Can religious life be rebuilt in Australia?

Can religious life be rebuilt in Australia?

Sr Mary Augustine OP

Following the article in the March 'AD2000' by Dr Tracey Rowland on the Dominican Sisters of Nashville, Sister Mary Augustine, Prioress of the Conventual Sisters of St Dominic, provides some background on her own community and the possibilities of rebuilding authentic religious life in Australia.

The Conventual Sisters of St Dominic is a community of sisters established by Bishop William Brennan in the Diocese of Wagga Wagga. They are located at the Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary, 47 Langham St, Ganmain, NSW 2702, (02) 6927 6439, Website:

It is all to the good that Australian Catholics, generally so disillusioned about the direction - or, should we say, lack of direction - of religious life here, are being informed as to certain hopeful signs of growth and regrowth overseas.

Tracey Rowland's lovely article about the extraordinary success story of the Dominicans of St Cecilia, Nashville, Tennessee, is an important reminder that all is not lost, and that God's call to serve Him in the Religious Life is still being heard by significant numbers of young women in some parts of the world.

For at least two Dominican sisters in Australia, the story of the Nashville Dominicans has been a source of longstanding encouragement, and a reason for profound gratitude.

Sister Mary Thomas and I, former members of the Dominican Sisters of Australia, spent nearly two years in that community, some seventeen years ago, and Tracey's article does not even begin to enumerate the long litany of virtues for which we would sing its praises.

Our original intention was to transfer to that particular community, and indeed, that was what we would have done, had we not received strong encouragement from several Australian priests and certain lay people to return to Australia and start a new foundation of Dominican life. We even had four young women writing to us and promising to join us if we were to take this kind of initiative.

Our only way of accomplishing such a feat was to work through the hierarchy of the Church. We wrote to bishops - none of whom knew us personally - and, surprisingly received a reply from Bishop William Brennan of Wagga Wagga, who wrote that he was prepared to take us into his diocese.

After a trial period of four years, Bishop Brennan was authorised by Rome to erect us as a Religious Community of Diocesan Right - a privilege normally granted only after membership has reached fifty or more finally incorporated members.

With this and other smaller "miracles" accompanying our foundation, we have never felt justified in doubting our call. Like every founding community, we have had to struggle on almost every front, but God's merciful goodness has always provided and, step by sometimes painful step, He has clarified His will for us.

This is the story of practically every religious community in its early stages - the story of the Nashville Dominicans, for that matter. We see it simply as "par for the course".

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way; for most people in society, visible, measurable, sure-fire success is what counts. Even in the ranks of the Church - our beliefs about the "mustard seed" notwithstanding - we sometimes find ourselves leaning towards the mentality of the secular multi-national corporation. So the fact that our community is still only four in number, having only two young sisters and that we do not have schools, impressive buildings and property of our own, nor a high profile presence in the media, all of this may be seen as evidence that we have failed.


We suffer also from the marked tendency amongst clergy and laity to judge the value of religious men or women on how much apostolic work they manage to accomplish.

We find consolation in the Church's teaching that in the sight of God, religious life, faithfully lived, has its own validation and that humble circumstances are its true and (especially today) its most common context, the Cross its true mark and dependence on Him its only certainty.

The Church affirms today, as it has always affirmed, that religious exist in the Church for "prayer, penance and the witness of their consecrated lives" and only secondarily for works of the apostolate. The enclosed nun and the prayerful infirm religious who seem to be "doing nothing" are, in point of fact, at the very heart and hub of the Christian enterprise.

Are my sisters and I "doing nothing?" We have taught, part-time, for fourteen years in the local parish school. A couple of years ago we withdrew from this - for very good reasons. One was the realisation that there is, by this stage in its evolution, no room in the Australian education system for religious who wish to live up to their vocation to be "counter cultural".

Educational practice is imbued with secular, anti-Christian ideologies, and teachers are bound hand and foot to futile pedagogical practices clearly designed to "dumb" the young into submission to these ideologies. Political correctness is mandatory for survival in the education system, and as Dominicans whose motto is Veritas we consider political correctness to be simply not our field.

In addition, the demands on the time and energies of teachers are great and becoming greater. Our community has chosen to follow the classical Dominican religious lifestyle, the "mixed life" defined by St Thomas, which involves a semi- contemplative, semi-active balance.

For the traditionally-minded Dominican this means a commitment to the choral recitation of all the Hours of the Divine Office - something not available in very active communities like the Nashville Dominicans - as well as considerable time for silent prayer, study, spiritual reading and writing. It means a life of monastic-type observance - following the customs that have come down to us through the Order's long history.

Then, it means finding apostolic avenues that are compatible with such a life. For us, this now involves work with Home-Schooling families through our "English through Literature" course for secondary-school, as well as through regular seminar-days and camps, in which we reach around two hundred children from K to 12 each year.

Work ethic

In addition to this we work on the production of education programs, give individual tuition to several students, catechise local teenagers, write articles for magazines, edit the Bulletin for the Association for the Promotion of Religious Life and give talks at seminars - usually on faith-topics or religious life. We are kept quite busy, but our religious life is not under threat, as it was for many communities prior to Vatican II, where the "work ethic" had swamped the true meaning of religious life.

Still, we are often disappointed that, because of our small numbers, we have had to turn down a good many invitations to teach in schools and inhabit convents in various parts of Australia - and even in France! We need vocations.

Perhaps the young women (along with their vocational mentors), who are pinning their hopes on a foundation from the United States might consider that if God is calling them to be Dominicans, His will for them may lie closer to home.

It is time for Australia to take stock of itself and ask some very searching questions about why religious life is struggling to stay alive here; why we can't generate our own vocations without aid from overseas communities. Are we caught up in the old syndromes of "the grass is greener on the other side" and "one must get big or get out"?

Australian society has a lot to cringe about, but God indisputably has plans for the regrowth of religious life in Australia on which all - the hierarchy, priests, laity and religious men and women along with the young who are called to join them - need to start working.

A few small communities in Australia have launched out into the deep - and very deep it is - in order to initiate the process. The price they pay is predictably high. Are the young able to pay it? Or are we in the Church in Australia, forever resolved to avoid that price by leaning on the Church in other countries where it has already been paid for us?

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