Mass of Farewell to the Brigidines Sisters
St Joseph’s Church, Beechworth
17th November, 2018
1st Ecclesiasticus 3:1-8 2nd Philippians 1:3-11 St Matthew’s Gospel (5:1-12)
Dear friends – and especially the Brigidine Sisters; We gather here today in St Joseph’s Church to farewell the Brigidines – just metres from the first convent and a stone’s throw from Ford St. We come with gratitude, and we are humbled by the significance of the contribution made by Brigidines, not only in Beechworth, but also in the north-east and indeed within the Diocese of Sandhurst. I am truly delighted to be with you all today as we celebrate particularly, the Brigidine presence for over 130 years in the parish of Beechworth.
I expect we all share mixed emotions today : some joy at celebrating a task well done over such a wide span of time, but also tinged with sadness as we farewell Brigidine presence from our Parish and we express our deep gratitude to the sisters through these decades, for their loving and dedicated service to the Church in Beechworth.
But, we live in times of change, as our first reading has emphasized. I am certain that Brigidines right from earlier times would have delighted in the change of seasons here in Beechworth, particularly reflecting on the beauty of autumn. Now we too watch as seasons change and winter has turned into the freshness of spring, bringing new growth. Change we know means newness and growth and so the Beechworth community, open to the Spirit, must respond now to a new call, to a new life without the Brigidine Sisters, although I am sure, supported by their prayers.
However, what has been a constant over those 132 years, has been the visible effectiveness of these women of faith, imbued with their core of strength and kindliness. It has occurred to me that St Paul’s letter to the Philippians might well have been written especially for the Brigidines!
Paul’s prayers are characterized by thanksgiving and joy. Paul looks at the Philippian Christians and sees the good work of God in their lives – he sees what God has already done and what God will do in the future. Paul thanks God for the Philippians and their partnership in the Gospel –Just as we here today thank God for those marvellous sisters who have shown their partnership in the Gospel for more than 130 years.
Stories abound! Sisters, what times you've heard about, read about, seen and served, in and around Beechworth! Today we acknowledge your leadership and service through those times, given in the inimitable Brigidine way. You have known religious life, both pre-Conciliar and post. Education was for many years your main apostolate. Education is about wisdom, about meaning and about discerning. As women dedicated to the Gospel, for many, many years, you enabled Catholic education to evolve here in the north-east and you've witnessed our society become more ethnically diverse, affluent and technological.
You would know well that today’s Gospel reading of the Beatitudes is a fascinating comparison between the vision of Jesus and the various alternative visions which have been proposed over the past two millennia and by which we can be tempted still today.
These beatitudes convey that the kingdom of God belongs not to the powerful and the arrogant, but to those who are gentle, who hunger for what is right, who show integrity in their intentions and actions, who are merciful and kind, who are peacemakers and bring people together. In times in which there is so much fascination with success, power, possession and celebrity, these beatitudes provide a moment to reflect on what is deepest in our lives. Moreover, it seems to me that this is what Brigidines have been really good at – discerning the needs of the times!
For example, in the eighties and nineties, the Beechworth community became a centre of prayer and it was in this era that the Brigidines extended themselves and made themselves available for a wider range of ministries. So, not only through their significant service in education, but also in numerous ministries including prison chaplaincy, aged care and hospital visitation, and in addition right from their arrival, the Brigidine Sisters have made noteworthy contributions to the local Beechworth community and society!
The richness and diversity of these apostolates speaks volumes of the readiness of these sisters to continually respond to the call of Christ. I have heard stories of the deep respect the prisoners had for the sisters, and of their great compassion and pastoral care which brought such comfort to the aged and those in hospitals… not to mention the sisters offering of a wonderful place of welcome – their convent- where parishioners and others could come to morning Mass, or over a cuppa were always listened to and helped to find peace in their lives.
These stories show the beatitudes in action! Beatitudes can also be seen as a blueprint for religious life; as decades ago sisters, I am sure that your mistress of novices would have urged you to be poor in spirit, meek, righteous, pure in heart and merciful. You were called also to be women of strength and kindliness – the motto of your founder Bishop Daniel Delany; and religious life, we know all too well, can challenge us in those areas, even at times more than the apostolate! Above all, you were called to put on love.
This all made me think of the stories of the Brigidines who arrived in Beechworth, in 1886. How heroic were these four sisters and what faith and trust in God their lives portrayed! Some years on, a reporter from The Advocate writes, and I quote: It would be difficult - to find more refined, cheerful or agreeable persons than those who inhabit their cloisters, or more charming girls than they send forth to take part in- the gayer, and perhaps graver, duties of life.
Then on the occasion of the golden jubilee we read: Benediction was given in the college chapel, when the nuns' choir sang the Gregorian
Chant and the hymn to St. Brigid…… perhaps sisters, we might look forward to a rendition later today?
Other newspapers throughout the very early years tell a story of true heroism: "In contrast to the life around them, the sisters introduced a new spirit to the life of the goldfields. They spent their lives in an atmosphere of prayer, discipline and religious recollection”.
And finally a quote from a newspaper of some 70 years ago: ”We look back to-day and recall with gratitude and reverence the names of the pioneer nuns who founded this abode of virtue and learning. We recall the long line of sisters who have nobly followed the footprints of the pioneers. We look out into the world and we see thousands of their pupils – many leading Christian lives, doing God’s will as they were taught in the convent schools at Beechworth”.
Like everything in our Christian faith, religious life exists, not in the abstract, but in the lives of actual sisters. It is made flesh, in these women of different personalities, with their gifts and their limitations. Sisters, we thank God today for the fidelity of all these years of service, which I am sure may not always have been easy for any sister. However, they knew that in difficult moments, it was God’s grace that sustained them; but they have had to say Yes to that grace. So, today we give thanks to all Brigidine Sisters, those here with us and all those magnificent sisters who have gone before. We thank you all for accepting God’s grace – for saying Yes.
In our farewell to you today, we remember with tender gratitude all the sisters who over the years have been in the Beechworth community. I feel confident that their spirits are with us here and that they share in our thanksgiving and rejoicings, as we do now say farewell and thank you for your wonderful work here in Beechworth.
May the spirit of St Brigid dwell forever in the hearts and souls of the Brigidines and may the same spirit continue to fill the daughters and sons of Beechworth and beyond.