Claire Conaghty has tried her hand at many jobs, including police officer and aged care worker. However, it is in her current dual roles of pastoral associate for St Mark’s Cathedral Parish in Port Pirie and the clergy care coordinator for the diocese where Claire feels most at home. It is here where she has combined her loves of rural living, caring for people, parish life and Jesus.
Claire grew up in Adelaide with three older brothers and a twin sister, Dot. Baptised as an infant, Claire’s family “weren’t Churchgoers”, but she notes how much she appreciated the support provided by their Catholic neighbours, who would sometimes take the children to Mass and assist with their preparation for the sacraments.
Over the years, Claire would do her best to get to Mass at Easter and Christmas, but beyond that the Church didn’t play a particularly big role in her life.
Then, about 15 years ago, Claire attended the funeral Mass of her uncle, celebrated by Fr Brendan Connell, a Passionist priest in Adelaide. Claire was so taken by the way Fr Brendan celebrated the funeral that she was drawn to find out where he was serving with the idea of going along to the Sunday Mass.
As the saying goes, the rest is history. Claire’s faith in Jesus and what it means to live as a Catholic was revitalised. She started attending Mass regularly and learnt more about the Passionist order. For a while she discerned a vocation to the religious life with the Josephite Sisters, but eventually decided to continue her commitment to being a Passionist Companion.
In 2014, Claire returned to Port Pirie, having served there as a police officer in the 1990s. She took up a role in aged care and settled back into country life. When the positions she now holds were advertised, Claire sensed this was the sort of work God was calling her to.
In her interview (see below) with the National Centre for Evangelisation, Claire was asked about the personal joys and challenges of the two positions. Claire admits that managing the two roles is “all-consuming” and that she is a person who finds it difficult to say “no”. Also, the work can be very unpredictable, especially when it comes to the pastoral care of parishioners dealing with grief.
The same applies when a diocesan priest becomes ill and care arrangements need to be put in place in a sensitive and timely manner. “You can have your day all planned out,” says Claire, “and then a phone call changes all that — it really is a juggling act.”
Claire, however, feels blessed that God has given her a disposition, a passion and energy so she can minister whenever it is required. She acknowledges her mum, who was a great role model in the generous way she cared for people. And even though she finds it difficult to take holidays, she does take the opportunity to put down her tools for a few hours when things are a bit quieter.
Claire acknowledges the need for a good prayer life when working in full-time ministry, but admits this can easily be neglected when life gets busy. She also likes to keep healthy, and finds she is recharged by getting out for a walk with her “fur babies”.
At a parish level, Claire identified three areas that provide both a challenge and an opportunity.
Firstly, being intentional about building a welcoming community is essential. Having experienced such a warm welcome when she returned to the Mass, she wants other people to have a similar encounter.
Secondly, a challenge on the hearts of many people is how to best engage young people. In response, St Mark’s Parish is delighted to have welcomed a NET Ministries team in recent weeks and Claire has great hope that this will enliven the faith lives of the local young people.
Finally, Claire acknowledges the ageing Catholic population. It is very noticeable in a country parish just how much the older parishioners contribute to the life of the community. Claire is very grateful for their dedication and ministry, but does wonder what the future holds. Claire knows there are younger people and families in the town as they are very present to the community at the celebration of the sacraments. But like parishes across Australia, Claire is looking at ways to reach out to them and help them find a sense of belonging.
Finally, the National Centre for Evangelisation asked Claire if she saw herself as an evangeliser. Her response was indicative of her lovely blend of humility, kindness and faithfulness.
Claire said that even though she feels “out of her comfort zone”, she does feel it is important to accept invitations to speak publicly about her ministry and life as a Catholic. She also takes every opportunity to welcome those families who don’t regularly connect with the parish.
In this way, she sees herself as being intentional in her efforts to share her faith. It would seem, though, that Claire is at her very best in sharing her love for Jesus and for living as a Catholic, when she simply spends time with people, bringing them the Eucharist, sharing a cuppa or stopping for a chat at the local supermarket.
Like many pastoral associates across Australia, Claire exemplifies, through her actions, what it is to be the hands, heart and feet of Christ.
Words: Sharon Brewer