Star of the Sea

Yvonne and Doreen are among the very few Jewish girls at Firbank. Some unpleasantness occurs and Yvonne pretends it isn’t happening, but Doreen, the younger sister, is not so submissive. (At the age of four she had objected to the dentist hurting her. When he hurt her again Doreen bit his finger.)

When her classmates tease her for her Jewishness, Doreen fights back. After a few of these fights, their mother recalls how happy had been her own schooldays with the Presentation nuns in Perth. The family withdraws the girls from Firbank and sends them to the Presentation nuns at Star of the Sea.

Yvonne and Doreen arrive at Star to find they are the only Jewish girls. On the eve of the Depression their father falls ill and the whole school assembles to offer prayers for his recovery. He dies and the school prays for his soul.

Their father’s investments crash and the family is hard up. Compared to Firbank, the nuns are cheap, but Star reduces its fees so the girls can stay.

A new Jewish girl arrives. Her father has died, and she is to be a boarder. The nuns discover she has no prayer book. They are greatly concerned. They have lots of Catholic prayer books but they ask Yvonne and Doreen’s mother to find a Jewish prayer book for the new girl.

A couple of years after their father’s death, their mother’s heart fails. The school prays, she dies – of a broken heart, as the girls recall it – one day following the third anniversary of their father’s death. The whole school comes to a stop to pray for her soul and for the two orphan girls.

Neither of the girls is particularly studious, but Yvonne rewards the nuns with a perfect score in Catechism.

Years pass, the girls grow up, leave school and marry. Yvonne moves to a small town in the remote Riverina, where she raises a bunch of children without a family to support her. She misses her parents, her sister and grandmother. She bears and feeds these babies, deficient first in family, then in iron, later in red blood cells. Finally, she is confounded: fulfilled in motherhood, she is nevertheless tearful and faint. In crisis, Yvonne returns to the nuns and finds comfort. Will you pray for me, she asks.

Doreen too, turns to the nuns whenever she needs surgery. She too asks them to pray for her: You girls are the professionals, she says, I think you are better at it than I am.

As the years pass, Doreen has cancer surgery, bowel surgery, heart surgery, the list of operations grows longer, and always she goes back to the nuns. She speaks to her old school principal, now retired: Would you light a candle for me Sister?

I’d burn the whole bloody Church down for you if it would help you, Doreen.

Yvonne and Doreen go the nuns again and again. It only ends, after sixty years, when their old principal, the last of their nuns, dies at the age of 103.

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