Today we come to honour and say farewell to Joan Sheppard, probably one of our tiniest sisters, yet one of the biggest in her thinking and exercise of real care and education for all people, especially the not so well off. Joan was a Sydneyite born in 1925 and daughter of Nora and Victor Sheppard. When Joan was quite young she spent a year with her grandmother in Adelaide which seems to have been a valuable experience for her. She was lonely but loved her grandparents, and young though she was, reflected on God and life. “My key relationship at that time was with God. My significant people were the saints”. She had three brothers and one sister. Two of her brothers were in the War and spent years in Changi. When they returned to Australia they were, like so many others, wrecks of their former selves. It was not surprising that they died earlier than the rest of the family. Her one sister, named Betty, and her younger brother, Bill, died in more recent years.
Joan entered the Marist Sisters novitiate in 1949 and was professed in 1951. After one year of profession Joan went to Teachers Training College and was then sent to Melbourne to teach in our school there. This was the time of mass migration to Australia, many of whom were Catholic parents who were anxious for their children to have a Catholic education. The result for Joan was that she had a class of 130 primers! What was astounding was, that this recently graduated teacher, was able to manage as well as she would have with 30! From 1954 to 1973 she moved between Burwood and Merrylands, which had the same kind of migrant intake. After teaching for so many years in Melbourne or Merrylands, she turned to a new apostolate.
All this time she had been having contact with Catholic children who were at the State school and giving them instruction in their Faith outside of school hours. She could see how important this was but realised it would be much better if she could do so in the State schools. She spoke of this to her superior who was then in touch with the Bishop of the area, Bishop Kelly, and he could see the needs of the children of Western Sydney at this time. The Bishop then asked to talk with Sr Joan and the deed was settled. From 1973 to 1979 Joan was engaged in this work, but also helping other catechists and writing a book, suitable to give to all children in State schools, of First Reconciliation and First Communion, which was used throughout Sydney. This work continued to 1979 then Joan went in 1980 to Woolwich to teach in the parish school in Gladesville Road , with a short break in Mackay in 1983 and then back to Merrylands. As one of the sisters remembered, what was essential in all this, was that Joan loved and enjoyed the children, ever finding their misdemeanours amusing.
In 1986 she took up pastoral work in Merrylands and in 1987 was appointed to St Patricks, Church Hill, which for her was a different sphere of work though still of a pastoral nature. Here she remained for three years and was then appointed to Richmond to continue the same work of pastoral duties.
Another aspect of Joan’s life was her extraordinary gift of supporting the very poor and sometimes illiterate people, quite a few of whom were adults. With these people she had the gift of conversation, making sure they never were in danger of losing their dignity. From 1993 to 1995 she was on the staff of Marian House and then in 1986 was teaching and doing CCD work at Marist College, Woolwich. In 2001 she was due for a good break and chose to live for a time in Gilroy Village. Then when it was realised she was not well, she moved to Marian House and in 2004 to Our Lady of Consolation, Rooty Hill, where she died after a prolonged term of illness.
Joan was generous with her time, had a terrific sense of humour and was very good company. There was a down side when she could be quite cranky but her good humour certainly outweighed this. This year, just a month ago, on the exact date of her first profession she was able, though very ill, to renew her vows with her companions, on the exact date of her Diamond Jubilee of Profession, the 15th July. A big thanks to Sr Beverly and Sr Judith who arranged this, when the group met at Our Lady of Consolation Home for this little ceremony. Judith has been caring for Joan in this period of illness over a number of years, made more fruitful by her own expertise in this field. Joan died on the 17th August, 2011. In Joan’s own words written some years ago for the children in her catechetical programme,
God loves me, God calls me, Lord here I am.
In answer to your call I come, in answer to your love I bring
the life that you gave me.