Sr Mary-Louise Petro rsm has a strong message for women and children experiencing homelessness in the Diocese of Parramatta: “We haven’t forgotten you.” As Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta, she reflects on the Order’s strong tradition of service to vulnerable families in our communities this Homelessness Week.
For the past three years, Sr Mary-Louise has served as a Board Director of Women’s Community Shelters, a network of seven women’s refuges across NSW. Having worked in the Community sector for 30 years, Sr Mary-Louise sees a strong continuity between the Mission of the Mercy Sisters and the practical service to vulnerable families provided by shelters within the Women’s Community Shelters network.
For over a century, the Sisters operated the St Michael’s Family Centre in Baulkham Hills. They continue to support work with women and children in need through three refuges in the main areas in which the Order has been active in Western Sydney: the Haven in Penrith, the Sanctuary in Castle Hill and Parramatta Women’s Shelter.
“This has been part of our new way of being able to carry out our Mercy Mission,” Sr Mary-Louise said. “Of being able to support others doing the work that we may have done in the past.”
Sr Mary-Louise saw this continuity in bringing visiting Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to tour Parramatta Women’s Shelter last year. Established by Catherine McAuley in 1831 in Ireland, the Order’s traditional work includes a commitment to sheltering the homeless and particularly to protecting vulnerable girls and women from exploitation.
“We started out over 110 years ago establishing orphanages and those ministries have now evolved into supporting organisations that enable women and children to be housed safely, being safe from violence and having somewhere where children can grow to thrive,” Sr Mary-Louise said. “Education and the wellbeing of families are part of our DNA. That’s why we came to Australia in 1888.”
The two local secondary schools that follow the Mercy spirit, Catherine McAuley Westmead and Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta, have been strong supporters of the work of the local refuges. Some of the creative ways that Catherine McAuley Westmead has raised funds and awareness for Parramatta Women’s Shelter recently include a Mother’s Day stall and pizza lunch. A very successful ‘Lip Sync Battle’, held at a time when COVID-19 restrictions allowed singing and dancing, was a school favourite. Staff and students battled it out in front of a packed auditorium with the student audience all donating a gold coin to watch the fun.
The Sisters of Mercy continue to support the work of the Women’s Community Shelters network in many practical ways. For example, a St Michael’s Fund Grant made it possible for Parramatta Women’s Shelter to engage a part-time Child Support Worker. This local refuge provides crisis accommodation, casework and outreach support to families in transitional housing through the Pathways Home program. Since welcoming its first family in December 2019, two-thirds of the 142 people who have been supported by Parramatta Women’s Shelter have been children.
“It’s a right to have a safe place to live and be at home in,” Sr Mary-Louise states. “This is critical to the wellbeing of people in our society, and certainly a key issue in the lives of families.”
National Homelessness Week runs from 1 to 7 August.
Liz Scully is the Co-Chair of the Board of Parramatta Women’s Shelter and a parishioner at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.