The crypt under St Mary of the Angels is recognising the end of an era this month with the departure from Wellington of its founding order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ). Eighteen months ago Sr Helen Gilroy handed over to Sister Sarto DOLC and her helpers the running of the drop-in centre known as The Crypt, founded in 1982 by Sister Monica McGivern and taken on by Sister Helen in 1993. It has become a valued meeting place for all sorts of people.
The Society of the Sacred Heart was founded in France at the beginning of the 19th century in the aftermath of the French Revolution, with its attack on faith and desecration of churches. The enclosed order was founded by Madeleine Sophie Barat to teach the children of the well-to-do because they were the ones who were going to be in a position to rebuild French society. These girls would become wives whom Jesuit-trained boys could respect intellectually and who would influence them in the direction of the kingdom of God. For every fee-paying school, the order opened a school which provided free tuition to the children of the poor.
Archbishop Redwood invited the sisters to establish a boarding school in Island Bay at the beginning of the 20th century, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, which later became known as Erskine College. It subsequently opened to day students as well and the St Madeleine Sophie parish school was opened alongside.
Sr Elizabeth Snedden says the Erskine College centenary celebrations last year highlighted the number of its alumnae who are in positions of influence all over Wellington today.
‘Our way of educating gave people a lot of freedom of spirit. It was an educational tradition that really valued the development of a person’s questioning mind and cherished individuality. We relished our clowns, treated people with a lot of love and dignity so our students are out there now making a difference in a lot of places. ‘
Leaving Wellington will be ‘a big wrench’ particularly for Sr Alison Goodson who has been associated with Erskine College since she went to school there in 1928.
She entered the order in Sept 1935, having left school the previous year. After teaching in Auckland and at Erskine and studying in Sydney and Melbourne, Sr Alison was principal of Erskine from 1947 to 1957.
After that she divided her time between Auckland, Christchurch where she founded two schools, and Sydney before returning to Wellington in 1983 to establish the order’s house in Island Bay and work on the parish team. Sr Alison continued to work in the parish after the Marist Fathers left, finishing a year ago.
Sr Alison will return to Baradene in Auckland, a move she has been looking forward to for some time. Sr Helen will move to Australia, at least initially.
‘I don’t know what my apostolate will be there,’ she says, ‘but I have a few ideas.’ Hopefully these will not entail too much vigorous work as she turns 89 in January while Sr Alison will be 90 in March.
On October 29 a Mass in St Francis de Sales parish, Island Bay, gave thanks for the hospitality the Sisters of the Sacred Heart had received from the diocese, the parish and other religious congregations over the years and farewelled them.
Sr Elizabeth said at the Mass: ‘We offer this eucharist in gratitude for the rewarding work God gave us to do in this archdiocese, for the gifted and generous people who have worked alongside us in so many capacities, for the wonderful former students of our schools who are fulfilling the dream of Saint Madeleine Sophie by helping to transform society according to the mind and heart of Christ. Welcome to those of you here today. Thank you for coming and for being who you are.’
In farewell, Sr Elizabeth outlined the process of discernment which led Srs Helen and Alison to other houses in the Australia-New Zealand province.
Referring to them as salt and light for the city of God, Sr Elizabeth told alumnae and friends that as salt they can enhance other flavours, ‘relish differences, support those on the margins, call to inclusiveness’.
‘Yours can be the preservative effect of salt by questioning, critical reflection brought to bear on current situations, and a steady choice of values that are holy and wholesome, giving a priority to love.
‘You are light, because of the tradition of intellectual honesty and courage that has formed you, and the freedom that you cherish for yourself and others. You are light in the measure that faith still enables you to see with the eyes of God’s loving.’
And in a reference to Wellington’s special character, Sr Elizabeth paid tribute to the wind which has made students energetic and resourceful.
‘We pray that the wind of the Spirit will never be lacking in your lives, champagne air for the spirit as well as the body.’
Srs Alison and Helen left Wellington last week.