From Australia to Thailand again

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I like to remember these lines from Dorothea Mackellar, which I memorized as a student:

I love a country burned by the sun,
A country of vast plains,
Jagged mountain ranges,
Drought and torrential rains.

And they assure me that Australia will always be my home. But a chance observation on the Palms Australia website – looking for volunteers to work overseas to share their skills and build the capacity of local partners – gave me the opportunity to temporarily call another place in my house. This next leg of my journey will take me to St Joseph’s School, Mae Ramat, not far from the Thai-Myanmar border, where I will be volunteering to teach English.

I was also inspired by the charisma of our founder Nano Nagle, who believed, “If I could be of service in saving souls in any part of the globe, I would do everything in my power. I saw it as a way to give back to the people of Thailand, whom I love very much, and also to share the skills I have developed over my many years of teaching with the Catholic education system in Western Australia.

Almost 30 years ago, I went there for a cultural experience, walking in the slums of Klong Toey and teaching in Daruna, Ratchaburi. An invitation from the Apostolic Nuncio at the time, Bishop Luigi Bressan, to help him with his writings in English allowed me to extend my visit to five years.

Back in Australia, I spent the next 20 years working as a caregiver for the elderly and housebound, teaching English to migrant and refugee women and helping as a teaching assistant in a school for children from non-English speaking backgrounds. I stayed in touch with the many friends I had made – and many kept asking me, “When are you coming back?” An opportunity in 2020 to get a degree in teaching English as a foreign language in Bangkok got me researching potential opportunities.

The extended delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic put my return on hold, so I patiently observed. Deaths from aging and disease—including those in leadership positions in my congregation—encouraged discernment and discussion about the timing of my decision.

Other factors that affected my desire to return to Thailand were the inevitable changes facing many religious congregations: declining membership, an aging profile, and the fact that a significant number of religious congregations are exploring new ways form ongoing partnerships in their current ministries. They discern how to allow their legacy of mission and charism to continue into the future.

In most cases, the financial administration of congregations, the management of property and the health care of their members are already provided by professionals employed by the individual religious congregation. In Australia, with fewer than 200 sisters in the six Congregations of the Sisters of the Presentation, a new form of canonical governance and congregational leadership is being discerned. Some of these Presentation congregations are planning to hold (or have already held) their final chapter as a self-determined congregation.

Living away from other members of my congregation took a lot of prayer and thought. The support of the leadership team and my congregation during my discernment has encouraged me to believe that now is the right time. Their prayerful and physical support was the most important factor in my decision.

Having celebrated my golden jubilee three years ago, I am one of the youngest members of the congregation. I will not be able to participate in what may be our last congregational chapter, and since I will be absent for all the preparatory gatherings, I have asked not to be appointed to a leadership position.

With the death of eight sisters in the past two years, I am aware that more deaths will inevitably occur in my absence. Some old friends and teachers may not be present when I return. Changes will undoubtedly have taken place. But listening to God’s voice in prayer has made me even more positive that I am doing the right thing in serving the people of Thailand – as has my love for them and the inspiration of Nano Nagle. It is, I pray, an opportunity to do not only what God wants but also what I want.

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