It is 1989 and Sr Joan Healy RSJ is working at a refugee camp on the Thai–Cambodian border, where she will be based for some time. In this camp, where asylum seekers are restrained by barbed wire and armed guards, she meets a young man—a medic and battlefield surgeon. He speaks to her of the broader needs of the asylum seekers, and of his dream of creating a professional health clinic incorporating Cambodian healers, where the spirit of these people can become strong again. He is 31 years old when they meet. The idea had been that Sr Joan would mentor him, but it is he who mentors her as he speaks of what it might mean to heal the heart and spirit.

Encounters with people like this young man have repeatedly, over many years, demonstrated to Sr Joan the goodness, grace and hope to be found among people living in some of the harshest and most difficult situations. These encounters have shaped and formed Sr Joan, who has been a Josephite sister for 62 years. It is a life, she says, ‘of witnessing the power of God’ acting in the people she’s met and in all the places she’s served.

Born in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s inner north, Sr Joan grew up in a community where parish life and involvement in the Young Christian Workers (YCW) were active, vibrant and ‘second nature’. She remembers standing on the corner of Swanston and Bourke streets in Melbourne’s CBD one night, while waiting for the number 1 tram to Coburg, and thinking, ‘All these people I can see around me and up the hill are totally connected in every way—and God is in the midst of that.’

She studied teaching, worked in a state-run school and, while remaining active in her local parish and YCW, started to think more deeply about those on the margins—‘those who were left out’. The next step was to immerse herself in the lives of those living in difficult and often ‘deeply poor’ situations. They became the places where she’d find people of goodness and grace, and she joined with them in all that they were trying to do ‘to change a hard situation into something better’.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council, Fr Charlie Mayne SJ—rector of the seminary for the Archdiocese of Melbourne at the time—articulated a vision of mission in which the faithful lived among people at the margins, recognising God’s Spirit among them, and joining with them in their struggles for justice and equity.

Inspired by this vision, Joan (not yet a Josephite) went to live in a rooming house and worked in an egg-carton factory among other young women. She was struck straight away by their strong bonds of friendship, their generosity and their patience. While standing in thick, wet cardboard mulch, a team of women would place egg cartons (one per second) on a fast-moving conveyor belt, where the cartons were stamped. She recalls that when she felt tired and in need of a break, the other women would over-fill the machine to create some time for everyone to rest. She was moved by their spirit of generosity.

Still active in the YCW, Joan started an ‘open house’ on Johnston Street in Abbotsford, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne. Young women would ‘pile into’ the one-bedroom boarding house, finding refuge and safety within its walls. Again, in these experiences of walking beside some of the most vulnerable, she witnessed ‘great generosity and goodness’.

‘These encounters have been gift to me,’ Sr Joan says. ‘It has always been about recognising God’s Spirit already at work among these people and joining with it.

‘The YCW gave me the opportunity to begin with Jesus in the Gospel, to share that this whole world could become a kingdom of justice, peace and joy. I had already seen injustice and exclusion, and I longed for this Church that Jesus founded to be welcoming to all, especially those most marginalised; to cease making judgments; to be a place where the most marginal could feel at home.’

During this time, Joan came across a book about Mary MacKillop on a shelf in a library. She thought, ‘This is what Mary MacKillop’s doing. It’s a way of living where you can mingle with people right out there at the margins and find God there.’

These encounters have been a gift to me. It has always been about recognising God’s Spirit already at work among [the marginalised] and joining with it.

Mary MacKillop had written, ‘There where you are, you will find God.’ Reflecting on the fact that Mary McKillop had walked along the same streets that she was walking, the 25-year-old Joan thought, ‘Why not give it a go?’ She joined the Sisters of St Joseph in 1962 and continues to find inspiration from Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop’s words: ‘Where there is a choice, go first to the most neglected parts of God’s vineyard.’

Hope is what holds it all together

Reflecting on her life and the all the ways in which she’s served, Sr Joan says that ‘everywhere has been central, right until now’. From the early, pre-Josephine days of the factories, rooming houses and rural schools to her later social work with families and children doing it tough, and her sharing with like-minded people in Catholic social services, she says, ‘Hope is what holds it all together.’

Sr Joan was one of the founding members of the organisation now known as Catholic Social Services Victoria, together with Sr Toni Matha IVBM, Fr Kevin Mogg PE and Fr Brian Stoney SJ (all of whom have since died), and she was also instrumental in helping to establish what’s now known as MacKillop Family Services.

‘I worked in child protection and family development. Parents in broken and troubled families all said, “I want my child to have a better life than I have had.”’

She has worked with young women at the start of their Josephite life, and with migrants and refugees, including in Cambodia, where she was located for many years. She served in a refugee camp on the Thai–Cambodian border for several years in the 1980s, and later within Cambodia itself while a civil war raged in the country.

‘In every place I have been sent to in my Josephite life, the seeds of hope have been there among the people,’ she said. ‘In the refugee camp and Cambodia, hope was there to be found. I came close to the goodness of women and men in those dark places. When sent to work among our novices, there was every cause to “hope for hope” among these young women. I could see God’s grace at work.

‘That’s the essence: God the Creator is still creating, even in the most difficult of situations, among the people and places in my life. I have seen this. God’s Spirit is at work; the Creator is creating. We just have to get with it.’

In every place I have been sent to in my Josephite life, the seeds of hope have been there among the people. In the refugee camp and Cambodia, hope was there to be found ... I could see God’s grace at work.

Upon her return in 1997, Sr Joan lived with Sr Joan Hamilton RSJ, who had lived among First Peoples in Redfern and was with Mutthi-Mutthi woman Joyce Smith (now deceased) when Pope John Paul II spoke the following words on the outskirts of Alice Springs in 1986: ‘The Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.’

She says, ‘I shared a house in Preston with Joan, who at that time was giving her heart and soul to fulfilling the message given by Pope John Paul II, working alongside First Nations people, who had been meeting across Melbourne and eventually found a headquarters, later known as Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. This was beautiful because it brought together, in an incredible way, my Cambodian friends and First Nations friends. I was so extremely proud to meet people of such deep, deep spirituality and connection to this land, and I came to know their stories in a much deeper way.’

Sr Joan continues to walk alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as many in the community grapple with the ‘No’ outcome of the recent national referendum that called for a Voice to Parliament for First Nations people. ‘It was a great privilege to have been able to be so close to the people during the referendum time,’ she says. ‘And I have huge respect and admiration for all those gorgeous people who were enthusiastically handing out leaflets. Again, they demonstrated that there is an abundance of goodness in the world.’

Sr Joan recognises the deep disappointment felt by many in the wake of the national referendum, but she remains committed to joining with ‘people in their struggle for justice and peace and healing’. She says, ‘For decades, I have been involved with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne, and right now, even after the devastating referendum, there is energy, zest and hope.

‘Being close to those who have a vision to shape a better world is always a privilege,’ she says. ‘I have been so inspired, totally, by the self-giving, the courage and the total focus of those who have said to me over the years, “It’s not my life that matters. It’s what we’re here for that matters.”’

Spurred on by the goodness and generosity of the people she’s met over her years of ministry—the people she calls ‘the real heroes’—Sr Joan continues to ‘see clear signs of hope’ and dreams of deep renewal in the Catholic Church’—a process that, she acknowledges, ‘takes decades’, but she takes hope ‘in all that Pope Francis says and does’.

I have been so inspired by the self-giving, the courage and the total focus of those who have said to me over the years, ‘It’s not my life that matters. It’s what we’re here for that matters.’

‘I will continue to stand for the protection and respectful care of all creation, for the cessation of war, for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, for justice, for peace, for equity.’

Sr Joan is a prolific writer and an advocate for the power of storytelling. She has written a number of books based on the experiences of the people she’s met in Cambodia, including Writing for Raksmey, Towards Restoring Life, Towards Understanding and The Unmapped Place.

Banner image: Sr Joan Healy RSJ celebrating Kmer New Year with children, Cambodia, April 2023. All photographs courtesy of Sr Joan Healy RSJ.