The platinum sisters of St Dominic

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Dominican sisters Patricia Nicols, Doreen Ellsmore and Shirley King. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Jubilarians drawn to the life by kindness, laughter and fun

When Sister Doreen Ellsmore joined the Dominican Sisters in 1948 at the ripe age of 21 she groaned when she met fellow newcomers Srs Shirley King and Patricia Nichols, then 17 and 18 respectively.

“I looked at them and thought, I don’t know how I can bear it because the two of them looked so young and innocent,” she said.

“And we had to bear with you,” replied Sr Patricia with a smile.

The Sydney-based trio, who have been friends and fellow religious for 70 years, will celebrate their platinum jubilee in December along with the other remaining member of their postulant group, Sr Margaret Gannon.

The four women entered religious life in the order’s head house in Maitland – along with six others – at a time when Mass was celebrated in Latin, sisters wore full habits and the fact that their order was semi-enclosed meant they could not visit family or former friends.

“My mother said, ‘Come on Shirley let’s sit down and talk some sense into you, you’re far too young to be making your mind up now’. But I knew I wanted to be a Dominican,” said Sr Shirley.

“I grew up being taught by the sisters in Tamworth and what drew me to them was they used to have recreation and there was always laughter and fun. You’d hear them chanting the Divine Office in the chapel, and going past hearing that, it drew me to their prayer life.

“But particularly it was their humanness, they all seemed to be happy.”

Sr Doreen also recalled being moved by the sisters’ singing as a young girl. “I thought, ‘that’s the way I’d like to pray’,” she said.

Sr Patricia was educated at Santa Sabina and remembers being attracted to “the joy that emanated from the sisters”. All three say they are grateful for the opportunity to have had full and varied careers in education and related ministries across NSW, Melbourne, Tasmania, Brisbane and Canberra, and opportunities to travel, with highlights including pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Europe to see the places where their founder St Dominic lived and worked.

“The order has been very good to us,” said Sr Patricia. Like in all families, the sisters have been through their ups and downs but their shared faith and working life has sustained them, along with healthy doses of mutual forgiveness and forbearing.

“You’ve got to work out how to live together in community,” says Sr Doreen. “We said prayer in common and that was a help.” The sisters said that for many reasons Vatican II was like a breath of fresh air coming through the Church.

“Women could do so much in the Church without having to give their lives to a religious order,” said Sr Patricia, while the change from Latin to English in the liturgy meant the women could meditate more readily with the Divine Office. They could also finally visit their families.

“My mother was dying, and when she saw me her face shone and she said, ‘Shirl, they’ve let you come home’,” Sr Shirley recalled.

While numbers of sisters are few today, the women are encouraged to see plenty of growth in their Solomon Islands community and in their close spiritual relatives, the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia who have a youthful Sydney-based community in Regents Park.

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