Sr Romana in the midst of the students she loved. 

 
I spent my first 13 years in Australia. After teacher training, I taught infants for five years in what was known as a Frontier Mission . This was a newly established area, west of Sydney, which catered for Immigrants from all over Europe as far east as Russia.These were people fleeing from oppressive regimes in their own countries, displaced people trying to make a new life for themselves in a foreign land. In Australia, they were known as New Australians – a name which put the emphasis on tolerance, acceptance and empathy. Our school was a mixture of fourteen different nationalities and, once the language difficulties were sorted out, it was a wonderfully happy, creative place to be. Our classes were huge. People find it hard to believe that I never had less than 95 infants in my class. 
  These New Australians brought two gifts with them to their new homeland – a very strong faith and a wonderfully rich culture. Both of these gifts stood by them because they were encouraged to use and celebrate them by their Australian neighbours. This helped to integrate them into the community. Instead of expecting them to adapt to Australian ways, the Australians were enriched by contact with another culture.

The school doubled as a church at weekends so every sister who worked there became a skilled furniture remover. Australian Catholics understood the plight of the New Australians because they themselves were in a minority situation. Their schools received no state aid, no state salaries. State aid was not granted to schools until the 1970’s. The whole Catholic system was kept afloat by fundraising activities and voluntary service. This demanded involvement, total commitment and co-operation from all the Parish community. And it created a marvellous community spirit. The Sisters and people felt they were on a journey together, supporting and enabling each other – each group drawing out the best in the other. I have never seen sisters and people work as hard as we did there but through it all we had great times, great fun.

It is worth noting that many of these New Australians – refugees – are now numbered among the most resourceful and successful sectors of Australian life, contributing richly to development in various fields. Someone said:” The asylum seeker brings more than a suitcase”. How true!

After seven years in Sydney I was sent to Melbourne, a totally different situation, so different it seemed like another country. Our school was a demonstration school for a Teachers’ Training College. The parents were materially well off but in no way materialistic. The same involvement was evident here. There was great togetherness and generosity, but always with hard work.

 
Sr. Romana (R) with Sr. Patricia Sarju, an Indian Marist, in Fiji Islands  

After 13 very challenging but happy years in Australia I was sent to the Fiji Islands. If you look at a map you will barely see them as specks in the Pacific ocean, midway between Australia and Hawaii. Going there was a total culture shock for me. White people were a very small minority in a large coloured and colourful community made up of Fijians, Indians, Chinese, Samoans and other Polynesian races. Yet, in my ten years working in Fiji I never experienced being treated as an outsider or different.

In Fiji, the Catholic faith was very much a minority religion. As with all minority groups it was a very important part of people’s lives. Most of the celebratory and social life revolved around the church and parish. Regardless of their poverty they all dress up for Sunday, the highlight of the week. They are a singing and dancing church. The Catholic Mission Convent was open house for all – a rather chaotic place by Irish standards, but we had great freedom and never a dull moment. Material goods were not a priority for these people. Happiness, singing, sharing and caring were tops with them. All our schools in Fiji were multiracial and multidenominational. I think this mix helps a lot towards understanding and integration as children do not see colour, race or creed as problems.

Our missions in Fiji have now come of age as we have many local sisters, Fijian, Indian, Chinese and other races. These sisters are now helping to establish new missions elsewhere – in the Philippines, South America and Africa. Indian Marist sisters work with Indian communities in New Zealand.

 

 Sr. Romana looking down on the city of Rome

I came home for my first holiday after eleven years and then after seven and then after five – when I stayed in Ireland. Coming back to my own country, after 23 years away, was another culture shock. The Irish scene was and is very different. I left a country that was predominantly Irish and Catholic. As a nation we have been extremely generous in supporting projects run by missionaries and lay volunteers overseas. But now mission has arrived on our doorstep without the tag “foreign”. Many hundreds from a variety of countries have come to our shores seeking a new life. They bring “suitcases” full of gifts and talents. Many of the new faces have come from situations of great suffering, like the Irish emigrants of times past. Are we ready to welcome them and allow them to use their gifts? Mission is always about treating people with humanity, dignity and respect. This is the challenge. This, I believe, is the new mission thrust for all of us in Ireland today. Missionaries do not go to preach but to be, to be a certain kind of person, to be with people, all people, in their life situations, to spread the gospel by living it.  
It is a very enriching experience to work on a foreign mission and one I would highly recommend. You get another world view – one filled with charm, vitality, excitement as well as poverty, struggle and challenge. I guarantee you, you will receive much more than you give. I am grateful to the Marist leaders who invited me to be involved in these varied mission fields and to all the sisters with whom I lived and worked for enabling me to live a full, rich, varied, and happy life.