In 1968, as a young lawyer in a Melbourne law firm, I was asked to give some legal advice to the Sisters at the Abbotsford Convent. There were two things about this that I still feel are remarkable.
One, the Convent of the Good Shepherd at Abbotsford was one of Melbourne’s best known Catholic land marks, and I considered it a great honour to be asked to become involved. The other remarkable thing is that after 47 years I am still happily involved.
About my introduction to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. A well-known businessman and philanthropist, Mr Bernard Prindiville, established a Lay Advisory Board for the Sisters’ Leederville community in Perth, Western Australia, to help them manage the commercial laundry carried on there, and to deal with a more public interface that was needed after Vatican II. Mr Prindiville also assisted the Sisters to form a Lay Advisory Group in Hobart, Tasmania, and a short time later in 1968 he was invited by the Provincial Superior, Mother Perpetua Harney, to come to Melbourne to set up a Lay Advisory Board to give some commercial assistance to the two communities at Abbotsford, and to the other Victorian communities at Rosary Place Middle Park, St James Oakleigh, St Aidan’s Bendigo, Villa Maria Boronia, and Mandalay at Portsea. This was about the time that the Sisters were responding to Vatican II, and were opening up their semi-enclosed world to greater lay involvement.
The way of life, the management and administration of the various Good Shepherd communities throughout the Province of Australia / Aotearoa New Zealand over some 100 years had not changed a great deal until the 1960s and 1970s.
Mr Prindiville was a friend and client of mine, and one day he took me out to the Abbotsford Convent to introduce me to Mother Perpetua to discuss a particular legal matter. He also suggested that I be given the task of selecting a group of lay people to help the Sisters in Victoria. The committee which eventuated fitted in well with the Sisters’ own Leadership Team, and before long it became both obvious and logical that the Victorian Lay Advisory Board should become the Province Advisory Board to encompass all of the communities in Australia and New Zealand.
This was a time of dramatic change, where institutional life gave way to smaller religious communities and the women in the care of the Sisters were moved into a number of suburban residences, with varying degrees of supervision as was appropriate. The large establishment buildings were closed down and sold, and replaced with more practical buildings. The Lay Advisory Board was well equipped for the massive task at hand with Matt Bourke a laundry expert, owner and operator who was able to help close down all the commercial laundries, Les Treloar an architect whose skills were essential in the changing domestic scene with the erection of new buildings such as the Abbotsford Nursing Home, and the alterations to many other properties, and John Stewart an accountant and lawyer who helped keep track of all funds and investments. The group operated in harmony with the Sisters for well over 30 years, with myself as Chairman and principal conduit between the business side of the rapid change taking place, and the Sisters, whose role was first to supervise the Lay advisers, then to ensure that their Mission work continued to prosper and grow, and to make sure that Sisters in the smaller communities and the women in residential care were being properly looked after.
The consistent relationship between the Advisory Board and the Province Leadership Team over the years has been that whilst everyone was passionate about support for the Mission of the Sisters, the primary role of the Advisory Board was to look after the finances and investments of the Sisters and to advise on commercial and legal matters, whereas the Sisters’ role was to nurture their Mission and in doing so were completely free to decide how the finances were best utilised.
The main challenge, as I see it, is to keep the Good Shepherd spirit of Mission alive and operative into the future, and above all for that Mission to be very relevant to today’s world.
As Chairman of various Boards and committees of Good Shepherd for over 46 years, I have seen the necessity for most aspects of the Sisters’ apostolic works to become separately legally incorporated, otherwise the Sisters of the Good Shepherd as an unincorporated organisation simply may not have survived. Separate incorporation as a company under Australian, and / or New Zealand law had obvious benefits for the Sisters, because the legal liability of operating various ‘business’ type entities is confined to that entity itself, and the liability does not flow on to the other of their business enterprises. It also had the advantage that each company had a Lay Board of experts who were able to bring greater specialised skills to the venture, and it meant that proper audited accounts gave the Sisters and their Province Advisory Board a better picture of the financial viability of each of the enterprises.
As a Catholic organisation operating under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, the Sisters must comply with the requirements of Canon Law as well as civil law, and as part of my role with the Sisters I made a study of Canon Law insofar as it related to the commercial, financial and corporate structures of their various enterprises.
I received the Degree of Master of Laws from the University of Melbourne for a Thesis entitled ‘Implications of Canon Law for Church Organisations Operating in Australia’. As a result, I have been able to recommend to the Sisters (and to a number of other Religious Orders) a new corporate structure which will ensure that the work of the Sisters will continue into the future. The new corporate structure is under the effective control of the Good Shepherd Sisters. Currently, the whole of the operation of the Good Shepherd Mission in Australia and New Zealand is managed, controlled and directed by a company known as ‘Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’ based in Melbourne.
To me, the particular challenge for the future is to somehow control the inevitable growth of a bureaucratic organisation that now supports the new corporate structure. The days, such as those we had 46 years ago when the Sisters ran the whole organisation with the assistance of only a few voluntary lay people, are long gone. The next major challenge is to devise a system that will continue to deliver the Mission objectives of the Sisters without the burden of undue overheads.
The temptation for most charitable organisations today is to aim to do too much and try to be involved with all those awful problems in society that desperately need our help. This is a most worthy aspiration, but as a result the focus of the core Mission involved often becomes diluted. This is where the inspiration is needed.
The inspiration needed is to ensure that the legal structure will support the core Mission of the Good Shepherd Sisters within a financial budget that is sustainable.
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