Caring for people in need and advocating for human rights for more than 60 years has seen a Wellington religious sister receive the Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community.

Sr Catherine Hannan, DOLC, was awarded the medal in the New Year’s Honours List.

Sr Catherine, who joined the Sisters of Compassion in 1953, told NZ Catholic that receiving the honour is “a bit embarrassing”.

“Well, it really reflects on the congregation, the Sisters of Compassion, because anything I have been doing has been with other sisters and in the name of the congregation for many years.”

And Sr Catherine has done plenty in her religious life.

After training to be teacher, she taught in a school the sisters had for intellectually and physically handicapped young people and she then taught at two Māori schools the sisters then ran on the Whanganui River.

She describes her time living among these Māori communities as “her greatest education”.

But it was by no means her only education. She went on to do an honours degree in social science and a Diploma in Counselling at Sydney University.

That led her to be involved with a Coptic Orthodox community, helping them buy a church. She also worked at an Aborigine Mission at Wilcannia in outback Australia.

Sr Catherine worked in many roles and apostolates in New Zealand — including being a senior social worker at Wellington Catholic Social Services and a Catholic chaplain at Arohata Women’s Prison, chairing Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand and being on the board of Challenge 2000 in Wellington. A former leader for her congregation, she served on the Wellington Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and was a New Zealand representative at several international religious leader forums.

She joked that her brother once told her that “he thought it was ’join the navy and see the world’, but he now thinks “ no, ‘it is join the convent’”.

When she started her life as a religious, she had no idea she would be involved in such a variety of works.

“It is just sort of one of the ways how it worked out,” she said. “I really liked the idea that, when something came up, to explore it, rather than to say ‘no’, and that just led to a lot of intriguing things.”

One of the more interesting of these was her being a member of the Prostitution Law Review Committee, which was created by Parliament when the Prostitution Reform Bill (which decriminalised prostitution) came
into law early this century.

While seeking out the people on the streets who used the sisters’ soup kitchen in Wellington, she had come across the work of the Prostitute’s Collective, which was attempting to help these women. Sr Catherine became
“interested in what was happening there”.

She said “the social justice group I was with were right behind that [decriminalisation], because it gave the women the ordinary rights that any citizen has.

Not that we like prostitution, but it gave the women these rights that everybody should have. Up until then, if they complained about abuse, they were likely to be the ones picked up”.

“Then-Justice Minister Phil Goff approached the cardinal for someone from the Church on the five-year review committee, and the cardinal put my name forward,” Sr Catherine said.

Asked by NZ Catholic if she knew of anyone raising an eyebrow about her involvement, Sr Catherine said “I think they may have been surprised”.

When asked what Suzanne Aubert would have thought about this, she said
“I think she would be right behind it for she told us, ‘Let us have a balm for every suffering, a smile for every tear and forgiveness for every failing’.”

But being a committee member did come in useful.

“It was quite handy at times to say, no, I can’t come to this function, I have my prostitution committee.”

Later, Sr Catherine would branch out to be president of Wellington South Rotary in 2014 and 2015.

“I have found it is very good to be involved in work beyond the Church,” she said.

These days, she still volunteers at the soup kitchen, as she has done for 20 years. And she is still involved with the Wellington Women’s Homeless Trust — she was in the team which initiated it. And she is a member of two book clubs, she told NZ Catholic.

“I don’t have the energy I once had, but it is all so life-giving.”