We went to school in Ruatapu. It was a little country school with about 20 children. Mr. and Mrs Leach were the teachers. This couple had no family of their own, but they really adopted us children and put on birthday parties and all sorts of events for us. They were wonderful teachers, and we learnt a lot from them. My father was an engine driver and drove the passenger train between Hokitika and Ross. There was one big shop in Ruatapu that sold everything except bread which we had to buy at Hokitika. Dad used to buy the bread and we had to wait near the railway line and he’d throw it out the window to us as he passed by in the train. We’d catch it, but by the time we’d got home we’d eaten all the middle out of it. It was nice and fresh and still hot.
Right opposite our house was a big sawmill, and while I was living in Carterton, I was reminded of the sirens I heard in my childhood in Ruatapu. Whenever there was an accident in the mill, the sirens would go. That was the only way they could contact the doctor because there was no telephone.
I used to walk to school. It took about 15 minutes to get there. During winter we picked up the ice in the puddles to suck. When I think of it now… all the cattle going to the sale yards had been along the road, but the ice was lovely and thick. We probably sucked more than ice.
We had a very happy childhood. There was bush all around our house, and lots of birds. But there were also possums of course. They were a pest. One day we found a baby one, and we kept it in the woodshed quite some time before Dad discovered it. We’d sneak food from our own meals to feed it. I don’t think any possum ever ate the things this one ate. Then one day we heard ‘Bang!’ Dad had shot it.
At night, the sky was magnificent. There were no street lights around. Dad would take us out to the backyard and tell us the names of all the stars. He taught us a lot like that.
We used to go down to the beach quite regularly during the summer. Mum would pack up our meal and we’d go off leaving it on the kitchen table for Dad to collect and bring down to the beach in the car. Mum would meet us at the school, and we’d all go down – it was a beautiful beach, very safe. A lot of families did that. When Dad came, we’d have our meal together. Then Dad would bring us all home in the car.
Every year, over the Christmas period, about four families would go from Ruatapu to Nelson. We stayed altogether with our own tents and while the women got the breakfast ready, the men took all the children down to the river for a wash. We all had a wonderful time during those holidays. I’ll never forget one morning, we woke up, and Mum was cross. She’d made a huge bowl of jelly and someone had put our entire cutlery into it! We used to go up to a farm nearby for milk, butter and home-made bread.
I was about ten when Mum became ill with cancer and had to go to the Hokitika Hospital. From there she was transferred to Christchurch. But she actually died in Calvary Hospital. They brought her body back to Hokitika and until the day of the funeral her body was laid at Nana Robert’s place. We children were shunted off to another uncle and aunt some distance away, we didn’t even go to the funeral – in those days children didn’t go. When we got back to school, we found out all the children had been there, and had sung at the Mass, and even formed a Guard of Honour. I’ve always regretted this.
Dad got a young girl to housekeep for us, but it didn’t work, because she didn’t know how to work. Also, I don’t know if we might have been a bit of a hand-full. We used to get burnt porridge, and we’d refuse to eat it. So it was decided that Noleen and myself would go to Nazareth House in Christchurch. My older brother, Bill, stayed home with Dad. Malcolm, the baby, was taken by Dad’s sister Maria and her husband, Les. They had a girl of 15, and they thought that was the end of their family. But they had Malcolm for only four months when Auntie Maureen got pregnant, and Allen arrived. Malcolm and Allen are still great friends, both living in Christchurch.
We first came in contact with the Nazareth Sisters when they used to come collecting on the Coast. Dad and Mum were very good. Dad would take them around in the car, and Mum would pack lunches. They also stayed with us, too. Sister Felix, one of the Nazareth Sisters, was a West Coaster, and when Mum died, she suggested to Dad that the two girls might like to go to Nazareth House in Christchurch. This was when having a house-keeper was not successful and being the War years it was hard to get anyone.
When we arrived at Nazareth House in Christchurch it was a bit of a shock for us. We’d come from a little school of 20, and here we were with 100 girls; it was a big difference. However, after getting over our homesickness we settled in.
We had our primary education there. We also had a very good choir and sports facilities. We competed against other primary schools, and on several occasions when I was on the team, we won the Bishop Lyons Cup for primary schools. We did not go home for the school holidays, but after I Entered, my sister, Noleen, always went to Hokitika. Lots of girls didn’t have anywhere to go.
While I was at primary school, the Kartagasts (Mum’s first cousins) were very good to us. They had a big drink factory, one in Hokitika and one in Christchurch. They used to take us out regularly and bring us sweets and fruit, and crates of drink for the children. When it came to Secondary School we went to the Sacred Heart College in Ferry Road, which was run by the Mission Sisters. I was only there for two years because I really wanted to be a nurse and do my hospital training at Burwood Hospital. In the meantime I worked at the Home with the elderly ladies under Sister Theresa Gabriel who was very good, and taught me a lot, from cleaning dentures to laying out the dead. We had a lot of fun, and also received a lot of encouragement.
While I was working as a nurse-aid, another girl, Elaine O’Neil, and I flatted. Elaine had a hole in her heart and found it hard going to secondary school, so she was nurse-aiding there too. We were paid, and with our first wages we went over the road to the dairy and bought a hot pie and a bottle of tomato sauce to celebrate.
Father Pierce was an old boy of St. Joseph’s Home, part of Nazareth House. When he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Christchurch, they had dinner for the priests at Nazareth House. It was a big room, beautifully decorated. Bishop Joyce was there, and I remember polishing the floor and helping to clean up afterwards. That was a great occasion. It wasn’t long after that when Fr. Middleton was ordained. He was another old boy.
At this stage, I was accepted to enter the Sisters of Compassion. Sr. Theresa Gabriel said to me: “Didn’t you ever think of entering the Nazareth Sisters?” I replied, “You never asked me, and I didn’t think I’d be allowed to.” Sister said, “What gave you that idea?” I said, “I don’t know,” She was disappointed I didn’t go to them. However, I had met Mother Veronica and Sister Marcelle who were going to Timaru with a view to starting a Home of Compassion down there. They stayed at Nazareth House. Mother Veronica was a West Coaster.
I was going to enter the Sisters of Compassion in 1951, but I waited until our uncle, Phil Roberts, was ordained a Marist priest in Greenmeadows on 23 February, 1952. He came down south and we had a family Mass at Hokitika. Everyone came over for his first Mass, and I entered after that.
When I entered the Sisters of Compassion, a very good friend of mine came over on the ferry with me to Wellington. We used to come at night from Lyttelton in those days. We arrived on a beautiful morning into the harbour. It was a wonderful sight. We were met by Sister Thomas in the car, and I received a great welcome. Joan Timpany and Mary Sheahan were postulants, and Sister Aquinas was already a Novice. While I was in the Novitiate I had my 21st birthday. I was sent to help in St. Anne’s Ward and when I returned the whole place was decorated and we had a party. Mother Zita came up and joined us. It was her Feast Day – 27 April. As Novices, we worked in the laundry with Sister Baptist who looked after us. We had a lot of fun. I was only there a few days, and I was told to do the hand-wash. I’d never seen so many stockings – black stockings – and they smelt! They had been there a week, and we had to hand-wash them all. Oh, dear!
When I was Professed, I was sent to the Nursery to work. Sister Peter, who was in charge, was wonderful. Sister Therese was in charge of the big side. I’ll never forget the day we got new potties. We used to have these old white ones, and all the surface had come off them. They sterilized them, and they would come out brown. You had to clean them all with ajax or something to get them white again. Sister Kevin brought over a huge carton of stainless steel potties. We were delighted with them.
Then I went to St. Anne’s Ward. We had some real characters there. Sister Michael had just entered from Fiji, and was working in St. Anne’s too. Miss O’Brien, one of the patients, had arthritis very badly. She had a lot of pain because in those days they didn’t have the drugs we have today to help them. She couldn’t bear us moving her. I was settling Mrs. Philips in the next bed to Miss O’Brien, and I could hear her talking to Philo (as Sister Michael was then): “Would you put that pillow two inches south, and can that one go six inches to the north.” This went on and at last Philo said: “Please, Miss O’Brien, talk plain English.” We had lots of fun. Molly was a spastic. Her vocabulary was very limited. One morning I was working in the Pink Room. When I went to put her blouse on, there was no button, so I got another one – no button. When I brought the third one in, she said: “Bloody miracle!” as plain as anything.
I then went up to Auckland to relieve Sister Helena who had to have emergency surgery. I was only up there three days when the Sister on Night Duty got sick, so Sister John Bosco, who was in charge, asked me to do night duty. Sister Columba was in charge of the Hospital and she would bring the new-born babies down to the milk-preparation room if she was busy, for me to keep an eye on them.
Sister Zita came up to Auckland for the Visitation. It was then that she told me I was to start in the next nursing training class. So I went back to Island Bay to do my training – it must have been the late 1950s, because I qualified in 1960. In the same class were Sisters Gertrude, Loreto, Joan Timpany, and myself. Sister Luke was our tutor sister. She called the three of us Hogg, Nogg and Chitternogg – we were the three who got to our Finals. We had Mr. O’Regan lecturing us, and we went to the Public Hospital for lectures. Sister Therese took us for our junior exams in our hospital. We sat our Finals at the Public Hospital. Sister Therese examined our practical nursing for our final exams. We all passed.
Sister Kevin was the matron of our hospital and she and Sister Agatha were very good to us. They would do anything for us, and were absolutely wonderful – we loved working with Sister Agatha in the medical ward. Sir Charles Burns (or Doctor Burns as he was in those days) used to do a Medical Round once a week, and we all had to go along too. He liked to ask us questions, looking at us over his glasses. Sister Agatha would say: “Excuse me, Doctor Burns, but these Sisters are only First Year students – they’ll be learning about that in their Third Year.” We could have hugged her. We didn’t know what he was talking about.
Another big change in my life came when Mother Melchior asked me if I would go to Chanel Home in Suva. In those days the Home wasn’t as up-to-date as the hospital where I had been trained. I had to do all the sterilizing in the oven in the kitchen. I got quite good at this, making do with what we had. We had some lovely patients there. I loved Fiji, but I found the heat very trying. I was wet through with perspiration all the time. If I didn’t change my singlet at lunchtime, it went mouldy on my back. I was only there for a year because I got sick and had to return to Island Bay. I was in the Infirmary for quite a while, and then I went out to Silverstream.
While at Silverstream I worked with the babies. I was also Infirmarian to the College boys next door. There was an epidemic of flu – all the boys were affected, they were really sick. Sister Benedict used to come over with me and help. The Matron over there was a very hard woman, and when these boys were getting better they had to have my written permission to have an early night. I was giving all the boys an early night, and she came to me and said: “You shouldn’t be giving them an early night. They’re just playing up on you.” “No,” I said, “they have been very sick, and they’re not right yet.” She didn’t always approve of what we were doing.
I was later transferred to Island Bay where I helped Sister Joseph who was the Procurator. She never asked you to do anything she couldn’t do herself, but boy, she worked you hard! At one time Sister Zavier became very ill, and Sister Elizabeth, the Superior, asked me if I would do the van duty for a couple of weeks until Sister recovered. Well, I stayed on the van for 42 years!
My next move was to Carterton where it was a complete change from van duty. I was out most days taking communion to house-bound people, and visiting many who had been very good to the Sisters over the years, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, in fact anyone who had ever been in contact with the Home at Carterton. Doctor Cherry told me once that the best thing to happen to Carterton was when the handicapped children came to live there. The people accepted them with open hearts and they made a big difference to the lives of the people.
While living in Carterton, I formed a little prayer group for people who were unable to go to Church regularly. We had a little liturgy in one of their homes. I also joined a singing group, and I was able to pursue my hobby of making cards. Now I live at St. Joseph’s at Silverstream where I still enjoy life and find plenty to keep me occupied.
Sister Yvonne died suddenly on 24 February, 2017. Sister Yvonne let herself be loved by God and gave time daily to allow God to love her. This explains in some way as to why Yvonne was such a gift to many.
Born Entered Professed Died Buried
27.04.1933 23.02.1952 15.09.1954 24.02.2017 Karori Cemetery