by ANNE POWELL, RC
The founder of the G.I.F.T. Centre that ministers to children and adults with intellectual disabilities, Cenacle Sr Jean Sinclair, MNZM, has died in Auckland aged 93.

“I learned so much from the G.I.F.T. groups”, said Lijana Anketell, a long time volunteer at G.I.F.T (Growth in Faith Together) and friend of Sr Jean’s.

“Their whole sense of welcome and celebration, spontaneity and acceptance, their simplicity and understanding of faith makes a deep impression on me,” Mrs Anketell said.

Sr Jean was widely known and loved as the founder of the G.I.F.T. programme, now based in Good Shepherd parish in Balmoral, Auckland. The G.I.F.T. mission is “to provide a sacred and fulfilling environment where companionship for life’s journey is shared with those who have an intellectual disability”.

Sr Jean died peacefully at Mary MacKillop Care, Auckland, on July 23. Of her 93 years, 62 had been lived as a Cenacle Sister.

Prior to joining the Cenacle Sisters in 1955, Jean Sinclair had taught children with special needs.

She continued that vocation by working with children and young people with intellectual disabilities in the Wellington archdiocese in the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s. She developed sacramental programmes and creative Gospel sharing for small groups or one to one and drew other Cenacle Sisters and volunteers to work alongside her.

A significant and enduring example of Sr Jean’s pioneering work in catechetics came during this time in Wellington archdiocese, when she established religious education courses for teachers. Sr Jean organised religious education programmes (CCD) for Catholic children attending state schools.

She attracted a large number of very dedicated volunteers to help in the teaching and subsequent CCD correspondence courses. Bernadette Upton, who worked alongside Sr Jean, counted her as a highly valued friend. “Jean was held in great respect by the young mothers in Wainuiomata when they were struggling to establish CCD,” she said.

In the school holidays, Sr Jean and Fr John Dykes visited many rural areas to meet families. The Cenacle Sisters in Lower Hutt also welcomed groups of children for retreats and holiday programmes.

During these same years of the mid1960’s and early 1970’s, Sr Jean and other Cenacle Sisters, taught catechetics to the seminarians in Mosgiel and to novices and young religious in Wellington archdiocese.

In 1972, Sr Jean was awarded the Pompallier Scholarship by then Bishop Reginald Delargey. She went to Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee to study religious education and faith development for those with intellectual disabilities. Sr Jean truly believed in the power of potential and inclusion, the power of community.

On her return to Auckland from the US in 1973, Sr Jean founded the G.I.F.T. programme. Sr Jean called this time “bringing life into my dream”.

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours, 1996, Sr Jean was was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her years of enthusiastic ministry among children and adults with special needs. That same year, another residential project was completed at the G.I.F.T. Centre in Balmoral, and was named Sinclair House in Sr Jean’s honour.

For 62 years, Sr Jean lived the Cenacle mission to transform the world by awakening and deepening faith, and through making Jesus known and loved in the reality of people’s lives.

Through the G.I.F.T. programme, Sr Jean’s call continued to bloom into uncovering the profound faith in the special needs children and young adults. As Anna, a member of the G.I.F.T. community said, “G.I.F.T. is love — helping me to grow and meet God.”

Sr Jean’s well-attended funeral was held in the chapel of the Sisters of St Joseph at Mission Bay. Many of the special needs children with whom she ministered, now adults, joined in the liturgy celebrating Sr Jean’s life. Many people spoke of the transforming influence Sr Jean had on their families, and particularly on their “special child”.

Sr Jean was passionate and determined about including these children and adults in sacramental programmes at a time when few priests had seemed open to that possibility. Families rejoiced and felt relief that their children were included and their potential honoured. As Sr Jean herself said, “GIFT became such a gift to parents and families, a gift to me and to all those who helped”. Sr Jean’s long life was truly transforming and fulfilling.

Susan McCrae, a member of the G.I.F.T. community, summed up the meaning of Sr Jean’s life: “Thank you for everything . . . . If it wasn’t for you Sister Jean, I would not have the life I now have.”

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