The beautiful lyrics from the wedding scene of “Fiddler on the Roof” come to mind on occasions such as reflecting upon a person’s Diamond Jubilee of Religious Profession:
“Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset.
Swiftly flow the years.
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.”
Sister Margaret Reis was born into a large family, the fourth eldest of 12 siblings – 7 boys and 5 girls. Her parents Ernest and Christina came from farming families, and her early years were spent in moving around rural Queensland wherever her father found work.
As her early years were spent on properties sometimes a distance from towns and schools, the children had to help with chores such as feeding the chooks, milking the cows or gathering wood chips for the stove and fires before and after school. The first school Margaret recalls was a small state school 3 miles from where they lived. Her first experience of nuns was at Kingaroy when she was in Grade 4. “I did not mind going to school there as we had a nun to teach us” Margaret says.
Looking back, Margaret said they were not bored during school holidays. For instance, when they lived at Nobby, a game played was to curl up inside a tyre and be rolled down a hill. Upon reflection, a dangerous game as there was a creek at the bottom of the hill and not all of the children could swim!
When her eldest brother Stan left home to join the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart as a Brother, the family moved to Toowoomba. Margaret did not mind, as she was now old enough the leave school and was able to get a job in a local restaurant where her older sister Eileen worked. Stan was posted to PNG where he died following an accident during a freak storm while on the Mission boat. He was buried among the people he had come to love.
Margaret entered the Brown Josephites for 18 months and found that her vocation was not there. She returned home for 3 years before taking the step of entering the Daughters of our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Bowral, New South Wales in 1954. “I found it a happy place from the start” was her description of this experience. Margaret took her first vows in 1956.
Margaret spent her first year at Kensington, Sydney, working in what was a large kitchen as Kensington was then our major Convent in Australia. Since then, her life has been one of moving between Victoria, New south Wales, Queensland and the Territory, wherever and whenever her particular gifts were needed. An example is 1961 – Corinda Convent and ‘Freneau Park’ boarding school for boys (Queensland), Bentleigh (Victoria) and finally Alice Springs (NT). During the time she spent in Alice, Margaret must have become part of the Urban Myth of having seen the Todd River flow 3 times as she has frequently returned to Alice over the years.
Over the years, Margaret’s main apostolate has been in the kitchen, the ‘heart of the home’ preparing meals for priests, boarders, sisters (as when in Alice); sisters and the resident medical officer (East Arm Leprosarium);priests, brothers, sisters, boarders (children spent the school weekdays in dormitories those days) and lay missionaries (Santa Teresa); school groups (ex-boarding school at Bowral); retreatants (Hartzer Park); sisters of her community (Daly River, St. Mary’s Darwin).
During these years, Margaret has fond memories that show her interests were well beyond the kitchen. While at Santa Teresa on long weekends, she and another sister would go with girls to walk and climb the hills around Santa Teresa. The community there were one time presented with roller skates - however no one could stand up, even when clinging to the kitchen table. But they had a good laugh! It was during that first time at Santa there was a cloud burst one night. Margaret found the floor of the room where she was sleeping covered in water when she got out to check if the louvres were shut, and another sister’s slipper floating past her. The children enjoyed the next day off school and playing in the water as the front of the mission was covered in water.
Of course, Margaret also has a Daly River snake story – she was staying in the ‘old’ convent and went to go to the toilet one morning to find the resident snake there to ‘greet’ her. It was known to live there, so everyone had to be careful and keep a look out for it.
It was while in Alice that Margaret became interested in entering baking, knitting and crocheting in the Alice Springs Annual Show and encouraged the boarders to join in the fun. I think she was as excited as the children were when one of them received a prize. Margaret has maintained this interest up to the 2015 Show when she entered some of her needle work.
Being in the Centre, there has to be some more wet weather stories. On the old (before the present) road to Santa, becoming bogged was a notorious experience. One time, Margaret was going out with a priest and visiting seminarian in time for the evening Mass when they became bogged just over the half-way mark. The priest said he would go walk ahead, leaving Margaret and interstate seminarian on his first visit to the Centre. They started out with only some jelly beans between them. At one of the rushing creeks, Margaret had to lunge after a sandal that had come off and was ‘sailing’ down the creek. They ended up ‘camping’, hungry and wet on the side of a hill when it became dark. Next morning, they struggled towards Yam Creek to be met by Laurie Butcher on his horse, bringing a welcome drink of coffee and sandwiches. He offered Margaret a ride on his horse, which she refused when the horse did not seem interested in letting her on and walked the rest of the way into Santa.
Family has been important for Margaret and this is obvious when listening to her stories over the years. Her parents were able to be present at her Final Vows in 1961. Her brother Michael was the main celebrant at her Silver Jubilee Mass in 1981. The actual celebrations lasted longer, as she was able to have a gathering of aunts, uncles and cousins at Downlands, Toowoomba, because the boarders were on holidays. From 1992 to 1996 she cared for her ageing mother, an experience she has considered as having been a privilege. Today she maintains regular contact with her brothers and sisters and has returned home for the funerals of a brother and then a sister in recent years. There is another family gathering organised at Toowoomba when Margaret goes home in July this year.
Margaret has many friends she has made over the years and maintains contact with those who are any distance away through regular phone calls and letters. She recalls the names of those who were the ‘girls’ during her years at Santa, Leonie Palmer being one girl – now a grandmother- she remembers with fondness. She also recalls the women at Santa who learnt needlework and became quite proficient, winning prizes in the Alice Springs shows.
The deep love Margaret has for her Lord is obvious not only by the importance prayer and daily Mass has in her life, but also in the personal interest she shows in meeting with friends, especially those in need. She may be ‘retired’ but one will find her at Vinnies sorting clothes, sewing skirts for sale at Vinnies or at home sorting numerous buttons into packets for sale at Vinnies. She has quite a clientele for her hand towels, crochet coat hangers and now her newest handcraft – hand-made cards. Somewhere in amongst all this she still has time for a cup of coffee with her friends.
We wish you a beautiful Jubilee, Margaret, and pray that this year gives you time to reflect the great things the Lord has done for you!
Information was gathered from “Memories of Mission” and talking with Margaret, especially the past couple of months.
Kathleen Leahy DOLSH. 2016.