A tribute to Sr Mary Theodore by Reporter Mick Toal.

It’s not well known, but I’ve packed myself off to self-imposed exile in a convent in India a couple of times, which really wasn’t much of a change from the Monastic existence which is my life.

I first met “Big Sister” – the famed and tenacious Sr Mary Theodore – aka Christ’s Donkey – back when I was working as a fledgling reporter on Quest Newspapers’ South East Advertiser in Brisbane in 1993. She was visiting family on one of her infrequent expeditions from Madras, where she ran Mithra – Madras Institute to Habilitate Retarded Afflicted.

Turns out the Australian Government had just knocked back Sister’s application for an aged pension – she’d been too busy looking after kids in India to spend enough time Down Under to qualify.

The story I wrote created a sensation and my front page on the local rag quickly became national news.

Anyway, the Government compromised, and while they couldn’t give Sister a pension, she was instead granted an ex gratia payment, which she used to build a hospital.

Funny how life works out … within a year I was on assignment in Rwanda and surrounds and I ventured back to Somalia (I had said no place could be worse than Mogadishu … Rwanda was way worse, big time). Anyway, feeling lost, dazed and generally shithouse, in January 1995 I pulled a dodgy deal on my flight back to Sydney from Nairobi, cashed in the ticket and scammed my way to Madras (Chennai)  – didn’t really care if I was going to cop flak from the powers that were – I’d filed all my stories and pics and got a great run.

Just lobbed at the Convent in Madras still with Somalia red dust ingrained and Sister was delighted to see me – she introduced me to everyone as the bloke who raised the money for her new hospital. I stayed about a month and had a happy 31st birthday at Mithra.

My heartfelt essays and photographs got a great run in the News Ltd Sundays, and the editors forgave me for going AWOL after Rwanda (Wasn’t really much they could do to me after that trip anyway).

Sister had a calming experience on me and the days I spent with her are among my happiest and days I won’t ever get back.

I visited MITHRA again in 2001 and really thought then that Sister wasn’t long for this world at the time, but the tough old girl soldiered on until the end of 2012, when she died at age 86. It was hard to mourn her death because she had lived every minute of her life to the full and she had no regrets about anything. Maybe I’ll go visit her one more time ….

Mick Toal


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