“At every stage of my life, in each new role that I was asked to do as a Good Shepherd Sister, I think it has been the best stage of life for me. I really have been so lucky,” Carmel said. “My work has always been with those who are marginalised, especially women and children – and that is what Good Shepherd is all about.”
In recent years, Carmel’s commitment to the community has been honoured with a 2005 Australian of the Year nomination and an Order of Australia in 2007. These honours recognised in particular her more than 20 years of service to cancer sufferers in the Southern Peninsula area of Victoria. Carmel’s life, whether it was with children, or with those battling cancer, has always involved reaching out to people who are isolated.
Abandoning her childhood dream of a family was difficult, particularly when she saw the love and companionship that so many families enjoyed. Little did she know what was in store for her! After joining the Sisters in 1950, she was sent to the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, where she set up the first formal kindergarten, known as St Joseph’s Class. For 12 years she watched hundreds of children come through the kindergarten, before she was sent to Bendigo in 1962 to St Aiden’s, a home for orphaned children. For the next few decades Carmel was a house mother to many children.
By 1976 the way Good Shepherd cared for children had changed and Carmel responded to a call to work as a pastoral associate at St John Vianney’s Parish in Melbourne’s Springvale North. She focussed on the women who were isolated and experiencing difficulty and set up a group for the young mothers.
She also agreed to take on the weekly Friday job of going to the Springvale Cemetery and burying the paupers; the people who ended their life penniless and alone. Looking back, Carmel considers it the “greatest privilege” of her life. Every Friday she would go to the cemetery and, watched by the bemused gravedigger, she would pray at the graveside and leave a flower on the graves of other paupers.
“Here were these people who God had loved into life and who had been loved by someone, at some time, maybe long ago. And yet here they were alone and being buried in an unmarked grave in a simple coffin with no one to cry for them,” Carmel said.
“One visitor to the Portsea house was a mother who was undergoing treatment for cancer. Then I heard about someone else who had to drive up and down from the Peninsula to Peter Mac Cancer Hospital in the city every day for weeks,” she said. Carmel co-opted a friend and the pair took turns driving this person to and from her treatment each day. Word got around and after a bit of local publicity the Southern Peninsula Cancer Support Group was formed. From that group a transport network was established; it’s now an extraordinary service with 40 volunteer drivers.
The volunteers drive patients to the hospital, wait for them at the hospital and take them home. But it is so much more than just a driving service, it is companionship and support, and many of the people have become great friends over the years.
Carmel wasn’t content with an efficient and friendly army of volunteers driving people to and from Melbourne for their cancer treatment. She wanted the cancer treatment closer to the people, so for years she, along with others, lobbied, talked, wrote and persuaded politicians and policy makers until the Peninsula Oncology Centre at Frankston Private Hospital was built.
Carmel still oversees the Support Group, but she also works two or three days a week at the hospital offering support and friendship to any patients who are referred to her or who drop in. The “pickerupera of pieces” is the title many of the hospitals’ staff have given her.
“It is a great privilege to be able to be with people as they take this journey in their life. For many of them it is the final part of their life and for others life will go on. But for that time they allow me to be with them,” Carmel said.
Carmel also relies on the support of sisters and friends to help her in her work. “I am sure that those men and women who we called paupers also pray for me now. Sometimes when something happens and I think that’s a little miracle; I reckon it’s because the paupers are praying for me. I always think that when my time is up, it will be the paupers who pull me into heaven!”