Twenty-three years ago, a group was formed to support religious women from small congregations living in Melbourne who had come from overseas to serve within the local Church. Today, representing 31 congregations, the ‘Small is Beautiful’ network lives on, the only group of its kind in Australia, bringing together religious women (and now some religious men) for formation, friendship and support.

Sr Jill Harding, of the Melbourne-based Family Care Sisters, was one of the founding members of Small is Beautiful (SIB) all those years ago. She had travelled to Sydney to take part in a national Catholic Religious Australia conference, and participants had been invited to submit topics for discussion. Inspired by previous conversations she’d had with Sr Carol Hogan, a Blessed Sacrament sister (now deceased), Sr Jill suggested a session on addressing the needs of smaller congregations, where women usually came from overseas and had few resources and little support. Together with Sr Mary Reaburn, a sister of our Lady of Sion, Sr Jill led a breakout session at the conference that posed many questions about the needs of smaller congregations (those with 16 members or fewer in the community). It was so well attended, and so many questions were asked, that further action seemed necessary.

‘When we left that room, some of the Victorian religious gathered together and said, “What can we do?” And that was the beginning of Small is Beautiful,’ says Sr Jill. ‘It’s amazing what can happen when you put a few key women in a room together!’

Back in Victoria, the inaugural gathering was held at the Family Care Sisters’ home in Canterbury, in Melbourne’s East, with 40 religious women attending, most of them from overseas but now living in Melbourne. These initial gatherings provided an opportunity for the women to connect and get to know each other, to know there were others in a similar situation, to share food and stories from their various cultures and experiences, and to form friendships.

‘We wanted to provide a network where the women felt supported and that they knew there were people who could help in whatever way we could, whether big or small,’ says Sr Jill. ‘At that time, too, we wanted to make sure all members of the congregations were receiving information, from the superior right down to the newest or most junior member.’

Today there are about 100 different congregations serving within the Archdiocese of Melbourne, including many small congregations, with their ministries ranging from education, aged care and pastoral care to youth support and ministry, and parish ministry. To this day, those involved in the SIB group usually have 16 members or fewer within their congregations, with some congregations now comprising only one or two religious.

‘I think members of the larger congregations don’t understand what it means to be small,’ says Sr Jill. ‘They have a whole lot of infrastructure in place—personal assistants and staff, offices with technical support, property teams and so forth. But for the smaller congregations who don’t have that, if something goes wrong with your computer or your phone, what do you do? Often you’re stuck. So it’s good to have someone to call to ask for help, and one of the committee members will often connect them in with others who can help.’

Given many of the sisters come from overseas, it can be difficult navigating the nuances of Australia’s culture and laws, and even the customs and rituals of the various communities of the Melbourne Church. ‘We’ve managed to connect with the sisters within the community and let them know what’s happening within religious life, within the Church, and how they might navigate various aspects of Australian life,’ says Sr Jill. Practical assistance has been offered by way of assisting with Visa applications, getting Working with Children Checks, understanding the safeguarding and child safety requirements, and providing advice on retreat centres and holiday homes that are available, and on spiritual directors.

Augustinian sister Lorraine Testa has been on the organising committee since 2010. She explains that there are currently 40 members who are part of SIB, ranging from their early 20s to their late 70s, with some of the women having been in Australia for more than 50 years, while others have arrived only in the past couple of months. ‘It’s not unusual for me to receive a call from one of the women saying, “Did you know these sisters are here?” and I’d say, “No, I had no idea”. So, it’s wonderful to invite them to attend our gatherings so that they can meet others, and we can provide information and support in whatever way it’s needed,’ she says.

Members of the group have come from countries such as Italy, Korea, Lebanon, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Myanmar, Mauritius, Lebanon, Malta and Ireland, just to name a few. There are those who come from Melbourne, too. Those arriving from overseas often have little or limited English and, being from small communities, often lack resources, so being part of the SIB network has helped those members to feel part of the broader religious life of Melbourne, Sr Lorraine explains.

Each year, the organising committee—Vicar for Consecrated Life Sr Veronica Hoey SGS, Sr Marian McClelland SBS, Sr Mary La Bruna SJP, Sr Michele Touissant FCS, Sr Lorraine Testa ASJM and Sr Jill Harding FCS—determine the theme for the year and topics for the gatherings. This year, the focus has been Scripture. There are usually three or four gatherings each year, with the first always being a retreat or prayer day, followed by formation sessions and networking events.

At its most recent gathering, held last month at St Francis’ Pastoral Centre in Melbourne’s CBD, about 30 religious gathered to hear renowned biblical scholar Sr Mary Coloe PBVM break open John’s Gospel. According to Sr Lorraine, ‘Sr Mary helped those gathered to delve into the richness of God’s dwelling within each of us. The participants left the day feeling not only pleased to reconnect but also leaving with learnings that surely aided in deepening their understanding of the Easter celebrations.’

Speaking about the events, Sr Lorraine says, ‘We try to give different experiences that perhaps the members would not otherwise have. Sometimes there’ll be just an individual member who’ll come from the congregation, and other times there’ll be three or four. And we’re always discovering new religious who’ve come to the Archdiocese, which is wonderful, and they’ll come along.’ Sr Jill added, ‘It’s lovely that male religious occasionally attend too. For instance, Cistercian Abbot Dom Steele Hartman OCSO (from Tarrawarra Abbey) often comes, and for him it’s very much about connecting with other people and having some input on a topic that he’s interested in, and we also gain insight from his experience of monastic life. All are welcome.’

Over the years, SIB has hosted a broad range of speakers and presentations, such as Sr Jill McCorquordale breaking open a number of Pope Francis’ encyclicals, including Laudato si’; Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM speaking on self-care and wellbeing; Sr Colleen Leonard SGS presenting on the mystics; Sr Kerin Caldwell SGS sharing on ageing gracefully; Fr Frank Moloney SDB breaking open Mark’s Gospel; and Sr Angela Ryan CBS leading an education and information session around safeguarding and child protection. Other speakers have included Sr Carole Carmody RSM, Sr Susan Richardson PBVM, Fr John Curtis SJ, Fr Frank Hennessy CP, Sr Margie Abbott RSM and Sr Tess Veenker MSC.

A highlight for members is also the annual social outing or gathering, which provides an opportunity to venture somewhere different. They’ve been on day trips to Tarrawarra Abbey to visit the Cistercian monks, and have visited the Rhododendron Gardens in the Yarra Valley. ‘When we come together, there’s always joy, there’s always laughter, and there’s always gratitude,’ says Sr Lorraine. ‘It’s important that we’re not only there in the difficult and challenging times, but also in the times of celebration and joy. If someone is celebrating a jubilee or graduation, we make sure to mark and celebrate that. It really is such a valuable thing, and we’re all so grateful that we can connect and support each other in these ways.’

Sr Veronica Hoey SGS, who has been Vicar for Consecrated Life within the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne for the past three years, says the SIB group plays a vital role in supporting small and often isolated communities. ‘These communities are a gift to the Melbourne ecclesial community in the various ways they work—often quietly, humbly and faithfully.’

Sr Veronica often attends the SIB events and, through her role and experience in safeguarding and governance within her own congregation (the Good Samaritan Sisters) and more broadly, will often provide assistance and support to the smaller congregations. She says, ‘In essence, my role is about listening to and respecting the story and tradition of congregations in whatever way they allow me to engage with them. It’s about helping and supporting them however they want to be involved in the life of the Melbourne ecclesial community, and for their own cultural realities to be nurtured so that they may flourish. We want to enable each congregation to share the gifts of their culture for mission.’

Sr Veronica sees the members of SIB as ‘people of courage’. ‘They’ve been willing to go into the deep,’ she says. ‘Recently, the Gospel reading in this Easter season extended the invitation to go deeper into the resurrected life. Some religious have come to a new country, a new context, a new culture, and they’ve shown great initiative and courage in bringing the richness of their cultural realities and their particular charisms and their Spirit-filled energy to the life of the Archdiocese.’

Adding to these sentiments, Sr Lorraine says, ‘Small is Beautiful has been in existence now for 23 years and we’re still going strong. We’re representing religious who have persistently and quietly worked, often silently within the Archdiocese of Melbourne. We want to recognise their efforts, to recognise their stories and how they began and that we’re with them on this journey, and to say to each other, “Well done, good and faithful servants, well done.”’

The next Small is Beautiful gathering will take place on 15 July in the Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish Centre, Deepdene, in Melbourne’s east. Dr Elissa Roper, a theologian with a strong focus on synodality, will speak. For more information about the group or upcoming events, please contact Sr Lorraine Testa.