An emotional farewell was held in St Joseph’s Parish recently, when Sr Christine Belling and Sr Gabrielle Foley were honoured with a special blessing at Mass and morning tea in the parish hall.

Sr Christine will be moving to Casino to be closer to her family and Sr Gabrielle to New Lambton in Newcastle where several other Sisters live.

The Sunday morning Mass was concelebrated by parish priest Fr Abmar Dumayag and former PP Fr John McHugh, with the church filled to overflowing as parishioners gathered with family and friends and former students connected to the Sisters over the generations.

Parishioners are grateful that Sr Regina McInerney will remain in the parish continuing to live at the Village Homes.

The enormous contribution made by the Sisters of Mercy since the first founding Sisters arrived in 1879, include the first high school in Gunnedah, the first business college and the first aged care centre.

Decades later, a young woman named Gabrielle Foley turned up at the convent gate with her parents to enter the Gunnedah congregation in 1955 and was met with a confusing scene – it was the day the Von Trapp Family singers arrived in Gunnedah and the family was putting on a performance in the garden. When they eventually found the Mother Superior she said: “Oh I had forgotten that you were coming”.

Sr Gabrielle entered the Sisters of Mercy just over two years after leaving St Mary’s College where she was a boarder. Her first appointment was to Mungindi as a music teacher, where she also studied arts externally through the University of Armidale. She served as principal of primary and secondary schools in Moree and for three years in Sydney. Sr Gabrielle said she enjoyed getting to know the students, parents and families and working with wonderful staff, while facing the challenge of working with diocesan and state authorities.

Sr Gabrielle was appointed the community superior while she was a part-time teacher at St Mary’s and has also been a member of congregation councils and served as congregation leader.

This was also a period when a decision was made to transfer the licences for the convent nursing home beds to the new Gunnedah Nursing Home – so the residents were the first to enter the new facility. Sr Gabrielle was duly elected to the board of management for Lundie House and served for two decades, while still working as administrator of McAuley Hostel at the convent.

Sr Regina, Sr Christine and Sr Gabrielle cutting the cake at the farewell morning tea.

In 2011, the Sisters of Mercy successfully changed their governance structure in Australia and Papua New Guinea and the Gunnedah Congregation came to an end. Today the Sisters now belong to the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Christine is a Goolhi girl, her Dad won a soldier settler block, and like Gabrielle she was a boarder at St Mary’s.

Sr Christine Belling and Sr Judy Breen rsm took their final vows together in St Joseph’s Church, on November 30, 1968.

Sr Christine said the Second Vatican Council had enriched her life as a religious person within society and the church, with the Sisters quickly adapting to the modern world in their way of life and engagement while it also gave her the opportunity to further her education in becoming a secondary teacher.

Sr Christine taught at Holy Trinity School in Inverell and St Mary’s College in Gunnedah, while undertaking further university study. After teaching secondary school students from Years 7 to 12 for several years, Sr Christine served as principal of St Mary’s College from 1982 to 1997 – a time she found “very challenging but so rewarding” as she walked with many hundreds of young people as their world opened up and they began maturing as young adults.

“I always saw this time in my ministry as a privilege and a joy and still do – as the time came for me to leave St Mary’s College, I knew it was the right time for both the college and me,” Sr Christine said.

It was a whole new experience for Sr Christine when she became a volunteer at the Mercy International Centre in the very house that the order’s foundress, Catherine McAuley, had built and lived in from 1827. In the following six months, Sr Christine met many other Sisters of Mercy who came to the house in Baggot Street, Dublin, also acting as a guide to many visitors wanting to know the history of the centre.

After completing a post-graduate degree at the Catholic University preparing to specialise in teaching Religious Education, Sr Christine was elected the Leader of the Sisters of Mercy in the Gunnedah for a period of six years. This was a time of change in many areas of ministry and the future of two of the congregation’s remaining Institutions – St Mary’s College and McAuley Aged Care. Today the College is a diocesan school and McAuley is integrated into McLean Care Mackellar aged care service in Gunnedah.

Sr Gabrielle and Sr Christine also spoke in the church about the many joys, blessings and challenges they had faced as Sisters of Mercy but expressed gratitude and appreciation to fellow Sisters, parishioners and the wider community for their love and support.

The three Sisters received a special blessing from Fr Abmar and Fr John before being escorted from the church to the hall by the school captains.

After the sumptuous morning tea, a presentation was made on behalf of the parish along with a gift from the Catholic Women’s League for Sr Christine who had been the spiritual advisor over many years.

It was a happy occasion for the Sisters who were also able to catch up with many old friends and past pupils who had travelled to Gunnedah for the occasion.

Sr Chris was the last religious to be principal at St Mary’s College and when it was handed over to the Catholic Diocese of Armidale, in 2003, Bishop Matthys commented: “The original purpose of the Sisters coming to Gunnedah has been fulfilled and a new era has begun”.

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