School was out for summer
Ashbury, a quiet spot where retired nuns generate 'pastoral dynamism'
A cubby house is a popular new feature in the refurbished playground
By Marilyn Rodrigues
Tucked between its parents, Ashfield and Canterbury, Ashbury sleeps while therest of Sydney grows busier, taller and noisier.
Ursuline Sr Mary Kneipp describes this quiet corner of Sydney as a "dormitory little suburb", and indeed it is.
There are no commercial developments or high rise buildings, just simple homes - mostly made of dark brown brick - with neat gardens in tidy streets.
Even the Canterbury Park racecourse, on Ashbury's south-eastern boundary, only comes to life for one or two race meetings each month.
The Catholic church of St Francis Xavier is at the quiet intersection of Leopold and Alison Sts.
Many of its parishioners walk to church.
"We don't have any parking problems here," says parish priest Fr Frank Coorey.
"At five minutes before Mass starts the church is nearly empty; by the time I get to the altar and turn around, they're all there."
He has been in the parish for four-and-a-half years. Before that he was parish priest at St Charles Borromeo at Ryde.
"St Francis Xavier has the same mix of ethnic groups as other parishes but nevertheless we just seem to be so much more self-contained," says Fr Frank.
"We encourage all our parishioners to support our parish in some way because we don't get much 'passing trade'."
Sr Leone Pallisier, former provincial leader of the Ursulines, agrees. "Lay ministry is really important in the parish," she says.
There's the liturgy, music, finance and building groups,catechists, parents and friends and church cleaners, the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Legion of Mary, special Eucharistic ministers, Liturgy of the Word ministers, 20 young altar servers and more.
But, says Fr Frank, "the pastoral dynamism of this parish" is the presence of the Ursuline sisters.
"We have 14 sisters here and that is something. They value the other parishioners so they're not looked upon as a remote group over there; there is great integration," he says.
"The sisters celebrate the Eucharist every morning with us, share with us as ministers of the Eucharist and ministers of the Word and so on, so they are well involved."
The Ursuline Sisters have been the lifeblood of the parish since arriving from Armidale to set up the primary school at the request of the first parish priest, Fr Edward McMahon, in March 1929.
But by 1998 there were only three sisters living in the large two-storey convent building that had been built in 1935.
It was unsuitable for a community with many ageing sisters, so it was demolished to make way for six small houses which are home now for the community of retired Sisters.
The Ursuline provincial development also includes an administrative office of the Australian province of the order. Sr Patricia Andrew is the current provincial leader.
One of the buildings is a prayer and meeting space, named the Piazza to commemorate the order's Italian origins. The sisters regularly offer it for parish use.
Sr Leone says: "One of the things we wanted when we set up the new development was that the focus for our community would be as a religious dimension of life as part of a parish.
"We don't have a chapel because I think that we need to celebrate the Eucharist as part of the large community, not an isolated community.
"There must have been a really good community spirit right from the early days in Ashbury because, as a congregation, I think about a third of our sisters came from here.
"So there is a great connection between the parish, school and community, and there's a real family kind of spirit."
Sr Mary explains that the primary school was based upon the Ursuline charism, which is "total respect for every single person and who they are and trying to develop that".
Principal Donna Craigie says the school strives to keep that spirit alive.
"We try to recognise each individual and their special strengths and try to encourage that," she says.
"We try to present a sound education as well as striving to present a curriculum that hopefully caters for the whole child."
The children are encouraged to develop public speaking skills from Year 4 with oral presentations, and then a debating program in Years 5 and 6 which includes taking part in inter-school debating competitions.
They take part in the annual University of NSW maths competition as well.
The 300-plus student school also has a strong creative arts policy. Children are exposed to dance, music, drama and video and digital photography.
"We want them to not only be able to write, but communicate thoughts and feelings through other mediums," says Ms Craigie.
Whole school Masses are held two or three times each term; there is a Mass for a different class each week, too, which is organised by the students.
Thanks to a building and refurbishment program, helped by a Commonwealth grant, St Francis Xavier school boasts a new administration block, four new classrooms and two amenities blocks, plus a staffroom and canteen.
Parts of the playground have been refurbished and other areas around the school have been transformed by landscaping.
Ms Craigie has been at St Francis Xavier school for seven years, but she has lived in the parish for 22 years.
The daughter of a horse trainer, she owns several horses herself and remembers when many students had fathers involved with the nearby racecourse as jockeys, trainers or groundskeepers.