Sr Mary Sarah Galbraith is a Dominican Sister of St Cecilia and the local superior of the Dominican Sisters in Bacchus Marsh. Last year, she celebrated 33 years as a religious sister. She shares with us the story of her journey as a bride of Christ.
Sr Mary Sarah was 20 years old when she first felt the call to religious life. As a biology student at a state university in the USA, she began to feel ‘a bit restless’. ‘I started to think, “Oh, maybe this is a call.” But, like many people, I didn’t really want it to be a call.’ While she thought that the idea of religious life would go away as she went through the process of visiting ‘many convents’ and ‘ticking all the boxes’, God had other plans.
When she finally arrived in Nashville, at the mother house for the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, she knew that was exactly the place for her. ‘I had never met [the sisters] before,’ Sr Mary Sarah says, ‘but I felt like I already knew them, almost like going to a family reunion—that feeling, but not knowing anyone in the room.’ She describes this encounter with the sisters as a ‘particular grace’ that allowed her to know with certainty that this was where the Lord wanted her to be.
‘When I met the sisters, and the joy that radiated from them—not just happiness but joy in the Lord—that was really evident to me. Immediately, I was attracted to that.’ It didn’t take her too long to make a decision, and three months later, Sr Mary Sarah entered the St Cecilia mother house on the feast day of the Assumption of Our Lady.
Entering the convent opened a ‘whole wide world’, Sr Mary Sarah says. At the beginning, she was especially moved by the experience of celebrating feast days with ‘such solemnity and depth of worship’. And being exposed to St Thomas Aquinas—whom she refers to as ‘an old friend’—completely changed her life.
‘I was invited into a conversation [with St Thomas] when I was in my twenties, and I have just never stopped. I continue to read St Thomas from start to finish, every page. And then, when I’m done, I just start all over again. I always want to be in a conversation with the truth, the beauty, the knowledge of God’s love and how we participate in that,’ she says.
Sr Mary Sarah was captivated by St Thomas’ commitment to exploring every possible question about the faith. ‘Sometimes people think that, in matters of faith, you should stop asking questions, right? Because it is all a mystery, and we are not supposed to explore the mystery. But St Thomas did the opposite: he spent his whole life just asking questions about God.’
I always want to be in a conversation with the truth, the beauty, the knowledge of God’s love and how we participate in that.
This truth ‘sets [you] free,’ Sr Mary Sarah says. ‘It is the whole orientation of your life, of your will, of what you desire. Once you come into contact with that which is true, it affects your emotions, your will, your intellect, and everything you do is oriented toward that. There is no greater joy, is there?’
Her time as a novice was ‘intense’, she says, as she didn’t leave the confines of the community. But it was also a time of ‘great knowledge’, a time where she was able to see herself through the eyes of God and to truly experience his saving grace, a time of ‘constant prayer, discernment, study, growth in self-knowledge and growth in the knowledge of God’.
One of the great challenges in today’s society, Sr Mary Sarah says, is that people want to attain holiness themselves. ‘With all good intentions, [people say], “I want to be holy. I want to be good. I want to live in truth.” But sometimes we place that burden upon ourselves to make all that happen.’ According to Sr Mary Sarah, though, St Thomas offers a different approach: ‘We are just meant to enter into that goodness and then share it with everyone else; it is already there, in God. All we have to do is participate in [it].’
Sr Mary Sarah shares that some of her most cherished memories of being a novice are of playing sports with the sisters. ‘We were a bit of a sporty group. We had a lot of fun with that ... We played a lot of volleyball, a lot of soccer, a lot of baseball ... We loved it!’
We are meant to enter into that goodness and then share it with everyone else; it is already there, in God. All we have to do is participate.
Another cherished memory, she says, is of writing and exchanging letters with her family—letters that she keeps to this day. ‘They’re precious, and my parents are both deceased now, so it’s even more the sweetness of that correspondence in those days. I was very blessed to have their support and their interest in what was happening. I think that made a huge difference.’
Sr Mary Sarah took her final vows at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, in Nashville. From that day, she remembers being ‘overwhelmed with the mercy of God’.
‘You begin to understand more deeply what it is that you have been given, and what you’ve been called to do,’ she says. ‘And you really can’t believe it, you know? You can’t believe that the Lord would ask you to enter into a relationship like this. You realise how little you deserve any of this and how good God is.’
The charism of the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia is expressed in a contemplative focus and an active apostolate. This active apostolate is lived out in the classroom, where the sisters strive to educate young people in the Catholic faith. Speaking about her role as a teacher, Sr Mary Sarah says, ‘You can’t teach children you don’t love; you have to love them with the love of God first.’
Sr Mary Sarah points to the limitations of human understanding in this respect. ‘We’re so limited in what we see. So we make our plans, and we have our meetings, and we show up to our classes. But all the while, the Holy Spirit is at work in ways that we do not see and may never understand. We put too much emphasis on our own efforts when, really, he is doing all the work.’
You can’t teach children you don’t love; you have to love them with the love of God first.
Sr Mary Sarah has been in the teaching profession for more than 30 years, first as a teacher and now as a principal. In 2018, she was assigned to Melbourne and taught at the then Catholic Regional College, now St Francis Catholic College. Reflecting on what it meant for her to leave her homeland, she says, ‘I’ve always been drawn to this thought that you can be a friend of God ... So going back to that observation of turning to my friend—my best friend—and saying, “Wow, where are we going now? What’s this adventure?” And “Let’s go” ... because if you have a friend with you, it doesn’t matter where you’re going or who you’re going to be with or what you’re going to be asked to do. Your friend is with you, and it’s going to be great.’
It is in the difficult times that our friendship with God becomes even more ‘tangible,’ Sr Mary Sarah says. ‘You realise in the really difficult times of life that he has never left you—ever—and will never leave you.’ In the end, it all comes down to God’s saving grace. ‘I know we speak a bit about original sin, but I think sometimes we forget that before there was original sin, there was original grace,’ she says.
I’ve always been drawn to this thought that you can be a friend of God ... If you have a friend with you, it doesn’t matter where you’re going or who you’re going to be with or what you’re going to be asked to do. Your friend is with you, and it’s going to be great.
‘We’re slowly going back to that state of original grace, which is “Thy kingdom come”—heaven on earth. It is that which Adam and Eve experienced before the fall ... Through God’s grace, we’re living out our baptismal promises.’ The way St Thomas puts it, Sr Mary Sarah says, is that ‘grace is the beginning of glory in us.’ We are baptised in the Holy Spirit—the Sanctifier—and it is through his grace that we bear much fruit.
We tend to ‘just float through life’, she says, not asking ourselves, ‘What does my heart desire?’ But according to Sr Mary Sarah, sincere desire is our most effective motivator. ‘If I have to do all these things to please God—to fulfil my obligation—it’s not a relationship; it’s not a friendship ... The practice of virtue, the practice of selflessness, becomes easier when you’re driven by the desire to grow and to know, to know more, to love more.’
You realise in the really difficult times of life that he has never left you—ever—and will never leave you.
Sr Mary Sarah is now the principal at St Bernard’s Primary School in Bacchus Marsh. Outside of school, the Dominican Sisters run the Lamps Alight ministry in collaboration with the Anima Women’s Network. This ministry focuses on the dignity of women in the Church, including in their roles as spouses and mothers, in intellectual life, in the political sphere and in other areas of public life.
Sr Mary Sarah also assists with a group for Catholic school teachers, where they discuss the beauty of teaching in light of the Catholic Tradition, and with a local faith-formation group for families in Bacchus Marsh. She says that what brings her the most joy today is ‘being at the service of the Lord, in this particular place, at this particular time’.
Fiona Basile04 August 2023
Andrea Cano Botero02 November 2023