Ballarat’s last remaining nun in the school classroom calls it a day

COMMITMENT: Sr Marie's reception in 1969, arriving as a novice and leaving as a professed Sister of Mercy.
COMMITMENT: Sr Marie's reception in 1969, arriving as a novice and leaving as a professed Sister of Mercy.

MERCY spirit will live on in the actions of students and staff at Damascus College after the long-serving Sister Marie Davey leaves – she was confident of this fact.

Sr Marie is preparing to become the last nun in the Ballarat Catholic Diocese to retire from active school leadership.

This ends an education era dating back to 1881 in what Sr Marie says is the result of a cultural shift and change in focus of religious orders.

But she says this did not mean the true essence and spirit in Catholic education will fade.

All the little things about Sr Marie is what Damascus College students will miss most – the way she always makes time to stop for a chat, showing a genuine interest in their lives.

It was this sense of care that drew Sr Marie to becoming a teacher, stemming from the way all the sisters were really involved in supporting families when she was a pupil at St Columba’s in Ballarat.

These were qualities Sr Marie admired and wanted to embody wherever her life journey led, long before she joined the Sisters of Mercy as a postulant in March 1965.

Sr Marie is formally retiring from Catholic education after 53 years in schools, most well-known in the key role she played forming Damascus from the 1995 amalgamation of Sacred Heart, St Paul’s and St Martin’s.

Damascus school captains Ellie Carroll and Sean O’Beirne say Sr Marie and Damascus seemed and felt like one and the same thing. They hoped to channel a little of Sr Marie into their captaincy role, building on her legacy.

“We certainly look up to her as leaders. Sr Marie is a strong woman, but she’s also caring and fun,” Ms Carroll said.

“She always makes an effort to stop you and is genuinely interested in what you’re doing and how you’re going. She’s a strong leader.”

Applause was thunderous when Sr Marie’s impending retirement was announced on Damascus Day.

A formal school function on Friday night paid tribute to Sr Marie’s career and impact she has had on generations of families across the Ballarat Diocese.

But it will be this Friday, after a whole-school assembly and sports afternoon, that Sr Marie will pack up her office and hope to leave in low-key style.

This has been her calling, working in her own community, after a fleeting consideration to join a missionary order and work abroad. 

Now, aged 71, Sr Marie was ready for a new challenge.

“I know it's the right time. I'm happy with how the school's placed … A lot of staff really have the spirit of Sisters of Mercy,” Sr Marie said.

“In some ways in teaching, the same things have come and gone and come back again in how we teach. Family life has changed a lot since I started teaching, but I think that’s where the relationship between school and family is really important...Essentially, teaching is the relationship between the students with their teacher and I love it – students keep the place alive.”

Sr Marie’s heart was in working with young people. 

She studied teaching at Sacred Heart Teachers’ College, now Australian Catholic University’s Aquinas Campus, before taking up her first teaching post in a grade three class at St Columba’s in 1965.

After teaching stints at Our Lady Help of Christians and St Alipius, Sr Marie “drifted” into secondary teaching in Warracknabeal and St Arnaud where she taught anything and everything. 

That was the way it was in country schools – the sisters did what was needed.

A chance to update her qualifications in music and theology allowed her to specialise in teaching both subjects in a return to Ballarat at Sacred Heart College, of which she later became principal.

This served up one of her biggest career challenges that later led to one of her proudest achievements, helping to create Damascus and building towards the culture about the school today.

But developing culture takes time.

“We went from amalgamating three schools and then, later, from two campuses to one – it was a long journey,” Sr Marie said.

“Each school had its own identity: St Martin’s was the senior school of Sacred Heart, which had its own traditions and culture, and St Paul’s had been the tech school for boys. It was hard working bringing the three together.

“Then, while you’re on two (Damascus) campuses, there is certainly a sense of them-and-us. It’s hard to get that unity.

“It wasn’t just me working on this  but I would like to think I had some influence as we struggled through our early years to develop the culture of a new college while honouring the foundations and contributions of previous schools.”

Sr Marie said Damascus had really started to come of age since coming together on the one site in 2011. This year’s graduating year 12 students are only the second class to have only experienced life on one campus.

In this time, Sr Marie’s focus has turned more to pastoral work in the wider school community.

For incoming year sevens, Sr Marie has been the first Damascus person they meet in transitioning to high school and the friendly face who checks in with them and offers some guidance as they progress through their studies.

Sr Marie said there were great foundations in place to keep this community spirit alive but it still took a lot of work and commitment from families, teachers and students to support the best in each other.

While Sr Marie will take time to consider her retirement plans, she will watch proudly as Damascus continues to cultivate a strong, caring identity.