by MICHAEL OTTO
CHRISTCHURCH — Secrets are possible even in enclosed religious communities, as Carmelite Sr Cushla Renton found out to her delight on December 29.
Sr Cushla was called to the visitors’ room at the Carmelite monastery in Christchurch to see someone, but found her community gathered with Good Shepherd College principal Msgr Brendan Daly and her family and friends.
They were there to see Sr Cushla presented with a Graduate Diploma in Theology, which she gained by distance learning from the Auckland-based college.
“They even had a gown and mortar board there, which two of the sisters put on me. Then Msgr Brendan gave a speech and handed over the scroll. After I got over the initial shock, it was a lovely surprise, and gave the years of formal study some closure,” Sr Cushla told NZ Catholic.
The occasion was organised in secret by the Carmelite’s Christchurch prioress, Mother Dorothea Wilkes, and Msgr Daly.
“They knew I would run a mile if I found out,” Sr Cushla said.
Her “official” graduation, “in absentia”, will be in June when the annual Good Shepherd College graduation takes place.
It isn’t the first time Sr Cushla has done tertiary studies. Fifteen years before starting at Good Shepherd, she studied mathematics and statistics at Canterbury University, gaining a BSc and Graduate Diploma in Statistics.
After so many years away, adjusting to tertiary study was something of a challenge.
“It was a big adjustment because I was more at home with numbers than with words, and having to write essays was not easy. After such a long time away from formal study, it was challenging getting back into it again — but worth the effort,” Sr Cushla said.
But she appreciated the flexibility distance learning gave her, not having to attend “real time” classes. She said the material she was given was “very interesting and well presented, using a variety of media”, adding that other distance students were “a great support”.
She completed three theology papers, two in philosophy, two in biblical studies and one in canon law, with her studies taking three and a half years.
She began after one of her fellow Carmelites had suggested she do a paper when Good Shepherd started offering distance learning.
“I thought it would be helpful so that one day I could assist in the formation of future Carmelites, and also as a good systematic foundation for future learning. I was initially just going to do one paper, but it grew from there.”
But fitting her studies into life at the monastery wasn’t easy.
“It was difficult fitting it in — in our monastic life there aren’t long stretches of time available, so it meant doing a bit here and a bit there until each task was done. The sisters were great, relieving me of other work when needed, and praying when I had a test or essay.”
Sr Cushla, who was appointed novice mistress for her monastery in January, said she doesn’t have any future formal study plans.
“As Carmelites we continue our ongoing formation throughout life, but in future it will be at more of a contemplative pace.”

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