Reflections of the life of Sister Mary Sellen

VALE: Sister Mary Sellen RSM (7 December 1932 - 9 August 2016)
VALE: Sister Mary Sellen RSM (7 December 1932 - 9 August 2016) .

WHEN people asked Mary Sellen where she was from, her response varied according to who was asking the question and where they were from. To many, she would answer Gympie, but to those from the Gympie area she would say Woolooga.

Mary Catherine Sellen was born to Helen and Joseph Sellen on 7th December 1932. Along with her two sisters Pat and Joan and her brother George she grew up on the family farm.

Mary, like many children of her generation, walked to school. But this was quite an achievement for her in Year 1 as it was 2½ miles to and from school each day. Pat, her sister said that their father remarked that when Mary started school he did not see her for more than a fortnight, because each morning when he went to milk the cows, Mary was asleep and when he returned to the house in the late afternoon, Mary was asleep again exhausted from the long walk.

Mary's mother was very ill with creeping paralysis and she spent some years in a wheelchair. Mary would often speak of how she gardened under the watchful eye of her mother who gave directions on what to do. It must have been from these early years that she developed her love of gardening and plants which remained an interest throughout her life.

Mary's faith was formed in her family home and in the parish of St Patrick's Gympie but her faith was somewhat tested when her mother died when she was still at school.

Mary then boarded at St Patrick's Gympie where she passed Scholarship and completed Junior. After completing Junior, Mary worked in the local shop at Woolooga for six months before gaining a position as a clerk typist in the State Forestry office in Yarraman.

On May 24, 1952, Mary entered the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation. She and 13 other young women began their journey in religious life.

Mary was professed as Sister Mary Francilla on January 11, 1955. After her first profession, Mary completed senior before graduating from All Hallows Teachers College in 1956 with a Certificate in Teaching. She taught primary school in Helidon, Laidley and Roma.

In Roma, she taught Year Five where apparently classes at the time were large - between 50 to 60 children. Mary also looked after the boarders and she was remembered from that time as gentle, hard working woman who always had a go at things and was also a ton of fun and a good contributor to community life.

In 1965, Mary was transferred to All Hallows Convent as Portress where she managed the switchboard, welcomed visitors to the convent and fed the many people who knocked on the window of the Convent.

In 1968, Mary's life took another turn when she was transferred to Mercy Centre in Wooloowin. For the rest of her working life, except for one year when she worked in childcare at Nudgee, Mary ministered to the people at Mercy Centre.

In those days, the Wooloowin site catered for single pregnant women, women placed at the centre under 'care and control', and women with disabilities. For the majority of her 40 plus years at Wooloowin, Mary worked in and ran the laundry and guided the women who worked with her and she made sure all the orders were completed and delivered to customers on time. If an order was not completed and missed the delivery truck, Mary would complete the order herself and then drive the delivery to the customer - nothing was too difficult or too time consuming and nothing could wait for the next day's delivery.

She treated everyone with great dignity and respect and was always there and attentive to each person. Mary walked alongside people and encouraged and taught them what we might think of as simple skills but she believed that everyone had potential to achieve even if it was simply learning to sign their name.

Mary often spoke of how, as a child, her mother from her wheelchair, would instruct her in how to do things around the house, giving very clear and precise directions and how her mother would often say "I wish I could get up and show you". Those who worked with Mary, believe that this experience influenced how Mary taught and worked with people at Wooloowin. Her gentle presence and care for each person characterised her daily life.

Mary was also keen to keep up with new ideas in her field and so in 1976, she completed a Certificate in Welfare and in 1981 a Certificate in Handling Handicapped People. She was always wanting to improve the situation for the people she cared for and to provide the best possible care available.

In her spare time, Mary cooked. She made delicious lemon butter and was a skilled chutney maker. Her chutney recipe was even featured in Jan Power's recipe column in The Courier Mail.

There was also some surprising things about Mary. One was how far she travelled - not only in South-East Queensland but to Airlie Beach and Norfolk Island with her profession group and even to Katherine in the Northern Territory, to visit her sister. And she was able to make the Mercy pilgrimage to Ireland in 2011, the sesquicentenary of the foundation of the Brisbane Sisters of Mercy.

She went about her work in a quiet and unassuming way but her dedication and service were well recognised in the wider community. In 2003, Mary was awarded a Centenary Medal. This award was established to commemorate the Centenary of Federation and to honour people who have made a contribution to Australian society.

The following year, 2004 Mary was further honoured when she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia by the Governor General "for service to the community, particularly people with disabilities, through the Holy Cross Mercy Centre".

When she retired from work at Wooloowin after 40 years, she continued in a volunteer capacity and as a consultant to the people at Mercy Disability Services. Mary held many positions at Wooloowin such as business services director, but none were more important than the roles she assumed as advocate, confidant and listener. To mark the enormous contribution Mary made to Mercy Centre and to the thousands of people she ministered to, a building on the Wooloowin site was named in her honour - the Sister Mary Sellen Centre.

Mary's friends will tell you that she was quietly persuasive especially when it came to fundraising for Mercy Centre. Mary's other skills included organising the multitude of stalls for the Mercy Centre Fete and her fundraising efforts stretched as far as Woolooga where her brother and sisters, nieces and nephews ran the annual Woolooga run-a-thon to raise money for Aunty Fran at the Mercy Centre. This was not a 'one-off' event - it ran for 25 years and each year Mary, Lourdes and Maureen would drive from Brisbane to be there for the day, sometimes bringing a bus load of people with them. After many years living in Clayfield, in January 2014, Mary, along with Sisters Maureen Skippington and Lourdes Moyland moved to Bethesda at Mercy Aged Care Services at Nudgee. Mary's ministry to others continued as a Eucharistic minister and she spent many hours visiting and talking to the other residents and looking after a section of garden which continued to give her great delight.

Time and again when I asked people to tell me about Mary and her work they spoke of her fidelity to where she was and to what she was doing. She was very proud of the developments which took place over the years at Wooloowin and even in her later years, as a consultant to Mercy Centre, she worked with people to make sure that the values of mercy and justice were lived and explicitly expressed in all activities of Mercy Centre and Mercy Disability Services.

Sr Mary Sellen, a prayerful and humble woman, lived her life in the presence of God and with a deep commitment of care as she served others. Her life and actions were a visible expression of the corporal works of mercy.

Mary, now in the presence of God, rest in peace.

Gympie Times

Topics:  gympie, obituary, sister mary sellen, sisters of mercy

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