Sisters of Today

Sister Barbara Cowan

Profiled in November 2005Barbara_Cowan

Kia ora koutou Greetings

I was born in Hastings in the early years of World War II so saw very little of my father until 1945. As he was a schoolteacher, my mother, one sister and two brothers moved as his appointments changed. My primary schooling blossomed at the Hawera Convent School under the watchful eye of Sr Charles, my great-aunt! I appreciate the excellent educational grounding I received from the Sisters of St Joseph including music lessons from the age of 6. However, the conflict between music practice and sport dogged me throughout both my primary and secondary school years!

For reasons still a mystery to me I spent my Secondary School years as a boarder at Sacred Heart College in Whanganui. The expectation to sit music examinations beyond my years again conflicted with my love of sport, other studies and time for socialising.

I believe one never knows whether one makes ‘right' decisions. We can do only what we think is best at the time. At the age of 12 I felt a strong mystical God-presence and a desire to one day choose a pathway that sustained that experience.

In 1958 I entered the community of the Sisters of St Joseph. Sisters who were role models for me helped me persevere! It became clear that teaching music and speech to individual students and singing classes as part of the College curriculum were to be my main ministry. Going to Victoria University and graduating with a Bachelor of Music Degree was a wonderful, freeing experience, moving in an enriching world that was not generally possible as a woman religious in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

While I taught also a wide range of subjects at Sacred Heart College , surprisingly to me it is musical opportunities girls experienced they now tell me they appreciated so much. For some it was the discovery that they could sing and enjoy it, for others the confidence achieved when given a chance. In those days, Class Music was ‘boring' for so many students, an attitude which made teaching difficult. Producing Musical Shows with Sr Justin, involving boys and girls from St Augustines and Sacred Heart was hard work and a lot of fun - highlights I remember with delight.

An appreciation of my musical opportunities expanded when I was invited to assist Sr Isobel and the St Peter Chanel Maori Club with their Huiaranga Choral item. The aroha and mutual appreciation I have experienced with Maori communities in Whanganui in particular are blessings and precious memories. The performance of Handel's Alleluia Chorus, sung in te Reo Maori by the Matapihi Group for Te Matatini National Festival 2005 and later for our 125 th anniversary was a wonderful moment in my relationship with the people of Nga Paerangi/Te Atihaunui-a-Paparangi. Tena koutou katoa, e hoa ma!

One of my brothers is autistic and I have been involved with IHC and the monitoring of the residential services they provide. This has been through a Government-funded Standards and Monitoring Service, a rewarding responsibility ensuring that people with intellectual disabilities are well supported and accommodated.

A cancer diagnosis in the ‘90s led to my making the ultimate decision to have my right leg amputated. While a huge adjustment for me, it has connected me with another group of people. I have been able to walk alongside others preparing to face or who had already faced a similar traumatic experience.

It has become clear to me that I have not had to search for ‘ministry' - ministry has found me. When Sr Kristine and I came to Palmerston North 18 years ago, both of us having completed 10 years' ministry on our leadership group, I wondered what I would ‘do'. Having wrestled with the question, ‘Who benefits from social institutions in this land?' and discovered Maori people were those most disadvantaged, the significance of Te Tiriti of Waitangi for every citizen and organization mapped out a direction and way of life for me. I journey with Methodist Social Services staff members in their commitment to respond to similar questions that underpinned a defining moment for me some years previously and value deeply an evolving relationship the Sisters have with Tamareheroto one of the Hapu of Nga Rauru.

When my life hung in the balance in 1999 the only reality from that world view that mattered was, ‘ To love and be loved '. Mary Mackillop urged her Sisters to ‘ Never see a need and do nothing about it '. Both call on unconditional love for people and for the earth, and if my ministry could ever be summed up in those words that would be enough.

Aroha mai, aroha atu.

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