Priestly ministry 'a natural fit' for late vicar with a passion for helping refugees

Tribute to the Revd Jo-Anne Marie Wells, 1960-2020

By Mark Brolly

The late Vicar of Glenroy and Merlynston, the Revd Jo-Anne Wells, had a great capacity for love, empathy, tolerance and compassion, so her priestly ministry "was a natural fit for her", her son Dane said at her funeral on 19 October.

Ms Wells, who died on 3 October only a few weeks after her 60th birthday, was also remembered for her love of being a mother to four children, her dedication to refugees and all in need, her devotion to the Eucharist and her passion for travel.

She was ordained in 2002 and served as an Assistant Curate at Williamstown from 2002-04, Priest-in-Charge of Grovedale/Mt Duneed from 2004-11 and for the past nine years as Vicar of St Matthew's Glenroy and St Linus' Merlynston.

Archbishop Philip Freier wrote in his Clergy News two days after her death: "Jo-Anne was heavily involved in her community, especially the Persian community she embraced wholeheartedly, a tireless advocate for refugees and those less fortunate, and taking Jesus Christ as her example, always going out of her way to help others, even when she was very ill herself."

Bishop Kate Prowd of the Oodthenong Episcopate that includes Ms Wells' parish said Ms Wells had been in poor health for a long time and her health had declined particularly in recent months.

"But we know that she battled on, so often putting the needs of others ahead of her own," Bishop Prowd said at the livestreamed Requiem Eucharist at St Linus'.

"At the time of her death, Jo-Anne was awaiting surgery that would hopefully provide restored physical and emotional well-being. Combined with severe ill-health, lockdown had been very tough for her, that sense of isolation and distance very acute. And the not knowing, so difficult. Not knowing when she would have her operation, not knowing when she would be well enough to be back in her vicar's saddle as faithful priest serving her family at St Matthew's and St Linus's. Not knowing when she could be physically present with people she loved and who loved her.

"I do want to acknowledge here the pastoral care offered to Jo-Anne from parishioners here in this parish and also from their current Locum, the Revd Carmel Hunter, who was able to offer the sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing just a few days before her death.

"I also thank Archdeacon Gavin [Ward], who is here with us today, who has provided pastoral care to Jo-Anne."

Ms Hunter said Ms Wells had left a legacy of love and action to her parish.

Preaching on the Gospel text from Mark chapter 10, verses 13-16, Ms Hunter said: "The Lord blessed Jo-Anne repeatedly during her earthly lifetime of the usual ups and downs.

"Jo-Anne shared her love of children with those she encountered through ministry and beyond ... It has been through Jo-Anne’s caring and love that she wanted to bring more direct children’s ministry into the parish. This is one of Jo-Anne’s many legacies that will live on.

"Jo-Anne’s work in the area of social justice brought another dimension to parish life as she sought to care for refugees, asylum seekers and others who were pushed to the edge of society. Her words and actions have inspired others to work with her and now to continue the journey that began with a passion of Jo-Anne’s."

Ms Hunter said she had been privileged to share Holy Communion with Ms Wells just before her final trip to hospital.

"She has left a legacy of love and action, she has proclaimed God's Word and she has set within people's hearts a way forward that can enhance the work she started, that can continue to proclaim God's glory in Glenroy and Merlynston and that will continue to inspire others ..."

Ms Wells' son Dane said in a eulogy he delivered on behalf of her family that it was hard not to think of the previous two weeks as some kind of strange, alternate reality.

"We all know and understand certain inevitabilities in the back of our minds but we are often unprepared for them when they happen. This is one of those times when I never thought I'd have to say this so soon."

He said he had always admired his mother's certitude, her great faith in the love of God and its capacity to help others, "so much so that she dedicated her life to its propagation".

She had told him only in September that she always dreamed of being a mother when she was younger and felt so blessed and lucky to be a Mum. At one stage, she had four children aged under four.

He had admired her capacity for love, empathy, tolerance and compassion "and so the other great work of her life, her priestly ministry, was a natural fit for her".

"This was something she'd possessed since childhood. One of the most passionate parts of her ministry was her support of the refugee community, an issue that held a prominent place in her heart and was an expression of this compassion. She knew of her own good fortune growing up here in Australia and wanted to afford others that same opportunity. She helped many people navigate a long, arduous and often confusing process, giving character references and perhaps most importantly, always offering a welcoming hand and an open door.

"Weddings and baptisms were her absolute favourite things to celebrate as a priest, however, and the numerous thank-you cards and well-wishes from people were testament to how good she was at it and the passion she put into it."

He said it was difficult for her to turn away from those in need, allowing people having housing problems to stay on her couch, helping people find a job or buying groceries for them.

"While she was off on sick leave this year, for so long she was determined to get back to work as early as possible, regardless of her health, as she wanted to ensure her parishioners were getting the pastoral care they needed and from someone they knew."

Ms Wells had travelled to the US earlier this year to see her other son Christian, even as her health deteriorated, and had always hoped to travel to Jerusalem and the Holy Land and visit all the places that she preached about.

"In many ways, she was a citizen of the world, not only well travelled but holding a deep appreciation of all people, regardless of geography, language or culture.

"The cliche that all things happen for a reason is never really a comfort for those going through hard times, but if God's purpose is the spreading of love, compassion and kindness to all that we encounter, then her life certainly aided in that purpose. And it was good."