Maria Kavanagh mss: 

Seeing the Possible in Every Situation

Maria was born in New Zealand and treasured her NZ nationality throughout her life, even though she spent close on sixty years as a Missionary Sister of Service in Australia.   Over those years she spent time in all Australian Eastern States: Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.  She carried out a wide range of ministries, including pastoral outreach, adult faith formation, the Catholic Bookshop in Hobart.  Her ever observant eye for people living on the "edges" of community and society took her into working with male prisoners with the Alternatives to Violence programme, visiting the women's prison, court support network, teaching English to new settlers, visiting at the Melbourne Aboriginal Aged Care facility, befriending asylum seekers.... The list could go on.   

Maria had an artistic soul and brought a certain artistry to the way she went about her ministries.  She loved literature, poetry, theology, stories and fantasies.   Piccaso was a favourite painter, Rumi a favourite poet.    These fed her approach to life where she was always seeking the new, the exciting, appreciating that every moment was full of possibility.

After Father John Wallis (Founder of Missionary Sisters of Service) died in 2001, Maria delivered a eulogy for him at a memorial Mass in Melbourne.    That eulogy said as much about Maria as it did about Father John.   When Maria died at the age of 86 on 30 April 2015, Bernadette Wallis took that eulogy and with some minor editing, made it a beautiful portrait of Maria:

Maria – Mary Frances - Kavanagh

To what or whom dare we compare Maria – Mary Frances - Kavanagh

To whom can we liken her?

What images would convey who she is – her story?


This woman of God

This woman, too big for words, no matter

How beautiful, strong and gracious they may be;  

The best we can do is sketch a few pictures of her

on the vast canvas of the changing sky. 


Maria was a big picture person,

A woman of wide vision and big maps;

Possessed of a disarming ordinariness, 

Which was surely dipped in a divine spring.

She was a Highways & Byways person,

A tree planted near running waters.

She was a stretcher of minds and hearts,

Peering into the great unknown,

Always looking beyond, to what might be,

A risker of ideas.


Maria cared about people, especially those who were different,

Living on the edges of life, eeking out an existence

As best they could or for whatever other reason.

Perhaps she caught in them a glimpse of the prophetic

As she reflected and pondered the amazing ways of God.


She responded in a prophetic way –

any way, from offering hospitality to a woman just released from prison

to joining a fledgling community of women in Tasmania

to go into the highways and byways

Creatively seeking out people on the outer in turmoil or torment,

Bringing compassion, hope and joy to city streets.


Maria was gifted with a creative spirit of wisdom,

a great sense of the common good,

Of being able to get to the heart of things,

A sifter of the unnecessary,

A clarifier of situations,

Understanding what is just ridiculous,

Clearing the way for movement,

Unravelling the threads of hidden possibilities,

Capable of generating new and fresh ways of being in the world:

Such possibilities excited her.


“Time, patience and the grace of God”  was a saying she lived

From 1955 when her initial group came together,

Betty, Cecilia, Margaret, Delphine and Therese,

At 432 Elizabeth Street, North Hobart,

She continued the work of God

with the community now known as the Missionary Sisters of Service. 

Its members were to be found up and down

the length of Australia’s eastern States,

in South Australia and Singapore,

Responding to the isolated – geographically, spiritually and socially.


During her life a cloak of love gathered about her. 

Always ready to affirm, to encourage, she was equally ready to challenge, to stir,

to bring to light what her contemplative being discerned:

the Spirit at work in everyone, everything, everywhere.


Her enduring passion was shaped by the spirit of Vatican Council II.

For her, it opened up a vista of what the Church in the world could be

when it opened itself to the newness of the Gospel

in dialogue with the newness of the Spirit’s presence

in the events of the present world.

Her enthusiasm for that vision knew no bounds. 

She wanted everyone to see and feel and taste

what she saw and felt and tasted -

The burning fire within her heart.


The sacred scripture of life was her constant companion in life.  

For her it was a storybook of the breathtaking love

God has for the universe and everyone and everything in it. 

The liturgy of life was for her a celebration

of the mystery of Christ,

a rich source of nourishment which she pondered and lived.


Creation nourished her body and soul.

She cherished the poem of John of the Cross

That captures her wonder in the presence of nature:

      My Beloved is in the mountains

      And lovely wooded valleys

      Strange islands

      Resounding rivers

      The whistling of love-stirring breezes

      The tranquil night at the time of the rising dawn

      Silent music, sounding solitude

      The supper that refreshes and deepens love.

She loved the autumn leaves and sacred trees

which allowed not only herself, but everyone and everything

the freedom to sing their own song and make their own music.

Maria loved words and poetic stories of people and things. 

She appreciated the quirky, quaint and the unique and different

Right through her long life of eighty-six years.


She was never one to sit about unless she drew others to her,

Neighbours, coffee shops, shopping centres,

With her colourful hat or beret and her openness.

Or if she did sit around, it was with a book quivering in her hand 

That would enthuse her as a voracious reader of story,

Of those who suffer and where compassion calls,

Of the deep – philosophy, the sacred, the challenging, the inter-cultural,

With the joy of hospitality of mind and heart.


She was one of us, like us in every way,

Determined, daring to be different

(some would call it stubbornness)

that, come what may, her heart and her feet

were firmly set

towards the God of people and the things of God.  


Maria’s inner being became more stilled as the years went by. 

She knew the emptiness and pain of the dark night,

the struggle to come to terms with the absence of God in her life. 

She waited and God’s peacefulness filled her,

Her only guide the God-light that burned in her mind and heart. 

With St Augustine she could say: 

God, I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you;

      you touched me and I am enflamed with your love.


Words of Mark van Doren,

Written on the death of Thomas Merton

Paint the spirit of the legacy she leaves :

      The best bottle of the best wine

      Tipped over all at once and spilled

      Catch it, save it, but nobody could

      Nothing left but the fragrance.

Thank you, Maria, for the fragrance of your life

for the spirit and vision that continues beyond you

Through the life and work of people touched and moved through you.

May you be wrapped forever

In the universal love of our Astonishing God.