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Sister Anne Henson

Allan Sparkes tells me that Sister Anne Henson is not just a dear friend, but also the most interesting person he knows on the Coffs Coast.  Allan has had a lot to do with Anne lately, because this former high school principal and English teacher is helping to edit Allan’s memoir.  This sounds familiar because my mother is a former English teacher and she helps edit all my writing. 


So Many Stories

I meet Sister Anne Henson at the café in the Sawtell RSL.  Over the hum of retirees convening for their morning tea, this bright eyed, white haired 82-year-old woman recounts her life and times.  At the conclusion of the interview she wonders aloud how I will cope with her story.  “There’s not just one story,” she says.  “There are so many stories.”

Now sitting at my desk, reviewing my notes, I realise that she is right.  How am I going to do justice to her many stories?  There’s the small child growing up in a hotel in Lismore watching young men go off to War; the young nun who entered an enclosed religious order at 18; the enlightened teacher and hard-nosed school administrator; the lively woman who ministers to the families of the dying at Mater Christi Aged Care Facility in Sawtell.  

And then there is the story of religious life itself.  The chronicles of Sister Anne’s life echo the changes to religious life over the last 60 years.  It is this glimpse into a way of life that is coming to an end that most captures my imagination.

A love of learning first led young Anne into Religious Life. “It was a way that you could stay at school and teach other people,” she recalls.  But she also acknowledges, with a worried look at the tape recorder, that she sometimes thinks God tricked her into it.  She recalls that as a child she had expected to marry and have children.  “I had to have a lot of children because I had so many favourite names.” She laughs.  But when she attended Catholic boarding school in Lismore she found that girls she had been sharing a dormitory with the year before would reappear as seemingly happy novices.  “They used to have these wonderful sing songs on feast days,” she remembers.  “I’d think, ‘Oh they’re happy.’”

So it was perhaps with a certain bright-eyed innocence that Anne entered her postulancy with the Lismore Presentation Sisters in 1948, and 10 months later donned her first habit as a young novice.  The life was very structured.  “A bell woke everybody at 5:40am and you’d be in chapel by 6am,” she says.  “There’d be meditation and prayer and breakfast in silence.”

Studying and practice teaching kept the young nun engaged, but the first year as a novice is intended as one of reflection and Anne struggled with the restrictions.  “The Novice Mistress said I couldn’t read more than 4 pages.  She chose the book and when you finished she chose the next one,” says Sister Anne.  “I couldn’t subsist on what was meted out to me.”

But Anne stayed the course and went on to take her first vows: poverty, chastity and obedience.  Much is made of the chastity of Catholic religious life, but for Anne it was poverty and obedience that rankled.  “Poverty meant you had to ask for everything.  If you wanted a tube of toothpaste you had to ask Mother.  You were completely dependent,” she explains.  “Obedience meant doing exactly what your were told without question.”  She reminds me that the order was enclosed.  “We didn’t go out, except to the dentist.”

It’s hard to imagine this feisty soul so shackled and I tentatively ask if she had questioned her decision.  The answer is a decisive yes.  “You’d be very wet behind the ears if you just went along without questioning,” she informs me sternly.  She recalls that her second teaching appointment, in 1953, was in the small town of Coraki, NSW, between Lismore and Woodburn.  “I had a class of 8,” she sighs.  “For a person in their 20s teaching a class of 8 made you wonder what’s the point.  I wasn’t sure I was in the right place at all.”

Despite periods of questioning, Anne took her final vows at age 26.  But she acknowledges that we might be having a different conversation were it not for Vatican II.  In the mid 1960’s, Anne explains, the Second Vatican Council dragged the church kicking and screaming into the modern world. For those in Religious Life the most visible change was the move away from the restrictive black habit, but Anne explains the effect was much deeper.  “The change was in the idea of personhood and the dignity of the person.”

Anne recalls that growing freedoms and self-respect evolved almost imperceptibly.  As an example she recalls the first time she left her enclosed life for a simple visit. “Our doctor pulled up in the car and he said why don’t you ever come and visit me and without any further ado we just went,” she tells me.  “I don’t remember anybody saying you can now go and visit.  We just did.”

The loosening of the regulations of religious life gave Sister Anne a growing sense of dignity and independence, but it was her continued love of education that gave her a purpose.  Unusually for that time, the Reverend Mother enrolled Anne in the University of Queensland while she was at Coraki and she went on to complete a Dip Ed at Armidale.  “I was identified as a good teacher from the beginning,” she says.

For many Sister Anne was the best teacher they ever had, and over the years ex-students have come back to tell her this.  Anne spent 16 very happy years teaching in Lismore, before her appointment as principal in Murwillumbah.  Although hesitant about the change at first, she thrived in her managerial position. “After six years (in Murwillumbah) I was getting to have things my way,” says Anne.  But in 1977 she was appointed to Blacktown in Sydney. “I was just a member of staff,” she recalls her disappointment.  “That was the system.  You didn’t get promoted; somebody else got a turn.”

Fortunately for Anne, the system was changing.  After only a few months she read in the Catholic Weekly that a new secondary school was to open in Springwood and the Bishop was looking for a group of religious to run the school.  “So I thought ‘well here’s my out’,” says Anne.  She wrote to her Superior in Lismore and said she would like to go.  “Nobody had ever done that before.  Never.”  Anne’s flexing of new freedoms paid off.  She was appointed (by the Bishop no less) as the first principal of St Columba’s school in Springwood. 

Anne recalls with relish her joy in creating something altogether new.  “It was just wonderful because nobody could say this is what we do here.  I had the final say on staff, so I could pick people that I thought had fire in the belly.” And yet seven years later, at the end of 1985 Anne decided it was time to go and she returned to the convent in Lismore working with the nuns and ministering to her sick mother.  A month after her mother died Anne got a call from the Director of Catholic Education in Lismore.  The upshot of that phone call was her appointment as principal of John Paul College, and the start of her 25 years in Coffs Harbour.

John Paul College was a challenge to an experienced principal. Established 4-years earlier, the school was having teething problems and many staff and parents were unhappy and resistant to change. “I had to have a lot of faith in myself that the person who was loved and helped by everyone in Springwood was still me,” Anne says.  Change came slowly.  But after six years with Anne at the helm pushing for change, the school had grown and achieved some outstanding academic results.  Anne decided it was time to hand over the reins and, at 63, time for a change of ministry.

Anne now lives at Marian Grove Retirement Village in Sawtell, and for the past two decades has employed her teaching and administrative skills in running support groups, public speaking, conducting memorials and funerals and as spiritual carer at the neighbouring nursing home.  She is content.

I ask Sister Anne if she has any regrets.  “Not now,” she says.  “It was the best time to be a religious.”  She explains that her order is diminishing and most of the sisters now live alone.  It’s a far cry from the convent that seemed like such a happy haven all those years ago.  “The way I began had to finish,” Anne says.  “It (will) come back in a new form and nobody really knows what that new form is.”


Sister Anne has been thinking about the most interesting person she knows before coming to our interview, so she is quick to nominate Aunty Bea Ballangarry.  “I don’t know her well, but she stands out,” Anne says of this aboriginal elder.  Another completely different world to be explored.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am proud to call Sister Anne my friend!

May 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCecily Foley

I am immensely proud to call Sister Anne my aunty! She has always been tremendously supportive of me and now I find the same support and care and love going in her great nieces. Her hand made cards are without equal and her interest in our lives unwavering.. We are very lucky my father was sibling to such a (S)sister!

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina Kelly

Sr Anne had a profound impact on my life as a mentor, spiritual guide, and principal.. She could read me like a book and gave me wonderful lessons of life sharing her knowledge and wisdom. I was one of those enthusiastic students that spend a lot of my school life waiting outside her office pondering how much trouble I was going to get in to this time... God bless Sr Anne

February 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBernard Felten

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