In Australia, Catholics and Protestants aid organisations united to promote one annual appeal for funds for overseas aid. They promoted this appeal through advertisements and leaflets. Forty years ago I suggested to the organisers of this annual appeal that a public gathering in each Australian capitol city would not only help their cause and but also provide a focus for joint Catholic and Protestant Christian action. As the draw-card for these events, I suggested bringing to Australia the Medical Mission Sisters.
The Medical Mission Sisters were an Order of Catholic Nuns, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who were world famous because of their music. In particular, the composer, Miriam Therese Winter’s songs were sung in Protestant and Catholic churches across Australia. Her album, Joy is like the Rain, won a Grammy Award and went gold in 1960 and her ‘Mass for a Pilgrim People’ was recorded live in Carnegie Hall.
Everyone thought it was a good idea and I was given the job of organising their tour.
To set up the tour I traveled to Philadelphia. We were all in for a big surprise. The choir of Sisters, as pictured above, no longer existed. Instead their music was now performed by a trio, the central person being Miriam Therese Winter. The Sisters in this Order had abandoned the traditional nun’s garb and were now in mufti, everyday street clothes. Nor did they live in the Order’s Mother House, but in suburban apartments.
For my stay they accommodated me in the priest’s quarters in their Mother House – a facility as big as a high school but now completely empty. I had traveled light – hand luggage only – displaying my complete enthusiasm for new drip dry fashion. Believing implicitly in the blurb on the label, ‘will dry indoors overnight’, I washed all my clothes – all my cothes.
At 8am the next morning the phone woke me. It was the Sisters telling me they would arrive at 9am for our all-day conference. Panic! Due to the humid night, my clothes hadn’t dried. I attached my shirt to a huge upright fan and let it rip. I had no choice but to go without underpants. But what about my socks which were completely soggy.? The only thing with an element in the apartment was the toaster. I laid my socks on the top of it and turned it on. Shortly there was an acrid smell and I found that the heat of the toaster had melted holes in my nylon socks – my only pair. By squiggling them around I could keep the melted parts in the shoe. In this way, sans underwear, I was ready to face the nun trio when they arrived at 9am.
It was a very taxing and intense day. We met in the tiny lounge of the apartment. By lunch time I felt we had used all the air in the room. I suggested a change of venue – for example, to eat our sandwiches in the beautiful grounds or a nearby park. This was rejected outright. We were to stay in this one room until all of their concerns were answered and their conditions met.
Their itinerary would take them around Australia and I asked was there anything in particular they would like to see. The idea of spending time in scenic locations was completely rebuffed. They made it clear that they were not coming as tourists, but rather as mission sisters. Their intention was to work, work, work for the glory of God.
I met them at Sydney’s airport. It was as I was pushing the cart with their heavy bags that it dawned on me that something had changed. “Will we see Ayre’s Rock?” “Will we go to the Barrier Reef?” These trips were nowhere on my programme. They had so impressed me with their desire to work, work work, that I had planned an itinerary to facilitate these requests. Their response to my explanation was frosty. This was the first inkling I had of trouble ahead.
I had to accompany the Nuns to every event – except NZ where someone else organised the Auckland concert. Not only did I help with the bags but I also was involved with the tech side of things. Their singing and stories were backed with slides of the Medical Mission Sisters’ work, mainly in Africa. The theme of every event was caring, sharing, and love.
But, for me each presentation filled me with dread. What would I get wrong today/tonight? The audiences were huge and everyone left full of hope and joy, except me. In each city we had a reception of church leaders to meet the Sisters – a kind of religious cocktail party. On a number of occasions, I noticed that the bishops and dignitaries were looking rather disapprovingly in my direction. I gained the distinct impression that the Sisters were telling them what a terrible person I was.
The last event was in the Melbourne Town Hall. The officious, official Town Hall sound-man would not let me near any of his equipment nor was he open to my advice. During the performance mike feed-back screeched into the presentation. I knew I was for it. After the performance I explained that I had nothing to do with-amplification but it made no difference. The buck stopped with me and I was simply incompetent.
Three weeks after they left, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth hosted a reception in the same Town Hall. According to the press this event was marred by recurring mike feed-back. Three days after this I read in the Melbourne Age that the Town Hall’s sound man had taken early retirement. In a vain attempt at self-justification, I sent this news to the Sisters. There was no reply.
Guaged by the numbers who attended and the excellent work of the Sisters and their wonderful songs the tour was a great success. For me, it was like the end of the world, at least the end of my world in public life. The final farewell was as it had to be; polite and formal but nothing more.
I was left depleted, empty and lacking confidence. I had another Australia-wide tour in a month. This time with the extraordinary American Christian Educator, Dennis C Benson. I rang him and asked that he cancel his tour. I confessed to him that I was completely unsuited to the task of tour organising. Dennis would hear none of it and insisted that he come.
It was in the second week of this tour that I was sure I was having a heart attack. However, it was just nerves. In the end this tour was a great success and through it I regained my equilibrium. Thoughts of being a hermit in a cave were expelled from my mind.
From time to time most of us will find a person or persons hard to get along with. Somehow, for some reason that may not be obvious, we strike sparks off each other - it could be personality or it may be in a particular circumstance. That doesn’t mean that they are bad people, or that I am a bad person. That is just how it is. Now when I realise this is the dynamic of a relationship, I do what I can to calm the situation from my side, and if nothing works, to limit my exposure to it. There are lots of other people with whom deep and harmonious relationships are possible.
Miriam Therese Winter has gone on to have a wonderfully productive life. Her books and songs reach a large audience. From everything I have read of her I note that we are both on similar wavelengths. For a month way back in time we weren’t. That’s life. But we still managed to do something worthwhile together.