Despite spending much of their lives on opposite sides of the world, Maria Monro and Jean D’Souza have celebrated 60 years of friendship since becoming pen pals through The Catholic Weekly.
In the early 1960s, eleven-year-old Maria, a student at St Xavier’s Catholic School in Gunnedah, NSW, answered a column in The Catholic Weekly advertising the chance for children to receive a pen pal.
Ten thousand kilometres away in Pune, Western India, the nuns of St Anne’s Catholic School put the same call out to their students before handing out pieces of paper with a name and address.
“I picked Maria and wrote to her, and was very happy when she replied,” said Jean.
“Since then, we’ve been writing, quite often while in school and sporadically when we started working.”
The pair, now both 73, have since mostly ditched the pen and paper and made use of technology, keeping in touch more frequently than is possible with Pune’s worsening mail system.
“But we’ll always send Christmas cards,” Maria said, “every year, without fail.”
Each have had their own adventures around the world, crossing paths two times since they began writing to each other as children.
Maria backpacked across Asia in her 20s, finally landing work as a nurse in England before getting married.
In 1974, she visited Jean in Pune and learnt about the strong Catholic faith of the local Indian community.
Jean travelled to America in her youth on a scholarship, worked in Singapore, and finally made her way to Australia in 2016 for a few days to visit Maria and meet her family.
“We were very adventurous, and so I think all during this time our mothers must have been home praying!” joked Maria.
“But I just had to go out there,” she said, “instead of learning during geography class, I was dreaming of all these countries.
“Having my pen pal was instrumental in making that dream a reality.”
Jean and Maria are currently spending a week together in Brisbane and in a moment of spontaneity the pair have set off together to visit country towns in Southern Queensland.
Their connection on paper has translated into a life-long friendship influenced by their Catholic faith and shared love of travel.
“We’re like sisters in a way,” said Maria.
“We’re certainly beyond friends and have gotten on really well for so long that we’re like family.
“We thought we’d do the best we can while we’ve got the time together, and so we set off.”
For Jean, friendship with Maria has been “quite a highlight in my life,” and now in retirement and with a long-term visa she plans to make many more trips to Australian shores.
She also hopes to meet Maria’s grandchildren for the first time on this trip.
Meanwhile, Maria plans to keep up her travels as she enjoys retirement.
She hopes to visit India again in the next two years, spending time with Jean as she did in her 20s.
“We’ll keep in touch with each other, that much is certain,” said Jean.