Sr Margaret Purcell sm was called to eternal life on Monday 22nd July 2019.
Eternal rest grant to her, O Lord.
May perpetual light shine upon her.
May she rest in peace.
We extend our prayerful sympathy to the Marist Sisters in Australia and to Sr Margaret’s family. The following words of remembrance were delivered by Sr Gail Reneker at her funeral on 27th July 2019.
It is a privilege for me to speak at this celebration of Margaret’s life and to honour the person she has been to each one of us. It is a tribute to her that her family, her friends and her Sisters have gathered together this morning in thanksgiving for her and the blessing she has been in our lives. Each of us brings personal memories of her. This morning I would like to especially recall her life as a Marist Sister.
After finishing her school education at Marist Convent Woolwich Margaret trained and worked as a clerk/typist. In 1947 she began her postulancy with the Marist Sisters at Merrylands, and received the habit in January 1948, when she was given the name Sister Vincent. (It was in the 70’s that she went back to her baptismal name.) Margaret was professed on the 23rd January 1949 at Merrylands, and on the 13th May 1954 she made her perpetual vows at Woolwich.
After some initial training Margaret went to St Margaret Mary’s school Merrylands as a primary teacher. The courage that was to become something of a hallmark in Margaret’s character was shown at the beginning of her ministry of teaching. St Margaret Mary’s was a school where the enrolment of students burgeoned in the 1950’s with the post-war migration. Margaret’s first class there was a kindergarten of 100 students. It is reported that she went to sleep each night reciting their names so as to try to remember them all. This courage was needed to be drawn on further when in 1957 she was appointed Superior of the community at Woolwich, a formidable role at her age in a sizeable community and in a role which also required her having a significant role in the school there. An instance of the appreciation and regard in which the Sisters were held was the request in recent years received from a woman in Canada thanking the Sisters, and Sr Vincent in particular, on behalf of her mother for the education received there. In 1960 Margaret went to Burwood Victoria as Superior of the community there and teacher at St Benedict’s Primary school. After Degree studies at Canberra University she was re-appointed to Burwood as Superior. She also took up the role of Deputy Principal and Secondary teacher at Chavoin College.
In 1970 Margaret was elected Provincial of Oceania, a Province encompassing Sisters’ communities in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. A very specific task for Province leaders at that time, and so for Margaret, was the implementation of the direction set by Vatican 11 for the renewal of Religious life. The changes inaugurated a somewhat difficult, challenging period for the Sisters. The departure of a number of them was part of the upheaval which ensued. Margaret’s wisdom, calm and inner strength was obvious as she guided the Province, seeking to respond to the signs of the times and the call to renewal while keeping the ship afloat.
These qualities together with her leadership and administrative abilities were recognised by the broader Congregation and she was elected as Superior General at the General Chapter of 1974. She now had the task, in collaboration with her Administration, of negotiating on the global stage the paradigm shift we’d been called to. Dealing with the various languages and different cultures with understanding and sensitivity added to the demands. Given her reserved nature the role of Congregational leader was thus undertaken at significant personal cost. There were also health issues to deal with and she felt the distance from her family and in particular her ailing mother.
Nevertheless Margaret gave herself wholeheartedly to the role and task confided to her. It was during her administration that International renewals and pilgrimages for the Congregation’s members were begun. These provided for participants to engage in a personal renewal program and to have the opportunity to visit Marist places of origin in France and drink of all that new historical research into our Marist spirituality was providing. It was also during her two terms of office that a rewriting of our Constitutions was begun with a process which included visits from those charged with the task to engage all Sisters throughout the Congregation.
A particular significant undertaking was the discernment and consequent decision of the General Administration under Margaret’s leadership to establish new missionary ventures in Latin America . This outreach to Latin America had been urged on by the Pope and the call was strengthened by the growing movement for the Church to take a preferential option for the poor. Margaret called for volunteers from all provinces, and foundations were made in Brazil in 1978, Mexico in 1981 and Colombia in 1984. These initiated an audacious experiment within our Congregation to embrace a new style of religious life with communities living amongst the poor and involved in less-institutional ministries. Grace our current Congregational leader and a member of the founding group in Brazil recalls: ‘Margaret made it clear that we were to discover a new way of being religious, not to just transplant models to a new place. Many years later I asked Margaret if she knew what she was doing when she appointed me novice directress – me, with no experience in formation, no course as formator! Margaret smiled and said: I think so. I didn’t want to send a trained formator because she would just do what she had always done. I wanted someone who would learn how to be a formator in another land.’ Such was Margaret’s vision and daring.
At the completion of her term as Superior General Margaret showed her readiness to do herself what she had asked of her Sisters. She became a founding member of a new missionary venture in the Gambia, West Africa. There in Farafenni, recognising the needs and possibilities, she set up a training college for local teachers as well as establishing a primary school where children were enrolled at aged 6 rather than at age 8, providing them with greater opportunities of education. Margaret was particularly happy there. She was able to take to heart on a personal as well as at a Congregational level, the call to be with the poor. The sisters experienced obstacles but under her leadership they weren’t deterred and found ways to overcome them.
After three years in the Gambia, Margaret was called back to Australia to take up again with continuing generosity and commitment the role of Provincial of Australia. In the three years of her term she initiated the move of the Blacktown community to a new house in the area so as to widen from there the apostolic involvement of the community members. The novitiate was relocated to Bennettswood Victoria and significant extensions and renovations to the Administration house at Haberfield were begun. It was also at this time that the Pastoral Planning process undertaken across the Congregation was set in motion here.
After completing her term as Provincial Margaret undertook pastoral and social welfare work in the inner city through St Margaret’s Hospital. It wasn’t long though before another project took root in her heart. I recall as Provincial of the time meeting with Margaret for coffee at the Centrepoint Shopping Centre to talk about her idea of establishing a community in a needy area. An initial investigation with her finally led to a meeting with the Department of Housing, Liverpool who saw the value of the presence of the Sisters among the economically and socially disadvantaged in Claymore, near Campbelltown. A community was begun there in Claymore in August 1993. From this ministry of presence other ministries developed in particular with migrants, refugees, St Vincent de Paul and the Neighbourhood Centre. Margaret was at home with other cultures and the people warmed to her interest and respect for them. She had a special and loved ministry with Cambodian families, teaching English and accompanying them with the challenges of life in a new country. This initial insertion led later to similar communities being established in the Campbelltown area at Airds and at Rosemeadow.
In 2000 Margaret was missioned to Marian House, Woolwich for three years as community leader. Her next move into the parish at Laverton Victoria in 2003 engaged her in pastoral work in particular with the socially deprived and elderly shut-ins. After a number of years there she returned to Marian House to again give service to the Sisters there. As time went on she increasingly needed extra care for herself as a number of health problems developed and she experienced more intense suffering. This led to her recognising and accepting her need for extra care at Southern Cross Homes at Marsfield where she moved in May 2018. Margaret settled in well, appreciated the care and enjoyed among other things caring for her pot plants. Her quiet warmth and friendliness there endeared her to staff and other residents. The return of cancer this year eventually led to her final admission to the Mater Hospital a fortnight ago and to her death on 22nd July. Despite both emotional and physical struggles, sensitively handled by medical staff and those who loved her, Margaret as usual was mindful of others. She expressly directed that her gratitude for everything be given to the Sisters, the doctors, nurses, carers and her family.
Marist qualities aren’t difficult to find in Margaret. From her school days and from the Sisters she knew and loved there and undoubtedly from the values lived in her family she absorbed the Marist spirit. She had a wonderful sense of Mary in her life and a great love of the Church, of Mary’s place in it and consequently that of Marists. The gift of self to God was unqualified and found expression in her wholehearted commitment to the Congregation and its mission. The vision she showed, especially in her leadership, was born of this grasp she had of what it is to be Marist. Her spirituality too was thoroughly Marist, simple and uncomplicated but quite profound. Like Mary at Nazareth and Jeanne Marie in Jarnosse she was at home among the people, being with them, sharing life with them, loving and encouraging them in a quiet unassuming way. There was no pretentiousness in Margaret. She was a truly humble woman. She had a true understanding of what it was to live ‘hidden and unknown’. Although quietly friendly by nature, a natural diffidence, even apprehension, sometimes showed in her. This only highlighted the courage she showed throughout all her life. So many Sisters have expressed their admiration of and gratitude for her far-sightedness and daring – for her utter goodness.
Her reserve didn’t stop her from enjoying gatherings and entertainment with the Sisters and with others. She enjoyed the simple pleasures of craftwork, quilting, dressmaking and cooking all of which she developed some prowess in. She appreciated music and especially liturgical music, enjoyed reading, especially spiritual books and developed an interest in Australian history. She got to appreciate sport. She had a special interest in young people, liked being with them, wanting and delighting in their development, their gifts and potential.
This was very evident in Margaret’s deep love for, pride, joy and interest in her family. You, her nieces, nephews and families always gladdened her heart and she loved sharing news of you. Her sister Pat, your Mum, was very dear to her and her death left a very big gap in her life. Coming to terms with it was very much helped by the ongoing love, interest and devotedness shown by you. The care you have shown to Margaret, especially in this time of her last illness, has I’m sure supported, comforted and reassured her. Your presence here today gives evidence of the place she has in your hearts and she, together with all those with whom she has been reunited, including her sister, your Mum, surely smiles at you all with gratitude and great delight.
In giving time to ponder and recollect memories of Margaret I was drawn to the image of the valiant woman spoken about in the Book of Proverbs Ch 31. In a reflection I came across on that passage I was alerted to the Jewish understanding of this valiant woman, in Hebrew an Eshet Chayil. Margaret certainly warrants being named as a valiant woman. Such a woman, we are told, possesses unique strength. She is one in whom a person can put their trust. Others are strengthened by her trust in them and her ability to channel their gifts for good. She gives selflessly. Her tendency to always have an outstretched hand is an exemplary quality. The valiant woman possesses wisdom and integrity. She manages situations with strength and gentleness. Her spirituality is reflected in her actions. She has unshakeable trust in God, who is the centre of her life, knowing that all is in God’s hands. In short, an Eshet Chayil, a valiant woman, is a woman of inestimable value, more precious than pearls.
Margaret you were all of this and more to us. We thank you for who you’ve been, for what you’ve given. We thank God for what God did in and through you. We thank God for blessing us with you – a sister, friend, aunty, companion on the journey and a wonderful inspiration of self-giving love. May you be at peace and rejoice forever in the heart of our God.