My tribute

In composing a tribute to Marnie, it was very difficult to know where to start. How does one begin to sum up the life of such a woman, this wonderful and unusual aunt of mine?

I decided to start at the beginning:

Margaret Mary Kennedy, from early times known as “Marnie’’, was born on 2nd December 1927, the second child of Peg and Jack Kennedy, and grew up in their home, Montrose, the house standing on the corner opposite this church, where her father established his medical practice.

Over the last few days I have been leafing through family photo albums, and seen photos of Marnie and her brothers John and Ted playing in the lovely front garden, seen Marnie standing proudly in her school uniform, smiling and looking so holy making her First Communion, of her with her little sister Celie, of her in family groups at a multitude of celebrations held in what we call the Big Room at Montrose, including her grandmother’s 90th birthday in 1945, her own mother’s 90th birthday in 1986, and so many parties, baptisms and wakes. Marnie so enjoyed social gatherings, had a strong love of her immediate and extended family, very much including her Casey family cousins in Ireland, and was always at the heart of any celebrations. In recent years she has revelled in the life journeys of her great nieces and nephews and no doubt played a significant role from Heaven in the safe birth of a new baby cousin last Friday morning.

She attended primary school at Ashbury as her Uncle Ed was the parish priest there, recalling to me that she was entrusted to the care of her older brother John for the journey to and from by two buses. She told me that she and John sometimes had to walk home to Marrickville after school because John had spent the bus money on lollies.

During her secondary years she was educated as a boarder at Rose Bay Convent, where in her final year she was a prefect, known as a ‘blue ribbon’. She entered the Convent a few years after leaving school, completed a BA at Sydney University while living at the Society’s Sancta Sophia College, and was later awarded a Diploma of Education. She made her final vows in Rome in 1956, with her mother and Celie in attendance, having made the long journey by ship.

My earliest memories of Marnie were visits by our family to see her at Rose Bay Convent. This was in the late 1950’s-early 60s when the Sacred Heart Order was still very much enclosed. I remember Marnie in full length black habit and a long veil with a stiffly starched frill that projected outwards around her face. I can still recall the scratchy feeling of it against my cheek when trying to kiss her. As children we wondered whether she had any legs or any hair as we could catch sight of neither, the habit covering everything other than her face and her hands. The visits were on Sunday afternoons, rather formal, us all dressed up in our best, sitting on hard chairs in the large Convent parlour. Each of the nuns would have members of their family seated in small circles throughout the room, speaking together in hushed tones. It was agony for us kids to sit there patiently waiting to hear the sound of a tea trolley trundling along the old timber floors. Once that arrived with a plate of Family Favourite biscuits, things improved somewhat, but I can still remember thinking it as very odd indeed that Marnie was not allowed to eat or drink in front of us. I was assured by my mother that she was able to do so in private with the other nuns. This and other restrictions, such as not being permitted to attend her father’s funeral were very hard for me to understand.

Thankfully the winds of change from Vatican 2 saw an end to such restrictions and Marnie lived through a period of rapid transformation within her Order and the wider Church. In her own words:

Vat II broke open for us and for me in particular a whole new vision of life. For 20 years I have been totally enclosed while at the same time endeavouring to educate young women in their senior years at school to face an ever-changing world. In many ways these young women were my educators as much as I was theirs.

She formed friendships with many of her pupils that would last the rest of her life. I was amazed to see a beautiful card arrive in her final week with the inscription: “Dear Marnie, Loving memories and deep affection from your Rose Bay class of ’54.” I sat close to her bedside at the Hospice and as I read out to her the more than 30 names on this card, a soft smile came over her face.

When I was packed off to boarding school at Kincoppal in 1967, as luck would have it – my luck that is – Marnie was the Principal (known as Mistress General in Sacre Couer parlance). While I can’t say too much about this – there are many Kincoppal nuns here today – Marnie was always very generous to me in bestowing what was known as the Exeatus Pass. This tiny document, much coveted by boarders, which had to be signed by the Mistress General, allowed the bearer to spend two hours of freedom outside the Convent gates after school. They were intended for use for serious matters such a dental appointments, however for me it meant frequent visits with Marnie’s mother, my beloved grandmother, who lived over the road from the school. Those visits and all those scones and jam with Non and Maisie were such a joy.

Marnie seems to have been a good and valued friend to so many people. She had time for people, she relished social contact and she loved the stimulation and enrichment of being with people. She could ‘work a room’ better than anyone I know, and our family has always been amazed at her capacity at ’the Kiss of Peace‘ in Mass to make contact in some way with virtually every person in the church.

In her writings she recalled in the early 1970’s a visit to St Vincent’s Church Redfern, where her brother Ted had recently become parish priest. Her experiences with Aboriginal people on that day were the beginning of a life-long involvement with and dedication to communities of poor, disenfranchised and marginalised people.

She had a deep love for her brother Ted and his death was a terrible loss.

I would like to share with you an email message she received in the days following his funeral from her cousin, sadly the now late, Matt Laffan who addressed his message to “My very dear and lovely Marnie”. In part he says:

… as the smoke filled our senses and the didgeridoo lament began and you sprinkled the water onto Ted’s coffin and the flowers and the dirt of our country shifted beneath the droplets there was an earthiness to your motions that touched me deeply because through your grieving your Faith hung onto you as much as you hung on to your Faith. There was, as always, an understated dignity about you throughout Marnie, and though you were alone you were not alone because those who came to celebrate Ted were there to love you as well and hold you strong.

The causes that are yours and that have been Ted’s are the toughest ones to fight and we part-time foot soldiers very often fall away when the going looks tough and from the comfort of our distant quarters we praise your will and gumption and excuse ourselves for a lack of both. And yet you keep on doing that which needs to be done, with an intellect that is reflected in the twinkle of your eye and with a soul that drinks deep from the cup of theology practised as it should be, making a difference to the small worlds within our larger one for the betterment of both.

The years since Ted’s retirement from Redfern have been difficult and challenging for Marnie in her dedicated quest to keep his legacy alive. Faced with what to many would be intolerable opposition, she has been resolute in her determination. The situation has often been very stressful for her but she would not walk away, certainly ignoring my pleadings that she do so. She was one to battle on and try to find solutions, no matter what the cost to herself.

Those winds of change did not blow strongly enough for Marnie – she was always waiting for the gale that would blow a new way of thinking into the Church. She held out hope that if not in her lifetime, then before too long, the Church would finally fully embrace the contributions and participation of women. She looked forward to the ordination of women, though from what I could see she was pretty much doing the job anyway. She was a woman before her time.

Marnie has faced difficult challenges in regard to her health. Cancer has taken a heavy toll on our family and I have come to think of it as a wolf who comes unexpectedly to the door. Marnie has had two visits from the wolf, once for breast cancer in 2003 from which she made a good recovery, and the second time in 2009 for an unrelated lung cancer which slowly and surely took her life. I was with her for a consultation with her Oncologist at St Vincent’s in late 2009. He was clear in his message and compassionate in his delivery, telling her that the cancer would be relentless and that she should be somewhere where she could be cared for and to prepare for the end of her life. We came out of that both obviously feeling rather shell-shocked. We were standing together waiting for the lift to take us back to the carpark, holding hands and in tears. When the lift doors opened, and it will be no surprise to anyone here, Marnie knew the woman who stepped out. Marnie was aware that she was being treated for cancer, and on seeing her seemed immediately to put her own situation to the back of her mind. She then spent some minutes talking with this woman about how she was and how she was coping – so typical of Marnie that her concern was always for the other person. Through the long months of her illness she maintained her dignity and fortitude, dealing with very challenging symptoms, and was never complaining or self-pitying – always more worried about whether she was a burden or whether she was inconveniencing our lives.

With her illness clearly progressing it was an honour to be able to bring Marnie to Montrose. She delighted in telling visitors that had she had “come home” and was living in rooms that had previously been her father’s and also her brother’s medical surgery and waiting room, saying that she felt safe and well protected being cared for in a place where they had cared for so many.

My husband John and sons Seamus and Brendan unhesitatingly welcomed her and contributed enormously to the experiences of her final year – the ordinariness of family life which Marn seemed to enjoy so much – watching the news together at night, talking about the politics of the day, her ranting against Tony Abbott and her concern that a Jesuit boy could turn out like that. She prayed for Seamus during his HSC year, offering advice especially for the Studies of Religion exam, and greatly rejoiced in his success.

I am so deeply grateful to my three boys for their loving and gentle care of Marnie.

I am also so grateful for the support received from so many people, and express my gratitude to the wonderful nuns of her Order, especially the provincials Anne McGrath and Joan Pender who have stood with us and provided whatever was needed, and to the sisters: Philomene, Esmey and Mary, Kate and Nancy and many others who have been with us and have assisted in so many ways.

I am very grateful to all the family for their unfailing support, to my brothers, John, Mark and Peter and their wives, Virginia, Carolyn and Megan and their families; all our extended family and friends (some of whom had not previously met her) who always so readily came to be with Marnie when we needed to be elsewhere; especially to Virginia and Carolyn who both spent a day each and every week for a year caring for Marnie; for the wonderful medical care provided by my brother John; to Father John Ford who visited frequently with Communion and anointed her I don’t know how many times; to Ofa her carer from Catholic Community Services; to her army of friends who have buoyed her spirit by visiting, phoning and sending cards and letters; to her close friend Kate Gavan who was in touch with her virtually on a daily basis, and dear friends Gai and David Nolan who faithfully arrived every fortnight for months on end with a large container of lamb shank soup. For a while there, as she was doing so well, I thought we were on to a cure for cancer and that I should alert the Garvan Institute to Gai’s recipe, however it was readily apparent that it was the gift of love and friendship coming with that soup and with the many cards and letters and phone calls from so many people that enriched her spirit and kept her going.

I think all of us together have done a magnificent job in caring for Marnie in the place where she wanted to be, for as long as was possible. Thank you all.

Recently, when her death seemed to be coming closer I told her how much we would be missing her afterwards to which she gently replied: “Don’t worry – I’ll be close.”

Thank you, Marn. We love you.

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