mother Giovanni, especially as the Commonwealth Bank was not prepared to increase the overdraft at that stage.
She wrote to her leader in Sydney: ‘Please don’t get a shock if I end up in gaol. I don’t mind much, as the sick people here are all so happy, and the Sisters and nurses so kind to them. Of course the people will be up in arms if they hear I am being gaoled, so don’t worry’.
To Mr J. Josephson she said, ‘God will provide. But if I go to gaol you can bring me a cake with a file in it’. In expressing thanks to her leader for the loan which helped them out of this difficulty, she wrote: ‘I went away and had a good cry, unknown to anyone but the dear Lord, I can hardly write, as my hand is shaking with gratitude.’
The Sisters recall that she savoured every moment of life. She loved nothing better than to go fishing, for example, on Bribie Island, always having a preference for quieter, unspoiled places. Mingled in Mother Giovanni were a sense of faith and a sense of fun. One Sister wrote: ‘I thank God for the privilege of working with such a person’.
Mother Giovanni left Mount Olivet Hospital in 1963. With her characteristic zeal and enthusiasm, she joined the first group of the Sisters of Charity to open a mission at Bundi in New Guinea. After caring for sick children there, she returned, a sick woman herself, to her beloved Mount Olivet in 1966.
She died in the hospital on 23 August that same year. After a well-attended Requiem Mass she was laid to rest near her fellow visionary, Sister Agnes FitzGerald, at Nudgee cemetery.