FAITH MATTERS: The Nun, The Poet and The Librarian

Any librarian will tell you that re-shelving books can be a tedious and thankless task.  However, recently I was profoundly rewarded when an unassuming and slightly yellowing piece of folded paper slipped from a book and tumbled to the floor.

I could never have imagined the treasure I was holding, the insights I would glean or the delightful journey of Faith this serendipitous find would take me on.

Unfolding the paper, I began reading a short letter dating back nearly 46 years to the fifth of November 1974. Somewhat disconcertingly, it soon became apparent I was privy to a personal correspondence between friends.  The lifelong impact a conversation can have was soon to unravel. The letter had fallen from of a copy of Head Waters, a collection of poems by Australian poet Peter Skrzynecki. In the letter, Skrzynecki speaks with much fondness to an unnamed “Dear Sister”, briefly catching up on what he has been up to since they last spoke at St Albert’s College in Armidale during a residential school.  Skrzynecki speaks of the poem “A Drive in the Country” he wrote whilst there.  I later find a clipping of the poem has been inserted into the inside cover of the book.  I imagine “Sister” fondly placing it there.

In the poem the persona stands on the edge of Blue Hole, which the letter light-heartedly points out is one of Armidale’s “sights to see.”  While surrounded by the beauty of the scene, his thoughts are continually pulled back to reality, to alarm clocks set, with tomorrow intruding mercilessly, his eyes pulled back to the road – back to life’s treadmill. However, at the end of the poem, something changes - a decision is made and he “walks away from the road that only runs one way.”  This last line echoes the final line of the letter I’m reading, “Speaking to you at St Albert’s that night – believe it or not – was a turning point for me in those two weeks. Thank you.”  Whatever Sister had said, or perhaps not said, in being fully present and listening to his doubts, had allowed Skrzynecki to unravel his thoughts. Perhaps she had assisted him in making a decision to choose a different road, a more fulfilling road.

Hoping for more, I was rewarded to find a second letter, date July eighteenth 1975, carefully tucked into the dust jacket at the back of the book; revealing the recipient of both letters as Sister Colleen Carney ssj (Sister of St Joseph, Lochinvar). This letter tells her of his steady work, and the upcoming publication of Immigrant Chronicle, now a landmark publication in Australian poetry. He writes of his reticence about “a few stories” he had recently completed and refers to an unnamed novel he is working on (which we now know is The Beloved Mountain). Having just finished the first half, he has no idea how long it would take to finish, “but certainly more than a year,” clearly revealing his frustrated perseverance. In signing off Skrzynecki says, “I don’t know how closer I’ve come to any of the answers; but writing something like (the poem) ‘In the Folk Museum,’ tells me I haven’t.  Yet, I know it’s Faith, which is the leaf of the tree, and not just the green colouring.” 

When I contacted Peter by email recently to tell him of Sr Colleen's passing in 2016, and to ask if I could write ‘something’ based on the letters, I never anticipated the ready conversations about life and Faith this intriguing and engaging man would be happy to share with me. He told me my initial email had been a real jolt, compelling him to reflect on the past forty or so years. When I asked about this faith, faith with a capital F, he explained that displacement, travelling, discovery and resettling have been his life’s motifs, and that Faith is inextricably entwined in the journey. 

In 1948, he is three years old and living with his single mother in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany.  There she meets and marries Feliks Skrzynecki, a Polish farmer who has been a prisoner of the Germans for five years.  As a five-year-old, the family travel half-way across the world to start a new life in Australia, no longer a DP’s, but refugees. He tells me that his mother often told him that her Faith got her through everything, and it was her Faith that kept him going, and still does.  His poem “Beyond Psalm 46” attests to this, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

When I first speak with Skrzynecki he is driving to collect two of his grandchildren from school.   He has been doing this for nearly five years and it is now part of his daily routine.  He has been barred from being present at his tenure as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Western Sydney University because his age puts him into the most at-risk category in this COVID era.  I tell him I’ll call back at a more convenient time, but he explains he has time to talk as he always arrives an hour early to park under a large Moreton Bay fig tree and read, maybe write and contemplate.  He references Christian Zen, as he is resolute his contemplation is "light" focused, Faith focused.

This helps me better understand the recurrent tree imagery in his poems. The tree seems to be both a linguistic and spiritual inspiration.  The form of the cross is revealed in the tree’s trunk and branches, while the sprouting green leaves evidence a new and evolving life we can all experience through Faith.  His friend, John Coburn's illustration for his Easter Sunday collection perfectly illustrates this concept (see illustration). John Coburn, incidentally, was a convert to Catholicism

Skrzynecki explains to me, with the conviction of a man of Faith (faith with a capital F!), that he already has his epitaph written and the last line will be the title of his new and last poetry collection. He says he believes he has had a sneak-peek at what is ahead.  A heart attack, by-pass surgery and then open-heart surgery have given him a glimpse of light, the eternal light, “What St John calls the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world.” [1]  He also explains he will live on in the DNA he shares with his children, grandchildren and their children’s children. He maintains he will get to see what lies over the horizon. In this, he has every Faith.

A conversation over forty years ago with Sister Colleen Carney made an indelible impact on Peter Skrzynecki.  In sharing a branch of his journey with me, Peter Skrzynecki has made my life much richer too.  He stood at the edge of Blue Hole in New England 46 years ago and reconsidered his life’s path. Finding the letters between Peter and Sr Colleen has shown me the power of a Faith filled conversation, and the power of simply listening.  Fortunate chance has established an unlikely bond between Sister Colleen, a poet and a librarian.


[1] “Light that promised new life”, The Catholic Leader ,25th December 1988.




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