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By the will of God

Rosie Hoban  |  23 May 2018

Sr Josephine CannellReaching a century entitles you to a few things. People forgive your memory lapses; they even expect them. They shower you with praise for reaching 100 and marvel at your achievements, great or small.

Sister of Charity Josephine Cannell has a different spin on reaching 100. It’s about endurance, hanging in there when things get a bit rough and mostly, it’s about God’s will. That’s the story of Josephine Cannell’s 100 years. In fact, the words, God’s will Amen, are engraved on the gold ring she has worn since her profession in 1937.

‘It would be a nuisance to a lot of people if I died before my 100th birthday party. So I have been praying that God hold off taking me until after the party.’

Did what God asked her to do

For close to a century Sr Josephine (formerly known as Sr Luigi) has done what she believes God has asked her to do. That belief has taken her to various parts of Australia, into convents, group homes for children, classrooms and kitchens, where she has cooked for communities, established tuckshops, looked after boarders, organised a garden party for 750 people, learned and taught pottery, written history books and myriad other tasks. And sometimes it was tough, but she hung in there.

Josephine was born in the shadows of WWI in the historic town of New Norfolk in Tasmania. The war cast a long shadow over most Australian towns and she recalls seeing men with missing limbs and carrying the legacy of serious injuries in her small town. The Sisters of Charity, who taught young Josephine after the family’s move to Hobart, eventually visited her home and talked to Josephine’s mother about her daughter’s future. More pointedly, they asked if she might be interested in joining the Sisters.

‘My mother talked to me about it and I said “yes”. Things really fell into place for me after that and everything seemed right. Until then I had been unsettled. Mum said I was “floundering around”.

‘I had one boyfriend after another, but I never felt settled’, she says.

Sr Josephine recalls with some guilt her sense of excitement as the Sydney-bound ship pulled away from the wharf in Hobart. It was taking her to her new life as a novice in NSW.

Her mother stood at the wharf sobbing because her 16-year-old daughter was leaving the family. The night before at the youth dance her father had taken her hand for the Last Waltz.

‘Mum and dad made the sacrifice, but I gained everything. I suppose that’s what letting go is about’, she says.

81 years a Sister of Charity

Sr Josephine finished her secondary schooling in the novitiate, then trained to be a schoolteacher and was professed a Sister of Charity 81 years ago. In those 81 years, she has covered a lot of territory and earned the affection and respect of thousands of students, some of whom went on to become Sisters of Charity.

Her longest stint in any one place was at St Columba’s College in Essendon, Victoria, where she taught for 14 years and managed the archives for another 16 years. This work, and how it developed, best sums up St Josephine’s capacity to adapt and endure.

‘I had been teaching English, religious education, needlework and art and craft. We then planned to develop a range of new art subjects and were invited to come up with subject ideas. I suggested pottery and lapidary, and I knew nothing about either. Not really sure what I was thinking at the time’, she says.

In true style she set about learning pottery at night classes, developed a love of the craft, taught it for many years and continued going to the Carlton School of Art for years to learn techniques from well-known artists.

‘I’m lucky I suppose because I have always been an innovative person, even when I was young. I never give up finding a way of doing something’, she says.

Second career as an archivist

Once she finished teaching, Sr Josephine stayed at St Columba’s doing their archives and joined the Catholic Archivists Society when it began in 1985. It seemed a fitting place for a woman who seems to remember every name, significant date and detail of her life and the name of every teacher who ever taught her and the subjects they covered.

Sr Josephine put her phenomenal memory and love of knowledge to use and in 1987 wrote an account of the first 90 years of St Columba’s College.

Sr Josephine retired from St Columba’s College in 2002. At 84 you might expect she was ready to retire; to put her feet up and take it easy. Instead she asked for a move back to her beloved Tasmania where she worked in the local Taroona parish and embarked on another book.

It was the story of the first three Sisters of Charity who left Sydney for Tasmania on board the ‘Louisa’ in 1847. To the beckoning shores: Urged on by the love of Christ is a story of commitment, faith and endurance, qualities many would associate with the author.

Four years ago, Sr Josephine returned to Melbourne and now lives in a Sisters of Charity community in Fitzroy. Life is a little restricted these days because her sight has almost gone and she can no longer read. Happily, she is close to St Vincent’s Hospital chapel and goes to Mass every day, as she has since she was eight years old.

Even now she believes she is where God wants her to be.

Content to let things happen

‘I have never wished for anything other than what is. I suppose I have been content to let things happen, and to let things go when it was time to move on’, she says. She has the same approach to life and death.

Sr Josephine’s immediate family is all dead – her parents, two brothers, sister and many friends. It might leave some people feeling bereft, but for Sr Josephine there’s a sense that the next adventure is within arm’s reach.

‘I’m very ready for death, though it would be a nuisance to a lot of people if I died before my 100th birthday party. So I have been praying that God hold off taking me until after the party’, she says.

‘I feel confident in God’s love; it’s all very real to me. And I believe that when I die I will be welcomed by God.’

Footnote: Sr Josephine’s prayers were answered, and she had a wonderful 100th party on 24 February.

Image: Sr Josephine Cannell


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