From Manly to Malawi

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Sr Melissa in the classroom with Year 12 students. Photos: Supplied
Sr Melissa in the classroom with Year 12 students. Photos: Supplied

“I was sitting on the floor with little Christina who was dying, helping her forgive her mother who had died from AIDs a few months earlier.

“She was only 12 and had the disease herself, having contracted it before she was born.

“She was not only incredibly sick with pneumonia and tuberculosis, but very angry, blaming her late mother and father for what she called her ‘death sentence’.

“In a room with 50 patients and only eight beds, with no fans or air conditioning, I sat on the floor with her every night feeding her boiled potatoes which was all she could eat.

“I had no words to console her. I simply listened, and tried to help her find peace in her heart.

“I really didn’t think she would make it, in a country where so few females have the chance to go to university, I didn’t believe it would be possible.”

“After four weeks, Christina realised that her mother didn’t mean to make her sick and literally the next day was able to forgive her.

“She began to put on weight and despite still being very unwell, was able to come back to school where she had a dream of becoming a lawyer.

“I really didn’t think she would make it, in a country where so few females have the chance to go to university, I didn’t believe it would be possible.

“Yet, five years later she graduated from Year 12 and qualified to study law at the University of Malawi, and today works for a law firm.

“Such is the life of a principal of a secondary school in rural Africa.”

The greatest joy of her life … Sr Melissa with some of her students at Bakhita Secondary School in Balaka, East Africa Photos: Supplied
The greatest joy of her life … Sr Melissa with some of her students at Bakhita Secondary School in Balaka, East Africa Photos: Supplied

It’s a long way from Manly to Malawi for Sr Melissa Dwyer, who has been awarded Australian Catholic University’s highest honour in recognition of her remarkable work in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Sr Melissa, a Canossian Daughter of Charity, received an Honorary Degree of Doctor (Honoris Causa) for her work giving young girls access to education while principal of Bakhita Secondary School in Balaka, a boarding school with 600 students in a small village in remote East Africa.

In a country where enrolment rates in tertiary education are less than 1% of which, only 30% are female, Sr Melissa witnessed that figure rise to 30 per cent by the end of her tenure.

She admits she had no idea when she graduated in Brisbane with a Bachelor of Secondary Education that she would end up spending nearly eight years in a country “she had to get the atlas out and look at where on earth it was”.

No running water or electricity, not speaking the language, doing 19-hour days and experiencing several violent robberies were her new life.

“For it remains the reality that for millions and millions of people in our world education is often the only way out of poverty.”

However, reflecting on her time there and all of its incredible challenges, she admitted leaving was by far the hardest part.

“The greatest joy of my life has been leading a school community where these young women are in class from 5am until 9pm six days a week by choice because they are so desperate to provide themselves, their families and often their entire villages with hope of a brighter tomorrow,” she said.

“For it remains the reality that for millions and millions of people in our world education is often the only way out of poverty.

“People think it’s hard living in a developing country when there’s very little electricity and smart phones and all those types of things but for me the hardest thing was not going to Africa but definitely coming back.

“Coming in as a woman, as a religious woman, how can you not lay down your life when you see such inspiration around you every day?”

Robe ready … Sr Melissa Dwyer after being awarded ACU’s highest honour, an Honorary Doctorate, by Chancellor Martin Daubney AM QC. Photo: GFP Graduations
Robe ready … Sr Melissa Dwyer after being awarded ACU’s highest honour, an Honorary Doctorate, by Chancellor Martin Daubney AM QC. Photo: GFP Graduations

Born on Sydney’s northern beaches but raised and educated in Brisbane, Sr Melissa has been a Canossian Daughter of Charity since 2005, but spent her entire childhood pursuing a different religion … a career in sport.

At the age of five, she carved out a dream to win Olympic gold in javelin throwing, establishing herself as a record-breaking athlete in the sport.

Whilst training, she also completed a degree in physical education, and was selected for the Sydney 2000 Olympic trials.

However, remarkably she passed it all up for a free mission trip to Tanzania with the Canossian Sisters, working in a homeless shelter for one month, which would see her life change forever.

“A little girl begged to come back to Australia with me and be my servant, to carry my bags and tie my shoes, and I had to tell her there was nothing I could do to help her,” she said.

“I didn’t see myself being a nun, didn’t see myself working in the developing world, and I didn’t see myself ending up on the other side of the world in a rural village school, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“And it was from that space of feeling useless that I remember getting so angry with God … and it became very clear to me that there was something I could do and that was to give my life completely to God and to the poor by becoming a Canossian Daughter of Charity.

“So that’s what I did.”

Sr Melissa made her first vows in 2005 and has never looked back.

“I didn’t see myself being a nun, didn’t see myself working in the developing world, and I didn’t see myself ending up on the other side of the world in a rural village school, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said.

“I remember so many times when it was very difficult, the hours at the school were so long, and walking back from my office sometimes at 11.30 at night I’d look at the stars and speak with Jesus saying ‘hey this is where you have sent me and I just want to trust you are here in the darkness and in the challenge’.

Student Christina, who despite living with AIDs, is now working in a law firm in Malawi.
Student Christina, who despite living with AIDs, is now working in a law firm in Malawi.

“It was such an amazing experience, I would return to Malawi ‘in an instant’ if it was God’s will but I didn’t sign up to do what I wanted but what God wanted of me.”

During her time in Malawi, Sr Melissa said she had many “God moments” with one that will always remain with her.

“One night, seven men broke into our convent, they tied up the sisters, and one of our guards was killed,” she said.

“I was able to understand the men who were screaming in a foreign language ‘where’s the white nun’.

“They had done their homework and knew as principal I would have all the money.

“When we calmed down and thought about it, we really did look at it as a miracle, and attributed our survival to our patroness St Bakhita.”

“I was on the other side of the wall and could hear them, one of the sisters said ‘she isn’t here she’s sleeping with the students’, so they came to my door and I could see them turning the handle a few times but for some reason they didn’t push it open.

“I remember thinking, ‘Jesus it’s been nice knowing you, this is the end now’, but somehow they left without harming us.

“It was very much a God moment.

“When we calmed down and thought about it, we really did look at it as a miracle, and attributed our survival to our patroness St Bakhita.

“After that robbery my life changed in that I was much more aware of my own safety, I obviously stood out being the only white woman in the village.

Feeling blessed: Sr Melissa administering the Eucharist to a student during a school Mass (top) and surrounded by inquisitive young children and their families in a nearby village.
Feeling blessed: Sr Melissa administering the Eucharist to a student during a school Mass (top) and surrounded by inquisitive young children and their families in a nearby village.

“I used to sleep with the door open but I’ve never done that since, not even back here in Australia.”

ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Zlatko Skrbis said Sr Melissa was an inspiration to educators all over the world.

“Sr Melissa Dwyer dedicated her life to the service of the poor as a young woman, and through that commitment, encouraged and supported hundreds of young women in the world’s poorest country to reach their potential,” he said.

“The work she has done and continues to do for the Church globally, in particular in increasing access to education to enable upward socioeconomic mobility, should be an inspiration to everyone, and it deserves to be honoured with this honorary doctorate from the university.”

At the presentation, Sr Melissa dedicated the honorary doctorate to the people of Malawi for giving her the opportunity to walk with them.

“sr melissa dwyer dedicated her life to the service of the poor as a young woman and through that commitment, encouraged and supported hundreds of young women in the world’s poorest country to reach their potential.”

“It’s on their behalf that I accept the acknowledgement, conscious that hopefully I can inspire one person, through my story, to make a difference with their life,” she said.

“Receiving the honour was so humbling, particularly as I was just doing God’s work.

“I just pray that everyone at some stage in their life finds someone to sit on the floor with and simply listen.”

Sr Melissa returned to Australia in 2016 and is currently the delegation leader of her Order, looking after 32 Canossian sisters.