Here in Western Australia, we hold St Elizabeth of Hungary in special love and esteem, because of the presence here from 1928-1957 of the Anglican Sisters of St Elizabeth who worked in the south-west of this State.
Tertiary George Harvey grew up near their mother house in Bunbury and recalls the huge influence the Sisters had on him: as a server, he was particularly conscious of their devotion to worship. We would probably now regard their style of worship as old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic, but for George and the Sisters then, this worship was rich and redolent of God’s presence. That atmosphere still permeates the little chapel dedicated to St Elizabeth and pictured below.
Alongside their rich life of devotion, the Sisters devoted themselves to the care of the Group Settlers, English people who were brought to Western Australia to open up dairy farms and populate the forest country south of Bunbury. The Sisters lived in the same struggling pioneer communities in Busselton, Margaret River and elsewhere.
Those of us who live in this region know that behind the picturesque vineyards and glorious beaches lies a history of hardship, as newcomers came without farming skills to an environment that can be quite harsh and unforgiving. Huge karri and jarrah trees had to be cut down, or killed by ring-barking, thus delaying any income that the pioneers might derive from the land. And even when the land was ready for cattle, prosperity was still not to be found. It is only in recent years that better ways of living in this country are being found, as the harvesting of old-growth forests has been slowed, and tourism established as the main industry.
Back in the 1930s, the group settlement farms were isolated from one another and their communities. Families lived first in primitive shacks, and then in basic cottages, so everyday living was a struggle. The Sisters gave themselves to ministering in this poverty and remoteness and in the process wore themselves out.
Their story is told eloquently in Merle Bignells’ 1992 The Little Grey Sparrows.
The contrast between the poverty of the Sisters’ external lives and the wealth of their internal lives strikes me as one authentic way to be Franciscans: being poor, we discover ourselves, like St Francis, to have inherited the enormous wealth of creation.
In St Elizabeth’s life this contrast also shone forth: she who was a princess became poor to help the poor. But, like St Francis and her other mentor St Clare, Elizabeth did not give up the wealth she had inherited – not the wealth of her husband’s dominions (which she did forego), but the wealth of worship, the wealth of intelligent ministry to the poor, the wealth of creation and people.
For the Tertiaries of Western Australia, the plucky “little grey sparrows” have become part of the richness of our life, and we give thanks for their sacrificial service in this place. We gladly share this story with the wider Franciscan family.
Feast of St Elizabeth AD 2010