Gethsemane works with appropriate State and Community agencies, in a form of practical partnership, when issues arise in regard to mental wellbeing.

Our Story is Their Story

Home the word brings to mind parents and children, a place of safety, security and happiness. Yet for many, such a place, if it ever existed for them, has been lost.

Heidi * came from Austria at the age of three, with her father and step-mother. She had an  intellectual disability and her father would not allow her to go to high school. Instead, he put her in a psychiatric hospital. After 10 years, she was sent to a boarding house in country Victoria, where the owner sexually abused her. Using money given to her by her step-brother, saying she was going shopping and leaving behind her few cherished possessions, Heidi took a train to Sydney and asked for help at Central Station. After living in St Francis Houses for a few years, she came to Gethsemane in 1990. She learned living skills, loved cleaning and became a good cook. She was helped to manage her pension and do her own banking. In 2000, she was offered a NSW Housing flat, which Gethsemane furnished. She moved in and, with her cat, Sweetie, has lived happily and independently since.

Mike* was quiet and shy, with a lovely smile. He had schizo-affective disorder and depression. His case manager told us he was very unhappy in a boarding house where he had no privacy. He came to us in 1994 and became a valued member of the community, very fond of our old tabby, Duchess. Twice, he trusted us enough to tell us when the voices were telling him he was worthless and should jump under a train. We stayed with him until medical help arrived, and after some time in hospital, he returned home well again. In 2001, he moved into his own flat and lived happily there, regularly returning to visit. In 2006, he died of a brain aneurism.

Following their mother’s death, Lucy* and her sisters were taken to St Martha’s Girls’ Home, Leichardt when they were young. From there, Lucy took housekeeping jobs, but her Fragile X syndrome had caused intellectual disability and mood swings. She moved from one boarding house to another. When I took over the St Francis House, that was to become Gethsemane Community, in 1990, she was already there. She moved with us to Marrickville, then left. Six months later, she asked to come back, and was pregnant. After her son was born, she tried to look after him and was given a lot of help, but it was too hard. Finally, she agreed he could be adopted. She wrote a birthday book for him and, very sadly, said good-bye. She met the adoptive parents and could receive written reports about him and, through the agency, send presents. Eventually, the rules changed and she could see him a few times a year. She would play in the park with him. About 1994, she moved into a NSW Housing flat and lived there happily, visiting regularly. At Christmas 1997, she played Santa for us. In 1998, Lucy died of an asthma attack. Many people who had been touched by her came to her Requiem, at which her son and his adoptive family took up the gifts.

Len* left home at 17, schizophrenia having developed. Relations with his parents had not been warm for a long time. He lived on the streets, then returned home, but, as nothing had changed, he left again. He wandered around Australia, moving from one boarding house to another or sleeping rough, sometimes eating out of garbage bins. In 1996, he walked out of a boarding house in the Mountains and was found sleeping in Lane Cove Park. Taken to Matthew Talbot Hostel, he was referred to Gethsemane. Len has been a valued member of the community ever since, a mainstay for cooking the evening meal. Two years ago, a cousin tracked him down. His mother, whom Len had thought long dead, was in hospital. Len was able to visit her a few times before she died. Having lived alone for so long, Len sees us as his family, and will probably go from here to aged care.

Henry also came to us from Matthew Talbot about 1994. His schizophrenia not responding to his then medication, he wandered from one family member to another across NSW, each time returning to the homeless hostel. We organized a case manager and began advocating for better medication. Until I sat in on a psychiatrist’s appointment, I hadn’t realized Henry didn’t tell him about the voices that tormented him. He was trying to be polite, he said. It took some years, but finally he was placed on the Closapine drug trial, and the effect was immediate. The voices and delusions ceased. Henry was a gentle, charming man. Smokey, our grey and white cat, became a constant companion. Unfortunately, Henry had smoked heavily and developed lung cancer. After 18 months of treatment, he died in 2007. Over the years, I had spoken to two sisters, and had met other family members at Condobolin. We had rushed there when his mother was dying. After his death, his brother and nephew arrived to collect his belongings and a crowd of them arrived for the funeral, held, at their request, in the local Anglican Church. We buried Henry with Lucy in the Catholic section of Rookwood.

There are so many stories. For these people and about 45 others, Gethsemane Community has been the home they never had. Some stayed briefly, others a long time. About 20 improved their living skills and moved out to live independently. Seven have died. Some went to aged care. Ray, who lived with us from 1991-1992, came back each year for Christmas lunch. It turned out that my name was the only one on his papers. When he became terminally ill, a social worker searched for me. We found a nursing home for Ray but he died soon after. Claude Mostowik MSC and I organized a funeral service and accompanied Ray to his burial place. During the preceding year, we had organized three such lonely funerals.

If you have a home, there is somewhere that you belong and are accepted. For many people with mental illness, there is no such place. A recent study found that 60% of people with disabilities in boarding houses in the Inner West of Sydney have no contact with family. Gethsemane Community has been the home many people never had. Since 1990, we have relied on Divine Providence and the generosity of friends. If Gethsemane is to continue into the future, we need ongoing support. If this is given, Gethsemane will continue to be a home for its residents and a reference point for so many more.

Sr Myree Harris rsj

* Names have been changed