The following article, written by Rosie Hoban,
is used, with permission, from the
September-October 2010 issue of Madonna.
The photos are courtesy of Villa Madonna.
Mary O'Shannessy is legally blind. Strange thing to say about a woman who sees the world with such clarity. Mary was only 11 when her sight started to deteriorate. Her mother noticed it first and realised the youngest of her three children suffered a juvenile form of macular degeneration like Mary's father. The eye disease had never stopped her father from achieving his goals, so Mary took his lead and overcame all the challenges thrown her way. She continues to embrace life with an enviable passion.
Not surprisingly, Sr Mary's tireless energies in the past few decades have been directed towards those who are vision impaired and more recently to those who are disabled and elderly. For more than 30 years she has worked at Villa Maria in Melbourne. Villa Maria began as the Catholic Braille Writers Association in 1907. It has grown enormously over the years and now provides education services and support for older people and people with a disability in Victoria. Recently, the organisation honoured Sr Mary's contribution to the community and the role she has played in the development of Villa Maria.
As an FCJ (Faithful Companions of Jesus) Sister Mary has spent a lot of her life teaching children, but there was a time when she thought her dream of becoming a nun would never be achieved. It was one of the first major 'sight' hurdles she had to overcome. There have been many since.
'I always wanted to be a nun. Even as a young girl it was all I wanted to do. But when I tried to enter I was told that my sight was a problem. I remember praying to God and saying that if I could not be a Faithful Companion of Jesus in name, then let me be one in Spirit,' Mary said.
'About that time the Superior General of the order visited Australia and I was invited to speak to her. We talked for a while and said it would be okay for me to join the order.'
There was never a question which religious order Mary would join. She credits the many wonderful and caring teachers at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne, with her yearning for a life committed to God. One Sister in particular had a profound impact on the young Mary.
'I can recall Sister coming into the classroom after Easter one year when I was a young girl and talking to us about Jesus appearance before Thomas. She reminded us that Jesus said 'happy are those who have not seen and yet believe'. Her face lit up and she said to us, 'that is us, that is us',' Mary said.
Mary, 71, was educated mostly at Genazzano and stayed there from 1946 to 1970. She began as a young student, stayed as trainee teacher, spent her Novitiate years, and remained there to teach Year 6 and 7 students a range of subjects, specialising in science. She loved teaching children who were young enough to be intrigued by what they learnt, but who were old enough to push boundaries and challenge ideas.
Throughout Mary's teaching career her eyesight slowly worsened. When she first started at Genazzano she could read the blackboard from the back of the classroom. Gradually she was forced to move to the front. As a young teacher she could correct a student's work. Now she is unable to read without the aid of technology, such as the computer.
In 1970 Mary went to the FCJ's co-educational school in Benalla to teach for almost four years. The first year of her country stint was marked with sickness and sorrow. Both of her parents died within weeks of each other and she was hospitalised with shingles. The one bright spot she remembers clearly is the good form of her football team, Hawthorn! In 1974 Mary went overseas to undertake more formal teaching studies, not knowing the impact the trip would have on her future or the lives of so many visually impaired children. It was during this time that it was decided that she would specialise in teaching visually impaired children. Little wonder she ended up at St Paul's School for the Blind in Kew after her return to Australia in 1979. Since then Mary has got into the habit of looking at the need and responding. She laughs at her capacity to 'acquire things', mostly jobs that need doing!
One of the greatest needs, which Mary first saw about 20 years ago, was the need for pastoral care, for support for children and families that extended way beyond the classroom. Now there are two pastoral care workers at Villa Maria working across education, community, disability and residential Aged Care services. Mary loves the work.
'I love dealing one to one with people. The encounter nourishes me and I consider it a great privilege to be able to share the deeper part of a person's life, their joys and also their sorrows. It is easy to judge people quickly, but when you hear a person's story it is harder to judge because you understand what has brought them to the moment,' Mary said.
Mary's pastoral care work extends way beyond the personal encounters. She wants visually impaired people to have access to a range of material, especially spiritually enriching publications, including Madonna. With the support of a reader in Adelaide and two in Melbourne, Mary produces, for free, a range of publications on tape that are sent far and wide. She also provides ongoing support for the Villa Maria community, via a range of newsletters, including the Pastoral Symphony – an electronic three-page newsletter for Villa Maria staff. As well, she produces The Prayer Network, which is a regular newsletter featuring one service, or area, of Villa Maria. It lists three points of the service to give thanks for and asks people in the prayer network to pray for three aspects of the service. The Prayer Network is distributed widely in the community via tape, hard copy and email.
Mary's work at Villa Maria takes up much of her time, but her other great commitment is to the FCJ Sisters – her religious community. She is coordinator of the Province's Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation network and focuses on multi-faith issues.
Mary is a lucky woman because she is doing what she loves and she is happy. She is quick to point out that the journey is not one she travels alone and she relies on the support and spiritual companionship of many others.
For years she has been part of a Christian Life Community in Melbourne and is nourished by a prayer life that includes Mass as often as she can. 'I cannot always get to morning Mass and that is painful, but we do the best we can. Your best is all you can do,' she said. Mary O'Shannessy has no doubt uttered those words to many students over the years, supporting them when they met a challenge and encouraging them to push on.