Sister Shirley shuts the door quietly, leaving two worshipers kneeling in the tiny convent chapel, braced against the cold. It’s an early September morning in Elmore, a small town in rural Australia. Outside the spring sunshine wipes frost from the grass and dances across the chapel’s stained glass windows. Inside the night chill remains undisturbed and hangs like icicles from the ceiling. The doorbell rings. Sister Shirley returns to the room with a third churchgoer. Dressed habit to toe in cornflower blue, she moves around the chapel setting up for mass with purpose that defies her years.
Taking her regular seat, she closes her eyes in meditative silence. At the stroke of 8am, the priest emerges from a side room and takes his place at the pulpit in front the congregation of five. Unperturbed by the small turnout, Sister Shirley leads the small group through mass with an easy confidence, pronouncing words carefully and clearly through a clipped accent, evidence of many years abroad. After mass, the smell of coffee and fruit bread promises to settle the grumbling stomachs. The décor of the formal dining room transports the room and its occupants back to a time before flat screen televisions and IKEA. As the morning sun climbs steadily the group chat over breakfast, the conversation intercepted only by Sister Shirley´s infectious chuckle.
This ritual of prayer and toast takes place when regular mass isn´t scheduled in the Elmore church up the street. The large red-brick building has almost continually housed Daughters of Our Lady of Sacred Heart (OLSH)– an order of Catholic missionary nuns – since it was built in 1929. Sister Shirley has called the convent home for four years, retiring there after more than 50 years working in Papua New Guinea as a teacher and missionary. In recognition of her dedication to the church and education, she was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2009.
“I´ve got more to do than listen to these practical jokes!” chuckled Sister Shirley when a nun called to tell her she had been sent a letter from the Queen. Her peers had nominated her for the award following her work in the PNG prisons so she agreed to receive it, believing it was good thing for the order and for all the sisters who did missionary work.
“They were great years,” she said on reflection. “I had an extraordinarily happy life despite considerable hardships and difficulties. When I look back on my time there was laughter and tears more than anything else. Joy was the big thing and I made incredible friends from all walks of life.”
Behind the veil.
In the twilight years of her vocation, outside of daily prayer and mass, Sister Shirley spends her days visiting the sick and elderly, taking religious education classes in local schools and maintaining active participation in her congregation and community. Afforded a quieter life in this rural town, she gardens with passion and takes a keen interest in water saving for conservation. In the evenings, as the television glows in the living room, she emails friends abroad or simply chats with her housemate, friend and fellow nun, Sister Lorraine.
“We live simple but meaningful lives,” said Sister Lorraine. “Sometimes I think people forget that we are just ordinary people behind the habits. I clearly remember a little boy looking so surprised when he discovered that we eat normal meals. Did he think we don´t need to eat?!”
Sister Shirley has a small bedroom with a single bed, desk and a sink. On the mantelpiece old photographs reveal something of the room´s current – and most likely final – inhabitant but there is no proud display of the MBE medal.
“I gave it to my nephew who liked memorabilia and those kinds of things,” explained Sister Shirley, almost shrugging off the accolade. “I thought, what would I do with something like that in the convent?”
In the laced window light Sister Shirley says morning prayers before putting on the habit over her cropped hair. She´s worn the veil every day for sixty years and believes it is a vital part of her identity.
“Nobody sees nuns today. Our sisters look no different from other women, there is no witness factor,” she said. “You´re not going to walk up to a complete stranger and tell them your problems, you need to speak with someone you can trust. That trust is what the habit provides.”
OLSH sisters have worked at home and abroad since the order was founded in Australia by a French priest in 1885. In the 60s and 70s the number of OLSH nuns swelled to around 700 Australian sisters working across the Asia-Pacific, Africa and in Indigenous Australian communities. Today, Sister Shirley is one of just 150 living nuns of which the two youngest are already 40 years old. She thinks a lack of difference between the life of a modern nun and the life of a young Australian woman could be part of the problem.
“There is no challenge for girls entering the order today. If you were to join you wear exactly the same clothes as other young women. You would probably do the work you were already doing. You would have a lot of choices about where you want to go and what you do,” she said.
“More traditional orders in Australia and Europe – ones that still require the girls to wear religious habits and spend a lot more time in prayer – are getting vocations. It seems to me that girls want something that will be a challenge, and we´re not doing that.”
Sister Shirley and Sister Lorraine are likely to be the last nuns to live in the Elmore convent.
“We don’t worry too much about it,” says Sister Shirley. “It’s in God’s hands.”