Archived News Item

Remembering Sister Therese Kelly

Sister Therese Kelly of the Grafton Congregation died on October 11 at the age of 88. Her funeral Mass was celebrated in Grafton on October 15. Friends came from all over the diocese to farewell Therese, whose missionary spirit was evident on the home field as much as in Papua New Guinea. Therese was one of the first group of sisters who went to Torembi in the East Sepik Province of PNG in 1958. Mercy Matters is pleased to publish the eulogy delivered by Sister Mary Quinn (Grafton).

Eulogy for Sister Therese Kelly RSM
Delivered by Sister Mary Quinn RSM on October 15, 2007

Therese Kelly also known as Sister Mary Vincent was known to so many of you here in the church today. She was not a person who once met, was easily forgotten. I think of her as a person who lived her life in the open. She was not known for being seen and not heard but could often be heard and not seen. I remember once listening to Sister Mary Celestine rousing about the noisiness of the young sisters in a room close by. I knew she was referring to Therese and being young myself I wanted to protect our good name. I went off to ascertain Therese’s age. Next time, I was able to say to Celestine, “well, it couldn’t be Therese, she’s fifty-six”.

Many of you would have far more memories than it is possible to touch on in these few words. When we gather after the funeral there will be much to share of our experiences with this young at heart, ever active, loved and admired sister. My first memories of Therese belong to being in the community together in Bowraville in 1954. I remember her as comfortable to be with even if not always predictable.

Therese Mary Kelly was born in Lismore on July 23, 1919, the youngest of the ten children of George Kelly and Margaret Daley. Three members of the family became religious. The eldest, Alice, became a Mercy – Sister Louis at Monte Sant’ Angelo – and was a well-known presence at the Mater Hospital in North Sydney. Her sister Marie became a Josephite, Sister Mary Carthage, who worked in the diocese and spent many years in Mullumbimby. She often spoke of her family members and the far flung offspring of their large family, the fun she enjoyed with her siblings as a child and the new additions as they were announced.

Therese enjoyed country life and began her schooling at Rous Public School. When she was ready for secondary education, her parents brought her to Grafton to St Mary’s College. Sister Mary Eymard was also a boarder at the time and has some tales to tell of the young, lively Therese.  
Therese recently had a day in the limelight at the celebrations of the 75th birthday of the Grafton Bridge. One of her memories of her time in Grafton is getting paint on her white uniform at the opening of the Grafton Bridge. The speeches kept going on and on. From the back where she was they couldn’t see much and being weary they leant on the bridge for support. Unfortunately, the paint was very new and had not had time to dry! That story seems to capture something of Therese’s untrammelled spirit. For her, life was to be lived to the full and not even one’s best uniform should get in the way of a practical solution.

Therese was very gifted in all things musical and dramatic. And one could add feisty. She was gifted with a beautiful singing voice which she used to entertain, teach and praise God. Her rendition of ‘Phil the Fluter’s Ball’ was breathtaking and her love of Mary shone out in her singing of hymns at church liturgies. Like all music teachers she was the producer of entertaining performances by children.

As we look through the record of Therese’s religious life, we see her adaptability and willingness to do whatever was asked of her. She was spurred on by the example and support that she found in our foundress, Catherine McAuley and was ever ready to bring Mercy to new and difficult ministries. She entered the Mercy congregation in Grafton in 1936 and after her profession in 1939 began teaching in the schools. She taught in the infants department and the primary and taught speech and music. Her work with children who had speech defects and learning problems is noteworthy.

In 1956 she volunteered for the PNG mission. She went to work with a Brisbane Mercy foundation in the Sepik region. She took the children for music and singing and taught catechism. She loved telling stories and the letters she wrote home from Papua New Guinea are a rich fund of anecdotes seasoned with her deep faith, realism and sense of humour.

Nothing seemed to daunt Therese, possibly due to earlier training in dealing with nine older siblings as the wee one. She confronted the challenges and difficulties of missionary life with enthusiasm and formed friendships with the sisters from the four other Mercy congregations who made up the little group in Torembi. However, she did miss the sisters at home in Grafton community. They were part of who she was and she longed for a Grafton community to be a base for her missionary work.

On her return from PNG, she was appointed to teaching the infants classes in Bowraville. She related very well to the Aboriginal children and the women. On the mission at that time there were seven houses and 96 members of the families who lived there – with one cold shower outside. In winter she cooked a huge boiler of porridge, which was the custom for the sisters and kept hot water in the bathtub with the chip heater on. The children came up for breakfast and the littlies would have a warm bath in an old washing tub before school.

Therese worked in child care at Cowper, taught religious education in State Schools, drove for miles on the Motor Mission in the Mallanganee Parish, lived alone in Bonalbo to be able to reach more families, offered hospitality at Mercy House Stanmore, provided Pastoral Care for the Aged, worked in Maclean Parish and on a Retreat Renewal Team with Sister Nea MacDonald in Casino.

In her mid-seventies she became involved in the VISE programme which was established to provide assistance on a short time basis for students in isolated parts of the country. Retired teachers were the voluntary tutors. Therese provided this assistance on Pentland, Wivenhoe, Nelia and Ballabay Stations. Her base was with the Josephite Sisters in Julia Creek. Therese made friends easily and was loyal to them through the years. Recently she returned to the old Mallanganee parish for a reunion and had a great time. She told me she was glad she went as she had a great time but didn’t think she could go again.

Therese not only knew how to work but she knew how to play. Swimming in Yamba was one of her great loves.

In 1966 she set out with Sister Gemma who was provided with a new Holden car by her sister Mary to visit their brother Greg who was the Police Inspector in Alice Springs. Part of the negotiations was a requirement that they check in at every police station they passed on the way.
There was a time around the fifties when generous parishioners treated sisters in the southern houses to bus trips and picnics. Singing on such occasions was the practice and Therese is remembered by many for her contributions.

Finally she went into active retirement. Only in February this year did Therese decide it was time to move to St Catherine’s. There she took an active interest in all the residents and continued to live out her religious commitment to the works of Mercy. She had a great love of the Blessed Sacrament and of Mary. The names of twin loves, Jesus and Mary, were inscribed on her profession ring and throughout her life they were her constant companions, her source of strength and hope. At Easter she was responsible for organising the Stations of the Cross for the residents. Therese went to no end of trouble to ensure the chapel was cared for with reverence and love and was engaged in this ministry when she was called to her final act here on earth.

Her last words were ‘thank you very much’ to the nurse who had just attended her. No doubt she is already seeing what her eye had not seen previously nor her ear heard here on earth – enjoying to the full what even she had not imagined. Thank you very much Therese.

From: Sister Colleen Rhodes (Local Communications Facilitator, Grafton)