A Special Relationship Bar None

A nun and a publican forming a deep and abiding friendship might seem unlikely on paper, but not when the nun is Sr Helen Anne Johnson rsj, founder of Mums’ Cottage, and the publican is Steph Woolf, proprietor of the historic Holmesville Hotel.

Both women work and minister in the sleepy Newcastle suburb of Holmesville and their mission is the same – to provide a second home for people.

“This pub is different from other pubs. What we try to be is a second lounge room – a place where people can walk in the door and feel completely safe and comfortable,” said Steph.

Steph’s philosophy for the pub aligns exactly with Sr Helen Anne’s vision for Mums’ Cottage.

“We have the same reason for being – we’re both fulfilling a need,” Sr Helen Anne explained.

Mum’s Cottage is a charitable community service committed to empowering and improving the potential in the lives of families. Community members walk with families as they take the first steps in moving from difficult times towards brighter futures. Mums’ Cottage offers access to mentors, disability services, case co-ordination, legal and financial guidance, health care, education services, parenting programs, workshops and family events.

Steph and her husband Geoff bought the hotel in 2007 in partnership with another couple, but more recently they became licensees and now run the pub themselves.

“I cannot explain why we bought the pub. It’s inexplicable really! We have had a major learning curve getting used to having a 24 hour-a-day job and looking after staff and customers, which is by far the most time-consuming part,” said Steph.

The two women met when Sr Helen Anne walked into the pub one day to see if the hotel might help Mums’ Cottage with a weekly raffle.

“I was working behind the bar and the door opens and this little lady walks in. There were all these hard core regulars sitting at the bar and she walked over and said, ‘Hello, I’m Sr Helen Anne Johnson from the Order of St Joseph and I couldn’t believe it because I had been taught by the Josephites and eventually taught with many of them as a teacher myself,” Steph recounts.

The patrons and Steph knew they had met someone special immediately and that meeting was the beginning of a beautiful friendship − and increased community support for Mums’ Cottage.

There are raffles, a Saturday night number board and help with catering.

“A helper built a wooden cottage that sits on the bar and customers put their change in it. This raises much-needed funds for Mums’ Cottage throughout the year,” explained Steph.

“In this community we find that people take ownership of the Cottage because it’s theirs,” said Sr Helen Anne.

Steph has no doubt as to why the community supports Mums’ Cottage.

“Helen Anne is a totally unique person because she just absolutely, passionately lives her dream and mission so honestly and completely. There is a wide variety of people here at the pub but everybody without fail responds to Helen Anne. She has a real sense of goodness and people respond to that. I think she’s amazing. She disarms everyone. People know that she is here to do good things for others – it’s obvious to everyone. She walked in here and immediately earned respect.

“Mums’ Cottage is coal-face stuff. The customers know that their money, all of it, goes straight to someone who needs something in the community and they get behind that,” said Steph.

Sr Helen Anne is equally effusive about Steph and all that she and Geoff do for Mums’ Cottage.

“I’ve got the greatest admiration for Steph, not only for the person she is, but the way she is with people, her friendliness. Steph sends people to the Cottage if they need help. They are not just customers to Steph, they’re people,” said Sr Helen Anne.

2014 saw the 110th anniversary of the Holmesville Hotel and Steph wanted to come up with an event that celebrated the pub’s history and importance in the community and at the same time provide an opportunity to showcase and raise some funds for Mums’ Cottage.

“I wanted it to be a family and community-based event so settled on a Billy Cart Derby. In our second year about 1000 people attended, up from around 350 in 2014. It is a fabulous day but very expensive to co-ordinate. We are trying to get it to a stage where we can cover costs and benefit Mums’ Cottage more substantially,” said Steph.

The hotel has hosted meetings for the Tenison Woods Education Centre, a ministry of the Sisters of St Joseph. A sacred space was set up on the table and the group gained an extra participant, one of the customers.

“Of course the bar is not a sacred space, but while the meeting happened I remember thinking how wonderful it was that they were meeting here. One of the customers was fascinated and kept asking questions and I thought ‘This is so weird, but wonderful’,” Steph remembers.

Both women agree that their friendship is based on a shared background, influenced heavily by their Josephite education.

“The reality is we have the same culture. We understand each other and speak the same language,” said Steph.

“We have the same life values. You can’t be taught them, you have to live them,” adds Sr Helen Anne.

At the end of our chat Steph concedes that she may now know why she and Geoff bought the pub.

“Perhaps we were meant to meet Helen Anne. That’s probably why we bought the pub without knowing why – it was God’s greater plan!” laughs Steph.

To learn more about Mums’ Cottage please visit their website or P 4953 4105.

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Joanne Isaac Image
Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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