Mary chooses the riches of religious life
Sr Mary Ryan RSJ
At 21 years of age, Mary Ryan appeared to have the world at her feet. She had a great job with good future prospects and was well paid – bringing home more than twice that of her father. But despite her “success”, something was missing in her life.
Brought up in a strict Catholic family in Melbourne, Mary was studying accountancy and working in the Taxation Department. She thought she had it made, until she was introduced to some young people who were working full time for Young Christian Workers (YCW).
“Their headquarters in Melbourne were just down from where I worked and so often on the day before pay day (because I had no money) I would drop in there. I started to recognise that they were not earning very much and yet they were happy and peaceful and fulfilled… they had something that I didn’t have.
“Money had become my ‘god’ for a while and I had got to a point where I thought, there has to be more to life than this,” the now 70 year old told The Southern Cross.
Taught by the Josephite Sisters at school, she never really believed they were “human beings” until later when she was helping the Motor Mission Sisters to conduct weekend catechetics lessons for the state school children at the local church.
“I got to know the Sisters as people and this thought kept coming into my mind, that perhaps I could do that. I just loved these nuns and I thought, they’ve got something I haven’t got too!”
Mary knew deep down that if she didn’t act on what she felt was her “calling” she would always regret it. Erring on the side of caution, she took 12 months leave from her work and paid up a year of superannuation in advance – “just in case it wasn’t for me”.
“But once I stepped into the Josephites it felt like I was coming home. Something in me said, this is right.”
Reflecting on the past 48 years, Sr Mary said she had “absolutely no regrets and only gratitude” for her life as a ‘Brown Joey’. This has included working as a primary and secondary teacher, with young adults on retreats, as a university chaplain and pastoral associate.
In 2001 Sr Mary became the first executive officer of Catholic Vocation Ministry Australia, a position she held for six years and found very rewarding.
“It wasn’t just about promoting priesthood and religious life, it was about promoting life’s call. It’s about God’s call to us and listening to what God wants of us, what God dreams for us. Where are you going to develop your gifts and where are you going to be your best self, so that you can contribute most fully to your part of the world?”
When she completed her appointment Sr Mary served on the leadership team of the Victorian Josephites and was on the committee for the Melbourne Archdiocese’s celebration of the canonisation of Australia’s first saint.
Her love for Mary MacKillop was further strengthened when she came to Adelaide in 2013 as the mission and site coordinator of the Mary MacKillop Centre at Kensington.
As part of this role, Sr Mary is overseeing plans to upgrade the museum to a state-of-the-art facility that will have wide appeal to both religious pilgrims and the general community.
“Before I joined the Josephites I really didn’t even know Mary MacKillop existed. Even though I grew up in Josephite schools where Mary’s photo was in every classroom, I didn’t know who that woman was. In the 1950s no-one talked about her as her cause for her Canonisation was on hold at that time.
“It wasn’t until I joined the Josephites that I actually did encounter Mary and the more I got to know of her the more I thought, she’s my kind of person!
“In the last 10 or 12 years I’ve really gained that depth of understanding and learnt more about her story and unashamedly, she’s my hero.”