By Jordan Grantham, Catholic Outlook, December 2016
Mother Marilla Aw OSB is the new Mother General of the Tyburn Nuns, the global Benedictine congregation of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmarte.
Growing up in Christ the King Parish, North Rocks, she and her sister, Mother Seraphim Aw OSB, responded to God’s call to devote their lives to him in perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the charism of their order.
Mother Marilla was elected on 29 August, during the order’s General Chapter. “I’m still getting over the shock of being elected,” she said.
Mother Marilla had been focused on their new convent at St Loup-sur-Aujon in the Diocese of Langres, 28km from where their foundress, Mother Marie Adele Garnier, was born.
“France has changed. Travelling has changed. There is a spiritual battle between light and darkness,” she said. Challenges to faith and morals, and recent terror attacks, cast a cloud over France.
The cultural climate is similar to when Mother Garnier founded the congregation in Montmarte, Paris. Anti-religious persecution, including the Law of Associations, pressured the sisters to leave France in 1901.
Mother Marilla’s leadership will be focused on the “stability and unity” of the congregation, including promoting their foundress’ cause for canonisation.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints named Mother Garnier Servant of God and on 3 December 2016, a Solemn Mass was celebrated to open the cause in the Cathedral of Langres Diocese, France.
Mother Garnier lived a dramatic life; witnessing a Eucharistic miracle and escaping her deranged fiancé, who plunged scissors into his chest as she ended their relationship.
In 1899, the sisters took first vows in the crypt of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, at the Altar of St Peter, the same altar where St Ignatius of Loyola took his first vows and a place where St Therese of Lisieux prayed. The altar had been translated from the ancient Church of St Peter, Montmartre.
The sisters fled to London, founding a convent next to the ‘Tyburn Tree’, the gallows where many Catholics were martyred. It is a place of pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Tyburn Martyrs and Mother Garnier’s tomb.
St Oliver Plunkett, Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, was the last martyr hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. His relics and many others are displayed for veneration at Tyburn Convent’s Shrine.
Now the Tyburn Nuns are a global congregation, with convents in Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Peru, NZ, Ecuador, Colombia, Rome and France.
The Australian convent is in Riverstone, a semi-rural area in the Diocese of Parramatta. Almost one-third of the congregation’s vocations have come from Australia.
The sisters dedicate their lives to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, where the Eucharist is exposed on the altar in a golden monstrance, prayed to with complete devotion.
This adoration is perpetual, ideally around the clock. Each sister prays half an hour in daytime and one night hour. Younger sisters pray more night hours and rest the night after.
This is not practical for the smaller Tyburn convents. They spend most of the day in adoration, prayer and work in the garden.
Mother Marilla’s hope for the congregation is even “deeper love for the Eucharist, which comes to the essence of vocation,” that they may “prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Christ that shines through the Eucharist,” she said.
Mother Marilla and Mother Seraphim’s childhood was an unlikely seedbed for a vocation to religious life. The family had an Asian Buddhist background.
After migrating to Australia, the parents converted to the Catholic Faith.
They were among the first Chinese students at Carlingford West High School.
“It was tough,” Mother Seraphim said. “There was a lot of racism.”
Soon Mother Seraphim will depart Riverstone to become Mother Prioress of the St Loup Monastery, replacing Mother Marilla.
Firm faith has taken the Aw family on an incredible journey. Now two daughters lead one of the most significant women’s Benedictine Congregations.
The sisters live Mother Garnier’s spirit, as Blessed Columba Marmion described their foundress: “The special characteristic of your Mother is heroic confidence in the midst of impossibilities.”