Bus-driving nun wins Order of Australia Medal in King’s Birthday Honours

By Bhumika Srihari and Jane Worthington, 27 June 2024
Sr Janet Woods RSM. Image: Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains/Supplied


Most of the alumni from Our Lady of Mercy College (OLMC) Parramatta remember Sr Janet Woods RSM as a kind and capable school Principal, who taught mathematics and science and every year ensured that 800 rambunctious teenage girls learned two important lessons in life. 

Firstly, that the smallest deed is always better than the grandest good intention, and secondly that young ladies should keep hemlines to a respectable 2.5cm above the knee.  

As it turns out, students at the independent girls Catholic school, were not the only ones to benefit from Sr Janet’s pedagogy.  

During the King’s Birthday long weekend, Sr Janet was awarded the OAM (Order of Australia Medal), for her service to secondary education and the Catholic Church in Australia.  

After retiring from teaching thousands of secondary students, Sr Janet decided to champion the cause of Sudanese refugees, obtaining her bus licence to ferry them from Penrith, St Marys and St Clair to English school three times a week between 2007 and 2019 at Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains’ Mamre House. 

For South Sudanese women, life in their homeland was described as a “hellish existence,” by the UN in 2022, which included widespread abuse and “staggering brutal and prolonged gang rapes”.   

Just a few years earlier, more than 4 million had been displaced in Civil War that raged from 2013 and 2018 

The Mamre Refugee Program in western Sydney, which was originally set up by another Parramatta Sister of Mercy Sr Mary-Louise Petro RSM, provided refugee women with not only English lessons, but health care, cooking classes and nutrition counselling, so they could thrive and survive in their new home.  

Sr Janet Woods RSM speaks with Sudanese and South Sudanese women as part of the Mamre Refugee Program at Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains’ Mamre House in Orchard Hills. Image: Catholic Care Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains/Supplied

“There was a lot of violence in the country they came from, and it was very patriarchal,” says Sr Janet.  

“They just came here to Australia to feel safe.” 

Sudan and South Sudan have some of the world’s lowest literacy rates, but that did not deter Sr Janet, who knew she was destined to teach even as a child.   

“Both my parents were teachers and Dad always had some chalk in his pockets. I used to write and erase on the back of my bedroom door while I pretended to be a teacher. I think I just always wanted to be a teacher.  

“English is not an easy language to learn. I had only ever taught math and science so I was a bit nervous at first. Also, I have never taught adults. But it worked out in the end. These women tried so hard and were thrilled when they mastered living in Australia and began to understand some of the local customs.” 

Sr Janet’s support of South Sudanese women extended beyond the classroom too, visiting each family when they had a baby and assisting dozens to get their Australian Citizenship. 

With South Sudan now declared an English-speaking country since separating from Sudan in 2011, Sr Janet also travelled back there three times –– to teach both male and female trainee teachers. 

“It is with a great deal of pride, satisfaction and gratitude that I look back on these years,” says Sr Janet, now 83.  

“I know that I have been blessed to have shared so many experiences with these courageous women. Many of these women have gained qualifications, and at least two of the children in one family I know of have gone on to study medicine and law.”  

For Mercy Dikriti, who came to Australia in 2006 with her husband Michael Hiriwo and three children – Sr Janet is “Sydney’s Mother Theresa”.  

“I could not speak a word of English and she was there for me. She found a place for my children to go to school and now they have jobs in aged care and construction.  

“We could never have achieved this without her. Sr Janet so quietly, and so humbly, helped so many. She deserves this award.” 

I too count my blessings to have had Sister Janet in my life.  

She is a flesh-and-blood monument to the empowerment of women; has opened countless doors and given so many choices they may have otherwise never known. 

Jane Worthington is a former student of Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta, where Sr Janet was Principal from 1978-1989. Bhumika Srihari is UNSW journalism student. 


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