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Meet God’s Bootlegger

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Children play joyfully in PNG. Photo: Supplied
Children play joyfully in PNG. Photo: Supplied

Margaret Vella is affectionately known as God’s bootlegger.

If the residents or religious sisters living in the remote Papua New Guinean diocese of Vanimo need something, she’ll get it for them.

From cement to heart monitors, grand pianos to sewing machines, walking sticks to water tanks, she’s a one-woman Pacific shipping company.

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A few weeks after she was asked for pots of paint, she received pictures of the local church, now multi-coloured.

“Today, after a Polish Michaelite priest-surgeon performed the operation, the little girl is a picture of health.”

While probably not the finish envisioned by the parish priest, the paint job a colourful reminder of the warm hearts who pray inside.

Falling in love with three-year-old Maria Joseph, a girl who needed surgery on her bowed legs due to rickets, Margaret raised the necessary funds.

Today, after a Polish Michaelite priest-surgeon performed the operation, the little girl is a picture of health.

However, one of Margaret’s proudest achievements came a few years ago after she heard about a young girl and a nun being sexually assaulted by a gang of local “raskols” while getting water from a nearby trough. She raised almost $20,000 to erect a security fence around the convent.

Sr Cielos Prada and Margaret Vella. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Sr Cielos Prada and Margaret Vella. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Recipients of her generosity for many years, the tropical community has come to know that while it only has intermittent internet and phone access, it has 24/7 support from their “Aussie angel”.

She takes her vocation from St Mary MacKillop and her challenge to never see a need without doing something about it.

Living in poor conditions in remote PNG, the missionary sisters of The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara have come to rely on God’s providence—which more often than not flows through the hands of the Peakhurst Heights parishioner.

A relatively new order, the sisters were established in Argentina in 1988 and arrived in Vanimo 20 years ago, taking over a convent vacated by the Josephites.

“She and her beloved husband Wal had spent a number of years sending clothes and textbooks to Vanimo.”

Numbering more than a thousand worldwide, the sisters take four vows, and include a devotion to Mary along with promises of poverty, obedience and chastity.

Margaret said she is well aware of the huge impact she has had on the whole community but is equally aware of how much she has received from them in return, particularly during one of the darkest times in her life.

She and her beloved husband Wal had spent a number of years sending clothes and textbooks to Vanimo, but decided to try their hand at the “retiree thing”, heading off on safari to South Africa and giving the charitable work a rest.

She burst into laughter as she described it as “one of the most depressing experiences” of her life.

A procession in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Supplied
A procession in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Supplied

“Once we both retired, I found out pretty quickly I didn’t want to sit around drinking gin and tonics watching Days of Our Lives,” she told The Catholic Weekly.

“So, we decided to do some travelling and that didn’t make me happy either, I was happiest when I was doing things for others and Vanimo in particular.

“The more glamorous it became, the more upset I was, staying in all these top-quality hotels made me feel so lonely. I thought, ‘This really isn’t for me.’

“I decided that once we got home, we would put all of our energy into helping the Vanimo community, and then the unimaginable happened.”

“Months of grief and treatment took their toll but she eventually started to feel a little better.”

Wal passed away suddenly and Margaret was diagnosed with liver cancer, leaving her completely lost and searching for new meaning.

Months of grief and treatment took their toll but she eventually started to feel a little better.

She decided to do the one thing that made her feel good physically and mentally.

“I knew I could either sit around the house feeling sorry for myself or I could get up and do something for others, it’s that simple,” she said.

40-year-old Argentinian-born Sr Cielos Prado, mother superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, says the sisters rely on Margaret Vella’s generosity to fulfil their ministry of ‘imparting God’s love within the developing Church.’ Photo: Alphonsus Fok
40-year-old Argentinian-born Sr Cielos Prado, mother superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, says the sisters rely on Margaret Vella’s generosity to fulfil their ministry of ‘imparting God’s love within the developing Church.’ Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“From the letters and emails I was receiving I knew I was making a real difference, which made me feel good but I wanted to see if for myself.”

Inspired by long-time friend Sr Helen, a Josephite nun who had for many years told Margaret about educating the children in the missionary outpost, she boarded a plane and flew 3,615km to Port Moresby.

Spending the night at a convent occupied by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, she spent the next day waiting for a flight to Vanimo, which operates due to demand and not a schedule.

She touched down on a single airstrip more than 28 hours later, hot, tired, and completely exhausted. She knew she had found exactly what she was looking for.

“As well as teaching in the school, they visited families in the villages, assisted in the medical clinic and trekked through jungle and across rivers to visit the mission outstations and for pastoral visitations.”

She befriended the Mother Superior, Sr Cielos Prado, a 40-year-old Argentinian-born woman whose passion it was to “quench the people of PNG’s thirst for God’s truth.”

She instantly fell in love with the sisters who, despite the challenges associated with the climate, terrain, and vagaries of remote tropical living, remained steadfast in imparting God’s love within the developing Church.

As well as teaching in the school, they visited families in the villages, assisted in the medical clinic and trekked through jungle and across rivers to visit the mission outstations and for pastoral visitations.

They organised the formation of catechists and established a home for girls, offering accommodation for vulnerable females, particularly those at risk of being forced to marry much older men.

Map showing the location of Vanimo in Northern Papua New Guinea.
Map showing the location of Vanimo in Northern Papua New Guinea.

For Sr Cielos, Margaret is a blessing. Knowing she is just a phone call away (when they can get wi-fi) is very reassuring.

“Marg is so very generous in all means, she gives up her time, her money and her skills for us, we don’t have anybody else like her. If there’s a need she’ll find a way to get it,” she said.

“There is no direct flight to PNG so when we need to travel we have to have a stopover which we always do in Sydney because she welcomes us into her house and makes us feel like we are at home.

“We don’t have anybody anywhere in the world like Margaret, she is such a blessing.”

“Sr Cielos and all of the sisters are saints, it’s that simple … They are such gentle, sweet, lovable women who I am proud to call my friends.”

Not surprisingly, Margaret feels the same way about Sr Cielos and the ministry carried out by the sisters.

She calls their friendship a match made in heaven.

“Sr Cielos and all of the sisters are saints, it’s that simple,” she said, smiling.

“They are such gentle, sweet, lovable women who I am proud to call my friends.

Margaret Vella watches on as Sr Cielos Prada gives her witness. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Margaret Vella watches on as Sr Cielos Prada gives her witness. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“I have seen firsthand what a difference some of the things I can provide for them can make.

“It still surprises me that in an increasingly secular society, that once you mention you are collecting for nuns people become very generous.”

Margaret said she was made aware of her ability to support to the Vanimo community after a visit by the Holy Spirit

A generous Catholic businessman offered her an endless supply of cartons of wine, which he told her to use for fundraising.

“The wine was a bit crook, but it was all for a good cause … the more you drank the better it tasted.”

Every weekend she travelled to parishes, drumming up funds by way of donation and regaling parishioners with stories about her “PNG family” and the joy and need that she had witnessed first-hand.

“The wine was a bit crook, but it was all for a good cause,” she smiled.

“I used to laugh, the more you drank the better it tasted.

“At some Saturday night Masses, parishioners would leave with a bottle and be back again wanting another before I had left.

The missionary sisters of The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara with their community. Photo Supplied
The missionary sisters of The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara with their community. Photo Supplied

“I travelled across Sydney, Wollongong and the Central Coast talking at Mass about the need in PNG and then people would make a $10 donation and get a bottle of wine for their trouble.

“All the money raised either went straight to the sisters or I purchased things they needed and then got businesses to get it over to PNG.

“They have embraced me and given me a purpose and I am so thankful I have the opportunity to help them.”

“The sky really is the limit when it comes to what I would do for the Vanimo community.

“They have embraced me and given me a purpose and I am so thankful I have the opportunity to help them.”

If you are interested in finding out more about Vanimo Diocese contact Margaret on [email protected]

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