Humble sister helped many in her international roles

9 Sr Emerentiana

A Kiwi religious sister from the deep south, who represented the Vatican at the World Council of Churches in Geneva in the 1990s, has died in Auckland.

Sr Mary Emerentiana, SMSM, died on March 7. She was 92 years old.

She served in many ways for her religious congregation – the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary – including being its congregational leader in Rome in the 1980s.

At her funeral on March 11 at Holy Cross church, Papatoetoe, her fellow SMSM sister, Sr Patricia Leamy, explained in her eulogy that Sr M. Emerentiana – known as “Em” or by her initials of “SME” – was likely the most travelled sister in the history of their congregation.

Referring to a reading on the previous Sunday, Sr Patricia said, “God told Abram: ‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you.’”

“Surely no other SMSM sister has travelled as she has – not only to those many countries where our sisters work, but also to the Czech Republic, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Romania, Jordan, even Russia, in her role at the World Council of Churches.”

Born in 1927 and raised in Brydone near Gore in Southland, Monica Frances Cooney did her schooling in Gore, South Dunedin and Invercargill, where she was taught by the Mercy and Dominican Sisters.

She was dux twice at St Catherine’s, Invercargill, leaving there with a University Scholarship and qualifications in shorthand and typing.

She left Southland for Wellington, and worked for a year in the office of the then-Prime Minister, Peter Fraser. When Parliament was in session, she took her turn as a Hansard reporter.

In 1946, she entered the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary and made her first vows in 1949. In preparation for her later missionary work, she did teacher training and university study, gaining an MA in English Literature, a Diploma of Education and a Secondary Teachers’ Certificate.

She then went to Samoa in 1956 and had a huge impact, setting up St Mary’s College in Vaimoso, a Catholic secondary school for girls.

Sr Patricia said Sr M. Emeretiana’s early years in Samoa were among the happiest of her life. She praised her personal and “hands-on approach”.

“It was through her insistence on the highest possible standards that gave St Mary’s the reputation which it enjoys.”

Various roles in the SMSMs followed, including being congregational leader in Rome, until the Vatican invited Sr M. Emerentiana to be its representative at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Sr Patricia explained: “From 1990-1997, sister was the Roman Catholic consultor at the WCC, serving two terms in this capacity in the Mission and Evangelism Unit. She wrote that this work was an opening to a world beyond that of the Catholic Church, to the world of other Christians and other faiths. Working with brothers and sisters of other confessions and sharing in interfaith dialogue was a very enriching experience for her. She considered it a special privilege to pray daily with other Christians, to share their theological insights and understanding of church, and to do this, not only in Geneva itself, but also in many national churches in different countries that they visited as teams.

“She became a dedicated champion of the duty to pray and work for unity, not only among churches, but among all peoples.

“When she left the WCC to return to Rome, a senior colleague described this Mary-like woman as ‘an icon’ . . . ,” Sr Patricia said.

For the following 20 years, Sr M. Emerentiana’s work focused on the history and spirituality of her congregation. She assisted with SMSM renewal groups and worked closely with other branches of the Marist family. She researched and wrote about the congregation’s early sisters in the Pacific, which involved collecting many of their letters. Of particular interest were those of the sisters who were instrumental in beginning Pacific congregations of women in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and the Solomons.

Sr Patricia summed up her fellow religious as a “humble, wisdom figure who radiated joy”, who had left a substantial legacy.

The SMSM sisters and many others are immensely grateful to God for the blessing that Sr M. Emerentiana has been for so many people.

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Michael Otto

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