2-2-1918 - 2-8-2012
SISTER Ruth Winship, who has died of old age at 94, was known to successive generations of Loreto girls as the living embodiment of the values and beliefs of Mary Ward, the 17th-century founder of the order.
The life of this Australian Loreto sister was divided between 30 years lived as a nun before Vatican II's reforms took effect, and another 45 after. Her long life of service bridged two eras, whose differences we can hardly imagine.
For a woman who had entered an enclosed religious order in her teens and been enveloped in the anonymity of a full-length black habit for more than 30 years, Sister Ruth, even in her last year, had great presence. Her tall elegance, however, highlighted her inner beauty and reflected her love of justice, her open heart, youthful spirit and freedom of mind. These values spoke of Sister Ruth's deep inner life - her faith, joy of learning, strong intellect, personal warmth, humour and compassion.
In her 75 years in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (known as the Sisters of Loreto), she inspired a vast network of people, including past pupils, parents, colleagues, friends and neighbours. One of her many gifts was a capacity to befriend people of any age and nurture such friendships whether in person, by letter or email.
Before the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, religious life emphasised compliance with rules and the abjuring of individual judgment. The transformation that the council mandated for nuns began for many with the habit. Change in the external, Sister Ruth pointed out, released the internal.
Ruth Winship was born in Toowoomba, the third of six children. Her mother, Eileen, was a gifted musician and a Catholic; her father, Charles, a banker and a Protestant. As in all "mixed marriages" in the Catholic Church of that era, their wedding was conducted away from the main altar. Charles agreed to the children being brought up as Catholics, and Ruth's education began at the local parish school. She then went to the newly established Loreto school at Coorparoo, Queensland, as a weekly boarder, becoming head girl at 16. As the school was so small, the nuns sent Ruth and four fellow pupils to do their matriculation at Loreto Mandeville Hall in Toorak.
To her father's horror, Ruth left Mandeville in 1935 determined to join the Loreto sisters herself. It was a year before he agreed and she entered the novitiate at Loreto Abbey, Ballarat, in February 1937. The Loreto Institute at the time was run on strict monastic lines. "Life was very structured," Sister Ruth recalled later, "even our prayer life. We began the day with morning meditation in the freezing cold sitting on backless chairs. Most of us slept." She never doubted, however, that she was in the right place and took her first vows in December 1939. She was given the name Assumpta and had her ring engraved with the words Pax Christi - the peace of Christ.
Sister Ruth's first assignment as a young nun was to run the small junior school at Loreto Abbey for a year. She taught both the junior and senior students, looked after the junior boarders and when she could, studied the teacher-training manual. She was on her feet or her knees all day and, in spite of the demands on her, recalled having been very happy.
From Ballarat, Sister Ruth was sent to Loreto Marryatville in Adelaide, where the boarders lived in spacious comfort but conditions for the nuns were hard. They slept in a shed with a dirt floor. The pattern of life again was long days of teaching and looking after boarders, long nights of class preparation and marking. Sister Ruth taught music, maths and science.
In 1948, she studied for a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Melbourne. She lived at St Mary's Hall, Parkville, run by the indomitable Mother Francis Frewin, and was both student and bursar for three years. In 1952, at the age of 33, she was appointed mistress of schools (a role akin to deputy principal) at Mandeville Hall, and then superior (principal of both school and convent).
At Mandeville, Sister Ruth put science on the map, became the inaugural chair of the Victorian Catholic Schools Science Teachers' Association and was instrumental in having the Association of Catholic and Independent Schools accepted into the Victorian Independent Schools Association. Her care for the school community was legendary. She was sensitive in observing needs and generous in finding solutions.
In 1962, Sister Ruth was sent to Loreto Kirribilli in Sydney with a "stellar" reputation. Her main task was to bring the school up to the standard necessary for the new Wyndham scheme, which involved building a science wing. With no government funding for Catholic schools, this meant relentless fund-raising.
As superior from 1964, she guided the nuns through the challenging Vatican II years and worked long, long hours, never sparing herself. The only time hard work overcame her was after the boarding house boiler exploded in 1967, necessitating finding beds for 40 students within days of term starting.
After a five-year break spent mainly with her family, Sister Ruth returned to Loreto, initially to St Mary's College, where she introduced the work scheme that continues to keep fees down. Then, in 1979, she went back to her beloved Mandeville Hall, where she co-ordinated an imaginative creative studies program with a social service component that powerfully influenced many students.
As she gradually withdrew from teaching, Sister Ruth remained closely involved with, and supportive of, the school community. She also looked after the elderly nuns in the convent infirmary, frequently speeding through Melbourne in an ambulance with sirens screaming after an emergency. As is the Loreto way, she kept a 24-hour vigil at the side of dying sisters.
When the infirmary closed in 1993 due to changes in government regulations, Sister Ruth supported the difficult transition for sisters going into residential care. She herself left Toorak for Cabrini Ashwood in 2002 at the age of 83 where she served her companions, both staff and residents and their families, by being a friend and counsellor as well as helping in the Ashwood shop, doing the flowers for the chapel and hall and running a book group. In 2005 she was named as one of the winners of the Victoria Senior Achiever award. In 2006 she was thrilled when the new science block at Mandeville was named after her, honouring her great contribution to the school.
A woman of faith and integrity, Sister Ruth will long be remembered as a mentor and model for the girls she taught and advised over a period of almost 50 years. Likewise, she lives on for those with whom she lived in her religious community and at Ashwood, as well as for the friends she cared for so deeply. She is survived by her brother Bill and her extended family, and 103 Loreto sisters.