Sister Pat Durnan or Sister John, as she was then known, was a woman drawn to that vision of Church. Although by nature quite conservative, Vatican II and the prospects for a new Church touched something deep inside her, as did the needs of Aboriginal people.
Pat arrived in Redfern in the mid 1970s. She would have been in her early 50s. Pat was looking for a new way to live her religious life, free of the constraints of community and passionate about missionary service to the poor. I am told she was not headed to Redfern but to somewhere further north, possibly overseas. Pat heard about the work of Ted Kennedy and went to meet him. She was immediately struck by the depth of his commitment to Aboriginal people and she felt that he needed someone like her, particularly with her nursing skills, to help the many people who were with Ted at that time. And over the years there were a great number of religious men and women, lay people, Indigenous and non Indigenous, who spent time at Redfern. Most of these people were larger than life characters, none more so than Shirley Smith or Mum Shirl as she was known.
Pat saw Ted and Shirley as figures of great moral and religious conviction. Both manifested the deepest faith and both put themselves at the service of the poor with little or no regard for their own personal needs. Pat decided that she too would live her life that way.
Many people came and went at Redfern throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But Pat, like Shirley, was a stayer and she remained with Ted for 30 years until his death in May 2005.
It is difficult for most people to imagine what Redfern was like for the almost 15 years that Ted offered his home as a place of unreserved welcome for Aboriginal people. The Mercy sisters had decided that they would likewise make the old convent next door a place of welcome and that is where Pat lived for several years with homeless Aboriginal women. At any point in time, there could be 60 and more people coming and going and living in a semi-permanent basis in the presbytery and convent. Evening meals were prepared and cooked and many of the people were very ill. Alcoholism and violence were an everyday presence in Pat’s life and she gave of herself with courage, patience and endless love.
Pat threw herself into every possible task. In doing so, she had no choice but to step outside her personal comfort zones and abandon what Ted might have called her convent niceties. Her sleeves were always “rolled up” and she chose to live with the Aboriginal people as they did with each other.
Pat looked after them in their sickness, she cooked, washed and she cleaned, she drove people all over the city and into the country, she held their hands in court, she sat patiently with them and she rejoiced with them in happy times.
Redfern in the 1970s was neglected and shunned and these people were among the poorest of the poor. Pat’s friendship and care was a signpost to all that the neglect of these people was tragic, unjust and intolerable.
Tom Hammerton had been a religious brother and lived at the presbytery with Ted for about 10 years. He knows how hard it was. He recalls Pat with great affection – her compassion, her selflessness, her fearlessness and her great love for the Aboriginal people. He reminded me that she was living with people who had nothing, people who were at the mercy of the local police, people who were physically and psychologically damaged. Nothing put her off. Not the chaos, not the noise, not the personal discomfort and not the daily disruptions. Pat saw in these people a pride, joy and humour which poverty and loss could not extinguish. She saw their spirit, their family and community bonds and of course she saw their great sadness.
Pat never forgot her religious vocation and she was a constant presence at Ted’s Saturday Vigil Mass and again the next morning. She was always on the lookout for new faces at Mass. Pat had the deepest understanding that St Vincent’s was a place of unconditional welcome for people who were not entirely at home with mainstream Catholicism. In her quiet and understated way, she always made a point of personally welcoming such people to the Church. I had the privilege of being one of these people and I remember her with great affection for it.
When Ted closed the presbytery in the 1980s and the old convent was pulled down in preparation for the new Aboriginal Medical Centre, Pat moved to Araluen where she continued to care for Aboriginal people in an effort to free them from alcohol. She remained a presence in Redfern visiting regularly until Ted’s retirement due to ill health. From that time she looked after Ted with great care and love. She sold Araluen after a few years, gave the money to the Aboriginal Medical Service and moved to the Southern Highlands, close to where Ted was living. They remained constant friends until his death.
Pat will always be remembered as a very significant member of that group of men and women who devoted so much of their faith and their lives to the Aboriginal people of Redfern.
As Ted said at countless Aboriginal funerals and as he would say if he was with you today:
May the martyrs come to welcome her on her way
and lead her to the Holy City Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels welcome her,
and with Lazarus, who once was poor,
may she have everlasting rest”.
12 November 2010