Sr Chris Schwerdt insists she’s “ordinary” but as Suzanne Adams discovered, as someone who has worked tirelessly looking after the needs of others, she is clearly anything but that.
During her 50 years as a Sister of St Joseph, Sr Chris Schwerdt has met people from all walks of life, most recently at St Catherine’s Aged Care as part of the pastoral care team.
One of 11 children, her inspiration to join the Josephites came as a child growing up in Hamley Bridge where she first encountered the Sisters at St Joseph’s Primary School.
Chris then attended secondary school at St Joseph’s at Aldgate. She remembers it as a discerning place, where there were ample opportunities to think about the path ahead. While some students realised that their calling was elsewhere, Chris says she felt called to the Sisters of St Joseph.
Although her family was initially surprised by her decision, she says they were also supportive. Her sceptical brother said, ‘I’ll give you four weeks’ but reassured her that if she wasn’t happy he’d come and get her.
“I believed that God was calling me to live my life as a Josephite Sister,” she says.
“Even as a child I felt that God was present in my life and calling me to be with people. With God’s help, I try to be really present to people. I feel God’s presence in others and this is so lifegiving to me.”
Chris entered the novitiate in Sydney where she studied theology and explored religious life. She also trained as a teacher at the Catholic Teachers’ College and her first appointment was teaching at Mt Carmel, a parish school in Rosewater.
It wasn’t long before Chris was taken out of her comfort zone and headed north to Woomera to take on a teaching role initially, later becoming principal of St Joseph’s School. Chris recalls that it was a hot and dusty January day in the early 1970s when she and another Sister set out on the long journey and found themselves stranded by the side of the road after their “old pink station wagon” broke down.
“There we were in white habits, so far from everywhere in what felt like the middle of nowhere, on a 40 degree day,” she says.
As luck would have it a truck driver stopped shortly after, changed the tyre and helped them on their way.
Chris remembers that upon arrival, she spied an old dog kennel, on which she sat down and cried. But it wasn’t long before she grew to love both the Outback and its people.
Six years later Chris moved on and continued various teaching roles in the State’s South East and Clare, focusing on special education before taking a sabbatical and a short stint in Melbourne where she worked with homeless and alcoholic men at the Corpus Christi Centre in Greenvale.
“The men I met there were such characters. It was very enjoyable and challenging work,” says Chris.
Returning to Adelaide she began working with homeless women at Catherine House where she met many women who had hit rock bottom.
“This work led me to appreciate the many factors which led these women to homelessness,” she says.
“I worked with some women who had been there in longer term accommodation, often suffering from mental illness due to trauma. There were often difficult times and sometimes all I could do was pray for a situation to resolve itself or that these women could find a small glimmer of hope.”