What drew me? This question I have been asked many times! I live in Melbourne (Australia), I have a husband and family and I am not a Catholic! “My God and they let you come. That, I cannot believe!” (this was what my French-Canadian fellow volunteer exclaimed. “You’re going to work in a soup kitchen for 10 weeks during your leave!” (I teach English as a Second Language). “What about your husband and family?” (I came with their blessing).
A chance overnight stay at Jerusalem, or was it chance? I wonder. This was my introduction to the Sisters of Compassion. My husband and I were on a brief visit (my first) to New Zealand in June this year and had been directed there by Brother Brian of the Southern Star Abbey in Hawke’s Bay. We arrived in the dark while the Sisters were at evening prayer. We slept in the dormitories upstairs in the Old Convent – a time capsule. In the morning we awoke to find ourselves in a picture postcard valley drenched in history and morning mist. The cultural heritage and spiritual atmosphere was tangible. At morning prayer in St Joseph’s church we gathered with the Sisters around the altar to share the Word of God. It was there during that time I experienced one of those moments of grace.
On our return to Australia I read with interest the information I had collected about the Congregation and searched their website. The more I read about Suzanne Aubert and her mission for the Sisters the more I felt and thought – “Yes, their mission is my mission, their goals are mine too.” ‘Need not Creed’ also struck me with its openness especially in the times she lived. I liked the picture I envisaged from my readings of Mother Aubert, this woman of small stature but with such enormous determination in her faith and work for the poor. I admired her forthrightness in the face of ‘authorities’ to persist through her faith in her work.
She was confronted by challenges; disappointments, rebuffs and times of happiness and joy just like most people. I believe it is all part of our journey and learning experiences and we will not know until our journey is complete the why’s and the wherefores. Obviously I am searching, seeking ‘the way’, ‘the truth’ and ‘the life’ as I have been since I can remember. The Sisters’ Community called me. Their pledge to serve the marginalised and those society ignores with a real hands-on approach drew me. What a challenge! But this is what Jesus asks! ‘Whatever you do for them you do for me.’ I wanted to see and be part of this love in action, to experience and perhaps understand.
These are some of the things that drew me to the Sisters of Compassion. However there are some things too that cannot be expressed in words they are just known in your heart. Now, as it is nearing my time to return to Melbourne people are asking me was it worth it? Did it fulfil your expectations? What was it like living with the Sisters? Well that is another story!
Life is never, never dull
“Never be wearied or astonished at anything.” These words of Suzanne Aubert are good to take on board if you work with the Sisters of Compassion at the ‘Soup Kitchen’. Life is never, never dull. Astonishing things happen every day here in the dining room, waiting room, kitchen and reception. The Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre in Tory Street, Wellington is a hive of activity but a day never passes without a good laugh!
My day as a volunteer starts at 6:00am, when I wake to the rooster crowing at the nearby marae in Island Bay. Just after 7:00am I am picked up by one of the Sisters and by the time we arrive at the Centre the kitchen staff are in full swing.
Pots of soup are simmering on the stove; bread rolls warming in the oven and the tables already set. There are kitchen towels and aprons to be folded from the drier, loaves of bread to be sliced and buttered, and bread to be sorted for delivery to families in need around Wellington. The ‘guests’ have already started to hang around the door of the waiting room and at 8:00am the dining-room door is opened, Grace is said and then the hungry, ‘homeless’ tuck into their breakfast.
I help with all these jobs and more. Then it’s rinsing plates, stacking the dishwasher, putting dishes away, wiping tables and leaving the dining-room spotless for the midday meal for the Sisters and evening dinner for the ‘guests’. All this might sound rather like housework but working in a team amidst all the joking, jibing and juggling that goes on, I find it astonishingly satisfying.
As more of the Sisters arrive around 8:30am, the telephone starts ringing. There is a ‘guest’ with accommodation problems to follow up, administrative matters to deal with, rosters to organise and bread to be delivered to some needy families. Also food to be collected, an elderly man to visit, a refugee family to meet at the airport, a ‘gathering’ to be arranged, a meeting to attend and piles of paperwork as well as numerous other tasks. I sometimes go out in the car to deliver the bread and sometimes collect food from the different donors.
These tasks are all done in the spirit of the Congregation, which makes it such a pleasure to work voluntarily here. It is totally opposite to my usual competitive, corporate workplace where ‘numbers’ and ‘me’, not ‘people’ and ‘others’, are top priority. This is how secular society works because making money is mainly their mission. However this religious Congregation is very fortunate because its mission is to serve God. Therefore they are able to express this love through giving of themselves and showing real care and compassion to people, particularly those suffering in the community.
How lucky I am to experience this wonderful gift, this ‘mauri’ that dwells in the city of Wellington. I see it as an anchor, a harbour, a home, and many things to many people. The Sisters presence can be felt in their work, it is Suzanne Aubert’s ‘taonga’ that lives on through them today. In the dining room it is reflected in the dignity with which they treat their ‘guests’ and it has an influence on all who pass through the Centre. I see the Sisters regularly in the chapel praying alone or together, and at midday they all come together for the Mass. This daily routine is part of the rhythm of their day and gives meaning and sustenance to their diverse workloads.
After lunch the Sisters are on the go again. One goes off to walk the city and the favourite haunts of the ‘homeless’ to see how particular ones are getting along. There is a call about a ‘guest’ who has been taken to hospital. He doesn’t want to stay. He is a chronic glue sniffer and alcoholic. Can the sisters help? Another ‘guest’ is pregnant and living on the streets. There is a general concern from the welfare agencies for her and her baby. Can the Sisters do something? Someone rings to donate 2 duvets. Then there is jubilation. One of the ‘guests’ has had a long, long overdue shower. Praise the Lord! Then astonishment! That evening he also appears with a short back and sides long overdue haircut too! In the afternoon I do whatever is needed. Sometimes I work on the computer, fill in at reception, rearrange the ‘guests’ notice-board or go into the chapel.
At 4:00pm it’s back to the kitchen again to help serve the evening meal. The kitchen staff have created another healthy and appetising dinner from the astonishing array of donated food that comes through the backdoor. A shipment of oysters and scallops in slightly damaged containers, 15 cartons of bananas, 500 bottles of juice, a bunch of silver-beet delivered by hand from a supporter’s vegetable garden are some of the things I witnessed being delivered! Also dainty club sandwiches and miniature quiches left over from a wake, much appreciated by all.
On Mondays I join the guests in the waiting room at 4:15pm for singing and pray. A sister and a volunteer run this group and it is one of many astonishing and humbling experiences I share in the Centre.
Now as I stand at the servery handing out the evening meals I smile to myself as I watch a ‘guest’ who has just collected his meal looking around to see where he will sit. He is totally unaware that his jeans are slowly slipping down to his feet. I wonder whether he will realise before he moves off! A man appears with a sheepskin wrapped around his head, a cloak over his shoulders and a studded silver sash. I nod and ask how he is. Then another ‘guest’ appears barefooted, intelligent, ‘hippie’ with a short dread-lock and beaded beard. I know he is a vegetarian so sing out for a special meal. He smiles brightly. A ‘guest’ finishes, says thanks as he passes and belches loudly. I make a face. “Sorry Sister”, he laughs, “but the food was good!” (I am not astonished. I have 2 sons!)
By 6:30pm peace reigns again. The ‘guests’ have gone, the volunteers have done their duty, and the kitchen is spotless and ready for another day. I take my coat out of the cupboard and walk slowly to reception to find the Sister who is driving me home. Another Sister walks into her office. I stand there watching as she goes in, sighs, and comes out again. I hear her say half to herself, half to anyone who may be listening, “I think I’ll just have a cup of tea with Jesus.” As everyone departs I see her heading for the chapel with cup in hand, then it is my turn to sigh and Suzanne Aubert’s saying comes into my mind. “Never be wearied or astonished at anything!”