Honouring the Prophets: The Aranui Sisters

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 23, Lent 2002

Following our tradition of acknowledging prophetic people, The Common Good’s roving reporter recently spent time with Sisters Helen Goggin and Pauline O’Regan who have lived in community in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch since 1973.

They’re older now, a little greyer, a bit more cautious of step. But the sparkle is still there – and the commitment to justice for God’s people which has been their trademark for so long. Known affectionately for nearly 30 years as ‘the Aranui Sisters’, they represent the best and most energetic response to the call of Vatican 11 for the Church to engage the world and bring Christ’s message of hope to all, especially the poor. The special injunction to religious was to return to the spirit of the Gospel and to the charism of the founder, to read ‘the signs of the times’ and to meet contemporary needs.

In 1973, Sisters Teresa O’Connor, Pauline O’Regan and Helen Goggin, three very successful secondary school teachers, left the security of their jobs and Sisters of Mercy communities to go and work in the low income suburb of Aranui, in East Christchurch. In the context of the time, it was a courageous move because of the expectation most Catholic parents had of wanting their girls to be educated by the Sisters. They remember quite a sustained backlash from some religious quarters and many Catholic parents.

‘We had heard and seen the desperation of so many of the girls we had taught who had got married and shortly afterwards had started families in the suburbs. So many were lonely, desperate in their isolation. And we felt we were abandoning them. The catalyst for me was a young woman who came for counseling and said, ‘If only I had an older woman to talk to.’ The developers were building whole new suburbs for young families with no infrastructure, no support mechanisms. When two of us later moved over to Parklands, we were moving to a social wasteland, reflecting a disgraceful lack of town planning insight, where these young people were left exposed to real mental and emotional poverty and trauma. There were no footpaths, no telephones, no shops, no bus system, no infrastructure at all.’ (Pauline)

‘Many young families in the parish were living amongst all this. So it was their reality. It was clear the Church had to be involved way beyond the walls of the building. So we started listening and discerning what Vatican 11 had called the ‘signs of the times’, where the Holy Spirit speaks to us from the experiences of life. After a period, we discerned a second prophetic insight. That was to switch our primary focus from community building to the concept of community development. If you stay with your own good works, they finish when you finish. Teresa and Father Kevin Burns led us along this new path as the new parish in Burwood was developed. Reflecting on the 1971 pastoral letter of Paul V1, they saw the need for the Church to re-build right at street level. A partnership between the Church and the community—that was the vision. It was a Spirit-inspired insight, another catalytic moment. It reflected the wonderful prophetic passage of Pope Paul. ‘There is an urgent need to remake at the level of the street, or of the neighbourhood….the social fabric whereby humankind may be able to develop the needs of their personality. Centres of special interest and of culture must be created or developed at the community and parish levels with different forms of associations, recreational centres and spiritual gatherings where the individual can escape from isolation and form anew deep personal relationships.’ We clearly saw the need to help these young parents, and especially the young women, take responsibility for their own communities. This was the vision we took on board as we helped create the North East Community Development Scheme. This formed the second stage of our journey in the east. With others we developed training programmes, wrote manuals and became engaged in many of the activities of the community as it developed. And we’ve stayed involved ever since.’ (Helen)

The Aranui Sisters community has always been self supporting. They have supported themselves by having one member at a time seek paid employment. Pauline taught at Aranui High School for 5 years and Helen taught there for 2 years. Then Marie McCrea, who had with the late Monica Stack and Colleen McBride joined the three originals in the mid 1970s, went to work for some years as a social worker. ‘We always felt it was important to be independent of the Congregation, the Church and the Government. I remember we turned down $40 000 for our programmes from Bert Walker, Minister of Social Welfare, at a time when the National Government was victimising solo parents. Now we are all so old, we simply live on our pensions. We were really pleased when Monica’s pension came in at 60, as it freed up Marie to use her counseling skills for those who couldn’t afford to go to conventional sources.’ (Helen)

The Sisters are known nationally for their stands on justice which stretch way beyond their community development work. They became a public voice for solo parents in the 1980s and ‘90s, challenging public policies of victimisation and DPB benefit cuts which drove so many into poverty. They have most of all stood up for women in the community and sought to empower them. They led a workshop for solo mothers at the 1977 National Women’s Convention, have been founder members of Catholic Women: Knowing Our Place, ‘it’s one of our heaviest crosses – to see first hand how the institutional Church marginalises women and disempowers them’. They marched against sporting ties with apartheid (‘every Wednesday and Saturday throughout the winter of ‘81 we protested the Springboks’), and joined a peace group to help promote New Zealand as a nuclear-free country. They helped spearhead a campaign against rising electricity prices by refusing to settle their accounts with the MED and having their own power cut off. ‘That was a fascinating experience in community building and development’, grins Helen, who had her candle-illuminated photo on the front page of The Press at the height of the campaign.

For 20 years Pauline spoke monthly on National Radio’s Morning Comment programme, giving insightful cameo views into what was going on in the community around her. Pauline, a gifted writer now on the eve of her 80th birthday, has several books to her credit including the best selling A Changing Order, which has been reprinted numerous times. ‘The ability we have all been given to write has been a special prophetic gift to us. Not just the books, but the advocacy letters to Social Welfare and other government departments on behalf of people. That has been a special gift’. (Pauline)

Recently the community mourned the death of Monica Stack at a sprightly 83 years of age. Monica was in a sense the quiet achiever among the group, not known so much publicly, but a feisty and determined operator at community level. She had a wonderful rapport with youth as well as the elderly and is still keenly mourned.

Still prophetic, still keenly aware and concerned about community issues, the Aranui sisters have a continuing set of objectives to focus upon. ‘One is to see the Treaty of Waitangi become accepted as the founding covenant of our nation. With that we want to see New Zealand embrace the wide diversity of cultures and religions already here and learn to respect and love the diversity they represent. These people are all our brothers and sisters. We believe a true understanding of theology would solve so many of the problems both society and the Church face. We are also keen to see how to cope with old age without going to seed! We are anxious to see what is our ministry now we are in our late years.’ (Pauline)

What their ministry will be! Indeed! We need have no doubt that it will be in the tradition of the prophetic path they have travelled these past 30 years. It will have impact on all around them. It will be trodden with a light foot, a ready song and many a laugh. Few people have graced the Church in New Zealand as have this little band of distinguished Aranui Sisters. With their vision, their courage, their faith, their fortitude, their humour and their humility, they have been religious role models for the post Vatican II Church. May the seeds they have sown continue to flower well into this new millennium.

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