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Sister Mary Kenny Meredith

List of Deceased Sisters

Date of Death 04/05/2019


27 July 1923 - 4 May 2019


Gladys Una Meredith was born on 27 July 1923, the tenth of eleven children and the fifth daughter of Isabel and Richmond Meredith. She grew up in Otorohanga in the Waikato region of New Zealand. In order to go to the Catholic school in Te Awamutu she had to walk to catch the goods train around 7 am in order to be at school at 9. The journey home was also by train – at 6 pm, arriving home by 8pm.

Life was not easy in the Meredith household. At the time she was born, four of her older siblings had already left home to work. Gladys, like her siblings, had to leave school at the age of 13. Her first job was as a salesgirl for 4 years, then with her older sister she set out for Sydney to stay with their married sister. Gladys worked fulltime in Coles.

When World War II began, two of her brothers were enlisted. Gladys returned home to be with her parents. But the call to serve was strong, and she joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and was trained as a wireless operator.

Gladys started thinking of becoming a missionary from the age of 17. On the advice of a priest, she applied to the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, and entered the novitiate at Heretaunga after celebrating her 22nd birthday. She became a novice on 11 February 1946 and received the name Mary Kenny. She took first vows in 1948. In 2018 we celebrated her 70 years as an smsm, an enthusiastic missionary throughout her long life.

Her first mission was at Lourdes Hospital, Killara, Sydney.  Four years later she returned to New Zealand to study by correspondence for one year before being sent to the sunny islands of Western Samoa. She made her perpetual profession at Savalalo on 10 February 1954. After six years in classrooms in four different villages in Samoa which included three years as head teacher, she left for Auckland for teacher training at the age of 36.

The principal of Loreto Hall Training College where Sister was head student in her second year wrote: “Sister Mary Kenny is an experienced teacher who will gain much by her two years’ study of modern methods. ... Though not gifted for study she finds out exactly what has to be learned and learns it.”   Armed with a teaching diploma, she returned to Western Samoa to teach in six different schools over the next 12 years. Altogether she taught almost 20 years in the classrooms of Samoa in Savalalo, Safotu, Lotofaga, Leulumoega, Leauva’a and Moamoa.

1974 was a transition year: assistant for the LTSR in Napier and a 30 day retreat in Suva. Then a two year transfer to the Australian Province – that ended up as fifteen years.

1975 was the year Bougainville (North Solomons) became part of the independent Papua New Guinea. Kenny said she spent some of the happiest days of her life there, from 1975 – 1990. First she taught English and maths at the nursing school at Tearouki until it amalgamated with another because the smsm tutor sister was called back to Australia. Sister was then given the choice of teaching in another area or taking on communications in Kieta for the Diocese. Kenny chose the latter, a daunting prospect, changing from teaching, but she realized she could reach thousands over the air (radio) instead of just a few in a classroom.

She participated in a communications course in Port Moresby in 1976 then returned to Kieta.  Awarded a scholarship in communication and mass media, she went to France and Canada for studies, returning to Bougainville in 1981 to set up the Diocesan Communications Centre.

Of the year 1989 Kenny herself wrote: “Gradually I began to realise the extent of political unrest on the island. Some of the locals were campaigning for leadership and promoting a break away from the control of Papua New Guinea. ...”  There were deep divisions on the issues; some people even prepared to fight for the cause [of independence].”    Plus Mother Nature also was not at peace: the volcano was constantly erupting, there were frequent earthquakes and electrical storms.

For many smsm, Mary Kenny will always be connected with Bougainville, her media library and her decision to stay on into the crisis years. She left Bougainville at the end of 1990, the last smsm to leave and much against her own choice. She had been told to return to New Zealand because the Congregation “considered it was too dangerous for her to remain on Bougainville”. In Kenny’s typical determined yet faith-filled way, she also told the NZ Tablet in an interview that she “would like to return to Bougainville but was waiting for approval from [smsm] and the PNG Government.”  She was known as a great missionary who, though rather wilful, did much in a manner that was hidden and unknown, especially in Bougainville.

As she really loved these people and wanted to continue to work for their good, this determined woman found ways of assisting from her Auckland base. With the help of the Catholic Women’s Leagues, of parishes, retailers and medical aid groups, she collected all kinds of supplies to send to Bougainville.  Realizing that the cost of mailing goods was prohibitive, she wrote to the Government Minister of Foreign Affairs to ask if any planes or ships were heading that way. He referred her to the RNZAF who had already organized a flight carrying charitable goods. Because the airfield was so badly damaged in the civil war, boxes were smuggled across the narrow strait separating Solomon Islands from Bougainville. Not all of the aid reached its destination. Some Islanders were killed in their canoes transporting these charity boxes. Such news greatly distressed Mary Kenny but she was a woman who would not give up easily.   

During her early years in Auckland, for a time Sister volunteered at Mount Eden prison as a chaplain, journeying in faith with inmates. This practical woman with her wry sense of humour and dancing eyes could relate comfortably with both prisoners and staff. The hymn Amazing grace held particular meaning for her.

Time in New Zealand also meant she could reconnect more with her large family for whom “Aunty Gladys” was always someone special.

In the gospel passage read at her funeral Jesus said: “I am the bread of life”. The Eucharist was a real source of strength for Mary Kenny. While in Bougainville after the blockade began, she had made altar breads for the largely Catholic population from the remaining flour supplies. Now, in 1997, she took over the distribution of the altar breads for the Auckland and Hamilton dioceses from another smsm. In Whangarei some years later she was a communion minister for residents in several retirement homes.

Kenny loved plants especially fruit trees. As caretaker of the smsm beach house at Huia, she would go there every week, spending the day planting, cutting back with a chainsaw, digging, redesigning the garden... She had amazing strength and energy, and was such a hard worker. When she was missioned to Whangarei in 2009 she continued this garden work, asking for fruit trees for feastday gifts.  She joined parish activities, took lessons in Maori and developed her artistic talent in painting.

About eighteen months ago Mary Kenny developed a serious blood disorder which required blood transfusions. Late 2018 she chose to stop these. In February 2019 she moved with her computer to MacKillop Care in Mission Bay. Although becoming gradually weaker she continued to walk to chapel until Saturday 4 May. That evening she quietly breathed her last in the company of a niece and Srs Marie Lamerand and Julienne Marie (in NZ for the translation camp).

Her vigil and funeral were held in the Mary MacKillop Chapel at Mission Bay, followed by her burial at the Waikaraka Cemetery, Onehunga, on 8 May 2019. We remember this loving, thoughtful sister, and pray she may delight in the garden of our God.


Sr Patricia Leamy, smsm