Audrey Steinmetz: “vocation more than career”

John Murray shares a grace-filled encounter between past and present.

In May a funeral Mass was held at St Francis Xavier’s Church at Belmont for Mrs Audrey Steinmetz, a woman described by Assistant Director, Catholic Schools Office, Gerard Mowbray, as a “…great servant of Catholic education and the Catholic church”. A large gathering of family members, friends, former students and colleagues in attendance was testament to the deep respect in which Mrs Steinmetz was held. At the time, Mr Mowbray, in a letter to teachers throughout our schools, referred to Mrs Steinmetz as, “one of the pioneers of lay teaching in our diocese”.

Audrey served as a Mathematics teacher at St Mary’s High School, Gateshead, from 1965 until 1982, becoming the school’s first lay principal during that time. Current principal of St Mary’s Catholic College, Mr Larry Keating, paid the following tribute:

“We give thanks for a life which contributed in a significant way to the story of our community and helped grow the legacy which we are so very fortunate to be able to build on today. We walk in the footsteps of strong and determined women who possessed great faith and displayed incredible courage and endurance in establishing our community. Audrey Steinmetz was one of these women."

As many would be aware, the 1960s witnessed the beginnings of a process that was to change the face of education in Catholic schools across the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle – and indeed, across the country. The employment of lay teachers to replace the members of various religious congregations had its genesis at that time and gained such momentum that by the arrival of the new millennium, diocesan schools were almost entirely populated by lay people.

Although such a change has been outwardly observable, it is undeniable that the foundations of our present system, laid down by those wonderful women and men committed to their Dominican, Josephite, Mercy or Marist charism, continue to radiate a strong sense of identity and a solid tradition.

In many respects, lay teachers forged teaching paths in new territory. Audrey’s former colleague, Ms Louise Roach, observes, “Choosing to work in Catholic schools at the time [the sixties] was a commitment to vocation more than career.” She cites some ‘deficiencies’ in lay teachers’ conditions at the time: no paid sick leave, no holiday loading, no long service leave, no union representation, no superannuation and a ‘salary’ which was significantly less than that of teachers working in the public domain. Audrey and others of her ilk persevered, undaunted by shortcomings but fired by things far less tangible; some, like Audrey, driven by God’s calling. Her life’s work was truly her vocation.

Audrey’s daughter, Margaret Sansom, cites ex-students’ comments about her mother that have been posted on the St Mary’s website. Many are direct and candid and accord with posts made by former colleagues. Words and phrases such as “great teacher”, “tough but fair”, “uncompromising” and “a force to be reckoned with” feature. Then, perhaps less frequently, are observations such as “stern but very kind and understanding”; “a person of generosity and humility”; “insightful and intelligent” and “one of my first visitors when I had my baby”. Margaret says that Audrey could portray a forbidding exterior. “Even some teachers were scared of her!”

As an educator and a pioneer, what was Audrey Steinmetz’s most important legacy? What precious bequest did she leave to the students and the school she loved?

Well, there is a touching postscript to such questions and to Audrey’s life. As it happened, she spent the last five years of her life a resident of St Francis’ Village, Eleebana. In a purely serendipitous occurrence, the Village was visited last April by some members of the inaugural Year 11 group of St Mary’s. One student, Georgia Hayes, having met Audrey, penned these words:

“Although I met Audrey only once, the impact has stayed in my heart and has provided great comfort since her passing. She was so incredibly passionate and dedicated to my school and thought so fondly of her time there. This made me feel unbelievably blessed to have such a wonderful force of nature dedicate her time to bettering my school. She left me with the lasting impact of the wonderful woman she was.”

A beautiful insight! The tiniest glimpse into another’s soul is an enriching experience.

At Audrey’s funeral a Year 11 group formed a guard of honour as she was farewelled. This simple act became a poignant symbol reconnecting Audrey to the school she loved and at the same time pointing toward an educator’s vision concerning hope and the planting of seeds.

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John Murray

John is a member of the Aurora Editorial Team.

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