Sixty years ago, as an idealistic 21-year-old seeking to do good, I made the unusual decision to enter the convent. Twenty years later, on the other side of the world, that decision would play a major part in meeting the love of my life, another nun – my soulmate.
I came from a typical Catholic family of that time. We accepted without question all the church teachings, a slow-drip indoctrination. I happily embarked on this path, becoming a “bride of Christ” (a peculiar, inexplicable ritual) and donning the veil and habit to signify I was set apart from the enticements of the world.
I loved teaching, but after some years I became disenchanted with the path I was on, and requested leave of absence from religious life. I travelled to South America. It was the first step towards meeting Peg. I still can’t explain why I chose to return to the convent, but that choice, at the fork in the road, took me on the path to her.
Back in Australia, I obtained a social work degree and proceeded to work in a community health centre, serving the needs of high-rise flat residents in Melbourne’s North Richmond. They were predominantly newly settled migrants and refugees. The work was challenging but rewarding and the team of health workers an inspiration.
During those years I was corresponding with an American Mercy nun working in Nicaragua, a country racked with political turmoil and violence. She invited me to join her small group working among the poor.
At the time I was an active member of Amnesty International and very involved in the struggles of people across the globe. I was drawn to take up her offer and approached our governing board to ask permission. My request to go to Nicaragua was refused because of the dangerous situation, but I was offered the opportunity to go to Chile instead. Two Australian Mercies were already working there with American Mercies.
And so it came to pass, eight years after first setting foot on Latin American soil I was on my way to meeting the love of my life.
I met this beautiful woman in Santiago, Chile, in 1983. She was an American, a Franciscan nun who had been living and working in Chile some 17 years. It wasn’t love at first sight, but only months later I fell for her deeply.
Love is a wonderful thing! When it happens, you want to shout if from the rooftops – you want the world to know about this extraordinary experience. But the world didn’t want to know about us, the homosexuals. In fact there were many who preached that hate, discrimination and even death were only fitting for the likes of us.
We moved in together. While we wanted to continue our work with disadvantaged women, we could not remain members of our respective religious groups. Our relationship was strictly taboo and vehemently condemned by the church hierarchy. In order to request dispensation from our vows, we had to write to the Catholic hierarchy in Rome. By return mail we were promptly set free.
We continued our life together in Chile for another nine years, an experience difficult to encapsulate in just a few words. We lived under a brutal military dictatorship but found our work with the shanty town women, and the friendships of other professional women inspired us, carrying us through the dark times. And above all we had each other.
Then we moved back to my home country Australia. It was here that an unexpected challenge arose. In 2003 the Vatican issued an edict to all the Catholic bishops in every diocese across the globe.
In this many-paged document, the Roman cardinals described homosexuals as “seriously depraved” and “evil”. They particularly directed their instructions to the Catholic politicians of the world, telling them they were “morally obligated” to oppose any legislation that would grant us equal rights, and if such laws already existed, they were to do all in their power to repeal them.
Peg and I had long since left the church and pronouncements from the Vatican did not concern us but this blistering attack on a global scale did. It meant that their dictates aimed to impose their beliefs on our secular society and to deprive us of basic human rights. I immediately wrote a letter to the then Archbishop George Pell, my second cousin.
I challenged him to look me in the eye and describe me as seriously depraved. I asked him to consider what he was doing to people like us, the harm his church was inflicting, and much more.
He ignored me. After several attempts to contact him, I asked the Age to publish it as an open letter.
The response from the public was widespread: affirmative, grateful and appreciative.
In the intervening years the damaging condemnations from the Vatican have thankfully been ignored by most Australians and we have equal rights in almost every aspect of our lives.
Over the years my beloved Peg and I had often discussed the societal barriers to our relationship as the campaigners for equality determinedly pursued their goal. I will always be grateful to these brave warriors. It was a long and arduous and at times very painful and humiliating battle to achieve the same rights as heterosexuals: to eliminate our second-class citizenship status.
We decided should the marriage equality law ever eventuate we would declare our commitment to each other in a public ceremony –with a big party! It would be one small contribution to the elimination of “otherness” that so many still experience.
Those same years have revealed the horrors, the pain and anguish the prelates of this church have inflicted on innocent, vulnerable children by the millions across the globe. They have lost all credibility, especially in claiming the moral high ground on any issue.
I would hope that the good and decent Catholic believers may one day soon decide they no longer need this clerical caste to serve their God and return to meeting in small groups like the early Christians, sharing eucharist, striving to be humane and compassionate people.
When the memorable day we achieved marriage equality – 7 December 2017 – finally came the parliament erupted in jubilation.
As I sat alone watching history unfolding, I wept.
My beautiful Peg had died six years before of gall bladder cancer – it was 12 weeks from diagnosis to death. My tears flowed on one hand for joy, for all those who would benefit from this huge shift in society, and on the other in deep sadness because we would not step out together in a public ritual and declare to all and sundry: “Look at how we love one another!”
Peg with her joy of living and her fun-filled nature would have made it the most memorable wedding ever. I cannot put into words how I miss her touch and her tenderness every single day.