Love’s hard yards

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Loss has become one of the few things Cathi Sperring has found in life.

She lost her partner after he was tied to railway tracks and run over by a train; she lost two of her eight children and she lost her house and everything in it in a targeted arson attack.

Living in mental, physical and financial distress, she was not sure where to turn until she received a knock at the door from what she can only describe as an “unlikely ally”.

Initially telling the gentle stranger in not so gentle terms that she wanted to be left alone, her visitor’s persistence paid off.

After several attempts, the door was finally opened and a beautiful friendship was established that has lasted over 30 years.

Numb and unable to see a future after losing her five-and-a-half month old son to cot death, Cathi said she still doesn’t know why she agreed to meet Kerry MacDermott, a sister with Our Lady Nurses for the Poor.

An emotional Cathi Sperring remembers the life-changing work of Sr Kerry Macdermott PHOTO: Anthony Milić

But, she said, that meeting 34 years ago well and truly saved her life and is as strong today as it’s ever been.

“I was at the lowest of the low, I had just lost my son Brendan and everything was looking completely hopeless … until that knock at the door,” she told The Catholic Weekly.

“The first few times she came round I told her to bugger off but she kept coming back and in the end I only answered the door to get rid of her.

“It was in those first few minutes of our meeting that I actually felt a calming peace and that Sr Kerry would somehow change my life.

“That was 34 years ago and we have become pretty much inseparable ever since.

“She’s been with me through thick and thin and I couldn’t imagine going through life without her.”

Being in the presence of the two women, you can physically feel their friendship.

Despite living very different lives, love is the glue that holds them together.

Helping the sick and poor is Sr Kerry’s vocation but loving them is her passion.

Established by Australian saint-in-waiting Eileen O’Connor, the order of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, share a deep devotion to Our Lady and the downtrodden.

Sr Kerry was introduced to the sisters as a teenager while volunteering with them in her hometown of Brisbane.

Sr Kerry behind the wheel of her old Holden Commodore, travelling thousands of kilometres each year to provide financial, physical and emotional support. PHOTO: Anthony Milić

She told The Catholic Weekly she marvelled at not only the work they did but the sheer depths of despair within her community.

And after leaving school and working as a bank filing clerk for a few years, she decided to join them at just 21.

“I can still remember the day at the airport, my Mum stood sobbing ‘Kerry please don’t leave me’ and all I could say was ‘God is calling me’,” she said softly. “I cried all the way to Sydney, causing my mum so much pain was the most difficult part … Once I arrived at the convent at Coogee and got settled into my new life I felt complete and that I was where I was meant to be.

“The only thing that bothered me – and it bothered me a lot – was hearing the music from the beach at night. It had a huge impact on me knowing that was a life I would never be part of, but apart from that I felt at peace.”

Sr Kerry has been with the order for more than 50 years, the last 20 of those supporting some of Sydney’s poorest and needy aboriginal communities in Sydney’s south-west.

Based in a modest fibro Housing Commission cottage in the suburb of Macquarie Fields, which she established with her late congregational leader Sr Patricia Murphy, the 78-year-old spends a significant amount of her time behind the wheel of her worn and rusted 15-year-old Holden Commodore, travelling thousands of kilometres each year to provide financial, physical and emotional support.

Described by aboriginal elders themselves as “the glue that keeps us together”, she has been given the Koori name, “Tidda”, which roughly translates to sister, a rare honour bestowed on a non-indigenous person.  She has been responsible for a huge influx in not only aboriginals back to the Church but students at the John Therry Catholic High School at Rosemeadow, now boasting one of the largest numbers of indigenous students in the State.

Sr Kerry watches Indigenous students perform at the John Therry Catholic High School opening mass for 2020 PHOTO: John Therry CHS.

Accompanying her on her rounds for a day, the sheer warmth, respect and love shown towards the slightly built sister is palpable.

Carrying almost celebrity status, she is warmly appreciated everywhere she goes. From hugs in homes to high fives in the street.

And it’s here she says is where she calls home and carrying out Eileen O’Connor’s mantra: “You will always find Jesus most at home in the poor and most broken”.

“When we moved out here more than 20 years ago, we did our research to find the area in Sydney with the biggest need and that was Macquarie Fields,” she said.

“And while many may be poor, I am so much the richer for having met them,” she said.

“The Aboriginal community is so rich in spirituality and I feel so very honoured to not only be accepted but respected by them.

Sr Kerry watches Indigenous students perform at the John Therry Catholic High School opening mass for 2020 PHOTO: John Therry CHS

“They are very, very proud people so knowing they feel comfortable asking me for help is very rewarding … I am quite simply following in Eileen O’Connor’s footsteps and I think when the time comes and I’m face to face with her she’ll be pretty pleased with me and the work I’ve done.”