The fulfilling life of a Good Samaritan Sister
By Matthew Biddle
ON February 2, 1857, five women came together at the request of Archbishop John Polding OSB to found the first Australian Religious Order, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
More than 150 years later, the congregation continues to serve the Church through a ministry focused on charity, hospitality and stewardship of the earth.
Affectionately known as the ‘Good Sams’, the Sisters have had a presence in the Canberra and Goulburn region since 1879, when they founded a boarding and day school in Queanbeyan. The Sisters were pioneers of Catholic education in Canberra, opening St Christopher’s School in 1928.
Today, the legacy of the Good Sams is being continued by Sr Rita Reilly SGS and Sr Sue Hallams SGS, who reside at the community’s home in Red Hill.
The pair spoke to Catholic Voice recently about their vocations and life as Good Samaritan Sisters, admitting they couldn’t be happier anywhere else.
“Religious life is a gift,” Sr Sue says. “I’ve had a very blessed and happy life as a Good Samaritan, and it would be lovely if other young women would also feel that attraction.”
Sr Rita says that despite the occasional challenge, she’s never questioned whether she was in the wrong place.
“I made a commitment and even though there have been hard times, I don’t think I’ve ever really looked back,” Sr Rita says. “In fact, I’ve always felt I was very blessed and fortunate.
“I wouldn’t want to be anything else other than a Good Samaritan.”
The two Sisters share similar vocation stories. Both were educated, for a time, by Sisters of the Good Samaritan, giving them the inspiration and courage to follow their footsteps.
“I never really thought about becoming a nun, but I admired many of the nuns who taught me,” Sr Rita, who grew up in Canberra, recalls. “My eldest brother became a Marist Brother, and somehow I started thinking about that kind of life.
“Mum and dad also had a lot to do with the Church. Dad would be there most weekends helping the Sisters, and mum did some cooking for the nuns, so there was that connection with the family.”
After finishing her schooling, Sr Rita taught with the Good Sams for a few months at St Patrick’s in Braddon, an experience she says was highly formative.
“I saw the Sisters in a different light,” she says. “It was then that I started thinking about a vocation. I spoke to mum and dad and they wanted me to wait longer. But I remember saying to them, ‘If I don’t try it now, I don’t think I will’.”
After entering in 1954, Sr Rita made her first profession in 1957.
Meanwhile, in another area where the Good Sams were based, Sr Sue was attending St Mary’s College in Wollongong, where she came to know several inspirational Sisters.
“The Sisters helped to nurture in us a real love of God and a relationship with God,” she says.
“In those days it was seen as an option to become a religious, it was always held before us that maybe God was calling you to this way of life.
“My difficulty with the whole thing was being the only daughter, and not knowing how my parents would take it. It was hard, but they were very good about it.”
Sr Sue’s novitiate commenced in 1963, and three years later she made her first profession. Her 50th anniversary of profession will be in 2016.
The Sisters’ way of life is based primarily on the parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as the Rule of St Benedict. Over the years, the practicalities of life as a Good Sam have changed significantly, the pair say, but the changes have been for the better.
“In the early days you were appointed to ministries… but now there’s much more looking at what gifts does this person bring to our congregation and where does it fit,” Sr Sue, who has filled a pastoral role at St Francis Xavier College in Florey since 2005, explains.
“The needs today are different. Catholic schools are on a strong foundation… so now we’re working with refugees and in the Philippines with the poorest of the poor.”
“I made a commitment and even though there have been hard times, I don’t think I’ve ever really looked back.”
Sr Rita’s ministry revolved around education initially, but in 1996 she took up a different type of ministry, which she’s remained in ever since.
“I was offered a position with CentreCare in the area of disabilities, and from then on my whole focus, in terms of ministry, has been disabilities,” she says. “It was a great change for me, and I really enjoyed it. I feel like I’ve found my place.”
Like most Religious Orders, the number of Good Sams has declined over the years, but Sr Sue says there has been growth in other areas.
“When I entered, the big communities would have had 20-30 Sisters in them… but now we’ve got only two or three in most communities,” she says.
“There’s still a vibrancy and energy in the congregation. We have three countries outside of Australia where we minister now – Japan, the Philippines and Kiribati.
“The numbers of Oblates and Associates – people who accept the whole charism of the Good Samaritans while living their own way of life – is also growing.”
Whether the presence of the Good Sams in Canberra and Goulburn will continue long into the future or not is in God’s hands, but the Sisters are confident that the Order’s legacy will always remain.
“Being a Good Samaritan might look very different in the future, but those core values will always be a part of it,” Sr Sue says.