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‘Humbled and honoured’ Catholics recognised for community service in 2024 Australia Day awards

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Left to Right: Beverley Kerr, Victor O'Callaghan and Penelope Becchio were among those to recieve an Australia Day Award. Photos Supplied
Left to Right: Dame Beverley Kerr, Victor O’Callaghan and Penelope Becchio were among those to recieve an Australia Day Award. Photo: Composite/Supplied

St Vincent de Paul Society’s NSW Vice President for Special Works, Dame Beverley Joy Kerr, has been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her service to the community, but says the reward is in the work itself.

“I simply do it because that’s where my heart lies,” she told The Catholic Weekly.

For more than 20 years Kerr has served those suffering from homelessness, family and domestic violence, disabilities, drug and alcohol abuse, and has accompanied Australians in aged care and rehabilitation.

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She is one of many Catholics across the nation who have been recognised at this year’s Australia Day awards for their outstanding contributions to the nation.

These included the late Fr Bob Maguire, who was laid to rest on 5 May 2023 in a state funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. Fr Maguire was posthumously made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

Beverley Joy Kerr receives her papal knighthood from Bishop Brian Mascord at Wollongong Cathedral in 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Society of St Vincent de Paul NSW

Among Kerr’s many roles, she has been chair of the Special Work Committee since 2017, director of community housing company Amelie Housing since 2019 and member of the Corrimal (Wollongong) Vinnies conference since 2002.

She received a papal knighthood in 2023 under the Order of St Gregory the Great for her volunteer work, but the mounting honours won’t distract her from the spirit of her work.

“I’m just an ordinary person working for Vinnies, doing God’s work, and doing what I enjoy and am passionate about,” Kerr said.

“It’s not about me—it’s about the homeless, the disadvantaged and the people living on the margins.”

Michael Joseph McMahon

Michael Joseph McMahon, a sailing manager at Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club and local parishioner at St Kieran’s in Manly Vale for over 50 years, received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

“Though I was a bit surprised, because it was never something I thought about,” he said.

Michael Joseph McMahon. Photo: Supplied

McMahon’s grandfather introduced him and his brother to the sailing club at 12 years of age.

He also became an altar server after his father became involved in the church from the 1950s.

Recognised for his service to sailing, he says his participation in both the sport and his faith have given him a sense of pleasure all his life.

“I’ve just enjoyed doing it, and sometimes I wonder why. But it simply is the satisfaction that being involved in both communities brings to me,” he said.

McMahon continues as a senior server at St Kieran’s and is part of the parish’s finance committee whilst juggling his current managerial role at the sailing club, where he has been a member for more than 57 years.

“I find my way into these roles somehow and I just keep going and am happy to keep doing it.”

Sarkis Chahin Karam

Maronite Catholic Sarkis Chahin Karam was awarded the OAM for service to the Lebanese community of Sydney and was beyond overjoyed at learning the news.

“I’m humbled to have even been nominated and considered,” he said.

“Since I was young, I loved public life, to contribute and help others and to do my best and assist.”

Sarkis Karam with Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai. Photo: Supplied

Since migrating to Australia from Lebanon in 1977, aged 13, he has continued his service in the Maronite and Lebanese communities.

Karam has served as both member and president of the Association of Zgharta, vice-president and secretary of the Maronite Catholic Society of Australia, and federal secretary-general of the United Australian Lebanese Movement.

Karam is an author with English and Arabic titles and has supported his local sporting community as a founding member and current volunteer at Rydalmere Football Club.

“I just try to play my part over the years, whether in the Maronite or in the Australian community in general,” he said. “In many ways, it is one community.”

It has been a “long and beautiful 47 years” in Australia for Karam, whose Lebanese and Maronite Catholic heritage has been positively projected in the nation he calls home.

“I love Australia so much and to be recognised and appreciated is the greatest honour.”

Penelope Anne Becchio

State commissioner of special projects at Scouts NSW and mother of three Penelope Anne Becchio says community life and volunteering are in her DNA.

The parishioner of St Patricks Asquith in Broken Bay received an OAM for service to the community through a range of organisations, including as a volunteer organist at her parish since 1980.

Penelope Becchio. Photo: Supplied

“I was brought up as a Catholic and went to Catholic school, so it was an obvious transition to move into and do other things within the church while I was young and my children were young,” Becchio said.

“My father was involved in scouting and then my children also later became involved, so I then stayed involved.”

She says it takes one thing to give over 45 years of service to the Catholic Church in Australia: “stickability.”

“You stick with it, because even when you’re in one project another one will present itself and so naturally there’s always plenty to do.”

Becchio says service is about giving time to what’s truly important, “be that your family, church, or scouting or any other community work you do.”

But, she said, there “isn’t a lot of opportunity to sit around and watch TV.”

Like so many award recipients, Becchio said the award wasn’t hers alone.

“It’s a great honour to receive the award, and I accept it on behalf of everybody who’s worked with me along the journey, including my family.”

Victor and Elizabeth O’Callaghan

Husband and wife duo Victor and Elizabeth O’Callaghan both received an OAM, Victor for service to restorative practices, and Elizabeth for service to education.

They said their “marriage of opposites” has helped them to see that members of the community with different views all have an important contribution to make.

Victor and Elizabeth O’Callaghan. Photo: Supplied

The pair are co-executive directors of Restorative Practices Australia, which helps school staff, students and parents to create positive relationships and improve student learning outcomes.

They paid tribute to their mentors for having helped their community work to flourish.

“We wish to thank two special mentors, Sr Joachim Forbes RSJ and Mr Terry O’Connell OAM, for their insights, encouragement, and wise counsel,” the couple told The Catholic Weekly.

Victor has been a committed refugee activist for over 40 years, and is a supporter of the Jesuit Refugee Support Group in Western Sydney and a co-founder of Springwood East Timor Support Group.

Elizabeth has enjoyed a career in education in the Catholic Schools Parramatta Dioceses, including as assistant principal at St Michael’s Primary School from 1991-92 and St Thomas Aquinas Primary School from 1992-95.

She also served as Principal of St Mary Mackillop Primary School in South Penrith from 1995-2007.

“Our careers have been both a joy and a privilege and we thank all those who’ve worked with us,” the couple said.

“We appreciate these awards and believe it is shared by all those with whom we have worked in education and Restorative Practices over the years.”

Catholics honoured in this year’s Australia Day awards

Congratulations to all those in the our community who have been recognised for their service in this year’s Australia Day awards. Have we missed you? Please email George.alakiki [at] catholicweekly.com.au.

Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the General Division

  • Mrs Beverley Joy Kerr, for significant service to the community through social welfare programs.

Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the General Division

  • The late Reverend Robert John Maguire AN RFD, for distinguished service to the community, particularly through social welfare initiatives and organisations

Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the General Division

  • Mr Adian Joseph Bendt, for service to music as a violinist and choir master.
  • Mrs Marea Ellen Donovan, for service to the Catholic Church.
  • Mr Sarkis Chahine Karam, for service to the Lebanese community of Sydney.
  • Mr Gregory Mark O’Mullane, for service to Catholic education, and to school rugby union.
  • Mrs Penelope Anne Becchio, for service to the community through a range of organisations.
  • Mr Richard Patrick Dalton, for service to the law, and to the community.
  • Mrs Jill Maree Dawson, for service to the community through a range of roles.
  • Mr Vincent John Feeney, for service to secondary education.
  • Mr Eris Daniel Gleeson, for service to the community of the Hilltops region.
  • Mrs Lynese Elizabeth Goldie, for service to veterans and their families.
  • Mr Gordon Wilson Gray, for service to the community through a range of organisations.
  • Ms Jane Lloyd, for service to the community through social welfare organisations.
  • Mrs Joyce Gertrude Loas, for service to the community of the Newcastle region.
  • Mr Michael Joseph McMahon, for service to sailing.
  • Mr Victor John O’Callaghan, for service to restorative practices.
  • Mrs Elizabeth O’Callaghan, for service to education.
  • Dr Margaret Mary O’Donnell, for service to education, and to the community.
  • Mrs Bernadette Margare O’Neil, for service to rugby league, and to the community.
  • Mrs Nemira Aurelija Stapleton, for service to the Lithuanian community of Adelaide.
  • Mrs Mary Sutcliffe, for service to the community through music.
  • Mr John (Jack) Raymond Synnott, for service to the community of Cygnet.
  • Mrs Mary Elizabeth Synnott, for service to the community of Cygnet.
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