“Quite a number of years ago, when Mary was living and ministering in Northern Queensland, she sent me a letter about a retreat she had made that made a great impression on her. The main theme of the retreat was about the power of Christ, working deep within us. It is this passage from Ephesians that we will hear today in the first reading. What Mary shared with me about her inner self and what was happening there, has never left me. And so today I want to speak a little about the woman we are farewelling today and whom we know as our Sr Mary.
Mary’s life began 87 years ago in Wagga Wagga, a country town in New South Wale s. Her parents were Italian migrants, determined to make a new life in a new country. There were four children, her beloved sisters, Nita and Milly, and brother, Bob (all now deceased). Mary was the youngest. Tragedy struck the Picone family when Mary was a baby; there was a house fire and her mother died from the effects of the fire. That tragedy was to haunt Mary all her life and led her into periods of great darkness and melancholy. Later her father married again, and two more boys were welcomed into the family John and Michael. John is here with us today; Michael died some years ago. Mary was particularly close to Michael’s wife, Shirley and daughter, Nadine, who cannot be here today as they are in Holland, Shirley’s birthplace. However, they saw Mary a few weeks ago, and how delighted Mary was to see them.
Mary spent quite a number of years with an Aunt, another Mary, whom our Mary loved deeply and who was to have a profound influence on her regarding her faith. That Mary’s niece, another Mary, is here today. She and her husband, Peter and family, have been so attentive to Mary over the years and gave her great joy in so many way, not to mention when they used to take her out for her pasta or juicy steak.
In 1949 Mary entered the Congregation of Marist Sisters in Merrylands and was professed in 1951, that same year being appointed to Woolwich to care for the school boarders there. This was quite a daunting task as there were about 100 junior and senior boarders. She was in charge of the dormitories and anyone familiar with boarding school life, knows that as well as attending to material needs, boarders need a listening ear and a motherly touch. Mary provided both although she always feared she hadn’t done enough for them.
In the late fifties Mary began her teaching career which was to last for many years and was to include study as well as teaching. Boys were her speciality and many were the funny tales she told about teaching boys. In those days, life in St Margaret Mary’s, Merrylands, was anything but easy – it was a church school and whenever there was a Mass or funeral happening, Mary and her brood of 60 plus had to retire to other pastures.
Teaching was to take Mary to Melbourne and then Gladstone and Mackay in Northern Queensland. The open spaces in Queensland spoke to her heart and she rejoiced in the people and way of life up there. She also developed a thirst for learning, with literature claiming her interest. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry captured her imagination and she and I often poured over his use of words and Mary had come from a business oriented family, and her gift for financial management showed itself in the bursar work she was asked to undertake. Later she was named Provincial Bursar and spent many years at Haberfield putting our finances on a firm footing and helping to set up a fund for Aged Care long before it was needed. How grateful we have been for her foresight.
As mentioned before, Mary had to live through many times of darkness. However, this was tempered with a really quirky sense of humour and a wit that was quite brilliant. While others would be thinking about what had been said, Mary would have made some witty retort, always with an innocent, deadpan expression. So many incidents of her humour come to mind – in our concerts at Merrylands, we were often visited by Pope John XXIII, in the guise of Mary, in her black soutane, Roman hat and papal wave. One time when she fell sick with gall stones pain during the night, she couldn’t get anyone to hear, so she pinned a note on her chest for the morning: It read: “I died in agony, but I forgive you all”. Soap used to go missing from her charge in the bathrooms, so not to be outdone, Mary bored holes in the soap and tied them to the taps. Her most cherished friend, Pam, whom she met at the Carmelite Retreat Centre, Varroville, a favourite place, tells of Mary boarding public buses in the city. Mary found it very hard to climb aboard, but she always managed to get bus drivers to manoeuvre the bus close to the kerb and lower the step for her, after which she would always turn to Pam and with a wicked grin comment, “A good Catholic boy”. Even when she went to St. Anne’s and was far from well, she would greet the Manager with “Hello Boss”.
Probably Mary’s happiest years in ministry were spent in Campbelltown where she lived in public housing and was a pastoral worker with refugees and migrants. Maureen, one of the workers from the Campbelltown Migrant Centre, a place very dear to Mary’s heart, is present here today. Mary had a great gift for evoking love from all kinds of people, even though she could not see this. The women at the Refuge where she worked always wanted Mary to visit them and share their troubles. Again, I remember her on the buses in Airds, not always the most salubrious places to be, but the youngsters she knew would call out from the back of the bus, “Sr. Mary, Sr. Mary, would you like a lolly?” or passengers would always make sure she had a seat. I’ve seen her being protected from roaming dogs by groups of aborigines, with Mary in the middle of the group. She was so at home with the Campbelltown people and they with her. She was truly Jeanne-Marie, our Foundress, around the streets of Campbelltown.
Throughout her life, her deep love of Jesus and His Mother and her Marist vocation was at the heart of her journey, especially in times when life seemed so black. The many people and friends who supported her in those, and better times, she saw as coming from the hands of her Heavenly Father. She knew that the power of Christ was working deep within and that her hidden self was growing strong even when she couldn’t feel it. Now we rejoice as Mary savours the fullness of God and his Love.
So, Mary, thank you for friendship, for loyalty, wisdom, much laughter and especially for showing us a Marist sister on mission. Your memory is etched into our hearts.
P.S. Sorry we’re not there to hear your wry comments about heaven.