Friday, October 22, 2010

Saints Among Us

Published in The Fiji Times - Off The Wall with Padre James Bhagwan on Wednesday 20/10/2010

Shalom Aleichem!

On Sunday, I attended mass at St. Michael's Church in North Sydney with my nephew Amiel, cousin Lynette and her husband Assanke Mathes. Apart from the personal spiritual fulfilment of worship and the service of the Eucharist, the occasion was special for two reasons.

Firstly, Amiel is my Godson.

When his parents married, I was Assanke's Best Man and when their son was born, I was asked to take on the responsibility of being their firstborn's Godfather.

I may have made rather comic references to my role as my niece Sian's Godfather in a column in Mai Life Magazine, but still in my early twenties, I found myself taking responsibility for the religious education and spiritual formation this little boy.

This became physically difficult as Amiel and his parents moved to Australia but the decision to be a Godparent and the weight of that responsibility was a critical element in the paradigm shift my spiritual life was to take. Of course with one Godchild out of the country, when I accepted my niece as my Goddaughter, she was to receive a double portion of my commitment, as well as having to hear my attempts at speaking like "The Godfather," Marlon Brando.

So the opportunity to attend worship with my Godson (and his parents) at their church was one I cherished. We sat next to each other during the service, knelt, prayed, sang (I was fortunate to not only know the tune to the hymns but remain in tune during the hymns) and worshipped God together.

We affirmed our faith together and we affirmed his faith journey together.

The second reason that the service was special was that this was also the first feast day of Australia's first saint. Sister Mary MacKillop was that evening (this past Sunday) canonized by Pope Benedict XVI and is now known as St. Mary of the Cross

According to the St. Michael's Church Newsletter, Mary Helen MacKillop, at age 24, opened a Catholic School in a disused stable in Penola, South Australia.

In 1867, at the age of 25 she became the first sister and Mother Superior of the newly formed order of the sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

She adopted the religious name Sister Mary of the Cross.

In Adelaide they founded a new school at the request of the bishop, Laurence Bonaventure Sheil. Dedicated to the education of the children of the poor, it was the first religious order to be founded by an Australian.

The rules written up by Father Julian Woods (who had been her parish priest in Penola and had supported her desire and dreams to serve the poor) and Mary for the sisters to live by were an emphasis on poverty, a dependence on divine providence, no ownership of personal belongings and faith that God would provide and the sisters would go wherever they were needed.

The rules were approved by Bishop Sheil. By the end of 1867, ten other sisters had joined the Josephites who had adopted a plain brown habit.

The sisters later became colloquially known as the Brown Joeys.

During 1869 Mary and several other sisters travelled to Brisbane to establish the Order in Queensland.

Two years later she was in Port Augusta , South Australia for the same purpose.

In 1871 they also established a school in Burra. During this eventful year, Mary was wrongly excommunicated by Bishop Sheil, who was against most of the things that she had fought for, on the grounds that, "she had incited the sisters to disobedience and defiance."

Shortly before his death, Bishop Sheil instructed Father Hughes to lift the censure on Sister Mary. An Episcopal Commission was to later exonerate her completely.

By August 1871, the sisters had not only survived, they had thrived. Over one hundred and twenty women had taken vows and become Sisters of St. Joseph. Being only 23 years old on average and being sent away to any part of Colonial Australia that had need of their services, the sisters had to be tough.

Mother Mary MacKillop died on 8th August 1909 and was laid to rest at the Gore Hill Cemetery.

After her burial people continuously took earth from around her grave and as a result her remains were exhumed and transferred, on 27 January 1914, to a vault before the altar of the Mother of God in the newly built Memorial Chapel in Mount Street, Sydney.

As I listened to the parish priest of St. Michael's, father Michael O'Callaghan, speak on St. Mary of the Cross' life and work,

I began to reflect on another Australian woman who did similar work and is considered (unofficially of course) a saint by many in Fiji, Hannah Dudley.

Known to many as Hamari Mataji (our honoured mother), Hannah Dudley was born in New South Wales, Australia about the time Mary MacKillop was establishing her first school in South Australia.

This somewhat eccentric and fiercely independent woman was the founder of the Methodist Mission to the Indians in Fiji.

From her arrival in 1897 to her final departure from Fiji in 1913 due to illness, Hannah Dudley worked tirelessly, establishing the first school for Indian children in Suva on her verandah, visiting homes, holding night classes for young men, Christian instruction and on Sundays she held services on her verandah. On Sundays she also walked three miles to the local gaol to speak to 400 prisoners and pray with condemned prisoners about to be hanged.

She wanted a wooden church and collected money to have one built and it dedicated on 19 December 1901 at the site of the present Dudley High School, called the Indian Mission Hall.

To this day, under the somewhat infamous baka tree, you can still see the foundations of this building.

During her first year of arrival in Fiji, she began adopting orphans.

She started with two girls and a boy but soon the number of adopted children had grown to eleven.

The most famous of these was a boy given to Hannah Dudley by his father when the mother deserted him. He took his foster-mother's name and became Raymond Dudley. He went on to became the President of the New Zealand Methodist Conference in 1956.

As her adopted family grew, the Church decided to build an orphanage for her at Davuilevu but she refused to move there.

In 1904 an orphanage was built at Davuilevu, called The Dudley Orphanage for Indian Children. It is now known as Dilkusha Girls Home.

Many lives were greatly influenced and nurtured, not just by Hannah Dudley's personal work but in the legacy that lives on in the Indian Division of the Methodist Church, Dilkusha Girls Home and of course, the schools (Intermediate and High) that bear her name.

I am sure Hannah Dudley would agree with the words of St. Mary of the Cross, "The cross is my portion - it is also my sweet rest and support. We must teach more by example than by word."

As Australians celebrate their first Roman Catholic Saint and Fijians remember a Methodist Sister who was saintly, let us all commit to living the legacies we inherit. For in doing so we are blessed.

May the rest of your week be blessed with simplicity, serenity and spontaneity.

*Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a probationary minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily contain the views of this newspaper, the Methodist Church or any other organisation or group that Rev. Bhagwan is affiliated with.



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