Sr Patricia Whitten, Sr Colleen Kleinscfer and Sr Bernadette Mills became Newcastle’s first walking nuns, visiting the suburbs of Wickham, Tighes Hill, Maryville, and parts of Hamilton and Broadmeadow.
They had a strict rule not to knock on doors, instead beginning conversations with people in their gardens. Sr Patricia said they wore badges and would approach people and simply say “how are you getting on today?” or “I love this flower”.
“And then they'd give us a flower or a plant. It was lovely,” Sr Patricia said. “And we’d go on, and eventually we were collecting so many things we had to give them away to the next person we met.”
Through these simple conversations, the locals would eventually ask “where are you from?”. The sisters responded they were from the Church and that they visited everybody, no matter their religion.
“Very soon, because we were good listeners, they wanted to tell us their whole story,” Sr Patricia said. “And then they said ‘you're going to come back and have a cup of tea with us next time’ and things like that. And so, the trust grew.”
Newcastle’s warm embrace of the “walking nuns” soon encouraged other people in the Church to ask if they could also join the team. Volunteers were welcomed even though at times it created some confusion as to who in fact was a nun.
“The people knew the walking nuns and suddenly we appeared with someone else and they took for granted that the lady would be a nun,” Sr Patricia said. “And then I appeared one day with Bob, who wanted to put on barbecues for them, and some asked Bob, ‘are you a nun?’ It was funny.”
Twenty years ago, when the ministry started, the Sisters would meet many people who were not aware of the help available to them. The sisters would share information about Meals on Wheels and Mercy Services and link them to appropriate support organisations.
Monsignor Hart encouraged the team to go out and forge a connection with people. “You’re just doing what your baptismal vows are telling you to do, to go out and love people,” he said.
The ministry of walking and visiting people in their homes has continued until today under the name of the Mercy Pastoral Team.
“We have a rule to not argue about religion, politics or money,” Sr Patricia said. “We don't push religion. We just talk about whatever they introduce. It is really letting them chat and see where we can help them.”
Sometimes the conversation can be quite heavy. “We have been told some horrific stories, but it really just is good for them to get it all out,” Sr Patricia said.
Volunteers joining the team are trained in how to approach a variety of conversations and how to really listen.
The walking team feel they are being guided as they move through the streets, often showing up at just the right time and place.
“If we say ‘now, today we will visit so and so’, and we show up and they have gone to the doctor, for example, then we say, ‘we'll go to this lady across the street’,” Sr Patricia said. “The lady would say ‘oh, how did you know to come? This was just the day I wanted and needed you to come, I need someone to talk to’.”
A rewarding comment the team frequently hear is “you have made my day”.
There are many lonely elderly people in our neighbourhoods, and Sr Patricia says it's good to let them talk about old times. “Even if they repeat a story every time we go, that's a very important exercise for them and us, to really get more insight as to who they are and what they've done,” she said. “It can help them realise that they can rejoice and celebrate in what they have achieved in the world. We have learnt never to say, ‘we’ve heard that story before’. We learn to listen and hear a different aspect of their story every time.”
Sr Patricia said it feels so good to see people’s eyes light up when they come to visit, and many times she has heard of volunteers having a hard day, but still show up to walk, and end up feeling they have received more than they have given.
To find out more or become a volunteer with the Mercy Pastoral Team for two hours on weekday mornings, contact Sr Patricia Whitten at 4979 1116.