Sister Pauline Fitz-Walter-
Tuesday, August 02, 2016 01:16:46 PM
Sisters of The Good
Sister Pauline was born in 1923
and Pauline Fitz-Walter is her real her baptismal name.
Her parents separated when she was three and her deeply religious mum took
all her 3 daughters to live in Queensland. She studied for an Arts degree at the
university of Queensland. She also tried radio announcing at Charleville doing
sessions with woman and children.
When she was 23 she became engaged to be married.
The ’perfect match’ was not
so fitting or quite right with her.
A friend remarked that her love did not seem enough to
marry him, so she thought about it and broke it off, and then sent promptly
off the engagement ring to the outback sheep station where her fiancé had been
waiting for her.
Her own opinions of mental illnesses actually came from her own life
epiphany came during her engagement when some thought you were having
‘breakdown’. Her health and well being seemed to mimicked a breakdown but after
been giving medication and being knocked out till 10 am next day she awoke and
said 'no more mum and to the doctors'. Yes she did appear to be greyish
purple but she was not going to die and being over 21 she had some control over
the situation. Her chocking feelings in her throat unable to feel anything in
her throat also, made her feel quite
Almost as vague suicidal thoughts come to mind. Clearly
not so much as a death wish deep down inside us all. Much has to be reached
before that come to mind though, she thought.
This was a ‘break through not a breakdown’ She found great comfort in dealing
with all this her way, simple walking, swimming, talking to herself – (not ready to be
locked up for that either) as in 1946
that is what they would do. After three months of her own treatment and getting
proper rest she had managed to see the light again to pursue with her goals.
Spending some quite time reflecting in St James’s church Coorparoo Queensland
and sitting at the back of the church, see saw a young priest saying the
Stations of the Cross. It then struck her ‘what was I doing in my life that was
meaningful' and then it was up to me to take up the Cross and enter a religious life.
This was divine moment of what she was destined to be.
How right she
Sister Pauline entered to become a Good
Samaritans’ novitiate in 1948 at the age of 25. She would be Sister Mary
Francisca. As she entered the life in the
convent, it was a big reality check to conformity, being so blindly obedient.
Not something that was easy for her. How
would she cope with this rigid life? This was not a blaming exercise but simply
how it was in that era. She thought ‘I’ll get holy
in a hurry and die off in my mid-thirties - but I missed out on that- perhaps on
the two of them! I didn't die and I'm not holy yet’ Her relationship with Jesus
always was her salvation and he often came to her rescue. The
religious life said 'aim at heaven and don’t take to much notice of what the
material world is offering'. Her thoughts of life from back then has changed some what.
'God speaks through everything', but back in those days the Mother General
would say ’that is white and even know I knew it was black, she just simply
nodded in blind obedience, no way you would rock the boat.
Enter Frank Webb.
In the grounds of
Mt St Benedict’s Pennant Hills in 1965 an ‘absconded patient from Parramatta
Mental hospital. He was holding a book of Gerard Hopkin's poetry in one hand,
and a transistor on his shoulder.
opening the poems it was quite obvious that she noticed right away he was a highly intelligent man,
also a very sensitive and loving man.
gave Sister Pauline his name of Frank Webb, and this was the beginning of Sister
Pauline and Frank’s journey and friendship. Frank was indeed a devout Catholic
and a gifted poet.
could see the good in people. So her chance meeting him would change her life
forever. She was one of four nuns to be asked to be and usherette for the ceremony at Pennant Hills for the 17
novices. ‘Just wait near the gate to direct any lost souls.
Meeting Frank that day was a calling card to seek a place for these miss placed
folks to go not jail. To so many it was their last resort to get shelter. Sister
Pauline questioned what she was doing as this well educated Samaritan Sister.
The order originally formed in 1857 for ‘women of the street ‘to seek a better life.
The strong sense of meeting the poor coming up the hill for help or going down
the hill to get
Frank looked troubled and lost and he said he was simply ‘looking for peace’ and Vinnie hostel.
So it there was quick dash to ask a visiting priest could she take the poor man
to the nearest Vinnie’s hostel. Her plea fell to deaf ears sadly ‘he might be a
sex maniac ‘Well how would one of those
be recognised you might ask?
The offer of help and permission not given and as she saw him walk away, she
felt so was like rejecting Christ. She pondered how many times in her life had see
sent others away, not recognising
her inner vision of Christ walking away rejected. So she frantically tried to
find out whether he had made it, but some how Frank ended up at Orange’s
Bloomfield Mental hospital. Her aim was to produce communities to give those
folk a home to those who seem to have lost their place in the world and to give
them some sense of being loved, wanted and belong.
Her order had always gone out to help,
not actually staying out with these people and living with them. She felt that
being with them 24 hours a day would give her a sense of how to give them ‘the
Rhythm of Life’. These folks living with addictions and mental illness, alone
with suicidal thoughts, just some good old fashioned nurturing and just gently
touch their lives with some simple structure.
What we seem to take
for granted in our normal way of life,
In the beginning Sister Pauline would arrive each morning to view the night
mayhem that had gone on whilst she was not there. Not always a pretty sight. She
needed to be being part of their everyday
life showing them the way to cope with the issues that faced them.
A normal house-hold had time structures, like what happens and when each day,
like bathing, shaving eating etc. These people did not have these skills; they had
no healthy ‘Rhythm. To us it was basic them it was never in their daily routine.
Some twelve months later a chance meeting again of Frank Webb at St Scolastica’s Convent Glebe, once
again escaping in a ‘borrowed’ shirt and strangely enough a return ticket to
Sydney ended up in his possession -, ‘oh the Lord works in mysterious ways' Frank
thought. Again sister Pauline reached out in her usual friendly, helpful
fashion and got him some hospital attention. Frank was visited regularly by
Sister Pauline following that day onward for the rest of his life.
Sister Francisca organised overnight shelter at a Vinnie’s hostel for him, and
renewed hospital care, and thereafter visited him regularly. Their strong faith
was the base of their friendship and their great love of verse and language. To
Frank, Sister Pauline was a gift and devotion to Christ and charity and she
thought of him as ‘simply brilliant’. People with mental illnesses were in most
need of some companionship and to feel wanted and loved unconditionally.
Rome was where the Good Samaritans sent Sister Pauline next and Frank Webb and
Sister Pauline communicated through correspondence. In 1972 came back with
sister Diana to whom she went with numerous distinctions and then later on a
Master of Education. Her thoughts then were degrees were not mark of love and
she did not become a Nun to have Thesis etc.
She needed to be more
practical with Christ's message.
Her chants to many of her lost souls was ‘you can’t take even a burnt matchstick
with you, but you can take your peace and your joy’. How very true!
Frank had once told Sister Pauline and his words she never forgot “If you ever
change from training and lecturing to looking after ‘no-hopers’ like me, would
you please keep me a place…just one on a verandah would do.”
Sister Pauline quoted to him "Frank
you'd be the first I'd think of".
Frank was doing a complete turn around and began looking after those less
fortunate than himself. Frank also had a premonition of him dying. Quite sad.
Shortly before his death Sister Pauline took Frank and a friend for lovely
picnic, his last but thankfully it was fun and happy day for all.
Frank died of a coronary occlusion
in 23rd November 1973 when he was only 47 in Rydalmere Mental hospital.
Sister Pauline penned these words upon his death “Faith for Frank... was a
living vital force that drew a person into the mystery of Christ (to become) a
new creature ready for the heavens and the new earth.” And in verse she wrote "Your heart clasped at the last latch of eternity; you reached the Lord you had
loved and ciphered through all you ancient words"
The primary school in Guyra in 1983 the convent was used as a St Francis of
Assisi community for needy people, a work initiated by a Good Samaritan Sister
Vatican Two reforms made many changes to how Nuns dressed and were perceived in
every day life. But as sister Pauline was a trained State school teacher and of
course she was PE trained with her teaching, her lies the problem what would nun
wear to teach that and as postulants and novices doing Physical Education they
were required to wear corsets, my, my. So her way around that was to remove the
whalebones. Nifty thinking!
By her own admission her most challenging battle was establishing a house to
keep those that society frowned upon and would not take care of. The hierarchy
wanted her to use her Academic skills and that inner turmoil of rejecting Frank
way back kept haunting her.
Then one night late in 1975 tow characters called and Sister Pauline was still
up whilst all the other nuns were in bed. Michael O’ Sullivan and his mate Ernie
(later to be know to be suffering from schizophrenia), who had their first Holy
Communion that day and wanted some extra faith instruction. Well not at late hour that was
going to happen but she was free Saturday, “perfect' said Sullivan. They would
come back then.
This was the beginning of her journey helping the down and out a they did come
back with 19 others and so it began ‘Tea and Holy Spirit ‘ at Good Sam’s
with some singing, music and some prayers thrown in for good measure. Her
work continued with these folks and some two years later the first of her rented
houses – St Francis of Assisi. 16 homes were established over 30 years in
Victoria NSW and Queensland, giving people of the street accommodation. This did
come with a great amount of stress however. Just five minutes with Sister
Pauline after mass she would introduce you to some of her ‘folks’ and sometimes
when alone the tales of what her life was with their stories and woes.
I was always amazed how she coped.
Sister’s first house was in Belmore Road Surry Hills and so radical, two nuns
sharing a house with men, we can only read between the line how this rocked the
establishment. Upon asking Mother General all she could think of them as wasting
their education and in 1977 when this was being requested, n one was able to
resolve the issue with these strong willed nuns, but she was how ever was given
permission to live in the house with the three schizophrenic, and non-practicing
alcoholics on the 16th March 1978.
In Surry Hills in May 1978 she was beyond her human endurance. Having not eaten
and not slept properly a volunteer sent her to St Vincent’s hospital. She woke
up 24 hours later not even remembering the taxi ride. She awoke to hearing voice
of patients saying: ‘Thank God you're still here. You were grey. We thought you
were dying’. There was no need for drugs all she could recall "I could remember
was going up and up surrounded by stars, billions of stars, extraordinarily
beautiful with a great sense of peace, tremendous peace"
Over the years I have seen her in Hurstville with some of her ‘lost souls'. The drugs and alcohol and mental illness
often had her in court, or Long Bay Jail. Instuitional life was not the only answer to
the problems that they faced. There had to be a better way
Some of Sister Pauline’s ‘street people’ had been raped, just got out of jails
or mental hospitals. Referees would often ask, are drug addicts and alcoholics
welcomed with you? Well she said 'there were no simple term for whom to took in
or conditions - just the need and we try to give them some self worth and
comfort'. So the ‘Street Angel’ was up and running!
Her absolute faith in God and his trust was always with her at 2am in dark lanes in
Surry Hills. Very dangerous conditions for someone not so young to have to
Dealing with drugged fuelled folks who were often quite violet to say the least and
frightening. Having been grabbed around the throat, and also a swift karate chop on her
head. Control was in her vocabulary whilst teaching now she drew on all her skills
to overcome these ‘Tense Moments’
There were visits from police at 3 am. To identify a
destitute's body, she could
never understand why they could not wait
till morning - or having an addict ‘promise her a bullet’ she clearly had
wonderful mechanism and strong faith she would not be hurt being around these
This dilemma of living with these people was a thorn in the establishment side.
Having tor face each morning on her arrival with wine flagons and other nightly
frolics was so very difficult. And to live with her boys was at first refused ,
but some faith intervention and Bishop's ok
she could be a career a not keeper.
This is where Bishop David Cremin entered into the equation.
Our dear Bishop David was a friend of Sister Pauline’s. She had been requested
to meet with him to discuss this difficult religious issue. She was almost
resolved to the fact he would never understand. So she met with him after
mass at Surrey Hills. Bishop David ate with them, sang with them, danced with
them.. just seeing him doing the hokey pokey with the street people, she thought
now this is not the vision I had of bishops. He answered the call
to open his heart to these people, just like she wanted to do. This clearly
changed Sister Pauline mind of what Bishops were suppose to be and do and so her
path to do this steeped up a notch as he was the one that the hierarchy had
listened to and gave her a trial go. We all did and still do see him as one who
walks with Christ understating the poor and lonely
and their ongoing friendship still goes on today, as
he a Christ like figure who understands the ones in life that most seem to want
Sister Pauline wanted home in Erskineville and as Sister Diana prayers were
saying Hurstville. The first real estate agent she visited gave her house. Sadly
with ongoing increasing loads from of loading from the governments the cost of
housing these people was too much of a burden and t hide fizzled out.
Sister Pauline now lives in nearby unit after her Hurstville home closed two
The book 'sister Pauline. Street Angel of Sydney is
available at $25 from the author and publisher Grace Chan at
firstname.lastname@example.org or by ringing 0410 151 340.