By Chris Jaques
Teaching now at Mercy College, Perth, former Sr Carmel Gentelli recalled joining the Brigidine Congregation at 17 because she admired the calibre of women involved and their mission in the Church.
Taught by Brigidines, she still feels today she was influenced by the “strong women; the modern women; the women who taught that even in the 60s, being a woman was not an impediment to success in the world”.
Mrs Gentelli-Pace said she became very aware of the social justice ethos imparted by the Brigidines and talked of many students who later entered helping professions.
While there is now no active presence here, she is quite sure the Sisters’ influence lives on.
Mrs GP, as she is affectionately called by students, remembered fondly Mother Canice because of her love and gentleness and Mother Gerard for her practicality, saying she still teaches in the same way in which Mother Gerard taught her.
My mum was Kathy Chesson when she went through a Brigidine education at St Joseph’s Primary School opposite the Axon St bridge and later at the Brigidine Convent on the corner of Salvado Rd and Station St.
She was able to name all her teachers, including her first non-religious teacher, Mrs Brown, in her final year when she was the only student doing Leaving.
By that time, fees were paid on account but Kath (now) Jaques remembers taking two shillings in every week for fees in primary school and donations to the Missions every Monday at one or two pence which eventually built up to 2/6d, enough to “buy a black baby” – an affectionate phrase used by children at the time.
Like many ex-students, Kath also reminisced about the ‘cowsheds’ at the back of the former farm property on which was built their school next to the convent.
The first of the sheds housed Mother Catherine McNamara’s small music room; the middle was the typing room and the end, a library with a little glass-fronted case for books.
Both Kath and Carmel maintain contact with school friends from the earliest days and are anticipating the book launch of the Brigidine history, Providence Provides.
Sub-titled The Brigidine Sisters in the NSW Province, this is a history of the Brigidines’ life and ministry in Australia from 1883-2007.
The Congregation was founded in Ireland in 1807 by Bishop Daniel Delaney and given his motto of Fortiter et Suaviter – Strength and Gentleness.
Its mission was the education and evangelisation of youth and, in 1883, a small group of Brigidine women heard the call to travel to NSW.
A further 60 years on, in 1942, Archbishop Prendiville invited a group of Sisters to establish a foundation in Wembley, WA.
As a former Sister, Carmel remembers the prayer: Providence did provide; Providence does provide; Providence will provide; and remembers little Mother Francis who would comment that “Jaysus is at the door” when tramps would knock.
Providence not only provided for the tramps; when there was no more food, someone would usually arrive at the convent with food in place of fees for the Sisters.
The Congregation remains active in Australia and worldwide and, while only one Sister, Bernice Tonkin CSB, remains in Perth and is retired, she continues the Brigidine mission through her activities.
Herself an ex-student of the Brigidines, Sr Bernice is well known for her involvement in social justice and is the founder of Brigid’s Well, a prayer group comprising numerous Religious from different Orders.
She also remains in contact with other Brigidine ex-students and sings in a professional choir.
The book was launched in NSW on May 1 and, Perth being part of the NSW Province, it will be launched here at the parish centre of St Cecilia, Floreat Park at 2.30pm on Sunday, May 19.
Written by Dr Janice Garaty, it will be launched in Perth by an ex-student of the Brigidines, Associate Professor Rosanna Capolingua.
Sr Ann Harrison, a Brigidine in Sydney, says Providence Provides “is a great human read”, “reads like a novel” and is a “great tribute to all the Sisters who were in WA”.
Copies will be available on the day and all ex-students and staff, friends and family are invited to attend the launch of the book, the foreword of which describes it as “a story of struggle, hardships, quandaries, conflict and great changes but also of success, lasting friendships, enduring hope and new horizons. It is our family