Janet Erskine Stuart, one of our English Congregational Leaders in the Society of the Sacred Heart and a great Educator, wrote an appreciation of her nuns. She called them God’s Middlemen. Without fanfare these sisters carried the burden of the day, full of deep desires while fulfilling simple duties daily done. Monica McGivern was, I feel, just one of those middleman who lived her spiritual life faithfully and served faithfully in whatever task she was asked to do. So let us look at Monica’s life.
Monica was born in Grey Lynn, Auckland on 25 May 1917, the third child and only daughter of William James McGivern and Maud Kay She was baptised three weeks later in St Joseph’s church on 15 June, beginning God’s special life in her, a life she steadfastly nourished for the next 100 years! Both her parents had come from families in the Waikato settling later in Auckland. Monica had two elder brothers, Selwyn and Desmond and one younger brother Bernard, In her notes Monica speaks of the faithful prayer life of the family. With Desmond, two years her elder, she walked to the nearby Church for daily Mass. Both had fallen in love with God, and the desire to dedicate their lives to Him was their dream. A game was to play at being priest and nun. Desmond became a priest in the Diocese of Auckland to the joy to this devout family. Kevin and Bernard both married, bringing nieces and nephews into Monica’s life, nieces and nephews she dearly loved and whose careers she followed with interest and admiration. We have a picture of a happy, united Catholic family with religious vocations on both sides of the family tree, be they Mercys, Dominicans, Mission Sisters or Josephites
Monica received her primary education from the Josephites in Grey Lynn, where she was very happy in her Faith, telling us that a highlight in this catholic environment was her First Communion day. The Little Sisters of the Poor frequented the McGivern home – one was a Sr Monica much to her delight. At the age of eleven there was a change of house as Mrs McGivern wished to be nearer St Benedict’s. The family became heavily involved in Sr Ben’s parish life under the guidance of Mgr Ormond. Daily Mass and devotions became the norm with devotion to the Sacred Heart in the fore. Her brothers became altar boys. Their piety was accompanied with work for the poor, especially the Little Sisters of the Poor. It must be noted that Monica kept this awareness and concern for those in need all her life, proved by her actions,.
Monica came as a boarder to Baradene in 1932 for her secondary education where, in her spiritual growth, she duly received her Angels’ and Child of Mary medals. She has written of the joy she had in the various devotional practices sprinkled throughout the school’s life. She loved the religious, she loved the training and the discipline the students received. Her first interest in religious life, albeit in play, was nourished. The fact of a religious vocation to an enclosed order for her only daughter did not exactly please her mother. It was decided she must wait till after her brother’s ordination, as otherwise she would not be able to go to his ordination.
On leaving Baradene, Monica in the next five years attended commercial classes which led to a position as ledger-keeper in John Court’s in Queen Street. Fr Desmond was ordained priest in December 1939. Monica now made the break and entered the Society of the Sacred Heart, at Rose Bay, Sydney on 2nd February 1940.
It was war time. Due to the war the noviceship moved from Sydney to Melbourne. Monica says in her notes it was a great period with a wonderful training in Ignatian spirituality, self-discipline, consideration for others – all standing the test of time. To this was added the widening of her mind by the internationality of the Society.
After making her vows, Monica returned to the re-opened Junior School at Rose Bay. She earned and received her Teacher’s Certificate for Victorian education, when it was noted she was a born teacher. 1945 saw Monica back at Baradene in charge of the junior classes. 1948 brought her probation in Rome, that final time of prayer and reflection before embracing final vows . It was post-war times, travel meant a flying boat from Sydney to Southampton with frequent refuelling stops. This provided a visual geography lesson which Monica loved. After probation we find Monica as mistress of discipline for the whole school at Island Bay, Wellington. Loreto Hall Teachers Training College in Benson Road, Remuera was opened in 1950 which meant that students would need demonstration classes at Baradene. Thus Monica came back to Baradene to teach the Intermediate classes and give those demonstration classes and supervise teaching practice. Though we are quick to acknowledge Monica’s gift for teaching we must also recall her love of and for music, exemplified by her choice of Bach for this liturgy today.
A completely other experience was around the corner when in 1956 the Society undertook to staff a growing parish school in Braybrook, Melbourne. Six well trained religious were assigned to the school for largely migrant pupils. Monica was N Z’s contribution to the venture, a venture begun in railways sheds with accommodation for the religious in migrant huts. Dust, heat, noise, two classes in one shed, cramped spaces, demanded physical health, flexibility to meet unforeseen circumstances and tenacity. After two years in those condition, in 1958, the new school buildings and convent were finished and occupied with alacrity.
Here is an aside:-
Monica’s concern for the less well-off people led her to keep cut-out uniforms for those who could not afford to buy the fully made uniform from the regular supply shop.
Sr Monica was appointed Principal of the school in January 1961. BUT on the eve of opening the school that year, on a February Friday, a fire ripped through the new buildings. Over the week-end new premises had to be found: pavilions in the Melbourne show grounds were offered. Sr Monica calmly and efficiently organised bus timetables, assigned classrooms, sought out teaching facilities, dealt with parents, police and transport authorities, at the same time having her own class to teach.
With all that experience behind her, in 1963 Monica went as Principal to Christ the King, Christchurch for ten years.. Her name evoked admiration as a primary principal par excellence, albeit with some folks trembling. at times. With the changes of Vatican 11, it was time for a break from teaching to renewal and attention in her own life. The two years 1973/4 in Canada were years of which Monica spoke about with relish. There she taught for a while, studied at Atlanta School of Theology and Boston College returning to Christchurch in 1975. In Christchurch she was asked to join the Diocesan Religious Education Team and served on it till she went to Melbourne in 1981 to attend the NPI Pastoral Course which, like Canada, she relished and from which she drew much strength and inspiration.
Of this time in Australia Monica says that she moved in the Vatican 11 spirit from being ruled from the outside to an inner freedom, “to be,” to grow, to deepen her personal relationship with the Lord, to experience the power of the Holy Spirit operating in her life. The charismatic movement contributed to this growth. They were happy days of smaller communities, of faith- sharing groups, days of hope and fulfillment.
Monica had hoped to return to NZ to parish work, but she was asked to open a “Drop-in” centre in the crypt of St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. She declared openly it was not her plan, but she had learnt to embrace God’s plan as her own. Quietly, methodically, without fuss, Monica cleared the crypt of its storage, and then furnished it suitably for folks to have physical and mental space. Monica’s welcome was the big draw card. She listened and understood. She comforted. She was interested. She sat with people. She helped all in the spirit of the Little Sisters of the Poor whom she had known in her early home life. She had time for everyone who came. Monica served at the crypt till 1991 when for the next three years she was supervisor and hostess at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Wellington. Only in 2003 did Monica come to Baradene in retirement.
On 24 March 2003 Monica was awarded the Papal Honour Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for her distinguished service to the church as an educator, her work in the Crypt Drop- in- Centre and her management and supervision of the Cathedral.
At the beginning of this appreciation of Monica’s life you heard Monica was born 25 May 1917, so when 25 May came in 2017 we had Monica’s 100th birthday. Her family and community ensured it was well celebrated with Monica taking full part. She spoke individually to all her guests at the family-only gathering. At the community celebration a niece spoke the family tribute. I quote “We are proud of you Aunt Monica. We think of you as the Mother Teresa of our family, as you felt a strong call to serve God and left your family to go overseas to pursue your vocation. Like her you were an educator who ultimately gave up teaching to help the more vulnerable in Society.” End of quote.
Towards the end of his Gospel, St Matthew records Our Lord’s words when the Son of man comes as King in all his glory, to judge humankind. It is no far-fetched imagination to think of the King speaking to Monica, who under the eyes of Janet Erskine Stuart finds her place among God’s middlemen…….The King says:
I was hungry and you gave me the food of wisdom and understanding.
I was thirsty and you brought me to the fountain of knowledge and learning.
I was a stranger and you listened to my story.
I was naked and you gave me values which clothed me for the rest of my life.
I was sick and you showed me God’s heart with his immense love for all humankind.
I was in prison and you released me from the trap of self-filled considerations.
So, Come, Margaret Monica, O blessed of my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Anne de Stacpoole RSCJ