Twelve of the 26 current Missionary Sisters of Service, including Dear Mother, Dear Father author Sr Bernadette Wallis, far left, attended a celebration of the Order's 75th year in Melbourne in 2019. Photo: Fiona Basile
Twelve of the 26 current Missionary Sisters of Service, including Dear Mother, Dear Father author Sr Bernadette Wallis, far left, attended a celebration of the Order's 75th year in Melbourne in 2019. Photo: Fiona Basile

Sisters still blessing for bush

SEVEN Toowoomba women are among the 26 Missionary Sisters of Service, officially retired but still doing good deeds across the country's highways and byways.

Mary Cleary is one of those sisters who, nearing 80, still works to support people and projects in remote communities, reflecting the spirit of the original order begun by Father John Wallis in 1944.

For decades Mary and her colleagues visited socially and geographically isolated communities from Tasmania's Bruny Island, where the movement began, to western NSW and Queensland, establishing in Toowoomba in 1964 and years later in South Australia.

Originally from Warwick, Mary was 22 and working in Brisbane when in 1962 she members of the order, saw the work they were doing, and realised that was where she belonged.

"I think it was also very attractive because they got to drive cars," Mary laughed.

Staying with local families, on Outback stations, in caravans or halls, the sisters would go out in pairs or alone to visit as many residents as possible in an area, including Aboriginal communities.

 

Sister Mary Cleary still works to support people and projects in remote communities as she has done as one of the Missionary Sisters of Service since her 20s.
Sister Mary Cleary still works to support people and projects in remote communities as she has done as one of the Missionary Sisters of Service since her 20s.

 

"Often people had no one they could share with outside the family because the neighbours were 60 miles away," Mary said.

Mary admits it was "quite challenging at times" and "we all had our unexpected experiences", but overall "it has been a very interesting life".

From 1999 until her retirement to Toowoomba in 2011, Mary was pastoral leader of the Jandowae parish, 48km north of Dalby, and was referred to as "a friend to all" regardless of religion.

The order only ever numbered about 50 at its height, and while age means members are no longer able to physically get out to bush families in need themselves, they have adapted to keep Fr John Wallis's work alive.

That meant in 2010 developing The Fr John Wallis Foundation and Highways and Byways - A Community of Service, which has now provided grants totalling about $330,000 to fund 173 projects involving more than 800 communities.

 

Dear Mother, Dear Father, comprises the letters (1927-49) of the founder of the Missionary Sisters of Service Fr John Wallis, with commentary by eminent Australians.
Dear Mother, Dear Father, comprises the letters (1927-49) of the founder of the Missionary Sisters of Service Fr John Wallis, with commentary by eminent Australians.

 

It is a mark of their emphasis on God and good deeds over denomination that the sisters this year invited Lindy Chamberlain to speak last Sunday, 40 years on from having lost daughter Azaria to a dingo at Uluru. At the event, Bishop Bill Morris also launched Sr Bernadette Wallis's book of her uncle Fr John Wallis's letters, Dear Mother, Dear Father, with commentary by eminent Australians.

From his early days in the seminary till after ordination (1927-49), the letters were kept by his mother and only discovered by his brother in an old biscuit tin decades later.

The order began with just four women gathered after a very young Fr John was challenged in the 1930s by one of his parishioners on Bruny Island as to whether anyone cared about kids in the bush.

While Fr John died in 2001, the Missionary Sisters of Service continue to show that they do.

To find out more about the order, orHighways and Byways, go to https://highwaysandbyways.org.au or phone or email Mary on 4634 9786 or marycleary 5@bigpond.com.


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