Putting on the habit of love and compassion

‘Lucie’. That’s the name embossed on the smart uniform she wears to work at St Nicholas Early Education, Newcastle West.

At home she is Sister Lucie, one of the four Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Wallsend. Two others of this Vietnamese community live at Glendale.

In Vietnam it is common for the Sisters to run pre-schools. Lucie spent some years in one of her Order’s convents where the ministry was caring for scores of youngsters. The Communist authorities don’t permit religious women to have similar involvement in higher forms of education.

At this stage Lucie is not primarily in an educational role. She is in the second of a four-year course in Early Childhood Education at Glendale TAFE. Providentially, St Nicholas Early Education came into being as an initiative of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle at a time that has allowed Lucie to slot right in.

Not yet a qualified teacher by Australian standards, Lucie is responsible for that very basic requirement – food. She has added online qualifications in nutrition and food handling to her degree in English Literature from Vietnam and her partially completed TAFE course.

The children’s morning and afternoon teas are her thing! Fruit platters, yoghurts, custards. Avoidance of allergy-triggering nasties. Shopping online. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten, the kitchen is Lucie’s domain.

She appreciates this opportunity to be part of the integral team that makes the centre function, and the chance to learn the practicalities of running a pre-school to Australian standards and conditions, including administration.

However, it’s when Lucie talks of the ten to eleven time-slot that the joy really shows in her eyes.

This is when she is with the kids. This is when she is playing, singing, reading stories. It is the time she can share directly with the children, freeing other staff for their scheduled breaks.

“It is definitely the best time,” says Lucie. “It is a beautiful job with all these innocent people,” she declares, referring to the children she feels “privileged” to be helping to form. “They are like white paper,” she says, artfully translating her Vietnamese thought into English.

The complexity of the English language is a challenge for our Vietnamese Sisters. Yet, the language that speaks without misunderstanding is love, and this is Lucie’s finest way of communicating with these innocents. “The main thing is to make sure they are safe and happy,” she says, explaining how they learn important skills and grow in confidence while playing and enjoying themselves. These little ones would be constantly warmed and encouraged by Lucie’s ready smile and her never-far-away giggle.

Lucie is the first of the Sisters to become an Australian citizen. She has left behind in Vietnam a widowed father (whom she claims is much more religious than she), four sisters, three brothers, and nine nephews and nieces. Two of her sisters are also Sisters. The children of St Nicholas are the beneficiaries of the love and dedication Lucie has brought from her own nurturing family.

At Wallsend we routinely see the Sisters going about their pastoral roles in civvies – often jeans and T-shirt. We see Lucie and her Sisters at Mass and other solemn occasions in their neat religious habits – navy for half the year, white when it’s warmer. At parish celebrations we are treated to the Sisters singing and dancing in their brightly coloured, traditional silk costumes. Now Lucie also proudly wears the uniform of St Nicholas. It would be enriching if her co-workers, and especially the little people she tends – and their parents – were to see her in these other arresting manifestations.

Please visit St Nicholas Early Education.

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Michael O’Connor

Michael is a regular contributor to Aurora Magazine.

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