On the Feast of St Francis XavierPrint
ST VINCENT’S COLLEGE SPEECH NIGHT, December 3 2015. An occasional address by Sr Margaret Beirne rsc
Mrs Anne Fry, College Principal, Mr Paul Davis chairman of the College Board and other Board directors, Mr Peter Kelly, chair of Mary Aikenhead Education, members of staff, parents and friends, ex-students, ladies and gentlemen, and most especially the young women who are students of St Vincent’s College.
Thank you for the opportunity to return to the College community to share this end-of-the-year celebration with you. It is now more than 20 years since I finished my time as Principal, yet in some ways, it seems like only yesterday.
At that final Speech Day in 1993, held in the auditorium of Sydney Grammar School, we were privileged to listen to Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, then head of ATSIC, whom I had invited to be our special guest in the Year of Indigenous People. As soon as she arrived, I apologised that we had taken her away from Canberra on the very day that the Mabo decision was to be taken in Parliament. “It’s no problem”, she said, “I have a wonderful staff and they’ll take care of everything.” The rest of course is history!
It is just such a reliance on a wonderful staff, together with equally wonderful students and their families, that remains my strongest memory of my time at St Vincent’s. Working together as one team made it so easy to lead the College. And no doubt it is still so for you.
This year, 2015, as I’m sure you’ve heard, marks 200 years since Mary Aikenhead founded the Sisters of Charity in Dublin. Just 24 years later, she sent five Sisters to Australia and as early as 1858, they opened the school on the same Potts Point site that you attend every day. I remember one interview with a prospective family when an anxious father remarked: “It seems a strange place to have put a girls’ school, so close to Kings Cross”, to which I replied, “It was a strange place to put Kings Cross!”
What inspired Mary Aikenehad to found the Sisters of Charity? Basically, it was two things: her deep abiding love of God and her early experience as she accompanied her father on his medical rounds to the sick poor in their native city of Cork. When she travelled to Dublin as a young woman, this impression deepened for her: here in the Irish capital, she found hundreds of poor living in abject poverty not far from others in wealthy mansions. She became determined to do something about it and so prepared herself to take the next step.
With encouragement from the Archbishop of Dublin whom she’d known as a young priest, Mary went to York to begin her formation prior to founding the new congregation, one that would allow the sisters to go out into the streets and homes of the poor and serve them first-hand in whatever ways they could. Soon she began to open schools for poor children and the first St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. When the five pioneer sisters came to Australia, they did just the same, first with the women convicts at Parramatta then back to Sydney where they founded St Vincent’s Hospital and, in the front room of Tarmons, what is now the oldest continuous Catholic girls’ school in Australia.
So, what might this mean to you as you complete another school year? And for those of you who are looking towards leaving school in the next couple of years?
During your years at Vinnies, you’ve had a wealth of experiences most of them really positive, making friends that will last you a lifetime and growing in mind and heart. You will also have been exposed to the fact that there are people in this very city who are homeless, sick, unemployed, hooked on drugs or alcohol, unable to find a way out by themselves. At times, we all wish we knew how we could make a difference.
But in order to respond effectively we need the benefit of education. Thanks to the providence of God, every one of you has had just such an opportunity at St Vincent’s College. And, in time, you can look forward to building on it at University, TAFE or in an apprenticeship that suits your particular talents.
In 1988, when she was in Year 12, Gemma Rice called by the Principal’s office to tell me she’d decided to become a nun or a missionary because the key to helping the poor was to provide them with a good education. After suggesting she could be both, I then told her she needed to start by going to University and becoming a first-rate teacher. Five years later, with an Honours degree in Science and a diploma of Education, Gemma went first as a volunteer to a girls’ school in Uganda, then returned home to prepare for the truly big adventure. In 2002, with help from friends in Australia and Tanzania, she began the School of St Jude. She didn’t become a Sister of Charity (though some of you might!) She married Richard and they have four beautiful children. There are now three schools and two boarding houses with a school population of almost 2000 students. In spite of many challenges, Gemma believes that “with hard work, passion and prayer”, you can accomplish anything.
None of us doubt that to achieve anything in life we need “hard work and passion”. I’d like to share some thoughts on Gemma’s third point, “prayer”. While it is true that many people have led wonderfully generous lives without any religious commitment, yet for us as Christians, we have the enormous benefit of walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
In his Gospel, St Luke refers to an incident when Jesus was twelve, he went with his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover. When they returned to Nazareth, Luke says: “Jesus grew in age and wisdom and grace before God and mankind” (Luke 2:52). After that, not a word about his life until John the Baptist appears on the scene to prepare the people for his coming and Luke writes: “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry among the people” (Luke 3:23). Have you ever wondered what he did when he was your age? Where did he hang out? Who were his friends? Did they play sport? Did he go to school? Where did he learn to pray, to read the Scriptures?
Throughout the rest of the Gospel story, Jesus would go often off by himself to pray to his Father. As well as deepening our friendship with Jesus, even brief moments of prayer are a powerful source of strength and consolation especially when things aren’t going well for us, for our family or friends.
I remember the first Speech Day I attended as a member of the Riverview College Council. We grown-ups were sitting on the stage waiting to start when 1,623 teenage boys suddenly rose to their feet, chairs scraping as they made the sign of the cross worthy of any attempt to chase away summer flies. With not a piece of paper in sight, and at the speed of knots, they began the prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola: “Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous, teach me to serve you as you deserve…” And I thought to myself, “There’ll come a time when, especially when things aren’t going well for them, this prayer that has become part of their DNA will be a reminder of God’s loving kindness and a great source of comfort.”
May I leave you with this one thought? Before you finish your years at school, find a short prayer that appeals to you and learn it by heart, write it down if you like and keep it in your wallet or beside your bed, say it sometimes when you’re doing other things, and it will become part of you. You’ll find it pops up when you’re least expecting it but very specially at those times when you need some extra help. God will never let you down.
– Margaret Beirne RSC, 3 December 2015, Feast of St Francis Xavier