125 years on

ONE hundred and twenty-five years ago three brave women answered the call to travel to Fiji to start what would become a well-known institution in the country.

They were Mother Melanie from England and sisters Martha and Sebastian from Ireland.

They were members of the Marist Sisters, an international organisation under the Roman Catholic church founded by Jeanne Marie Chavoin in 1817.

The women would lay a foundation that would soon wrap itself around the confines of Levuka history.

Such were the women’s dedication, including those sisters who followed, that many Fijians have attributed their success to the education afforded them by the nuns.

The Marist Sisters were actively involved at the Marist Convent School then known as Sacred Heart School from 1892 until today.

On November 17-18, 2017, former pupils flocked to Levuka to pay homage to the school and to the Marist Sisters. The bicentennial celebrations began with a morning mass on Friday and a traditional ceremony to welcome the Superior General of the Marist Sisters congregation Grace Ellul who came all the way from Rome to be part of the event.

“I’m always happy to see the Marist Sisters wherever they are in the world,” described Sister Grace.

“We are in 14 countries, not big groups though. In Fiji we have 22 sisters, some places are even smaller. In some countries some sisters are involved in taking in small children who don’t have access to education. We try to see the needs of the people and try to respond to it.”

Some of the notable former pupils of Marist Convent include the late Prime Minister and President of Fiji Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Rewa paramount chief Ro Teimumu Kepa.

“It was the education that made us what we are today and interspersed with knowing Christ in a different way,” said Nemani Maraiwai, who attended the school in 1962.

“If there was one thing we had, it was the quality of education, the syllabus were very good, we learnt music and other extracurricular activities that was holistic and then we were very well informed. The main thing for us was the education. It was top class.”

Similar sentiments were shared by his colleagues who were present. “My mother sent me all the way from Labasa to attend this school,” reminisced Rosy Chute, who still lives in the Northern town.

“The school had a reputation for being one of the top educational institutions then. Many of Fiji’s leaders and prominent people came here.”

The school is multicultural as evidenced by the many ethnic races who came for the celebration.

For siblings Michael and Margie Sahai the event also marked part of their family history.

“Five generations of the Sahai family attended Marist Convent,” said Margie.

“We’re blessed that we’ve reached this milestone and to be here to witness another part of history.”

The two are long-time residents of Levuka, their Gujirati ancestors having settled in the old town back in 1888.

History of Marist Sisters

The Marist Sisters trace their establishment back to the year 1817 when a letter from Father Pierre Colin came for Jeanne Marie and her friend Marie Jotillon to be part of the Marist Project. The two friends were invited to Cerdon in France to found the feminine branch of the society of Mary. She was only a 31-year-old at the time.

Jeanne-Marie was born in the village of Coutouvre in France and grew up with little formal education, but she developed a deep and sure faith. She was invited several times to enter different congregations but always refused, certain that God was not calling her to these. Finally in 1817, she received the letter from Fr Pierre Colin, brother of Jean-Claude Colin, who had once been parish priest in Coutouvre, inviting her to Cerdon to collaborate in the Marist project.

“She knew immediately that the invitation came from God and left with no hesitation at all,” described the head of the local Marist Sisters unit, Sister Lavinia Henry.

“Even when they arrived in Cerdon late in 1817 they had to wait six years before they were able to formally begin the new congregation by coming together in community.

“We, the Marist Sisters today, wherever we are follow in their footsteps, joyfully and courageously say yes, in whatever we are asked of and as women of the word — embrace life.”

So when Mother Melanie and sisters Martha and Sebastian arrived in Fiji in 1892, they had made a commitment to serve like all other sisters in other parts of the world.

“The nuns taught us sewing, embroidery and knitting,” said Rosy Chute. “Not only students from Fiji attended. There were students from Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati who boarded with me here.”

For 62-year-old Jim Bucknell, it was the basic education he received that set him up for life.

“Marist Convent was the only school I attended. After year eight I stayed home, didn’t continue my schooling. But one thing I got from this school was the skill of reading and writing. I think I did all right since then,” he said smiling.

In a time where modern technology and advancement of women’s rights prevail, the Marist sisterhood face the challenge of reviving the need for their services around the globe.

Superior General Sister Grace said they faced challenges in attracting young women to become nuns.

“We had some vocations, but not many; so I think the people of Fiji have to think — do they value the sister’s work? Wherever I go they tell me they want sisters. But if you want sisters you have to encourage young women to become sisters otherwise the sisters who are older will die and there won’t be anymore. Fiji has quite a small number of sisters; only 22,” she said.

“If a young woman feels that she would like to dedicate her life to God by serving others she just has to contact one of the sisters and we reflect, get to know her and then she’s accepted to join a community. In some countries it’s a huge challenge. There are no younger members, they’re all ageing.

“If there are no other members, then we would die out in those countries. I hope Fiji is going to have young women get interested in being a sister. It’s a beautiful life. I’ve spent 50 years as a sister and I’m very happy, it’s a life of service,” she said with finality.

Organisers of the reunion hope to raise enough funds during the celebration to help upgrade the 125-year-old school. The occasion was special in that elder residents of Levuka who attended the school in the 1930s and 1940s made the effort to be part of the celebration.

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