Sister Joy Mary Edwards in front of Benedict House. Photo: Colleen Petch
There have been ''Good Sams'' (Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict) in Queanbeyan for almost exactly 134 years. But now the last of them, Sister Joy Mary Edwards, 85, is leaving Queanbeyan to retire to the central coast.
Her departure means Queanbeyan will be Good Samsless for the first time since nuns of the order arrived in Queanbeyan on February 10, 1879. This Sunday Bishop Pat Power will be marking the closure of the Good Samaritan presence and ministry in Queanbeyan with a special mass.
There are fewer and fewer nuns of any kind now. As Cyndi Lauper once sang, today's girls just want to have fu-un. Some even want to become prime ministers.
But once upon a time there were so many Good Samaritan nuns in Queanbeyan that a huge, two-storey convent, St Benedict's Convent, was needed to accommodate them. One small corner of the spacious former kitchen of the gigantic, multiroomed behemoth of a building finished in 1886 (called ''Benedict House'' now) was all that this columnist and Sister Joy needed on Tuesday for our little talk. The big building dwarfed us, as if we were two church mice in a corner of a great cathedral.
Sister Joy is a neat figure dressed in black and white and capped with a head of well-managed silver hair. She is nimble-minded and speaks her mind quietly but firmly and precisely. At one point she opened up the palms of her hands and I opened up mine, and mine were shamefully pink and smooth and girly compared with her characterful, work-worn ones.
''I entered the order in 1945. These were war years. I was 17. Perhaps [laughing] today people are not so mature at 17, but I think we felt mature. They married young in those days. They went out to work by 12, 13, 14. I guess we were making decisions fairly early. But I didn't make a quick decision. I'd had it in mind since I was about seven. It appealed to me. I was taught by Good Sams nuns and I liked the idea of teaching.
''This order was founded [in 1857, by Benedictine monk and first Archbishop of Sydney John Bede Polding] to look after delinquents among the early convicts. They were street people. Polding could see the plight of the convict women and he wanted an order to look after them … so we kept that [role] but then we also went into education. The order was only 22 years old when the first four sisters came here, and when they came here they started a school for young ladies.''
Over the years the Good Sams in Queanbeyan took on all sorts of roles including, in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, the visiting of the sick and the frail in their homes, hospitals and nursing homes. Sister Joy herself, not in Queanbeyan all these years (she's worked all over Australia), was a teacher for 40 years and then went to work among Aborigines for 20 years, 10 years of that in Charters Towers, ''where I was very hands-on''. Over the years she had sojourns in Canberra (at a crowded convent in Manuka where some nuns had to sleep in corridors) and in Queanbeyan, but as she prepares to leave Queanbeyan she has been there continuously for 13 years.
Somehow she never lived in the gigantic convent (but at smaller premises elsewhere in Queanbeyan) and says that the Good Sams finally left the mansion-sized building in 1976. Maintaining and heating the place (''the nuns were shivering'') had become impossibly expensive.
Has she ever, her mischievous, agnostic interviewer wondered, had Doubts? Has she ever doubted the existence of God?
''Oh yes. Yes. Your own brain tells you to look at these things. But the more I look at flowers [pointing at a vase of real ones on our table], the more I look at Life, the more I look at babies … you can make dolls that look very like babies but you can't breathe the breath of life into them. Only God can give life. That's what my brain tells me. I think [opening up the palms of her hands and marvelling at them] even hands! . The different sizes of the fingers. They're all different. God has thought it all out. It amazes you.''
She is finding the leaving of Queanbeyan and the end of the Good Sams' sojourn here ''very, very sad. Absolutely. Absolutely. And sad for Queanbeyan too. I'd be staying on if it wasn't for my age. But I'm in my 86th year and at my age you've got to start thinking up here [tapping her head]. If I left it any later Ian I'd be too old to pack!''
She is leaving on Tuesday. The little house/convent where she was the last Queanbeyan Good Sam will soon, she thinks, be put on the market. Now she is going to a retirement village at idyllic-sounding Bateau Bay, not far from Gosford. She says she'll be blissfully close to the beach. She has family living nearby and there are some sisterly ''Good Sams'' close by at Woy Woy.
Nor is she going to be utterly retired, for in so-called retirement she expects to ''take up another [role]'' and go on doing work for others in the spirit of the compassionate and selfless Good Samaritan of Christ's parable (see Luke 10 verses 29-37) who remains a fine role model for believers and agnostics alike.