Sydney, 9 May 2016- Was it serendipity or providence?
Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS), says a chance encounter with Sr Catherine Ryan at a celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy in 2014, led him to ask if the Sisters of Mercy had any available properties in the Parramatta area.
A few days later Sr Catherine, leader of the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta, came back with an offer of Coolock Cottage, the heritage-listed property on the grounds of the Sisters’ Congregation Centre on Victoria Road, Parramatta.
“It was the very week that we did have a space become available and so we were happy to provide a home for Arrupe Place,” she says.
JRS took possession of Coolock Cottage in November 2014, and named the new drop-in centre that it established there Arrupe Place, after the Jesuit Superior General Fr Pedro Arrupe who founded JRS in 1980. By January 2015 Arrupe Place was open for services.
“Thus was our partnership with the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta born,” says Fr Aloysious.
“Sisters from the Congregation – Valda Dickinson and Margaret Sheppard – had already worked in JRS as Pastoral Workers in Kenya and in the detention centres on Christmas Island and in Curtin, and the partnership at what was to become Arrupe Place was building on what had already been a firm and trusted relationship.”
This new partnership grew out of the work of the Shelter Project which JRS had established in 2007 in response to a shortage of affordable housing and services for those people seeking asylum living in the community.
A needs assessment undertaken by JRS found that western Sydney was home to New South Wales’s second-largest group of asylum seekers who had arrived by boat and were living in the community on bridging visas. As a result of the restrictions imposed on them – including a widespread lack of work rights – and in the face of limited social services for asylum seekers, many were becoming destitute.
“We knew these people were arriving by boat and they were in the community, and the government was transitioning them from detention to the community on bridging visas with very little support,” explains Oliver White, JRS’ Assistant Director.
“JRS wanted to respond to that growing need.”
The opportunity to work in Coolock Cottage seems like providence: it was opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral, right next to the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta Congregation Centre and Our Lady of Mercy College, and, as Fr Aloysious discovered, the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict (affectionately known as the “Good Sams”) had been pioneer religious in Parramatta, and had established ministries in the same area. So the partnership started to expand.
“As I learnt more about the work that had been done in Parramatta by these three religious congregations of women,” he says, “it struck me that perhaps our setting up the JRS drop-in centre in Coolock Cottage was no mere happy accident, but an invitation to draw upon the rich tradition of wisdom and mercy that had been centred there in the work of these religious women who had gone out in difficult circumstances to work with the rejected and marginalised of their time.”
At a practical level, Arrupe Place was centrally located in western Sydney and easily reached by public transportation.
“With many asylum seekers unable to work due to visa conditions or unable to find paid employment, finding funds for the most basic of needs like transportation is a struggle,” says Sr Margaret Guy, a Sister of Charity.
While Sr Margaret was involved from the start of the project – from planning and searching for new premises to hiring volunteers – her Congregation’s work in western Sydney dates back more than 150 years. The Sisters of Charity first arrived in Australia in 1838 and within a year were working in Parramatta at the local women’s gaol, the infamous Female Factory. Their advocacy led to the establishment of a laundry and sewing rooms designed to raise the self-esteem of the convict women.
The Sisters of Charity’s involvement at Arrupe Place was a natural extension of the order’s vows of service to the poor, according to Sr Clare Nolan, leader of the Sisters of Charity in Australia. “The government’s stringent policies towards asylum seekers have rendered asylum seekers amongst the poorest in the community,” she adds.
The core services at Arrupe Place – casework, emergency financial assistance, and temporary accommodation – had been developed through JRS’s previous work with the Shelter Project in Kings Cross, which supported asylum seekers at risk of homelessness. As the asylum seekers’ situation and location changed so did the nature of the services they required.
Arrupe Place has developed into a hub of programmes that has expanded by demand, and today includes English classes, social support activities, and a weekly foodbank, as well as a legal aid clinic twice a week with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS).
The bonds of the partnership have grown stronger. Sr Margaret remains integral to Arrupe Place: she trains and organises the volunteers, who number up to sixty.
Team Leader for the caseworkers, Sr Sarah Puls, a Good Sam, says that “it is so different from other organisations because of the ‘drop-in’ aspect of Arrupe Place.” This means that no one is turned away, as the staff and volunteers are always aware that the guiding principles behind Arrupe Place are welcome and hospitality.
“We try to make sure that we are able to respond to people whatever their needs are at the time they come to us. As an organisation we try to be creative, and to balance the need to support and encourage people who are already doing a great job managing in their difficult circumstances with the need to be more involved with them in moments of crisis; we try always to respond to those needs in practical and holistic ways.”
For Sr Sarah, the participation of the Good Sams in Arrupe Place was directly connected to their founding charism. The Good Samaritan Sisters were the first religious congregation to be founded in Australia, established in 1857 by a Sister of Charity, Mother Scholastica Gibbons, and Sydney’s first archbishop, Bede Polding. Initially the Good Sams worked to help the waves of new migrants who were coming off the boats.
As Sr Clare Condon, Superior of the Good Sams, explains, “The vision statement of the congregation includes our call to be a neighbour in accord with the Parable of the
Good Samaritan. By joining up with other religious congregations we are able to contribute more effectively than trying to go alone.”
Arrupe Place has continued to draw not only on religious congregations but different sectors of the Catholic community for its workers and volunteers. Sisters of the Holy Spirit have been included amongst the volunteers as have other Sisters of Charity, Good Sams, and Sisters of Mercy at different times. It has also become a destination for students doing volunteer work.
“The proximity of Arrupe Place to Our Lady of Mercy College has given our students and staff a tangible focus for their social justice education and awareness-raising,” says Sr Catherine Ryan.
In retrospect, the evolution of partnership of the religious congregations behind the establishment of Arrupe Place’s drop-in centre for asylum seekers seems like an accident that was always meant to happen.
“Partnership is more than mere working together: it is a relationship that is mutually enriching,” says Fr Aloysious.
“JRS is founded on certain principles that are central to the Jesuit tradition: discernment, always searching for the greater good, serving those whom no one else is assisting, seeing God truly present in the person of the refugee and the asylum seeker. The religious congregations of women with whom we have entered into partnership at Arrupe Place bring their own traditions of wisdom and service to our common work.”
Still, the speed of growth of this common work was unexpected. Now Arrupe Place’s programmes and services have expanded to the point where an additional space around the corner at Grose St is about to be officially opened: this expansion may not have been possible without the strength of the partnerships.
“What I value most in all of these congregations of religious women,” says Fr Aloysious, “is a tradition of commitment to the poor and the marginalised, a living out of that mercy which, as Pope Francis has reminded us, is the name of God.”