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Earlier this year I was wandering
around Surry Hills in Sydney when I
stumbled upon the mission house of the
Missionaries of Charity, the order founded
by Mother Teresa.
Situated behind a red brick wall in a leafy
street in the once working class inner city
suburb, the convent sparked my interest
due to the imminent canonisation of
Mother Teresa. Through a quick Google
search I discovered the Sisters run a
Sunday School for the local parish, visit
the sick, the elderly and housebound, and
run a soup kitchen from Monday to Friday.
I also learnt they had put together a small
museum honouring Mother Teresa, making
it an ideal destination for our annual
Australasian Catholic Press Association
conference which this year had the theme
of Channels of Mercy.
Not only are the Missionaries of Charity
spreading God’s mercy in the streets of
Sydney and Melbourne, they also continue
to have a presence in the NSW town of
Bourke, where the first mission house was
established. Only last week the ABC’s Four
Corners program highlighted the Sisters’
work in assisting young Indigenous
offenders as part of a ‘justice reinvestment’
project in Bourke.
When our group of about 30 Catholic
editors and journalists made their way to
the mission house in Surry Hills last month,
it was just two days after the regional
superior Sr Maria Lucy and her fellow
Sisters had celebrated the canonisation
of their founder at nearby St Mary’s
I had spoken to Sr Maria several times
on the phone to organise our visit and it
was lovely to finally meet this gentle and
humble woman and her companions.
It was noted by one of our group: “you
are always smiling” to which Sr Maria
responded with typical simplicity, “I love
what I do”.
The Sisters showed us a video featuring
footage and audio of Mother Teresa in
her Home for the Dying in Calcutta and
speeches she made in different places
around the world. Seeing her hold the
hand of a dying person and offer words
of comfort as she accompanied them in
their final moments, it was hard not to be
touched deeply. But I was also impressed
that she was honest enough to say that if
that had been her, she would have been
angry and bitter, and yet this person’s last
words were “thankyou”.
The video also featured grim shots of
elderly people in an aged care facility in a
western country; they were looking blankly
out the window with no sign of hope or
joy in their lives. Mother Teresa asked one
of her Sisters why they weren’t smiling
when they were living in such beautiful
surrounds and she was told: “Mother they
are waiting, they are waiting for someone
to come and visit them... but they never
come”. Loneliness is the greatest form of
poverty in our world, concluded Mother
The woman I saw in that video was a
far cry from the woman described as a
“sadistic, egocentric self-promoter and
the worst kind of Catholic zealot” by one
Adelaide columnist. Everyone is entitled
to their opinion, but it saddens me that
authors of this sort of defamatory material
don’t bother to talk to someone like
Sr Maria Lucy who was with Mother Teresa
when she died, or our own Father Peter
Dunn who worked with her in Calcutta.
It is far too easy to rehash what atheists
have been saying for years, rather than try
and understand what it really means to see
holiness in the depth of despair. If that’s
too difficult, then why not follow many
a mother’s wise words: “If you can’t say
something nice about someone, don’t say
anything at all”.
Brushing shoulders with Mother Teresa’s legacy
Hard-headed editors and
journalists attending the
Australasian Religious Press
Association annual conference in
Sydney last month were moved
to tears when Helena McNeill
spoke with love and tenderness
about her daughter who was
born with cerebal palsy. These
are her words...
Have you heard the saying ‘never judge a
book by its cover’?
Well, I think that’s what happens when we
hear the word ‘disability’.
People get a certain picture in their head
(bland, awful, disturbing, pity) and think
they know what it’s all about.
But we all know that the book Gone with
the Wind is not a story about the weather!
In the same way, the words ‘disability’ or
‘special needs child’ is not a tragic story
about wheelchairs, supportive equipment,
therapists, diagnosis and medical issues;
it can involve all those things, but that is
NOT what the story is about!
If you look beyond the wheelchair,
equipment, the differences, the mess,
the stress – when you get up close; you
discover it is A LOVE STORY.
I’m not talking about a Disneyland/
Hollywood kind of love; but a deeper,
fiercer, tougher love – a sacrificial, crazy
kind of love that makes you walk away
from your dream job and move countries.
It’s a love that many won’t recognise. A
love that comes with a high price tag.
And it’s a love that messes with you.
And when you are in this love story, you
get used to doing life with a lump in your
throat, and finding tears stinging your
eyes all of a sudden in the most mundane
That love story crashed into my life 11
years ago, with the birth of my twin girls,
Jazmine and Sunshine. They were born
three months early, and Sunshine paid
a high price to survive – she has severe
cerebral palsy and is profoundly deaf. She
can hear us today thanks to the miracle of
a cochlear implant, but needs full time care
24/7. She also knows how to love and has
a smile that will rock your world.
For a long time after the diagnosis I felt
crushed, completely smashed.
I thought life was over, but it wasn’t; it was
just going to be very different.
That’s what it is – a different journey. A
new normal. Our family lives and moves
to a different rhythm. It has limitations.
There is more work in our daily routine.
Truth is it can be exhausting: physically,
mentally and emotionally. And spiritually? I
can’t even begin to tell you the mysterious
journey disability takes your faith on.
But having Sunny in my life means I get a
front row seat to something holy.
My day always ends the same. Every
night I give Sunny a final goodnight
kiss and pause to soak up the beauty...
those adorable chubby cheeks, the long
lashes, her blonde curls...I don’t know
how to explain it, but it is holy ground. It
rips open my heart in such a bittersweet
way. Even though it can be so incredibly
heartbreaking, I wouldn’t want to live
without that girl and her smile.
And in that moment I see something...
something beyond the surface. And I feel I
can hear God whisper “See! The greatest
That’s the story that needs to be told about
To see the holiness, see Jesus, see the
image of God, see the transformation that
it can bring into our lives.
It’s a story about a family, a mother,
a father, a sibling, living out a messy,
complicated, heartbreakingly – beautiful
It’s not telling us about how much can go
wrong; it’s telling us how much love there
can be when everything appears to be
It’s the story that gives dignity and
honour to people with a disability and
their families, seeing them as the most
cherished people in our churches and
I’m hoping one day it will be a best seller...
Helena McNeill is a singer/songwriter/
A mother’s love story
CHERISHED: Helena and Jay McNeill with their daughters Jazmine and Sunshine.
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