Sister Mel: From chasing the world to chasing the call

Melissa Dwyer thought she was born to throw the javelin. A natural athlete growing up and competing in many sports, she found her niche in javelin and by the time she was in year 12, she was already training 35 hours a week. Sport was her single-minded focus because she dreamed of winning a gold medal for Australia in the Olympics. This dream motivated her deeply and pushed her to train harder and faster every day.

So, when her mum came knocking on her bedroom door each Sunday morning to go to Mass, this didn’t fit Mel’s plan for the day which included watching her favourite television program, “It’s a Knockout” and spending time training.

“I would come up with any excuse not to have to go to Church, ranging from a sore throat to a sore head to a sore toe – any reason to get out of it; sometimes I did get out of going to Mass but there were times when mum would manage to drag me along, often kicking and screaming.

I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t pray and God wasn’t important to me.  The Catholic faith wasn’t something that I thought could add meaning or value to my life at all; I thought that religion was a waste of time. I went to a Catholic school and I was a good student academically, but I was totally disengaged from the faith element.”

In 1998 Mel began a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education, majoring in Physical Education at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Having won the State Championships many times, her eyes were now firmly fixed on the Athens Olympics in 2004. It was still possible that she might qualify for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but she knew that she hadn’t yet peaked physically and Athens gave her a better shot at the gold medal that she dreamed of. Although the training was going well and university seemed under control, Mel put so much pressure on herself to achieve that even coming second was like a huge failure. It was starting to wear her down. She reached a point where she realised that something was missing in her life, but she didn’t know what this was.

In a desperate search to discover how she could fill the space in her heart, Mel found herself sharing her struggles with the parish priest of Upper Mt. Gravatt (a suburb in Brisbane), her local parish. He encouraged Mel to speak to a young woman named Rachel who was serving on the NET team that was new to the parish. However, Mel wasn’t keen to talk to anyone else.

“I remember going to Uni and I had an anatomy lecture on Friday evenings. We had this break in the middle of the lecture, and I finally tried to call Rachel but she had gone out to get milk. I was convinced this was a sign that I was not meant to have anything to do with these NET people.   I let another two weeks go by before I tried again. Rachel was home so we managed to catch up and I could talk to her. It was amazing to be able to share with somebody just a little bit older than I was, somebody human, somebody who seemed to understand what I was going through and was able to give some advice. We spoke about how to deal with my low self-esteem, and all the pressure that I was putting on myself with my sport. She challenged me to realise there was something more to my life than all this negativity, than all the pressure I’d put on myself and even something more to my life than sport. She was the first person who really opened my eyes to the fact that, ‘there was more than sport’ because that had been my world.”

After that chat, Mel gained a new perspective on life but she was still resisting Rachel’s invitations to attend the youth group.

“She [Rachel] invited me to come to the youth group that they had in the parish. I said, ‘Nah, look, I’m not really interested in that, I just wanted you to help me with what was going on for me, but I’m not keen to come to a youth group.’ She rang me a second week and said, ‘Hey! Come to the youth group.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m not really keen for those things, it’s not my scene.’ She rang me the third time and again invited me to the youth group that the Netters were running, and I said to myself, ‘I’ve said “no” to her three times and she just keeps ringing, is she ever going to leave me alone?’ So, I kind of succumbed to the fact that she was very persistent in inviting me to get involved in the youth group that they were running, and so I decided to go along.”

This was a turning point in Mel’s life.

“From that point, I was going weekly to the youth group that the NET team was running and really getting involved; I met some fantastic people.  They remain some of my best friends, even now, many years later.  I started going to church, not because my mum made me, but because I wanted to go. I started to pray and learn about having a personal relationship with God and what that could mean and how important Jesus could be in my life. The invitation that Rachel gave me to come to know Jesus and to explore my faith was crucial to my life – it transformed me and helped me to come to know that God loved me as I was. I didn’t need to prove myself to God and that with God’s grace, I could do anything. I was no longer, ‘Mel the javelin thrower, but Mel a daughter of God.’ She helped me to see my identity was in Christ.”

As Mel began to attend Mass and the youth group regularly she found herself hungry for more. One day, at the back of the church she found a brochure advertising a retreat for young people that the Cannossian Sisters were running. She decided to go along to check it out with one of the other guys from the youth group. She had an enjoyable time, so she went along to another day of retreat run by the Sisters, and after the third one, the sisters invited her to go to on a volunteer immersion experience in Tanzania, East Africa as a volunteer.

So, like any 19-year-old with a sense of adventure, when you’re offered a plane trip with free flights, free food, free accommodation for one month overseas, I said, why not?! Upon arrival, I was invited to work in a shelter with homeless young people. Seeing the poverty there and seeing the way those kids were suffering broke my heart.

One little 11-year-old girl told me that she had been left in a basket when she was born – her parents didn’t want her. She would share with me how nearly every day she was being raped by the boys that were living with her. She begged to come back to Australia with me and be my servant, and I had to tell her that there was nothing I could do to help her. I thought that God had a magic wand and could make things better, but I had to discover that God doesn’t work like that. During that experience in Africa, that one month where my faith was still very new, God challenged me and said, ‘There is something that you can do… you can give your life completely to me.’

So, I decided to become a Cannossian Daughter of Charity and enter religious life. As a 19-year-old, I gave up my sporting dreams and came back to Australia and began the journey of following a vocation as a religious sister.”

Sr Mel went through her formation to become a Canossian Sister in Brisbane for 4 years. She made her first profession in 2005 and then went on to teach at St. James College for 3 years before she finally got the opportunity to go back to Africa.

Sr Mel was then sent to Malawi, one of the poorest countries on the planet, where she was asked to serve as a Principal of a boarding school of 550 girls. Despite the many obstacles Sr Mel flourished.

“I loved every minute of my time in Africa, but it was really hard. It was hard to go from the land of milk and honey, here in Australia where we have everything, to a place where there was often no electricity, where it’s really, really tough and really remote. It was hard being in a different culture, a different environment, learning a new language – all those challenges. I had no friends there because I didn’t have time to have friends – I was so busy in the school. It was during my time in Africa, in working with those poor people that I learned to pray and I learned to trust in God. When you’ve got nothing and no one, but still need to make decisions as a leader, that’s when you don’t have a choice but to trust in God. You fall to your knees at the beginning of everyday and you say, ‘Jesus, I can’t do this without you.’ And at the end of the day, whatever hour that might be, when you finally get to go to sleep, you’re back in the chapel again and you’re saying, ‘Jesus, thank you for what you have enabled me to do today.’ I’m not perfect, and some days I would get it right, other days I’d make a right real mess, but that’s not important for God. I learned that the most important thing that God asks of me is that I do the very best that I can. That is all that God asks, and that is all that anyone can ask of me and all that I can ask of myself.

I had a picture on the wall opposite my desk in my office, and every time I was exhausted and really felt that there was nothing more I could give, I would look up at those words which said, ‘Always More,’ and realise that there is always more that we can give, always more that we can do, always more that we can become in the challenge of living for Christ. I think this idea that I can always become better for Christ – not for myself but for Him – lives deeply in my spirituality.

Sr Mel was in Africa for 8 years and in the role of Principal for 7 of those 8 years. She deeply loved the people that she served. For many years, Sr Mel had prayed for a companion on the journey, someone to support her and help her in the mission of education of African girl children. Finally, in 2015, her best friend, another Canossian sister, had just been transferred to join her in their community. Then, out of the blue Sr Mel got a phone call.

I got a call one afternoon, I was in class. At four o’clock in the afternoon, our Mother General from Rome called and said she wanted me to come back to Australia to be part of the leadership team for our congregation here in Australia.  I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. It was very strange at my age [Sr Mel was 34 at the time] so I asked her if I could have some time to pray about it and to discern. She said, ‘Yes, I’ll call you tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock.’ So, my discernment period was 12 hours or so of a sleepless night.  I asked her the next morning when she rang, ‘Do you think that this is really what God wants for me?’ And she said, “As far as I can tell, this is what God’s will is for you at this particular point.’ I realized that I couldn’t sit before Jesus and talk about being radical and talk about authenticity and being credible (which are such important values for me), if the first time I’m asked to do something that really stretches me, I start saying, ‘No.’ But you know, it’s more than obedience, it’s about love. It’s about, if I say that I love Jesus with all my life and I’ve chosen to live this radical life as a religious, how can I say, ‘No’ to where God might be calling me? Many people look at my life and think that it must have been difficult to live in a third world country with such poverty. For me, the most difficult thing was not to live in Malawi, but to leave Malawi and return to Australia.”

Sr Mel came back to Brisbane in July 2016. She has taken up that leadership position with the Canossian Sisters at the National level and is also working with Vocations Brisbane and the St Vincent de Paul Society. She is the local Superior of her community and ‘wears many different hats’ in the Catholic community of Brisbane.

Sr Mel’s story reminds me of the parable of the sower and the seed. Every year NET ministers to 30 000 young people across the country and with each person that we meet we hope to ‘scatter seed’ by sharing the Gospel with them. For various reasons, we don’t see much fruit from some of that seed.  However, we have also been blessed to see a 30, 60, and 100-fold return. Sr Mel seems to me a 100-fold return! It turns out, she was not born to throw a javelin but for something so much bigger! In reflecting on her experience, here is what Sr Mel has to say:

 “I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t had that conversation with that Netter way back in 1998. I believe that the NET teams peer to peer ministry, in having young people who are approachable and compassionate, listen and reach out to others and help them on their journey, is invaluable. It was invaluable to me!

The mission of NET has had such a profound impact on my story and my being able to discover who I am, who God is for me.  That conversation with the Netter way back was the foundation stone for my life, and because of that, I will always be grateful for the impact that NET has made on my life.”

Young people have such incredible potential. Each soul, each life, teeming with possibility, with what could be!

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