Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pilgrimage to the South Island: Day One: Across the Seas

One book which will always have a special place in our convent library is Star of the South by Sister Mary Augustine O.P.  After reading it in the refectory on more than one occasion, it inspired us to take a voyage this September to the South Island during our recent school holidays. Our mission: to visit all the places which were once upon a time, not so long ago, hives of Dominican life and fruit for NZ. We wanted to re-trace the steps taken by our Holy Foundress, Mother Mary Gill O.P. who at the age of 16, left the world to eventually come to Dunedin in 1886 as the first superior and plant the first Dominican seed under the guidance of the saintly Bishop Moran. From Dunedin many other convents, schools, boarding schools and hostels were established in other parts of the South Island and it was to these places that we wished to visit.
Early Monday morning, 2nd September, saw us all lined up in a big red transit van to take the rather impressive looking ferry Santa Regina to cross the Cook Strait. Our thoughts turned to what it must have been like on the voyage all those years ago for the pioneer Sisters, some of whom were very young, and who ventured from Ireland across unknown and dangerous seas to a foreign country considered to be full of cannibals. What must they have suffered? What delights must they have seen? For the nature–loving Sisters it was a trip of a lifetime as many a plea was sent up to Heaven during the three and a half hour voyage to ask for something to come out of that vast ocean – perhaps a whale, or a dolphin, or a great white shark or an orca. God’s choice - ONE PLAYFUL SEAL. But, never to be outdone in generosity, He kindly acquiesced by providing us with a whole colony to admire along the East Kaikoura Coast.

Safely on land again, we were directed to the Selby residence in Blenheim where we enjoyed a gourmet dinner, which gave us more than enough strength to reach Christchurch and meet Father Bochkoltz, who was to say a 7pm Mass for us and accompany us on our journey as our Chaplain.

Pilgrimage to the South: Day Two: Timaru, Oamaru, Teschemakers, Dunedin

 Another early morning on Tuesday, we headed for Timaru where we visited the beautiful Sacred Heart Basilica and were lucky enough to find tables of books which were free for the taking. Our Sister Librarian quickly jumped into action and with a quick eye pounced on some good authors such as Garrigou-Lagrange, while leaving more modern ones in their places.

Next was a visit to Oamaru where we had the opportunity to visit what was once Rosary Convent and the beautiful marble church just next door. Now a rest-home, we were welcomed most generously by the Manager who kindly provided some refreshments for us. We toured around and from a plan in the foyer, managed to work out what each room would have been used for. Some Sisters practised gliding down the beautiful wooden staircases (one was reserved for the Sisters, while the other was for boarders) and others investigated all the nooks and crannies within the building while saying hello to the elderly residents at the same time. The Chapel was our greatest delight. Religious remnants were still there for viewing, including the marble altar and four choir stalls. We tested the acoustics and planned to sing a Salve Regina in every Dominican Church/Chapel for the Building of our Motherhouse, Rosary Convent and our own apostolate. The Chapel was being used as a library and to our glee there were many good books for sale including a lot of Dominican treasures. The Manager told us we could take what we wanted……so…..not one to hold back…we quickly leapt into action. Some Sisters stayed at the van to re-organise the luggage so as to fit as many books as we could, while others scanned the library with a fine-tooth comb. Book after book was carried to 'Sister Packer' and thankfully two guardian angels arrived in the form of two Mormons who helped to transport loads of books from the Chapel to Big Red as we nicknamed our vehicle.

 A little later and a little heavier, we were on our way to Teschemakers, which was once upon a time a thriving Dominican Boarding school out in the country, approximately 15min from Oamaru. Ten minutes into our journey we were met with an obstacle – a flooded dip in the road which appeared to be quite deep. Thankfully, our self-sacrificing Padre leapt into action, and for years to come we will have the image embedded in our memories of Father leaping out of the van and wading through the cold water to make sure it was not too deep for the engine. Father safely on board again and presented with towels with which to dry his purpled feet, we arrived at our destination. The owner, Joy Murdoch, generously gave of her time to show us around, the building being now used as a wedding and conference centre. Although the rooms now looked very chic, we were able to again imagine what it must have been like back in the days when some students came to school by horse. What stories the walls could have told us. The kitchen was truly a sight with all utilities being ten times the usual size to cater for large groups. The Chapel of course was the cream of the cob, with Dominican Saints portrayed in stained-glassed windows, a tiered choir loft which was accessible from what must have been the infirmary and which is now a wedding suite and we gaped in admiration and longing at the beautiful white marble altar. The acoustics there were just magnificent and we all felt like bundling everything up and taking it back to Wanganui. If only! Needless to say, many a happy hour was spent here and we arrived late in Dunedin for an evening Mass and another delicious heart-warming meal provided by the Wansink family.




Pilgrimage to the South Island: Day Three: Lawrence, Cromwell and Queenstown

Wednesday it was off to visit the Convent and School in Queenstown. On the way we stopped at Lawrence to visit St Patrick's Church and the Dominican convent which was situated just behind it. Now a private residence we were unable to explore quite as thoroughly as the previous day but we were able to explore the Church. Next stop was Cromwell to visit the Church of the Irish Martyrs which included a glorious drive along the beautiful Lake Wakatipu, which was used to transport the Sisters to their destinations in the early days. As we went from place to place Sister Reader gave us excerpts from the Star of the South so we were able to familiarise ourselves with each place before we got there. Back in the day, Sisters for the Queenstown Convent arrived by boat and were greeted with the town band playing lively airs, local dignitaries welcoming them to the town, the faithful and children carrying lanterns. Other foundations didn’t start off quite so well; one tale included the Sisters turning up a week before they were apparently expected and they had to be whisked off for a day at the beach while the embarrassed Bishop made temporary arrangements for them.

The Queenstown Convent, School and Church were heavenly and matched the stunning surroundings. Snowy mountains, green forests and clear blue lakes wherever you turned. The Sisters must have been very content with their location, for the views from the convent were spectacular. We were able to visit the Church, named in honour of St Joseph, and the School, which to our delight was preparing a play on Mother Gill for her anniversary. Teachers were amazed to see us and thought their pupils had dressed up ahead of time for it. They were kind enough to show us around the convent which was being used as a storeroom for the school and the more adventurous pupils ventured to come up and introduce themselves. Late evening saw us driving back to Dunedin to enjoy another delicious meal cooked by our host Mrs Best, who kindly put her whole home at our disposal.


Pilgrimage to the South Island: Day Four: Milton, Invercargill and Bluff

Early Thursday morning we set off for Milton on our way to Invercargill. This was a most wonderful spot and was well worth the time we spent there. We met an ex-pupil who is currently the secretary for the Principal. Both were delighted to see us and it was wonderful to see that they were trying to keep their Dominican heritage. There were pictures of St Dominic up, as well as old pictures of the founding Sisters in the front foyer. We were shown the old church which was used by the Sisters as a church/school and included some old furnishings, as well as the new Church, which was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Our guide gave us great delight as all the stories from the past came back to her. She showed us the side chancel were the Sisters used to hear Mass, the old confessional, the old convent and gave us many insights into life as a pupil at that time. Apparently when working the Sisters used to hoist their habits up and tuck them into their belts to keep them from getting dirty and when Mother General came on visitation all the students would line up to give her posies and for their efforts would get a day off the next day.  All students were amazed at the hard work done by the small communities of Sisters, some of whom were only teenagers at the time – they taught, they prayed, they tended the garden, they cleaned, they cooked, they organised fundraisers. The Principal then asked us to visit the school so we made our way from classroom to classroom, giving small talks, answering questions and singing songs. We were most impressed with the children who were very polite, well behaved and well receptive to us.


Next it was on to Invercargill where we first paid a visit to Calvary Hospital to visit two Dominican Sisters still in habit – Sr Eugene O.P. and Sr Gertrude O.P. A pleasant time was spent there singing songs and catching up on news and then it was on to St Catherine’s Convent which unfortunately had been turned into a student hostel. There were also two other Convents in Invercargill - St Albert’s and St Bertrand’s but sadly they no longer exist. Next it was on to Bluff where we paid a visit to St Mary Star of the Sea and had a little adventure of our own. Owing to a lack of time and our need to be back in Dunedin for evening Mass, we leisurely made a u-turn on a grassy patch of field and unfortunately, forgetful of the added weight, the result was we found ourselves stuck in the mud. To cut a long story short, a guardian angel came in the form of a farmer driving a tractor, providentially with a big chain, and we were rescued from our plight. We venture to say we left our mark on Bluff.


Pilgrimage to the South Island: Day Five: Dunedin

On Friday, the second to last day of our journey, we were able to spend time in Dunedin, the city where the seed was first sown.  We were able to visit the Dominican Cathedral and Chapel, St Dominic’s Priory, the old Novitiate, Aquinas Hall, Bishop Moran’s tomb, the steepest street in the world and Santa Sabina which was a retirement convent for elderly nuns and is now a series of private apartments. The manager of the establishment kindly showed us what she could. It was sad to see the church now being used as an in-house cinema and what used to be the laundry as a gym, sauna and spa area. It was quite an eye opener for all of us and brought tears to our eyes to think of all these beautiful old Dominican buildings just going to ruin or being used for other secular purposes when they could have still been places of much fruit for the Church.

Friday afternoon we bade farewell to the sights of Dunedin with all its steep hills and by Saturday we were heading back home, counting the many blessings God had bestowed on us during the trip and we thanked God for all the benefactors that had made it possible. We learnt a lot from our pilgrimage down South and hope Mother Mary Gill O.P. and all the Dominican Sisters whose fruitful work we saw, will continue to look favourably upon our apostolate as we continue the good work they started. Who knows, maybe in the not too distant future, God-willing,  we may be reading a continuation of a Star in the South. Salve Regina, mater misericordia!