As the new Vicar for Consecrated Life in the Diocese of Parramatta, Sr Patty Andrew OSU is charged with advocating for the many religious communities in the diocese. Yet her life has been anything but the traditional image of a cloistered nun.
A member of the Ursuline community since her early 20s, Sr Patty has been deeply involved in the life of her order for more than 50 years and takes up the position of Vicar after a long career in education – as a teacher, Principal, academic and member of the Mission team for Catholic Schools in the Diocese. She takes over as Vicar from Sr Alisa Mackinnon RSM.
She says one of the main reasons for accepting the position, when Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, asked her in March, is the connection she feels with those in religious life, and the desire to continue supporting them in their mission.
“I remembered saying to [Bishop Vincent] that I have such respect for the people who have taken on this life, I feel they are my brothers and sisters. And if I can do anything to help [them] I’m happy, and that’s why I said yes.”
Ready for change
Sr Patty was introduced to the Ursulines at high school in Kingsgrove, in Sydney’s south, in the 1950s, where she attended a girls’ school run by the order, St Ursula’s College.
During those years she remembers the nuns instilling in the students a “forward-looking vision” of the Church that was on the “cusp of change”, and a religious faith that was engaged with the world around it. This had a big impact on her.
“I had a little bit of an inkling that I’d like to join the nuns because they inspired me,” Sr Patty says.
“As women who were very connected to life in the world, I would have said they were real Vatican II women because they didn’t have any of that sense of withdrawing into a church.”
So after leaving school and attending teachers’ college in Wollongong, Sr Patty joined the order and was professed in 1969, a watershed time when the world seemed full of new possibilities.
When the Vatican II Council told religious congregations “they should revive their ancient traditions of service and so adapt them to the needs of today”, she says that is when a lot of Ursulines in Australia tried to take away some of the trappings of monasticism, “even though we’d like to think we live with a monastic heart, because there are pluses in both”.
“In the end, we just define ourselves as contemplatives in action.”
Renewed by young people
For Sr Patty, being “hands-on” took her into a lifetime of education, where she moved from classroom teaching in Armidale and Canberra, to being a principal in Ashbury, in Sydney’s inner west, and then Kingsgrove, before becoming the founding principal of Holy Family Primary School, in Luddenham.
It was during this time that she became passionate about a new idea in education called “multiple intelligence”, in which all students are said to have gifts, rather than just those who excel in subjects, such as maths, science or English.
She believes the traditional view of hierarchical intelligence did not “fit with the Gospel…we’re all given the gifts”.
Her time at Luddenham also led to a closer relationship with her teachers as they worked to implement this new model. This eventually propelled her years later into doing a doctorate in education about teachers’ spirituality and what motivates them to be so “other-centred”.
She says this research was the fulfilment of her passion for “raising teachers’ voices”, and one of the greatest joys of her time in education.
After almost a decade at Holy Family, Sr Patty was then asked to lead the Ursuline congregation as Provincial, which she did for seven years.
But it was difficult for her to stay away from education for too long and she returned to the Catholic Education Office in Parramatta to work in their mission team, where she remained until 2019.
“The older I’ve got, that’s where I’m so renewed, by the young people,” Sr Patty says.
“There’s an innocence, there’s a vulnerability, but there’s such unmasking in them. They’ve got all the qualities for me that is God.
“In my heart, I’m deeply renewed by just being with young people.”
Going out to the margins
Sr Patty says one of the guiding principles in her life has been that of “going to the margins”, which Pope Francis identifies as the “places of possibility”.
“I love that, and that probably fits in with what we did, even coming to Western Sydney.”
Another example of this is her ministry with Kairos Prison, an ecumenical ministry that helps women cope when a loved one has been imprisoned. Initially invited to a meeting during her time as Provincial, she decided to move into that ministry after finishing as head of the order.
“I was just so moved by that outreach of compassion to the most broken, and the disadvantaged women who were there.”
In the years since she first joined the Ursulines, Sr Patty says the Church has had “stops and starts” but that under Pope Francis, and locally with Bishop Vincent, there’s been an injection of energy.
“I knew it would happen, but I feel we’ve picked up that energy that was there in the mid to late 60s,” she says.
“Even though some other people of my age would say, ‘we’ve given the church a wide berth’… I don’t have that feeling. I know it’ll always have a place.”
Read about Sr Patty’s receipt of a Pontifical Honour in 2020 for her service to Catholic Education.
We pray for Sr Patty in her ministry and pray for those in Consecrated Life for their service and dedication to Christ in our communities.