The remote Western Australian gold-mining towns of Mount Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra are tiny, but very special. This is what the Good Samaritan Sister, Gerri Boylan, related to me, and I could hear the joy in her voice. Mount Magnet is 340km inland from Geraldton, the seat of the diocese, and 560km from Perth. Meekatharra is 200km further away, and Cue lies in between. Add the populations of the three towns and you have about 1,500 residents. But Gerri quickly grew to love the people and the colours of the landscape: endless blue sky, red rock and the mulga green vegetation of this semi-arid land.
After growing up near Colac, Victoria, Gerri had different ministries in schools, parishes and the creative arts in many places in Australia. But nothing comparable to her time in Outback WA. In 1999, there were three other Sisters in Mount Magnet, and one needed to leave. So the place was advertised among the Order, and Gerri volunteered to check it out for one week. From the beginning, she was taken with the friendliness, familiarity and informality of the people. She was surprised by the beauty of the land – so different to what she had known – and six months later, it had simply grown on her.
Gerri was asked to take on the role of Administrator and Pastoral Leader of the Mount Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra parishes. By the time eleven years had passed, changes in the Good Samaritan community there meant that Gerri continued mainly alone until the end of 2019. Bishop Justin Bianchini had commissioned her in the beginning at all three parishes, and she became his recognised representative and leader among the people. Gerri, along with parishioners, took part in everything: fundraising events for church expenses, “keeping the gate” at the races for charity, running the annual AFL footy tipping competition in the town, as well as other community groups and gatherings, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Gerri visited people far and wide as she drove hundreds of kms to visit and support the people on the pastoral stations surrounding the three towns. She became well known and respected, particularly for her care, understanding, gentleness and non-judgemental presence. Gerri liked people and that bias came across – she aimed to be a friend to all she met. Very simply, she said that she met Christ in other people without analysis. I am sure the community felt they had struck gold!
A priest came once a month from Geraldton to celebrate the Eucharist in each place, but in the meantime, Gerri was kept very busy. She, and other lay leaders in the parish whom she had encouraged and helped to develop the necessary skills, led the Liturgy of the Word with Communion on Sundays. She performed baptisms and many funerals. In such small communities, there were tragedies that led to much communal grieving. She also prepared people for their liturgical parts and ministries for the times when the priest was present.
The most difficult aspect of the non-sacramental role, however, was when it came to weddings. Soon after she first arrived, locals asked Gerri if she could officiate at their upcoming nuptials. She took the request to her bishop, based on Canon #1112 §1, who took it to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, but the answer was in the negative. That same process happened when a new bishop took over. As a result, people wanting weddings would go to other denominations that were more flexible or local JPs, and the opportunities for marriage preparation, adult faith formation and liturgical celebration were lost. Gerri found these situations sad and pitiful, with no pastoral understanding for the people involved. However when there were marriages in the parishes officiated by the visiting priest, Gerri helped with the sacramental preparation of the couple.
It is clear to everyone that the priests and deacons of a diocese are ordained and sent to such ministries as this. But in Gerri’s case, she felt that her role didn’t have the same standing. This was especially the case beyond the region in which she served. Every year Gerri lamented the lost opportunity at the annual Mass of Oils in the Cathedral when the priesthood of the faithful could have been highlighted, the people educated to take their rightful place and lay leadership fully acknowledged, encouraged and enhanced. Towards the end of Gerri’s commitment in December 2019, the parishioners chose one of themselves, Cathy Jones, an Oblate of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, to be their pastoral leader. Cathy began her ministry in February 2020 after she was commissioned by Bishop Michael Morrissey. She is also a member of the Plenary Council (October 2021) representing the Geraldton Diocese. All the very best to Cathy, and let us remember Sr Gerri Boylan’s ministry on the margins and from the heart.