Sr Marian McClelland SSS remembers she was 16 years old when she felt a deep call ‘to be with’ Jesus, specifically, and later with God. It is a call that has remained central over her 50-plus years of being a consecrated sister, first with the Faithful Companions of Jesus and later with the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament sisters. As the last Blessed Sacrament sister in Australia, Sr Marian shares with us her call to ‘be present to God and others’, and the blessings of being able to do ‘what she loves’.
Sr Marian was born in Sydney in 1948 to Frank and June McClelland, one of five children. Her father had been a pilot in World War II and moved the family when she was a baby to East Ivanhoe, a suburb that was just starting to ‘blossom and bloom after the war’.
Having attended the local state school for a number of years, she enrolled at Genazzano FCJ College in nearby Kew. ‘Though family life wasn’t a wildly pious sort of thing, I did learn the “Our Father” before attending Genazzano,’ she says. ‘Dad said they'd probably want me to know that.’
Marian can recall that ‘religion was a big thing’ at Genazzano, with many of the teaching staff being nuns. ‘And of course, they were always looking for recruits!’ she says. She can remember in about Form 3 (Year 9) her teacher ‘going on about’ the vocation to religious life and something striking a chord in her, but not before having already developed and recognised within herself an ability to talk to God.
‘I had learned to talk to God inside me as a young girl,’ she says. ‘I can’t quite recall how that happened, but it did. We used to visit the chapel before school, especially in senior school, and for me, it was no problem to go and make a visit and pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.’
She also recalls a moment in her local parish church when she was sitting in the pew, with light streaming through the stained-glass windows: ‘It was just after communion, and I felt this sense of loving God and feeling I wanted to be close to Jesus, at that stage, and the growing sense that he wanted me to be with him. And I still have this phrase in my head: “to teach his little ones”. And so I thought about it a lot, and by the time I was 16, I was thinking, “This is what I want to do.”’
When she told her parents of her intention to join the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ), they requested that she complete her secondary studies first and go to university for at least one year before joining the FCJs. She enrolled at the University of Melbourne to study Indian studies, East Asian studies, English literature and politics. All through that time, she regularly visited the sisters at Genazzano. ‘I went out a bit, but there was no sense of adventure about exploring sex or anything like that, because my heart was given,’ she says. ‘It was always just that sense of a call to be with God.’
Sr Marian joined the FCJ novitiate and after First Profession went back to university to complete her studies. She graduated with majors in English literature and politics and a sub-major in Indian studies through the University of Melbourne. She then went on to do a Diploma of Education at La Trobe University.
Meanwhile, her vocation with the FCJ sisters took a turn when she attended a liturgy course with the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament sisters in Armadale in 1972 under the tutelage of Passionist priest Fr Greg Manley— ‘a terrific teacher’ according to Sr Marian. ‘The course opened my eyes to a whole different way of praying,’ she says.
‘Greg introduced the notion of silence—which is there in the books, but nobody takes any notice of it—after the first reading and silence after the second reading, because there’s a message in those readings. And that we were to proclaim, not read. It was about actually paying attention to what you were doing, instead of just gabbling away. ‘It involved you deeply, and you felt there is something very deep and very special and very spiritual about the Eucharist, if we make it like that. But not if we just go on and on.’
As well as this deepening knowledge, she was coming to know the Blessed Sacrament sisters better and had started teaching in her own class at Genazzano. Sr Marian realised she was struggling to be ‘a nun and a teacher at the same time’ and was ‘struck by the Blessed Sacrament sisters, who didn’t have to divide themselves’ between, in her case, teaching and being religious. She was feeling a deepening call to be a religious sister and not a teacher. She continued to explore this deepening call, and after speaking with her superior and the Vicar-General, Sr Marian eventually joined the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament sisters in 1974, aged 26. At the same time, she commenced a theology degree at the United Faculty of Theology, majoring in liturgy.
Sr Marian explains that the main expression of her mission with the Blessed Sacrament sisters is about presence. ‘It’s about understanding that the presence in the Eucharist is a distinct presence, but also, the presence of God is in every single person of us. And some of us are more aware of that and want to, as it were, let God be God in us, more than, say, others.’
Reading from the congregation’s Rule of Life, she says, ‘We commit ourselves to respond to Christ’s gift by the gift of ourselves, to make our whole life a Eucharist, the celebration of unity and peace and joy. Adoration in spirit and in truth.
‘So it is all about that, and seeing the world through the prism of Eucharist,’ she explains. ‘We want to see the world and human reality in the light of the Eucharist. We make them a part of ourselves in prayer, which is our primary mission.’
Sr Marian says that by the time she joined the Blessed Sacrament sisters, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) had happened, so it was a very exciting time. ‘The liturgies were absolutely wonderful. We had small groups in which we prepared the liturgy; we were learning new songs, and by that time I had a guitar so was playing with others to accompany [the singing],’ she says.
With the sisters, Sr Marian ran courses on the liturgy in parishes. The sisters were also making altar breads (the host) from their home base in Armadale as a way of earning a living. At its peak, this enterprise supplied most of Victoria with altar breads. And importantly, there was daily time in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament. ‘I took to that like a duck to water,’ says Sr Marian. ‘I just loved being able to be present and to pray for people.’
Over the years Sr Marian continued studying and teaching (with a special interest in the area of human anthropology), and served as liturgical coordinator in a nearby parish and then in a school. She has also been leader of the Blessed Sacrament sisters for extended periods of time.
Sadly, due to the deaths of congregation members living in Australia, Sr Marian is the only Blessed Sacrament sister left in the country. The last of her fellow Australian sisters died in March 2021. Another sister is living in New Zealand, but most of the roughly 300 remaining Blessed Sacrament sisters live in Vietnam.
She admits it is a challenge now being by herself but has formed community in other ways. She’s caught up with people who she’d met as a junior sister some 30 years ago and is also on the organising committee of Small is Beautiful, a network that supports religious women and men from small congregations. She is part of Holy Spirit parish in Ringwood, where she accompanies the singers on the electric piano, sings in the choir, proclaims the readings and is a special minister of communion. She’s also on the liturgy committee at the parish, and has family living nearby. ‘I find nourishment in prayer, of course, and feel called to contemplation,’ she says. ‘I don't find it easy, but I spend time every day in silent prayer. I also read the day’s Scriptures and coordinate a number of book-reading groups.’
The list of things for which Sr Marian is grateful is as long as her life. At 75, with 56 years as a consecrated sister, that’s a long and ‘rich life’. She says, ‘I’m grateful for everything really. I'm grateful to be a woman; I’m grateful for my family; I'm grateful to be called to religious life, and I say religious life rather than a particular congregation because it’s bigger than individual congregations.
‘Life itself is such a wonder, such a mystery and such a glory. It can be so difficult and so painful, and yet so full of promise. French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin talks about “zest”. If you don’t have zest and you don’t have meaning, why are you living? I feel very blessed and very lucky that my life has been full of meaning, and that I love what I’m doing. Blessed is a good word. I’m very blessed.’
Photos in top gallery courtesy Sr Marian McClelland SSS.