SR Mary Dennett tells her story
May 11 Mother’s Day Appeal to support services for women fleeing violence
Sr Mary Dennett remembers sitting around the kitchen table of the safe house where she worked, sipping tea at all hours of the night and well into the morning. Many of the women who came to Mercy Care, the 24 hour safe house run by the Mercy Sisters in Melbourne, wanted comfort and a cuppa. They wanted someone to help settle their children and to listen to the trauma they had endured.
Not much has changed since Mercy Care was opened 26 years ago. Mercy Care is now called McAuley Care (named after Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Mercy Sisters) and the services have expanded to include longer stays for women who are homeless. But the support offered to women and their children fleeing family violence hasn’t changed. It is still about care, hospitality and support. McAuley has launched a Mother’s Day Appeal seeking community support to maintain its growing services. The Appeal highlights the number of women killed each year through family violence, remind the community that this Mother’s Day 70 women will not be with their families because they have been killed as a consequence of family violence.
Sr Mary knew little about family violence or homelessness when she first began working at Mercy Care when it was still just a small house in suburban Melbourne. But she was certain that caring for women and their children, who needed to escape family violence, was work the Mercy Sisters needed to do.
It made no difference if it was Mother’s Day, Easter or Christmas Day; women came with their children to Mercy Care, to find safety, care and hospitality.
Mercy Care’s services have grown into McAuley Community Services for Women and remain a ministry of the Mercy Sisters. And on Mother’s Day this year women will come with their children, seeking refuge, as they do every day of the year.
“I encourage people who want to support women fleeing family violence, and women who are homeless because of mental ill-health, or other problems, to contribute to the Mother’s Day Appeal,” Mary, a Mercy Sister, said.
“I am saddened that 25 years after we set up that first house in Melbourne, the problem of family violence has not diminished, in fact our services are needed more now than ever before.”
McAuley Community Services for Women (named after Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Mercy Sisters) now includes:
McAuley Care: Victoria’s only round-the clock, 365 days of the year crisis accommodation and support for women and their children escaping domestic violence, as well as five refuges.
McAuley House: provides accommodation and support for women who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, many with a poor physical and mental health.
McAuley Works: an intensive employment program that assists women to secure meaningful employment and increases their ability to support themselves financially, and,
McAuley Employer Awareness and Training program: providing education and capacity building to employers so that women affected by family violence won’t slip out of the workforce.
Two pioneering Mercy Sisters Sheila Heywood and Wilma Geary set up Mercy Care in 1988. Sr Sheila’s vision at the beginning was to have a house where isolated and lonely women, often new arrivals to Australia, could come, with their children, for a cuppa and a chat around the kitchen table.
The Mercy Care house hadn’t been opened long when word got around that Sr Sheila would give women and their children a bed if they were escaping a violent partner and had no where else to go. They built relationships with State-run services and accepted women from 4pm and 9am when other refuges were closed. And so began the Mercy Sisters’ long history of providing a refuge for women and their children escaping family violence and homelessness
Sr Mary joined Mercy Care a decade later. By that time 6000 women and children had received refuge at Mercy Care, a service funded entirely by the Sisters and a band of generous supporters.
"When a woman arrived in the middle of the night, we would put the kids to bed, make a cuppa and sit with her and let her cry and talk until she didn’t want to talk anymore. Then we would settle her into a bed. The next day we would help get her to a refuge or to court,” Sr Mary said.
Sr Sheila was 70 years old when she established the Mercy Care safe house. She had been a teacher, not a social worker. But she was driven by a desire to offer care to the women who came to the house, even though they only stayed a night or two, before being moved to more longer-term accommodation.
“Every child who came to the house was given a toy by Sr Sheila when they were leaving. Our Mercy connections supported us in so many ways. They provided new nightwear and toiletries for the women and children. Often a woman would have fled her home with just the clothes she was wearing. We had a shed filled with clothes and in the morning we would let her choose what she wanted for herself and her children,” Sr Mary said.
“When a woman comes to one of our houses she is safe and that is a wonderful thing to offer someone who may have been beaten. It takes a great deal of courage for some women to leave. Often they have tried several times. But we do what we can, that’s how it has been since Sr Sheila began so many years ago.”
Sr Mary Dennett no longer works in crisis accommodation and McAuley’s services are now run mostly by women who are highly qualified and committed to continuing the care of women in a spirit of Mercy and compassion.
Since leaving Mercy Care Mary has studied and now lectures in creation spirituality, but talks of the McAuley services with the same passion she did a decade ago, knowing that the services for families fleeing violence are vital and can only be achieved with community support.
Today, Mercy connections and people familiar with the work of McAuley are being asked to give to the Mother’s Day Appeal.
Donate now or call 03 9371 6600.