How the fun-loving Salesian Sisters are bringing God to young people

By Antony Lawes, 15 April
The Salesian Sisters, from left, Sr Hieu Luong, Sr Anna Pham and Sr Sia Lagaaia, in the Don Bosco Youth Centre, at St Marys, which they help to run. Image: Mary Brazell/Diocese of Parramatta


Generations of young people have honed their skills on the basketball courts, pool tables and trampolines of the Don Bosco Youth Centre in St Marys. And for all that time the Salesian Sisters have been a constant presence providing encouragement and support to those who come through its doors. 

The Salesian Sisters were invited by their brother congregation, the Salesians of Don Bosco, to work in the shared mission at the youth centre, and together they look after the hundreds of young people each week who drop in to the centre’s free sessions after school, attend as part of school excursions during the week, or with their families on the weekends. 

As well as using the basketball courts, trampolines and pool tables, young people can play volleyball, badminton, tennis and soccer at the centre, and the sisters are there every day – supervising, and sometimes playing, if it means a young person can get involved. 

Sr Anna Pham and the two other members of the congregation, Sr Hieu Luong and Sr Sia Lagaaia, all laugh at the idea that they are sporty themselves. But they say they love to join in the games, and know first-hand the benefits that sport provides. 

“When young people come in they are already tired from hours of school, but once they enter the youth centre the energy is just rebooted again,” Sr Sia says. “It’s like they were never at school.” 

Young people at the Don Bosco Youth Centre. Image: Supplied

And while they’re at the centre many of them will talk to the sisters about their day, how they’re feeling, or their problems at home. 

“It’s not just a youth centre, it’s a community. And what we’re trying to build is a sense of belonging, a sense of happiness and a sense of safety here,” Sr Sia says. 

‘Reason, religion and loving kindness’ 

The Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, or the Salesian Sisters, as they’re commonly known, was founded in northern Italy in 1872 by St John (Don) Bosco and St Maria Mazzarello. Both wanted to use education to help young people, especially those in need. 

Since then, the congregation has spread to 97 countries and has grown to about 11,500 members worldwide. 

Australian members are part of the South Pacific Region, which includes Samoa, American Samoa and the Solomon Islands. The region’s provincial centre is in Melbourne, while in Sydney the sisters are based in St Marys and Engadine. 

The Salesian Sisters’ focus on bringing God to young people through education has led them to set up schools, hostels, youth centres, retreats, camps and childcare centres in the countries they work in. The educational philosophy they follow, the Preventive System, is based on “reason, religion and loving kindness”. 

Sr Anna says this philosophy is similar to a family, where there can be differences, but that these differences can be solved peacefully, together “in a family spirit”. 

She says this allows an environment at the centre where all young people feel safe. 

“They know that all of us are there for them,” she says. “We keep an eye on them, talk to them and make friends with them. That makes it different from other places.” 

Bringing cheerfulness and joy 

The Salesian charism is taken from the Hebrew word Ruah, meaning breath, or spirit, Sr Hieu says. 

The first letter of that word – R – is for “relationship”, she says. “We build relationships with young people.” 

Sr Hieu Luong, Sr Anna Pham and Sr Sia Lagaaia, know the benefits that sport gives young people. Image: Mary Brazell/Diocese of Parramatta

The letter U is for “understanding”. “Salesians try to have understanding, compassion, and work with young people.” 

The letter A is for “acceptance”. “We also know that we are limited, so we accept ourselves and our differences,” she says. 

The last letter H is for “humour”. “That is the sense of humour and joy that we try to bring, and which for me stands out for the Salesians. 

“Wherever we go with young people we try our best to bring cheerfulness and joy to them. 

“We participate in the games, we participate in the conversations, we encourage them and we listen. And we journey with them in the spirit of that joy and have some fun.” 

But it is not all one-sided. Sr Hieu says the sisters learn from young people too, and this ultimately builds a stronger connection with them. 

“They’re also teaching us a lot of things,” she says. “So when we are open we listen, then they will stay with us.” 

Young women’s faith journey  

This connection has resulted in many young people returning to the Don Bosco Youth Centre as parents with their own children. 

Sr Anna, who has been at the centre for five years, says the sisters try to involve parents as much as possible in the life of centre. 

“I know many young people who are now parents and grandparents who still come and they bring their kids because they feel it’s a very happy place, with a family spirit,” she says. 

As well as working together with the Salesians at the youth centre, the sisters are involved in the local parish of Our Lady of Rosary, supporting the Pray and Play group at Don Bosco Youth Centre, and helping with the catechism of the Good Shepherd program (Atrium) for young children. 

They say their next focus is to help young women in the Diocese deepen their faith journey. This will begin with a reflection day on April 27 for all young women who want to attend, followed by regular get-togethers on the last Saturday of every month. 

Sr Sia says young women don’t have to feel called to become a Salesian Sister in order to join the group. 

“We are here so that they feel that God loves them, and to build a faith journey with them. This is just an invitation, and from there we’ll work on what they need and what they want.” 

The reflection day will be held at the Salesian Sisters’ community, 8 Mamre Road, St Marys, 10am to 1pm. If you are interested in attending, you can contact Sr Anna 0409 469 138, or email the Salesian Sisters at 


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