The passing of Prof Therese D’Orsa
Our Professor Therese D’Orsa died earlier in May after a life filled with achievements that focused us on mission and Catholic education. Hers was a life well lived, and below is an edited tribute from her colleague and friend Jim Quillinan (also a BBI-TAITE online lecturer). The BBI-TAITE community would like to mark the passing of this extraordinary woman who contributed so widely and thoughtfully to Catholic education. Added is a joint tribute from the Bishop of Sale and the diocesan Director of Catholic Education.
In memory of Therese D’Orsa
It would not surprise you to know that Therese had started writing another book, another project. My daughter Sarah was helping her with the logistics of it all and one of their regular meetings was two days before Therese went to hospital for the final time. Sarah said that that she will always remember that meeting as a beautiful time.
Therese said to Sarah that finding and ‘creating’ the Kingdom of God on Earth today was partly about listening for its everyday presence in the quieter moments and in finding the words that speak to different communities. She read this to Sarah:
The crowd gathered around the old woman. Someone in the back asked: to what would you compare the Kingdom of God? For a long time there was silence. Then the woman said: The kingdom of God is like a sound. It is the most natural sound in the world. Its melody plays through the hollow places in trees and mountains and people’s hearts.
Jesus would hear his sound approaching. ‘Listen’, he would say, ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. He heard that sound playing in children, among the outcasts, when friends gathered to share a meal. Jesus kept moving until he reached a place where he could find its rhythm and then he would sit down and listen. The kingdom of God is like a sound. It is the most delicate melody in the world. External noises drown it out; internal rumblings mask it. We hear it for a moment or a day, but then it is gone. No one of us can produce this mysterious sound on our own. But we can hunt it down in places where it plays. When we find this sound, we have but to hum along. After the woman finished speaking, the crowd remained silent for a long time. Listening.
Therese remarked how this passage had spoken to her and that, in the last week during a quiet moment, while sitting working in her office, she had felt the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth through the sound of the rustling of dry leaves as the wind blew them across her veranda – as if the Kingdom of God, she said, was speaking to me through the language of the season of Autumn. I suggest that Therese had heard that sound spoken of by that old lady from an early age and she had spent a lifetime humming along to it. Therese was a woman of deep faith, always alert to the presence and the invitation of God.
Therese D’Orsa was on a mission. From her earliest years in Trafalgar to Mt Isa and Rockhampton and Tasmania to India and the Philippines, Vanuatu and Sydney and then back home to Warragul she was on a mission. She studied about it, prayed about it, wrote about it but above all, she lived it every day of her life so is not surprising that Therese D’Orsa rejoiced in the title Professor of Mission. It was something that inspired her very being. And we are the better for it. She taught us about it in word and action every day.
Mission found its way into her heart and mind and soul. At the age of twelve, she won an Australia wide essay competition – the title of her essay was Why is Good Friday good? That was the beginning of a writing life that we will treasure. Few would question her academic prowess, her ability to listen, to explore new ways of looking and understanding, her ability to delve into the scriptures as well as into an extraordinary array of learned theologians and bring all this together so clearly in her writing with her husband Jim.
But it was the way she lived it that we will remember. All of us gathered here today to farewell her, all of us were important to Therese, no matter who we were or what we may have thought or what we were doing.
Mission wasn’t some academic exercise but something that inspired how she lived and how she loved and how she wanted others to do likewise. She loved company, and she was the most welcoming host, she talked to people on their own terms, wherever they were on their life journey. People felt at home in her home and with her.
In these last months, in these last years when her health began to decline, Jim was beside her all the way – his care for her was an inspiration. Even during these tough times, they wrote books together and these will motivate and inspire others for many years to come. But it is the way Therese and Jim lived together and cared for each other in these hard times that will stay with us – they gave us heart and they gave us courage and they showed us what faith and love and devotion look like…
We come together to be with Jim and to be with Therese’s extended family – we share their sadness and their loss – we will all miss her. Therese, or Terry as she is known to her family was devoted to them – she spoke about them often – she celebrated with them in the good times and she was certainly with them in the down times. In these recent days I heard family members mention so often her generosity, her wise counsel and kindness to every member of her family.
If you google Therese you will find an extraordinary list – it is hard to believe that one person could do or be all of those things in one lifetime. Therese was a supporter of so many causes and movements – they meant a lot to her, not the least of them she was a vocal and generous supporter of those working to enable women to find their rightful place in the church that she loved. But all that just touches the surface. Above all, she was a people person with a faith in the goodness of people, in their potential, in their giftedness, no matter who they were.
I met Therese when she was Director of Catholic Education here in Sale. She was a very good educationalist, with a very keen interest in the formation of her teachers and leaders, born I think out of her great interest in and love of people and certainly of Catholic education. It was a great place to work – there was always something happening, some new endeavour, a place of innovation urged on by Therese. She was still the urger, the encourager, the stirrer…
Integrating faith, life and culture were integral to her philosophy. As an example of that, she had been the prime mover behind the ground-breaking Sense of the Sacred Project in NSW and it was an extraordinary project – others claimed to have one something like it. They didn’t. What she brought to us in Sale was not just her organisational prowess and her ability to read people and situations but her insights into what it means to be Catholic today.
She wanted to link the Australian story of being Catholic with its roots. So she took us back to Jerusalem, to the Pilgrimages in the steps of St Paul, to Italy and Spain and to Ireland and Scotland to our celtic past to reconnect us with the gospel places, the saints and mystics, to our foundational stories and places. That was not to drag us back but to take us forward to translate that rich history into what we are trying to create today. … She wanted to give Catholicism and the kingdom an Australian voice. After ten years as Director Therese retired, – she left behind a Catholic education with a renewed focus on its purpose, a greater appreciation of its story and a richer appreciation of the gift that it can be to the people who choose to be part of it and to live it.
But she did not retire to grow roses or play bowls. She was no grey nomad. The study continued and, thank God, so did the writing. Jim said to me that to collaborate with someone in writing a book is a recipe for disaster – friendships collapse, projects fail. Together in this so called time of retirement, they wrote seven – seven volumes that can only be described as seminal, must reads for those in leadership, must reads for those who wish to know what mission really means…
That is why we are here today – to celebrate a life, to give thanks for it, and to give courage and support to those who must wait until we meet again. We have also come together today to give thanks to God for the gift that she was to us. We gather to pray for her because we believe that that is the greatest way we can thank her. How could we say goodbye to Therese without the Mass, the Eucharist – she loved it, she lived it with such depth and sincerity.
You leave behind a life well lived. You will live on in the vision that you inspired in us,
those of us who knew and loved you will live life more faithfully, more thoughtfully and more generously.
We will live life more deeply because your life touched ours,
You helped us deepen our relationship with God and with each other.
Not a bad legacy that.
14 May 2023