Sister of Compassion Margaret Anne Mills talks about teaching, tai chi and Tolkien.
Did you always want to be a nun?
I wanted to be a teacher. I went to teachers' college in Palmerston North. Halfway through I decided I'd love to specialise in special needs kids. In the 1970s there wasn't much option to do that. Then one day, Bob Stuart, the former All Black captain, who was a careers adviser at Massey, suggested I go to Carterton. The Sisters of Compassion had a school for special needs children there. It was marvellous, just what I wanted to do. I said to one of the sisters: "How do I keep doing this?" She said: "You join us." I said: "You must be joking." So it wasn't a natural attraction.
When did that change?
I was teaching in Flaxmere and still thinking about it. A seed had been planted. I thought I'd give it three years, then I could get on with my life. I arrived at the beginning of 1975 and have stayed put. There was a time of adjustment but after a few months I thought: "Why didn't I do this years ago?" It was a wonderful inner peace.
Do you enjoy the surroundings here?
I love this place. In the morning I go out on to the lawn, wind, rain, frost, whatever and think: "Thank you God for this wonderful creation. The trees, the birds, everything." It's great to get up and breathe in the day knowing God will give me enough energy to do everything I need to. I often think the other sisters think it's a bit eccentric.
What are some highlights of your time here?
It's an adventure every day. It's like the new Hobbit movie. Everything's an unexpected journey. I've been able to teach in the school in Carterton. We started a school in northern New South Wales for Aborigine children there and I've spent time teaching at St Anne's in Newtown. I also spent 10 years working at the soup kitchen, which was marvellous.
What did you learn there?
One morning one of the chaps came up and said: "What's wrong with you, Margaret Anne? Haven't you taken your pills or something?" I must have been looking grumpy or not with it. It taught me I needed to be mindful of whoever I was engaging with.
You also learn that people around you are very different. In the 90s there were a lot of glue sniffers. Some were having kids. You worried about them but they seemed to be OK. However, one little boy was born at the same time as one of my nephews. I went to see my nephew when he was 6 months. Then it hit me that, wow, there was a big difference. The child at the soup kitchen had a dullness in the eyes and was much smaller.
Do you go to the Taoist tai chi classes here?
Yes, I'm a member of that group. It keeps the bones right. When you're in the class and working on a move or a set, you're totally engaged. I go in jaded and come out refreshed.
Does the eastern tai chi marry well with Catholicism?
I have always had an interest in the East, the temples and Buddhism. I learnt karate when I was younger. The Taoist tai chi philosophy closely mirrors what we are about as sisters. It is a martial art but a peaceful one. It's all about gentleness, compassion and peacefulness of the spirit.
Did you have a wild youth before the Home of Compassion?
I had my student days. Massey in Palmerston North was wonderful. I had a great social life. I loved clothes, good friends, travel. There were the boyfriend troubles; just life really. I stayed in the YWCA. We girls had fun pushing the boundaries. During one German beer festival, we were the frauleins who took around all the beer. We had great fun dressing up in little costumes and enjoying the beer.
Your love of life doesn't change because you become a nun, either. When we set up a school in Australia it was really hot.
On a Friday after the week's teaching the best thing to have was a nice cold beer.
How do you enjoy life now?
I'm a great fan of Tolkien. I even have a scrapbook. Sadly, I had a meeting last Wednesday afternoon, otherwise I'd have been in Courtenay Place for the Hobbit premiere. I went in 2001, 2002 and 2003 for the Lord of the Rings' premieres. In 2003, Sister Jo and I stayed overnight. After the Two Towers premiere we thought:
"This is getting big. We're going to have to stay overnight for the next one." Some of the men from the soup kitchen were there. The red carpet hadn't been rolled out at that stage. They said to us:
"Sisters, you can't sleep there. The transport people will come and tell you to go."
We said we would be fine, so they sat with us and talked.
Another great part was at 2am. Sir Ian McKellen came walking along. The two of us became like teenagers and ran along to talk to him. I got lots of autographs and pictures during the premiere.
I've heard you dress as a clown?
I almost have an alter-ego. I love being a clown and wandering down Cuba St and engaging with people. I have two characters. One is a bossy old thing and the other one doesn't say much and is very shy. I went to a clown workshop one day that the council was running. It was great.
One of the things they told us was to go out and practice. I went out with another lady from the class. We got all dressed up in our clown costumes. It was the last day of the five cent coins. We went to the Empire Theatre in character, got ourselves a hot drink and paid with five cent coins. The poor staff member wasn't very pleased with us at all.
We went away to our table and drank our coffee in character. The owner then spotted us and thought it was great and he shouted us to the movies. It's just a lot of fun.
- The Wellingtonian