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Sister Barbara and the books that changed everything



I've never fitted in. Born on the wrong side of Auckland to a hard-working Protestant factory worker and his intensely respectable Catholic wife, I was unaware I might have been considered disadvantaged.

Nun silhouetteI attribute this to my mother's pride, which cannot always be a sin, and to the priests, nuns and parishioners of Saint Mary's Church and day school. The nuns especially demonstrated daily, by words and actions, what it took to be a good Catholic. Number one was the duty to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. This was reinforced by sad little cardboard money boxes 'for the starving babies in India' in every classroom and regular fundraisers for war-torn areas.

We were also taught to be inclusive and accepting of difference. Each grade had a few kids nominated to act as big brother or sister to new migrant children. Our parish priest invited other denominations to joint services at a time when Catholics and Protestants were killing each other in Ireland. 

Most of us came from low-income families, so there was no requirement to pay school fees annually. Uncle Jack collected our half-crowns (25 cents) each week and never questioned if we didn't have enough. Jack wasn't only our handyman and bill collector; he also played Santa at Christmas breakups.

I have a vivid memory of Santa offering me a lolly at the end of my first year at Saint Mary's. I stared up at him, before shrieking 'Liar! You're not Santa; you're Uncle Jack,' and I punched him in the crotch, the highest point I could reach at five years old.

Sister Barbara taught me in my fifth and sixth years; we were her very first students. She had a large multi-grade class, yet she found time to realise I wasn't 'a bit slow' but was actually half-blind, partially deaf and bored witless.

She ensured I was placed close to the front where I could hear, and arranged my first eye examination. To my excruciating embarrassment, I ended up with my mother's discarded Edna Everage-type glasses, at a time when everyone else had mod angular frames.

Sister Barbara also sent away for high school English books just for me and that year this supposedly 'slow' child came first in class. She changed the course of my life. I'm still the only member of my very large family with a tertiary education. My mother reinforced Sister Barbara's gift by getting me a library card and telling the council librarian I was allowed to read anything I liked (except Peyton Place).


"Nobody would give me satisfactory answers, although I did get the strap for insolence a few times. By 15 I no longer had any faith, although the values stuck and have remained my guide."


Long before I was old enough to fully understand their implications, I chanced upon novels such as Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring, about the rise of the British labour and women's suffrage movements, and Jack London's biographical tale of the plight of impoverished East Enders, The People of the Abyss. Little wonder I ended up on the opposite side of the political spectrum to my conservative parents.

Back then, girls like me were expected to leave high school before final year and work for a short period in a factory or shop before finding a nice Catholic boy to marry, but nobody laboured the point. The good academic grounding I received at Saint Mary's and the council library freed me from these expectations.

However, as soon as I had enough neuronal connections to begin thinking objectively, which learning theory proposes is around nine or ten years, I began questioning the Bible stories, especially the Old Testament. Nobody would give me satisfactory answers, although I did get the strap for insolence a few times. By 15 I no longer had any faith, although the values stuck and have remained my guide.

Father Frank didn't turn me away when I visited him after I finally admitted to apostasy in my 30s. Knowing of my love for science, he advised me to read Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. Presumably he thought any sort of spirituality was better than none for my mental wellbeing, as I had emigrated and had no family in Australia.

Because of these wonderful people, I still regard myself as a cultural Catholic. I even volunteer as a literacy and maths tutor at a Catholic boarding school in their program for Indigenous kids from remote communities, baffling my few (atheist) friends.

They don't understand why I'm not anti-religion or that it was the Catholic Church which made me a humanist, rather than simply an atheist. Humanism shares many of the values those beloved nuns and priests demonstrated. But now I live in rural Central Queensland, where my left-wing greenie values make me even more of a pariah than my humanism. Ever the misfit.


Julie DaviesJulie Davies is a rural Central Queensland writer, originally from New Zealand. She became an accidental migrant after falling in love with Australia while on holiday in 1978. Julie has had a chequered career, ranging from farm labourer to environmental scientist and political minder to human rights advocate.

Topic tags: Julie Davies, Catholicism, Auckland



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Existing comments

After reading this fine article, I thought of the early 1960's film "The Misfits", the final on-screen appearance for Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Maybe there are more misfits around than we think. Some misfits are able to mask well their inability to fit in, or they meet a misfit sympathiser who helps. Misfits, being misfits, don't have to be outsiders. They can be insiders, especially in a faith situation.

Pam | 07 February 2017  

In a week when discussion of Catholicism is dominated by awful statistics - will we ever live down that 4444 figure - it is uplifting to meet a story like this. A great Brother Headmaster once explained it to me as follows: 'Catholic schools are a service OF the church, not FOR the church'. People like this left-wing, agnostic, humanist writer are the greatest advertisements for Catholic education.

Frank | 08 February 2017  

Thank you for this article. Thank you for all those "misfits" from society through no fault of their own but because of family difficulties. This resonates with me.

Noeline Champion | 08 February 2017  

It is wonderful to see the fruits of reading from a very young age. I can understand why reading the Old Testament as a child can lead to unbelief when juxtaposed to the sort of books you were reading at a young age, Julie. The New Testament does not suffer from the same level of incredulity as the Old (particularly to those who don't appreciate its often metaphorical style typical of the story tellers of that age) and I would suggest that the main character in the New Testamant is almost certainly the influence (embodied in the good Sister Barbara) that determined your obvious care for your fellow man and the values you cherish. I reckon you belong to the 80% of the people on this planet who believe in a God rather than the 3% who claim avowed atheism. Perhaps the 17% of agnostics in between simply haven't been blessed with the childhood of human compassion and care for others that emanated from your Sister Barbara. [Ref: 2005 Encyclopaedia Britannica global survey of belief in a higher being or god}

john frawley | 08 February 2017  

Thank you for your supportive comments. Twelve years ago at a school reunion I was able to properly thank some of the sisters, including Sister Barbara. Unfortunately Father Von and Father Frank were long since gone. But I'm sorry John, I am one of the 17% agnostics only in as much as I think it is no more possible to disprove God's existence than to prove it (Einstein's position). There have been times in my life I really could have done with faith; some reason to believe there is a point to suffering and the promise of a better afterlife. I am not seeking any truth other than how to meaningfully live the one short and finite life I have. That's awfully hard to work out when that the only meaning life has is what you give it yourself. This makes me doubly grateful for the social justice values (and simple kindness) the nuns and priests exemplified. I'd be pretty lost without them.

Julie Davies | 08 February 2017  

Marlene Marburg writes of people 'on the margins' in her poetry . . "Jesus Christ on the margins makes the margins central." I guess that's what Sr Barbara lived!

Glen Avard | 08 February 2017  

Good morning, Julie. I reckon God loves you. The life you lead may be the proof of his existence!

john frawey | 09 February 2017  

you sound like a really genuine, thoughtful person and a humanist to boot. your uplifting story has made my morning.

rosslyn Ives | 10 February 2017  

Religious faith is the belief in the existence of moral actors or agencies who inhabit a reality invisible to us. Atheism is the denial that this invisible realm of actors and agencies exists. But there are many religious faiths. To come to the conclusion that the intellectual foundations of one faith fail to sustain it doesn’t lead to the conclusion that all faiths are false. To be a rational atheist, one would have to exhaust all the faiths which exist on this planet, for example: if not Christianity, then Judaism; if not Judaism, then Islam; if not Islam, then Zoroastrianism or Hinduism or Buddhism, and so on. Atheism is the attempt to prove a negative. But to do that, you need to falsify as many of the positives as possible. Losing faith in Christianity (or any faith) on its own and then migrating to the belief (or faith) that there is no spiritual world is irrational. The ‘spiritual seeker’ butterfly who flits from testing one faith to testing another is behaving more rationally than the person who, having been disappointed in one faith, concludes that faith in general is a falsity.

Roy Chen Yee | 10 February 2017  

A beautiful story. Thank you.

JBC | 10 February 2017  

Roy, I'm not denying the rationality of your point - but sometimes it's better to accept that we're all wafting on the Cloud of Unknowing to avoid being plunged into the Dark Night of the Soul.

AURELIUS | 13 February 2017  

Aurelius, dark nights of the soul are supposed to be good for you. There’s a 2015 article to that effect on the Our Sunday Visitor website. Mother Teresa endured one for many years. As for the ‘consolations’ that come from contemplative prayer (which, I believe, ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ is about), there’s a 2011 article on the Jesuit (no less) ‘America’ magazine website about why they have to be discerned. Apparently, some ‘consolations’ (feelings which are the fruit of contemplative prayer) that come from God can be used and perverted by the devil. But let me be impertinent (because, to quote a line from Fox Mulder in X-Files, “you ask an impertinent question and you're on your way to a pertinent answer”). Let’s select a statistically random pool of Catholics internationally who are very good at contemplative prayer to see if there is unanimity among them about female priesthood (a possibility adamantly rejected by …Saint… John Paul II). Unanimity would mean nothing because the hypothesis is that all these spiritually privileged people should share a common exalted insight. However, if there is a fracture of opinion, of what rule-making use in moral disputation would ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ be?

Roy Chen Yee | 13 February 2017  

Thank you Julie for this thoughtful and touching reflection. It shows how some people who come into our lives can have such a major impact. Thank goodness for the Sister Barbara's and Father Frank's of this world!

Dee Hill | 14 February 2017  

No, Roy..... I think you missed my point. Prayer/contemplation/consolation/desolation is not a tool that can be used like a political opinion poll...... and neither is it a skill, or something that can be measured. My point was simply that sometimes it's best not to over-rationalise and over-articulate matters of the heart and soul - because it leads some people to despair.

AURELIUS | 14 February 2017  

You're a wise person, Aurelius. And isn't despair a mortal sin, or am I out of date?

Julie Davies | 15 February 2017  

"over-rationalise and over-articulate matters of the heart and soul...." Aurelius, let’s not use metaphors as literal descriptions. The heart is a biological robot which pumps blood. It doesn’t feel happy or sad. It’s about as relevant to this discussion as a toe which also cannot tell you what to think or do. The processing of logic and emotions happens in the brain either according to some rules which you as a social being learn from somewhere – and a Church which is canonically the pillar and foundation of the truth sounds like a reasonable place from which to learn your rules - or just according to whimsies which you as an autonomous individual make up simply because you can. The results of processing are not meant to be used separately from each other. (A sudden intuition is more than just emotion.) The soul (if you believe in such a thing) is what eventually wears the consequences of not using the brain properly. Despair, in the form, say, of a loss of faith in God’s love for you, is not using the brain properly although only God would know whether a particular episode of such a despair is morally blameworthy.

Roy Chen Yee | 15 February 2017  

Thank you for the article which almost mimics by own experiences. I was older when I lost faith in a personal God simply because I met learned people at key times, and they answered my persistent questions with respect, explained their theological beliefs to me (EG Free will and an allknowing God) making sense. However. thanks to insights and books from the highly scientific Sister Annunciata (my mother was scandalised at what I read) I developed a concept in mid teens that God was really the energy that was always creating the Universes, . Other than the belief that I am an important little cog in a vast timeless universe and able to draw from the energy around us, I cannot believe in a personal God. I have found it interesting that so many lapsed Catholics continued their Catholic practises (common to most religions) in the Union movement, fighting for justice and fair play for all workers, Mind you, Catholics were not alone in their humanity just seemed to me to be out there in large numbers. Because of our poverty?? Thanks from another Misfit.

Audrey Winther | 16 February 2017  

Lovely to catch up with Aurelius' valuable insights......

Lynne Newington | 18 February 2017  

Audrey, I suspect you're right about poverty being the trigger, plus inborn empathy and the social justice values the Church teaches. I first became a workplace union rep at 18. I'll check out Sr Annunciata.

Julie Davies | 19 February 2017  

Interesting point, Julie, about whether despair is a mortal sin or not. But I doubt if there's ever a situation where there's a "complete" loss of hope (in the definition I just looked up, making me realise we probably overuse/misuse the word. (Especially after seeing the fighting spirit of civilians fleeing bombardment in Syria today)

AURELIUS | 24 February 2017  

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