'Contemplative-active' nun takes on new parish

By Mark Brolly

July 15 2019 

Sr Elisa Helen CSC is rare in the Church: both nun – “a contemplative-active” is how she describes herself – and vicar.

This month, she has made the 65-kilometre journey up the Western Highway from Christ Church Melton, where she has served for 10 years, to become Vicar of the historic St Paul’s Bakery Hill in Ballarat, which was founded with tent services six months before the Eureka Rebellion in 1854.

She has loved her time at Melton, while acknowledging “some very deep challenges” which she and the community there have had to work on – sustaining the life of a parish in area of socio-economic need, integrating Dinka Christians into the parish and developing lay leaders.

In both Melton and at Bakery Hill, she combines her parish role with that of Provincial (Leader) of the Community of the Sisters of the Church, which has only six Australian members – Sr Elisa in Victoria, two in Sydney and three Sisters in Kempsey in northern NSW. In earlier times, the Sisters founded St Michael’s Grammar School in St Kilda.

A new op shop building and having volunteers and management there settling well are accomplishments of which she is proud at Melton. The op shop provides about two-thirds of the financial support for the parish.

“In terms of ministry and outreach, potentially, it was and still is a place that is a terrific spot for connecting with the community,” she says.

Some of the volunteers are non-church people but Sr Elisa says that is probably where the deepest missional connection has been made.

“We have over the years developed a culture of praying in the mornings before we open and the volunteers are asked when they’re interviewed whether they object to that. They’re told that’s what we do and they are expected to be part of that, and I think most of them appreciate that as an opportunity to bring their life issues into it and be prayed for.”

The Dinka community arrived in the parish just before she did and now consists of a core group of up to 20 adults and 40 children.

It wasn’t easy for the Dinkas arriving from South Sudan via refugee camps or for the existing parishioners at Christ Church, but Sr Elisa says: “I feel really proud of the way we as a community have been able to move forward together. It’s been really hard and it’s far from perfect, there’s a lot more to go, but things are a lot more settled now than they were.”

As the Dinka congregation grew, Sr Elisa decided the lay leaders across the parish – Anglos as well as Dinkas – needed training and used the Ridley Certificate to provide it, obtaining a grant from the diocese. She was keen that one of the young Dinka, Achiek Akec Achiek, become leader of the Dinka congregation.

“They had a meeting and they came to me and said, ‘We’re very happy for Achiek to be the Dinka leader but we want you to be our priest’. For me, that was a significant affirmation.

“He’s been married since I’ve been at the parish to one of my parishioners and he’s got a young family and he’s now got a job. He’s still leading.

“By the time we finished, there were four in the group and myself – two were Anglos (Jan Ord-Harris, a warden, and Tracey Burn) and two were Dinka, Alam (a grandmother) and Achiek. A Malaysian church planter who became an Anglican was also commissioned.

“The effect of that group through the wider church was quite significant, I think, just because of the cross-cultural dialogue that we were having really made a fantastic difference to the life of the church,” Sr Elisa said.

Christ Church is also part of Combined Churches’ Caring in Melton, which includes all the mainline churches, providing 60-70 food parcels a week, a financial counselling service and trying to raise the profile of Christians in Melton.

“In a town like this where there’s so much need and the churches on the whole are a little bit pushed to the side, to actually be effective in outreach and mission, we need to be working together recognising our value as God’s people together. So that’s been a really significant thing.”

One couple who were drug addicts were on Sr Elisa’s doorstep all the time, which she admits became very burdensome, but with the help of the local MP’s community development workers and others they got into detox and improved their lives.

Sr Elisa had her own struggle with breast cancer, which put her out of action for six months.

“I feel profoundly grateful that God has been able to use me, and it’s who I am more than what I do, I think.”

In Ballarat, she will be close to her 92-year-old mother and to some old friends from church days in Adelaide, including Bishop Garry Weatherill.

“I have a very strong Anglo-Catholic background but I have moved a long way from that ... so I’m really hoping that I can bring some of that broader stuff that has become part of who I am into my ministry when I go there.”