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Tuesday, 09 January 2024 09:44

Eulogy: Sr Mary Conlan (17.08.1929 - 30.12.2023)

srmaryconlan 250May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be Everywhere Loved!

‘Mission is a passion for Jesus and at the same time a passion for his people.’ Pope Francis

These words from Pope Francis capture well the driving force behind our dear Sister, Mary who had absolute confidence in the one who called her into life and loved her unconditionally. On Saturday 30th December our much-loved Sister, Mary, gently slipped into the loving embrace of the one who had been her light, her strength, her passion, throughout her 94 years. She was 75 years professed.

To Mary’s siblings, Margaret, Dennis and Frank and their families and all her relatives and friends, who loved her so much and are deeply saddened by her death, we offer our deepest sympathy and the support of our prayers. You know well her deep love for you, her pride and joy in you, and her gratitude to you. We also offer sympathy to those who join via live streaming us from around Australia and the world.

Mary Gwendoline Conlan, was born in Barellan, NSW, on 17thAugust 1929, to Minnie and Rueben. She was the fifth child in a family of five boys and three girls. Mary came from a loving family and enjoyed living in a close-knit farming community, where she learnt to work hard and be grateful for all she had. Growing up during the depression and war years was a struggle for her parents. There was also droughts and money was scarce. Religion played a big part in her family. Her mother taught the children catechetics after school, the family prayed the rosary every night and looked forward to Mass which was held once a month.
Mary didn’t have far to travel to the one teacher primary school she attended as it was on the Conlan family farm. She attended secondary school with the Josephite Sisters spending a year as a border at the Josephite school in Goulburn. As a young woman Mary enjoyed reading the Annals and Far East magazines and it was at this time she felt called to religious life.

Mary was a decisive woman and on leaving school she was convinced that Jesus was calling her to follow him in religious life as a missionary Sister; upon finishing school she entered the Novitiate at Bowral on 15th August 1946 and made her first vows in July 1948. She was given the name, Sr Mary Cajetan.

Thus, began Mary’s lifelong ministry and her epic journey as a passionate, enthusiastic educator and missionary. After completing teacher training Mary began a journey of the heart, a journey that left from Sydney Harbour on board the Matilda with streamers flying to the shores of PNG, the place she called home for over 50 years with the people she loved. In 1952 aged 22, Mary set off by boat with Sisters, Damien Philben, Joan Donnelly, Doreen Clark and Immaculta Mazengarb who were returning to PNG. After 8 days they arrived in Sideia and finally reached their destination Rabaul on 6th February. Despite the challenges of extreme heat, lack of resources, Mary felt a sense of deep peace as she realised her heart’s desire to be a Missionary as a Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

During her years in PNG, Mary’s ministry was mainly in education, she spent a short time in Vunapope before moving to Kilenge where she taught years 1 – 6 as the only teacher in the school, teaching first in Pidgin until the students learnt English. Conditions were harsh and equipment was sparse. Mary spent 8 years in Kilenge where she got to know the people so well. Mary describes the people as being ‘gentle and peaceful who taught me so much’ Mary continued her teaching apostolate in Primary schools at Rabaul, Kaliai, Paparatava and several schools in surrounding outstations.

In 1967 Mary went on to teach at Kabaleo Demonstration School, not long after her arrival a strong earthquake hit the area and the Sisters had to be evacuated to Vunapope where they continued teaching until the damaged areas of the school in Kabaleo were repaired. Mary was later appointed to Rabaul where her apostolate was Pastoral Care, where she supported the women in the town. Mary had a heart for the poor and spent much time visiting and providing food to prisoners.

In 1979, when Mary came to Sydney for medical appointments she undertook training in Sewing and Carpentry. When she returned to PNG she convinced the Parish Priest to let her use the Church Hall in Rabaul; this she turned into classrooms, a workshop and a sewing room. She raised money and bought tools, sewing machines and materials and received donations from Vunapope timber yard and local stores. Sr Madeleni, (Leni) a lovely, gentle Dutch sister came from Holland to help Mary and to teach home making. And Mater Dei School was born. In the mornings there were correspondence classes, taught by Mary and a few PNG teachers in Grade 7 basics, English, Maths, Social Science and Commerce and in the afternoons Mary taught the boys carpentry and Leni taught the girls Home Economics and sewing. Whatever they made was sold to buy more materials to work with. Many girls and boys gained their Grade 10 certificates after 4 years with Mary, Leni and the PNG teachers now working with them. This allowed the students to go for further training or to get an apprenticeship. Mary was so proud of them and what they had achieved.

By the time Mary left PNG in 2005, Mater Dei was a Government recognised Vocational school with a fully paid staff and a working Board of Governors and Parents and Friends.

Countless PNG students who would not have been able to continue their education were enabled to do so because of the persevering, dedicated, persistent single-mindedness of Sister Mary Conlan who treated obstacles as opportunities to progress. It didn’t matter who said “no” to Mary, she would laugh and go off and find another way around the problem.

Mary was an amazing missionary Sister, a truly remarkable woman. She made many friends among the local people and she kept in contact with them as long as she was able. Mary was most proud when she left PNG in 2005, a local couple Angela and Pius took responsibility for the Mater Dei School. Sr Mary was a faithful, prayerful religious and always true to her vocation as a Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. She drew her strength from her deep desire to love as Jesus loved, excluding no one, especially the poor and marginalised who held a special place in her heart.

When Mary returned to Australia she joined the Maristella Community at Kensington in Sydney. In 2016 Mary’s eyesight was failing, this was a time of suffering for our dear Mary. Mary accepted her suffering and moved to St Joseph’s Residential Aged Care where she was beautifully cared for until her death.

The seed of Mary’s missionary vocation sown whilst reading the Annals and Far East Magazines and praying the rosary daily with her family certainly grew into a vocation of love. What a gift God gave to the people of PNG in Mary! And what a gift the people of PNG gave to Mary as she wrote, speaking about her life in PNG; ‘I am deeply grateful to God when I look back on my life in PNG I have learnt so much from the people with whom I lived and worked. May God continue to bless them all.’

We thank God for the many gifts given to Sr Mary. We will be ever grateful to Minnie and Rueben and the Conlan family for the gift of Mary to our Congregation!

Go in peace dear Mary united with the one who loved you into life.

Thank you for your faith filled witness, hard work and love for the poor.

May your courageous soul rest in peace.

Sr Philippa Murphy
Provincial Leader


The funeral service can be viewed here: