by MINA AMSO
Three days after her 21st birthday, Sr Elizabeth of the Trinity (McSwigan) stepped into the Carmelite monastery in Christchurch. That’s just over 69 years ago and she’s never looked back.
“Well I look back now and think ‘good heavens I can’t believe it’. I’ve never regretted it. I’ve been here since the 16th of July, 1951,” Sr Elizabeth recalled.
That’s a lifetime.
“A cousin of mine said, if you don’t stay, I’ll help you. She meant financially. And I thought in my heart ‘I am coming to stay and, if they don’t want me, they can send me away’. But I was determined to stay. And here I am.”
Sr Elizabeth remembered vividly the moment she bid farewell to her mother, before she boarded the train to join the sisters. The “God bless You” said by her mother stuck with Sr Elizabeth to this very day.
Silence, solitude and the life of prayer attracted the 18-year-old to the Carmelite life. The best advice from a priest she received once was ‘don’t take any notice of what other people think or say to you, only pray,’ and she did.
Sr Elizabeth’s 90th birthday was the occasion of a big celebration on July 13 at the monastery, with 16 priests and many people present.
She is sharper than ever, able to recall specific stories, situations and moments in her life with clarity and detail.
A young person once asked Sr Elizabeth: ‘Sister, you must miss going to the supermarket?”
“I’ve never been in a supermarket before, they didn’t exist [at the time she entered the monastery],” she laughed.
Reading the lives of the saints and connecting with Mary are key for Sr Elizabeth’s spiritual journey. She also loves little, short prayers and says them throughout the day. Prayers like “Jesus I love you. Share your love with me. Share your life with me”. She said it anchors her soul and keeps her in union with God.
“If you want to learn about Jesus turn to Mary. Keep Mary in mind, and Jesus will grow in your heart.
“God is dwelling in our souls. When we get baptised, we receive the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is the presence of God in our lives [that] is important.
“To think God dwells not only in heaven, but right here in our own souls through baptism, and we’ve got to learn to live with him and be in that silence and that solitude, the stillness, to listen to him. Not to the attractions of the world.”
Mother Dorothea Mary of Jesus said the community has been fortunate to have Sr Elizabeth.
“We have been blessed to have Sr Elizabeth as our prioress for a good number of years, with her gentle, unassuming nature,” she said.
Sr Elizabeth is also a trained seamstress, whose work included making habits for sisters, choir mantles, and the upkeep of these over the years.
At the Christchurch monastery, there are nine fully professed sisters, and two novices who have made their first profession, all aged between 28 to 90.