On the 23rd July, this year, we will be celebrating the 200th Anniversary of “The Promise of Fourvière”, made by twelve young French seminarians who dreamed of a new society in the Church, The Society of Mary. It seems so fitting that today, in this Fourvière month, we are gathered to farewell one of our own, Sr. Gabriel Forster, baptized Mary, a sister who entered Marist Life back in 1942 and lived seventy four years following her dream to follow Christ in Mary’s way.
Sr Gabriel, affectionately known as “Gabe”, was born in 1923 to Eileen and Joseph Forster in Bendigo, Victoria. She was the only girl in the family, having four brothers, all now deceased. Her family must have been a faith-filled one for from it came one priest, a Marist brother, a Marist sister and a married man whose wife, Connie, and daughter, Michelle, are here in spirit with us today. Gabriel always had a deep love for her family and was always keen to have news of them as they lived so far from her. In her later years, she loved to pour over photos of the family, especially Michelle and her two children and to tell us of their exploits. Connie’s sister, Betty, was another cherished friend of Gabriel’s.
At age 19, Mary decided to enter the Marist Sisters. To do so, she had to leave Victoria and journey to Sydney, New South Wales, where she was received into the Novitiate at Mittagong, a country town south west of Sydney. Here the Sisters from Woolwich had moved the Woolwich School and Novitiate for safety as the War in the Pacific was getting closer. Life in Mittagong was far from easy, but Gabriel’s desire to be a Marist was strong and in 1943 she was professed as a Marist Sister, the first Victorian to do so.
After Profession, Gabriel began her ministry in Education, first teaching at Mittagong and then moving to Karori, New Zealand. She was to spend about five years in New Zealand as a teacher. Later she received Teachers’ Training in Sydney and taught in both primary and secondary schools until the early seventies. During those teaching years, she spent time in Fiji and there became a local superior and also bursar. Australia was to see her again in the sixties and she was delighted to spend some years in her native Victoria at Burwood.
A big change came for Gabriel in 1973, when she was accepted into the Geriatric Nursing Training Programme at Lidcombe. There she excelled in her studies and moved into training for General Nursing at Sydney Hospital. Gabriel was highly intelligent and won the State Medal for Nursing. She truly loved nursing and having an enquiring mind, she delved into all aspects of it. Her knowledge of nursing procedures was secondary to none and maybe this accounted for her rather meticulous demands when, in later years, she herself needed nursing care. When the Gilroy Village at Merrylands built a Nursing Home, Gabriel became the first Matron. Later she became a volunteer for the New South Wales Council for the Ageing and also cared for our own sisters in Marian House. When health issues prevented her from active nursing, she engaged in pastoral work, volunteering at Westmead Hospital and at the St. Vincent De Paul Society at Lewisham.
Innovation was part of Gabriel’s make-up, and she was always seeking new ways to handle situations, whether it be teaching, nursing, pastoral work or living skills. This desire to be one step ahead, often led her into some unusual manoeuvres. Many of us who lived with Gabe at Merrylands, remember her love of driving the car and her delight in shopping, especially during the ‘Sales’. One unforgettable day, Gabriel set out for Parramatta to buy a pair of sandals. She left at 9 a.m. and should have returned within an hour or so. Not our Gabriel. Not finding what she wanted, off she drove to Warringah Mall, Brookvale, then to the City, then south west to Miranda Mall before finally arriving home about 6 p.m., still seeking that ‘elusive sale’.
A favourite haunt of Gabriel’s was ‘Spotlight’, a haberdashery/craft shop. She was gifted artistically, in drawing, painting (oils and water colour) and in craft and sold much of her work to help Marist Missions. Always on the lookout for something different, she accumulated boxes and boxes of ribbons, cottons, laces, cushion fillings, paints, brushes and art and craft books. Needless to say, if we could, we would try to hide the ‘Spotlight Sales’ advertisements from Gabriel’s prying eyes. However, Gabriel was up to our tricks, and when, every week, she was taken for an outing by her carer at Marian House, she used to go on ‘Mystery Trips’, and would only tell the carer the location after they had left the house.
In the early 2000’s, the cross became very much a permanent feature of Gabriel’s life. Her eyesight was rapidly deteriorating, as was her hearing and blood circulation in her legs. She finally had to have one leg amputated and so for the next sixteen or more years, this very active sister was called to a ministry of suffering and continual frustration. Possessing a strong, indomitable spirit, she determined to still participate as much as she could. The telephone became her life-line and in spite of her deafness, she conversed easily. Card- making became a favourite hobby in which she involved many of her friends and carers (not always an easy task for them), especially as her sight was failing. Communicating via her cards became a priority and Christmas and birthdays saw her diligently cutting out, pasting and printing her cards. Always family, sisters and friends had to receive ones made specially for them.
Gardening and listening to the radio were always high on Gabriel’s list of activities. She developed quite expert knowledge of the garden and often rang Gardening programmes on the radio for advice (as she often did, too, about health issues). At Marian House, from her wheelchair, she would guide our gardener as to the layout of the garden and remind him when it was time to prune or mulch. Nothing deterred her and often we would see her holding onto the terraced-garden handrail, taking herself down very dangerous, steep steps to water a plant or do some weeding.
Visits from sisters and friends became very important to Gabriel. I must mention here how much she valued her friends, Fr. Bernard Maxwell, O.P., Br. Frank Richardson, fms., Peter(RIP) and Rita Duggan, whom she met through her Marist brother, Br. Sevard, Robyn Smith, from her time in Mt. Wilga Rehabilitation and the many carers and volunteers from Marian House days who were so attentive to her even after she left there.
When it came time for Gabriel to go into residential care at St. Joseph Aged Care, a real struggle raged within; she who was so independent now had to allow others to direct her. Jesus’s words to St. Peter at the end of St. John’s Gospel became very real to her:
“I tell you most solemnly, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go. (Jn: 21:18).
This was a real learning curve for Gabriel, but very gradually the Lord’s peace entered her heart and in her last months, all was well. She valued so much any spiritual nourishment she could get, and loved to listen to tapes about the Scriptures or Marist Living. Rosary beads were a life-line for her and many was the time a hunt was on to find a lost pair. When her condition worsened and she moved to St. Anne’s Nursing Home, she was unable to use her radio or tapes and the suffering she endured, not being able to see, hear or walk, was intense.
The Lord came suddenly for her last Friday, 1st July. Fr. Ron Nissen, s.m. anointed her that afternoon. She was still able to express her gratitude to him. Sr. Julie tells us that the last words Gabriel said to her were, “Thank you”. I’m sure that these words of gratitude were also meant for Chris Mackenzie, our Care Coordinator, Sr Maureen, her special carer and all those who cared for her at Marian House, St Joseph’s and St. Anne’s. A special thank you to Anne Romanous who always took that extra mile for Gabriel.
Now all her sufferings are over. She no longer has to worry about not being able to see, hear or walk. Now she is seeing the face of her loving Father, the God she wished to serve from her first steps into Marist Life all those 74 years ago. May Mary, our Good Mother, accompany her now into the wonders of the Father’s all-embracing life and love.
Good-bye, dear Gabriel. May that beautiful smile of yours that lit up your face so radiantly here on earth, now be beaming continuously as all those things hidden from you here on earth are now revealed.