The Mater Spirit

Calvary Mater Newcastle’s 100-year history is rich and eventful. But the dedication to patients, the courage to dream big and a fierce commitment to watch out for each other never changed.

It was one fateful train ride in January 1920, when Waratah Parish priest Reverend Father O’Laverty ran into Reverend Mother Mary Magdalen Meaney from the Singleton Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, somewhere en route between Branxton and Hamilton. Legend has it that he was unable to focus on his Breviary and went back to the Sisters just in time to point out Enmore Hall, a property on Waratah’s Edith Street.

The fleeting, drive-by glimpse was enough to firmly impress upon them what a fine hospital it could make under the dedicated leadership of the Sisters.

Over the course of the next two years, the Sisters acquired Enmore Hall, nearby Karuah in Lorna Street and by 8 December 1921, the first patients were admitted to what was then a 34-bed hospital.
On 25 March 1922, Reverend Dr Kelly, Archbishop of Sydney, officially opened the Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Hospital with Mother Mary Magdalen its first Directress.

The rest, as the old chestnut goes, is history. Change has been constant at the Mater with the regular acquisition of adjacent properties to keep up with the ever-growing demand for state-of-the art medical services for Newcastle and the Hunter. Obstetrics, paediatrics, oncology and end of life care emerged as focus areas in the second half of the 20th century, but with the establishment of John Hunter Hospital (JHH) in the 1980s a revised allocation of specialties was agreed, which would see the maternity ward transferred to JHH in 1991.

In 2006, the Sisters of Mercy passed control of the hospital to the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary with the hospital becoming a part of Little Company of Mary Health Care, under the stewardship of Calvary Ministries. It seems only fitting that an organisation took ownership that goes back to an equally formidable group of women, the six courageous Sisters of the Little Company of Mary who sailed into Sydney on the steamship Liguria on 4 November 1885.

Since 2007, under the name of Calvary Mater Newcastle, the public hospital is a major cancer care centre for the Hunter New England Local Health District, delivering more than 460,000 outpatient and 17,000 inpatient treatments per year. With a 24/7 Emergency Department, an intensive care unit and extensive Palliative Care Services, it is also a world-renowned research facility staffed by leading researchers in oncology, toxicology, psychiatry and palliative care.

Yet beyond all these impressive statistics, staff members unfailingly describe ‘The Mater’ in endearing terms usually reserved for friends and family. The founding Sisters might not recognise the thriving hospital they founded a century ago, yet the spirit and can-do attitude that reigned at what was then the Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Hospital has lingered on and is still tangible in its welcoming, bright and airy corridors today.

It’s about the people

“The Mater is like a big hug,” says Payroll Clerk Kate Andreou, who was born ‘Smarter at the Mater’ and gave birth to both her daughters here. Now in her early seventies, she has been working at the hospital for more than 31 years and has finally decided to call it quits sometime this year.

“The people here are truly a special bunch. There is just a wonderful spirit to this place. It’s in the bricks and the mortar and the walls and the corridors. But it’s the people, the camaraderie and the values that we all share that make it truly special.”

It’s a feeling that Margaret Fogarty wholeheartedly shares. “I will be forever grateful for the opportunities I have been given. The Mater with its camaraderie and mateship amongst staff has always had a real family feel about it,” she says.

A Mater veteran of 45 years (and counting) she started in the pathology department in 1973, having left full time employment at the BHP central research laboratories. She wanted to start a family and job shared, starting with just a few hours per week, maintaining the blood gas machines and analysing blood samples. The hours quickly increased with 24/7 on-call duties, and mobile phones yet to be invented.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but all of us working in the laboratory at BHP had learned to play the piano as children. The supervisor believed that it was a good preparation for laboratory work,” Margaret recalls.

Always up for a challenge, and with more and more patient contact after she joined the Emergency Department as a Technical Officer, she enrolled in a basic counselling skills course in the mid 1990s. She went on to complete several courses in compassion and end of life care and in 2015 she was invited to join the Bereavement Team at the Mater’s Hospice as a volunteer, while still working part time in the Emergency Department.

She retired in November 2018 after exactly 45 years at the Mater but continues to volunteer.
“My journey has been a privilege and a blessing, and my hope is that with my volunteer work I am contributing in some small way to ease the pain of families when they mourn the loss of a loved one,” she says.

Kim Kolmajer was in the second last group of nurses to be trained at the Mater in the early 1980s. She remembers that teachers at TAFE claimed they could recognise Mater nursing students by how they described their roles in written assignments.

“I never asked what was so different about it, but it must have been something that was just deeply embedded in all of us,” she says.

“I had worked in the maternity ward and moved across to JHH when they opened. Then I met my husband and we moved to Scone. But I returned to the Mater four years later. On my first day back, a wardsman who had been at the Mater for years was walking out as I came in and without missing a beat he said, ‘hey Kim how are you?’.

“It was as if I had had a weekend off, everything was so comfortable, so familiar – and I slid right back in.” Keenly interested in learning new skills, Kim decided to transfer into medical nursing after a very busy shift at JHH when an overflow of medical patients had to be treated in the maternity ward.

Read more about the Calvary Mater in our Autumn issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Cornelia Schulze, photography courtesy of Calvary Mater Newcastle