A global role and renown at home
Sister Shirley Sedawie, 1924-2011
Sister Mary Barbuto and Rabbi John Levi
Sister Shirley Sedawie helped to build bridges of understanding between the Catholic Church and Jews in Australia and beyond after World War II. Few Australians have made such an impression on religious life as she did on the international stage.
Shirley Kathleen Rose Sedawie, of Syrian ancestry, was born on 23 September 1924, in Sydney. She was admitted as a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion in 1946 and taught in Melbourne.
Her order was founded in the 1840s by Theodor Ratisbonne, a French Jew who believed it was his vocation to convert Jews to Christianity. As details of the Holocaust became better known, the order made the radical decision to accept as its mission the task of furthering understanding between Jews and Christians and combating anti-Semitism.
In 1962, Shirley went to Jerusalem to study Judaism and Hebrew. On her return, she founded the Centre for Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Melbourne. She did a BA at Melbourne University, majoring in Semitic languages and Middle Eastern thought, then completed an MA in 1970.
That year, the centre relocated to Cotham Road, where an excellent library of Judaica and theology was established. Christian groups seeking knowledge about Judaism were welcomed. Senior students at Our Lady of Sion College at Box Hill benefited from Shirley's biblical studies course and survivors of the Holocaust living in Melbourne found her a trusted friend. She became one of the founders of the Council of Christians and Jews in Victoria and an active member of its executive committee.
In 1977, Shirley returned to Jerusalem for further study and worked at Ecce Homo, the Sisters of Sion's Centre for Biblical Formation in the Old City. The following year she joined an international team at the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations in Rome and later became its director. She was responsible for the quarterly publication SIDIC, in three languages, and focused on international Jewish-Christian dialogue.
She also worked with the Vatican's office for relations with Judaism and the Jewish people and she lectured at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Shirley returned to Australia in 1988 and rejoined her community in Sydney. While in NSW, and true to her enthusiastic nature, she befriended Mum Shirl and the Aboriginal community at Dundarra; she was a staunch supporter of the community for the rest of her life.
She returned to Melbourne in 1990 and was re-elected to the executive of the council in Victoria. She was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1995. Shirley also worked with the Victorian Council of Churches and the Anglican ecumenical affairs commission.
At the time of her OAM award, Melbourne's Archbishop Denis Hart said:' You have been a remarkable leader in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations, bringing your warmth and welcome to the relationship … You have emphasised the dignity of every person and the sincere nature of our relationship of common belief in the one God.'
Sr Marianne Dacy, congregational leader, said: For many of us sisters, it was Shirley who opened up the Scriptures in ways that were new and life changing. Her intense love of God and profound understanding of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures journeying with the community in all its ups and downs has touched us all. She also set us on a path of discovery of the many links between Christianity and Judaism. Most of all, her love and passion have become our life and passion.'