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Thursday, March 13, 2008

U.S. Dominican nuns turn heads, spread God's love to youths in Sydney

By Dan McAloon
Catholic News Service

SYDNEY, Australia (CNS) -- Everywhere they go in Sydney, the three Dominican nuns from Tennessee keep turning heads. Dressed in their distinctive white habits and black and white veils, the sisters stand out in the crowd.

At Sydney Harbor, where the tourists fix their cameras on the iconic Opera House and bridge, the arrival of Sisters Anna Wray, Mary Rachel Capets and Mary Madeline Todd gets everybody's viewfinders swinging in their direction.

The reaction of local residents in Belmore, the multicultural suburb where they are staying, is similar. The Vietnamese baker and his wife tell them of the kindness of Catholic nuns to war orphans in their homeland. The older people in the street stop to reminisce about the nuns who taught them at school. The "hijab"-wearing Muslim women, at first surprised at the sight of the nuns' veils, smile broadly with the recognition of the love of a common God.

"You're making our neighborhood a different place," the Lebanese shopkeeper told them. And when his customers ask if he has seen the strange new nuns about, the shopkeeper boasts: "Yes, of course! They are my friends!"

The nuns are in Sydney at the invitation of Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, World Youth Day 2008 coordinator and fellow Dominican. Normally they would be at home teaching, but their motherhouse in Nashville has sent delegations to assist with preparations for each World Youth Day since Denver was the host city in 1993.

"It's part of our apostolic mission to spread God's love to the youth of the world," said Sister Anna, 28, noting that as Dominicans their lives are balanced between "contemplation and action."

"Wherever we are, we live by our values. Our founder Dominic was about taking God's word into the world and influencing people. We have a capacity to be adaptive, you could say. We know that people won't listen to us unless we are clearly living what we preach," she said.

A colleague at the Sydney Archdiocese describes the three as a "breath of fresh air about the place."

While Sister Mary Madeline is working as an assistant to Bishop Fisher, Sister Anna works with the liturgical committee and Sister Mary Rachel helps plan the youth festival.

As the July 15-20 World Youth Day events approach, there are still myriad details to be finalized in time for the arrival of the pilgrims. More than 125,000 are expected to arrive from overseas for the event, including 38,000 from the United States.

Sister Mary Rachel, 32, said that despite the 20-hour flight from Los Angeles, pilgrims from the U.S. won't be disappointed.

"They will find a beautiful, friendly city. People here are very generous because many are migrants and they know what it is to be the stranger," she said. "And for the pilgrims there's the special grace of being in the presence of the pope and in experiencing the beauty of the universal church."

"All Catholic life is a pilgrimage, and every experience teaches us something new," added Sister Mary Madeline. "I think the people of Sydney will be very surprised by how many pilgrims are ready to make that journey for Christ and celebrate their life in communion."

Sister Anna, a Dominican novice, has her own pilgrim story to tell of the influence World Youth Day had in calling her to religious life.

"Being in Rome for World Youth Day (in 2000) really was a catalyst for my entering religious life," she said. "I had no intention of being a sister then, but I did hear the offering of the church and the Holy Father, 'Do not be afraid to live the Gospel directly.' And that is something I have tried to do ever since."

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