God’s gift arrived in the Wellington Archdiocese when Sister Jean-Marie McErlane decided she would give her considerable talents as teacher to establish and lead some of the Brigidine schools.
I met her when I took a leadership position in the intermediate department at Chanel College in 1979 while she was the principal of St Patrick’s primary school. At the end of 1978 when I realised I knew nothing about leadership, nor did I know anyone in the Wairarapa, Sister Denise Fox did me the greatest of favours. She took me over to Masterton and handed me over to Sister Jean-Marie to look after. Look after me is what she did and I owe much of whatever skills I now possess to her.
She was an inspiring person, a dedicated sister of St Brigid and a passionate educator. She was passionate about the children in her school, the parents of those children and the teachers on her staff.
Her great gift was that she made each of us, whoever we were, feel special. There was not a child that could not be made to feel that they could do anything or a teacher who was not inspired by her to give the best that they could to the children in their care.
There was nothing that she would not do to give every child at her school the opportunity to succeed and if that meant going an extra mile, well so be it.
An example of this is when she managed, in a very gracious Jean-Marie kind of way, to persuade those parents who lived far enough away from the school to have their bus fares paid by the Ministry of Education, to donate the money back to the school.
‘So that everyone can share it,’ she explained, ‘so fares can be cheaper for everyone.’
Her educational expertise and wisdom were greatly respected by the principals in the area, some of whom had been at Teacher’s College with her and had never really got over her joining the convent.
‘She was so beautiful,’ they would say wistfully, as they rushed to give her their chair or get her a cup of tea at the principals’meetings.
When I eventually took over from Jean-Marie as principal of St Pat’s, I felt as if I was following in the footsteps of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and what’s more, not measuring up at all.
It could have been an awkward transition with Jean- Marie retired right next door, but her natural generosity of spirit came to the fore as usual and she did everything she could to help me, including reassuring the community that even though I was not like her, she was sure I would eventually come right! Who knows?
What I do know is that when Sister Jean-Marie died on Anzac day, we lost a great treasure and that 100s of children, parents and teachers will feel the loss of a person who, in her gentle way, truly touched their lives.
Thank you Sister—may you rest in peace.