Globetrotting Sister Sheelah is Australia Day honoree
07 Feb 2018
Volunteering, teaching, travelling across the globe and meeting Saint Mother Teresa are an impressive list of achievements for any individual.
But for Sister Sheelah Morgane, of Brigidine House in Randwick, it is these accomplishments – and more - that have led her to her biggest triumph – being named in the 2018 Australia Day Honour’s List.
Sister Sheelah, who has lived at the retirement village for 16 years, has spent her life helping others – with her charity work taking her from Maroubra to Kenya and Bangladesh - all in the pursuit of caring for those less fortunate.
“I haven’t done anything unusual,” she says, humbly. “I’m just a very normal person.”
The incredibly modest Brigidine nun was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to the Catholic Church and the community at large in the Australia Day honours.
She added: “I’m still getting over it. I though they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, but the nuns are tickled to bits about it.”
The 89-year-old has taught for over 60 years in Sydney and abroad, and for the past 15 years has provided food for the homeless at St Canice’s Parish in Kings Cross.
Her teaching career began at Brigidine College, where she taught religion and English and anything else that “had to be taught”.
It was the school she attended herself, before joining the convent at the age of 17.
She also taught at St Aloysius College in Milsons Point, and it was while she was there in the early 1990s that she was given the opportunity to go to Africa to teach after an Irish nun started a mission in Kenya.
Sr Sheelah said: “Older nuns who were still healthy would go out there for a couple of years. Finally, the call came and I was asked if I would like to go. It was the best thing I ever did. I wanted to stay there forever.”
Sadly, tragedy struck and the mission was forced to close, bringing the Sister back to Sydney, where she began volunteering at St Canice.
After returning from Kenya she visited the Church to give a talk about her mission work when she saw homeless people laying out their beds on the steps outside. Since then, she has handed out food there every Wednesday, and the mission has expanded, with 100 guests now attending, weekly.
Local companies have also got in on the act, offering food, while an anonymous donation of $1000 helped their Christmas dinner expand from bangers and mash to a proper festive feast.
Sr Sheelah speaks warmly of her time at St Canice, which is unlikely to end soon. She intends to continue volunteering there “forever” and also visits aged care homes when she can, such as Catholic Healthcare’s Gertrude Abbott Aged Care in Surry Hills.
She has many stories from her 15 years at St Canice, featuring a diverse mix of characters.
“It took me 10 years to get them to say grace!” she laughs, “We also say the Our Father and I give them handmade rosary beads.”
Her mission has taken her all over the world, including Bangladesh, where she taught English and religion to young people. She admits she would be there now if it wasn’t for the stairs she would have to negotiate to get to her accommodation.
She has also visited Ireland, Canada and New Zealand, and taught all over New South Wales and Queensland.
But one of her most spiritual experiences was when she visited India and met St Mother Teresa. Clutching a picture of the nun, with a handwritten note on the back, she says: “She is a wonderful lady. We visited a leper centre and I saw the most incredible nuns in the world there. It was the most touching experience.
“They gave them hope. They gave people the means of looking after their children.”
For Sr Sheelah, volunteering is something she believes everyone should try to do.
She enthuses: “When you’re retired you have to have something to get up in the morning for.
“I go about my work at St Canice each Wednesday. We’re really at the coalface, but like the miners our rewards are worth having. Sometimes we uncover in our guests not only coal, but real gold.”
Sr Sheelah found out about her nomination for the Australian Honours last year, but was told that if she accepted it she couldn’t tell anyone. She admits she didn’t do any more about it.
But, to her surprise, just after Christmas she received a letter to say that she had been chosen to receive the OAM.
“I’ve never thought I was anyone special,” she says. “I’m just very ordinary.”
And for Sr Sheelah, it isn’t the honour that makes her happy, it’s simply being in someone’s memories.
She explained: “You know what’s a great thing? To be remembered. A lady came up to me and she said her son, who I taught, adores me. To be remembered after all these years – it’s great.”