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Sister Shirley Sedawie

25/01/2012: Australia

SISTER Shirley Sedawie, who succeeded in building bridges of understanding between the Catholic Church and Jewish people in Australia and beyond after World War II, has died of dementia (31/12/2011) at the St Vincent de Paul Nursing Home in Box Hill. She was 87.

Very few Australians have made an impression on religious life as Sedawie did on the international stage. She touched lives from a parish primary school in Ascot Vale to the grandeur of the Vatican, from Cotham Road, Kew, to the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, and to the Pontifical Gregorian Institute in Rome.

Sedawie was born in Sydney. Her grandparents had migrated from Syria and her father, Phil, was the first of his family to be born in Australia.

She was formally admitted as a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion in 1946, and joined the teaching staff at St Mary's Primary school in Ascot Vale.

The teaching order was founded in the 1840s by Theodore Ratisbonne, a French-born Jew who believed it was his vocation to convert Jews to Christianity. In the 1950s, when 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. Sedawie, who had been given the name Sister Callistus, was teaching during this period of revolutionary change that led to the Second Vatican Council and the historic document, Nostra Aetate, which declared: ''We are called to be in relationship and to dialogue with the Jewish People''.

In 1962, she was sent to Jerusalem to study Judaism and Hebrew. When she returned, she founded the Centre for Jewish-Christian Dialogue in Box Hill. She began a BA at Melbourne University, majoring in Semitic languages and Middle Eastern thought, then completed an MA in 1970; her thesis was The Beginning of the Conflict between Christian and Jews.
In 1970, the centre relocated to Cotham Road, where an excellent library of Judaica and theology was established.

''Shalom'', as it was called, became a place for lectures and meetings. An increasing number of Christian groups seeking knowledge about Judaism were welcomed. Many senior students at Our Lady of Sion College at Box Hill benefited from Sedawie's Biblical studies course. Survivors of the Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) living in Melbourne found in Sedawie a trusted and lifelong 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, she returned to Jerusalem for further study and worked at the Sisters of Sion's Centre for Biblical Formation ''Ecce Homo'' on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City overlooking the Temple Mount. The following year she joined an international team at the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations in Rome, where she later became its director. She was responsible for the quarterly publication SIDIC that was published in three languages and focused on the international progress of the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

She also worked with the Vatican's Department of Relations with Judaism and the Jewish People. And, she lectured at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Sedawie returned to Australia in 1988 and rejoined her community in Sydney. Rabbi Raymond Apple of Sydney's Great Synagogue has written that ''the breakthrough (establishing the Council of Christians and Jews) occurred in 1988 when Sister Shirley Sedawie returned to Australia''. While in New South Wales, and true to her enthusiastic nature, she befriended ''Mum Shirl'' and the Aboriginal community at Dundarra; Sedawie remained 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 made an honorary life member in 1995, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services ''to the promotion of interfaith relations and understanding''. At the time, Archbishop Denis Hart wrote: ''You have been a remarkable leader in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations, bringing your warmth and welcome to the relationship … and I consider myself lucky to have inherited so much of what you built. You have emphasised the dignity of every person and the sincere nature of our relationship of common belief in the one God.''

Sedawie also worked with the Victorian Council of Churches and the Anglican Ecumenical Affairs Commission. The Reverend Professor Robert Anderson, who was moderator of the Uniting Church and founding president of the Council of Christians and Jews in Victoria, recently wrote in his autobiography: ''No one has contributed more to Christian-Jewish relations than Sister Shirley Sedawie.''

Sister Mary Barbuto and Rabbi Dr John Levi, AM, worked with and were friends of Sister Shirley Sedawie.