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Pastoral role takes Sister back to where it all began
A conversation with Mercy Sr Mary Clement, who gave up a life of teaching to take on a pastoral role that took her back to where it all began – her home town
16 December, 2012 |
Sr Mary Clement was a young novice preparing to make her first profession with the Sisters of Mercy when her father arrived at the convent to take her home.
|‘SPECIAL DEVOTION’: Sr Mary Clement “prayed to Our Blessed Lady” to intercede when she feared her father would withhold his permission for her to join the Sisters of Mercy. To her delight, he said “yes”.
Her hopes of a life in the Church seemed dashed almost at the start.
Sr Mary Clement was born Nancy Lennox in Mudgee, in the state’s central west.
“I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy here in Mudgee at St Matthew’s,” she says.
“It was their inspiration and their example and their prayer that led me to the Sisters of Mercy.”
The Sisters had always looked out for Sr Mary Clement, the second youngest of 11 children.
“They were very good to me; if I needed anything at any time, they didn’t hesitate.”
One Sister identified a religious calling in their young pupil, who had already begun to consider her vocation.
“She said: ‘There are lot of orders but perhaps you might like to enter the Sisters of Mercy.’
“I said: ‘Oh, yes. I wouldn’t go any further than the Sisters of Mercy.’
“As I grew older she kept in touch with me and she didn’t give up on me, and I prayed about it in the meantime.”
Sr Mary Clement’s father was a “determined” man, who had shared his wish for her to be the one to care for her ageing mother.
“I thought he’d never give his permission,” she says.
“I had a very special devotion to Our Blessed Lady, and I prayed to Our Blessed Lady that she would intercede for me and come to my aid.”
She consulted Irish parish priest Fr Cass, who arranged for a Redemptorist missionary priest to speak to Mr Lennox.
To her sheer delight, he gave his permission for her to enter the convent.
“I was overjoyed, because that was the only obstacle keeping me back,” she recalls.
Sr Mary Clement had already made peace with the sacrifices she would have to make,
including the opportunity to have a family of her own.
“I thought about that,” she says.
“Coming from a big family, everybody but one married and had a family, and I saw their
children coming through.
“It was a big sacrifice … what a wonderful thing, to give life to a child.
“But I knew what I was giving up.
“In my mind, all the time, God was calling me, saying: ‘That’s not for you, I’m calling you’.
“I had to make those sacrifices.”
At 18, Sr Mary Clement travelled to Bathurst to become a postulant.
“My mother was overjoyed, because she was a very saintly person and she knew it was a great privilege to be a Sister of Mercy.
“I received the white veil first, after two years.
“I had to do my novitiate first. Then it was another year until my first profession.”
But in the lead-up to her first profession, an unexpected visit by her parents almost halted her religious life.
“He said: ‘I’ve come to take you home, because your mother hasn’t been very well’.”
While a discreet exit was usually made by anyone leaving the novitiate at that stage, the convent was abuzz with news of Sr Mary Clement’s impending, and unwilling, departure.
“When a person left, it was all very secretive, but this wasn’t,” she says.
“The novices were up in the novitiate and they had the candle lit in front of Our Lady because they knew I had a great devotion to her.
“They were praying for me.
“I had taken off my postulant’s dress and I had my port packed on the back verandah.
“The superior took me to the chapel, and we prayed together.
“I was on my way out and I met my father in the hallway.
“He looked at me and said: ‘You’re very upset’.
“I said: ‘I know that God is calling me here to religious life, and I don’t want to go home. It’s not that I don’t love my mother – I love her dearly and she loves me – but God will provide for her if I stay here’.
“He said: ‘Well, in that case, you’d better stay’.”
Despite her relief, Sr Mary Clement struggled with whether she had made the right decision, until she received a letter from her father.
“He never wrote the letters, my mother did, but I had a letter from my father.
“He said: ‘I didn’t want to stand in the way of your vocation, but I was thinking of your dear mother. But her health has improved in the meantime, and when we are dead and gone, we’ll always have someone to pray for us.’
“That has lingered on in my heart all those years.
“And they do have a very special place in my prayers, but I’m sure they’re with the Lord.”
After continuing with her profession, Sr Mary Clement completed her teacher training.
“I taught for a little over 40 years in a lot of the schools in the Bathurst diocese and the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese,” she says.
“I loved teaching, I really did.
“When I turned 60, I thought that was a good span, so I went to the Mercy Hospital in Melbourne and I trained in pastoral care.”
To her surprise and delight, her first appointment in pastoral care was a homecoming.
“I was very happy to be able to return to Mudgee to minister to the people here.”
Sr Mary Clement visits people in hospital, aged care facilities and their homes – “those who need a little extra care and extra compassion”.
“I try to give them as much love as I can, and I take Holy Communion to them.”
She taught scripture and prepared state school children for the sacraments.
And for more than 20 years she has been an auxiliary member and a conference member of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and worked at the Vinnies shop every week.
“To reach out to the poor and the needy, that is a very special work,” she says.
She was the guest of honour at the recent centenary celebrations at St Matthew’s School, Mudgee, which she first attended in 1930.
She received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2001, and she has also received two Premier’s Awards.
While joining the Sisters of Mercy kept her from staying home to care for her elderly mother, when Sr Mary Clement’s sister Millie fell ill after the death of her husband and needed a carer, the order found a solution.
“I asked my congregational superior would I be able to move in with her, care for her in her fragility and do my pastoral care and catechetics at the same time. Well, I wasn’t refused.
“It was wonderful.
“And that was a great privilege to be able to do that.”
She cared for Millie for 12 years and was with her when she died.
After Millie’s death, Sr Mary Clement moved into a unit a short walk from St Mary’s Church, St Matthew’s School and the Vinnies shop.
She has attracted several nicknames through years of getting around Mudgee by bicycle.
“I was known as the Bikie Sister or the Flying Nun,” Sr Mary Clement says.
She has since upgraded to a motorised mobility scooter and was astonished at the number of people who expressed their relief that she had finally given up the bike.
“I don’t know how many people stopped me down the street to say: ‘I was so happy to see that you have the gopher, that you’re not riding the bicycle any longer’.
“I don’t know how many people said that.”
She is grateful for the support she has received from the Mudgee community.
“People befriend me and support me in every way; they are marvellous to me,” she says.
“I didn’t totally expect the way that they treat me; they treat me as one of their own.”
Sr Mary Clement was delighted to return to Mudgee in 1986 “after being away for so long, to minister to the people here, whom I always loved”.
“And, well, they love me, too.”