It’s just over 70 years since Sr Muriel made her first profession just down the road in the Woolwich chapel on the feast of the Archangels 1939. So, what we celebrate today is not only a long life (95 years), but a long life of faithfulness to God in the Congregation of Mary!
Frances Muriel Austin was born in Goulburn in 1914 to Arthur Austin and Ellen Curry. Her mother’s early death brought about a separation from her brother Arthur and sister Joyce as the three were placed in the care of different relatives and subsequently lost touch.
Muriel was brought up in Waverley by her grandmother to whom she was very devoted. Clearly it was this woman who developed in Muriel her deep faith. I remember her telling me about a picture of Our Lady above her bed as a child and her grandmother saying that this was her mother now. That was a precious memory for her.
No doubt it was also her grandmother who fostered Muriel’s lady-like demeanour. The Holy Cross Convent School at Woollahra was – according to my research – a select high school set up by Cardinal Moran and the Mercy Sisters for Catholic middle class girls, its primary purpose being the imparting Catholic faith integrated with a suitable middle class education, equal to, but preferably excelling that offered by state schools. Afterwards, having also gained a commercial qualification, Muriel took up office work.
At what point she felt drawn to a religious vocation is not certain. What is clear is that Muriel waited until her grandmother died, no doubt caring for her until the end. Muriel’s upbringing equipped her well in some ways for religious life and not so well in others. It was once remarked that she was more suited for the life of an ambassador’s wife than for the life of a Marist Sister. However, Muriel was a determined woman, who knew her own mind and followed tenaciously the path she thought was right. And Marist religious life was surely what she considered the path for her.
On her profession Sr Stephanie, as she was then known, was missioned to New Zealand where she spent almost 25 years. Most of these were spent teaching very young children who warmed instantly to her gentle manner and soon learned the importance of avoiding her disapproval. In 1964, after all those years of teaching experience, Muriel returned to Sydney, as was often the case for sisters in those days, to receive her teacher training.
Thus began a stint of some 14 years ministering in education in three states of Australia. In Victoria, Muriel served in both our primary schools, at Burwood and Bennetswood, for four years each. At St Scholastica’s she proved to be what could be termed “multi-tasked” also holding the positions of – local assistant, local bursar, deputy head and infants co-ordinator! This was followed by four years at Star of the Sea Gladstone and another two at St Margaret Mary’s Merrylands.
From 1978 Muriel moved into a new phase of ministry for more than 20 years. Having retired from school, she took up parish work and later pastoral work which she combined with various administrative roles – local superior, local bursar and provincial secretary. During this time she lived in Blacktown, Keilor, Haberfield and Woolwich. Even when she moved to Marian House in 1996, it was still in order to assist with the care of our sisters there. Indeed, Muriel continued to work in her thorough, meticulous, yet unhurried way, until her official retirement in 2000 when she was 85 years old!
Throughout her ministerial life, once Muriel was convinced about a certain project, she organised the means to the end in quite a remarkable way. Together with her very persuasive manner, her highly detailed planning led to very fruitful results. Two examples come to mind.
At St Margaret Mary’s in the seventies Muriel organised the education of parents for the new rite of reconciliation. This was a mammoth task as it was to be not only input but process work. About 30-40 group leaders were required to come on each of three separate nights. Each sister living in our large community at the time was approached by Muriel. Needless to say, every group was covered, as it would have taken a courageous woman to decline. In Keilor a few years later, Muriel set up a parish-based network of pastoral care, again requiring a huge amount of painstaking organisation. Both endeavours were highly successful. The Marian group she began in Keilor continues to function to this day.
Another constant appearing through the whole of Muriel’s active life was driving the car. She loved it and reminded us often that we were safe with her as she had done a Defensive Driving Course. She did have one accident – she had parked the car and was accompanying a sister into the doctor’s surgery when suddenly they noticed the car rolling backwards down the road. Muriel took chase down the middle of the road, car keys aloft. But the car met one coming out and then swerved into three stationary cars before a fourth put an end to its advance, finally allowing Muriel to catch up with it! No one seems to remember when Muriel gave up driving, but when she did there was a collective sigh of relief through the province! Personally I am convinced that there was a special bubble of protection around her as no one was ever hurt.