Twenty years with Teresa

Teresa Brierley was never meant to stick to the status quo.

As a woman in Biomedical Science, a woman who worked full-time while raising five children in the 80’s, and a woman who became a leader in the Catholic Church close to 20 years ago, she has touched thousands of lives and made an impact not even she is fully aware of.

But if you ask Teresa, her becoming a leader was not out of the ordinary.

“I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time…I am just a normal person that did what they’ve done,” she said.

Humility aside, Teresa’s life story demonstrates she is anything but “your average Joe”.

When Teresa was appointed Vice Chancellor of Pastoral Ministries in 2005, little did anyone know the profound effect she would have on the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

Arriving at the Diocese as a female member of the leadership team, Teresa was hope-filled and commenced her role as the church was growing and changing.

Teresa said that being a female in a leadership position as the church navigated its way through a change of era was both significant and a privilege.

Despite the admiration and inspiration she evoked in others at the Diocese, Teresa remained humble, seeing herself as just another voice at the table, not a role model or a trailblazer.

“I was often in a room with all men, and sometimes what they said challenged me, but I never felt that I didn’t have a voice. It was essential that I used it from the feminine perspective when I was there, as the reality was that I brought something different to the conversation,” said Teresa.

“Firstly, as a female, but also someone who had lived across the Diocese, who was married and had children. Those experiences changed my life and perspective, and I had something unique to add to the discussion.

“I understood that at the worst time of the sexual abuse crisis, I brought a female perspective,” she said.”

When starting in her new role, Teresa was unaware of “this shameful part of our story as a church.”

When asked how she navigated working through the darkness, she said: “I just took it one day at a time.”

Teresa has often been praised for her strong leadership and faith during this challenging period of the church's history.

Reflecting on this time, she shares: “While we now have robust systems to keep children and vulnerable people in our Diocesan community safe, that part of our history continues to haunt many of us. We continue to seek forgiveness for these past failings.”

Samantha Hill, a former Family Ministry Coordinator at the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, said the significance of her as a leader in 2005 cannot be underestimated.

“Twenty years ago, I imagine when Teresa first stepped into that role, it would have been a real statement to have a woman sitting in a pastoral ministries space looking after the formation of the faithful along with mission and outreach,” Samantha said.

“Having a woman leader being a voice, and intentionally bringing people together would have been so important.

“Being a lay woman in leadership too, traditionally, her role probably would have been held by a nun, so her sitting in that space would have been a real representation of the beginning of lay people doing ministry in the church, and she was definitely at the forefront of that.”

Samantha, now the General Manager of Mission and Membership for St Vincent de Paul, Queensland, says having Teresa as a supportive and guiding leader affected her career path and would have also been meaningful to other women in the Diocese.

“When you are a woman working in ministry in a very male-dominated world, to have a woman's voice that can think differently to men, that looks at things with a broader lens, and can support and educate other women in that space is so important,” she said.

Having spent most of her childhood in Newcastle, Teresa has always been passionate about educating, working with, and making a difference in the community she lives in. One of 12 children, Teresa lived locally until her family moved to Sydney in her senior years of school.

For Teresa’s parents, education was key for all her brothers and sisters.

Reflecting on what she calls “remarkable years of education and formation”, Teresa believes she was “blessed to be surrounded by a family of faith and to be taught by dedicated religious women, who devoted their lives to God and humanity.”

A high achiever from the beginning, Teresa decided against the odds and her mother's preference to pursue the Higher School Certificate at St Anne’s Adamstown. From high school, she completed a degree in Biomedical Science at the University of Technology Sydney and loved working in hospital pathology.

While completing her degree, Teresa met Allen as a member of the Natovi Youth Group at Marsfield Parish in Sydney. They married in 1975, and shortly after, Teresa undertook her Diploma of Education. While the progression from Biomedical Science to teaching may seem like an interesting leap for some, for Teresa, it was what she was destined to do.

“So even though I loved Biomedical Science, I always knew God's call for me was to be a teacher,” she said.

When Allen and Teresa became engaged, her lecturers and hospital specialists indicated that this would be the end of her career and that it would be a waste. This was a time when most married women, once they had children, did not continue pursuing their careers.

However, as was her destiny, Teresa’s journey of motherhood would include both.

After the birth of her firstborn Nicole, a forward-thinking and supportive priest who was the principal at the local Catholic college, offered her a part-time teaching position.

Teresa recalls thinking: “Am I allowed to work? I didn’t know anyone who had worked and had children.”

So, after discerning, she began working as a Senior Biology teacher in Bowral at the school where she had completed her practicum, which was life-changing. 

Her call to become a teacher didn’t end there though.

With a diverse career spanning decades, many would struggle to pick one defining moment that shaped their future. However, Teresa says teaching religion was something she felt called to.

“Realising in 1990 that lay people would need to have qualifications in theology was a significant moment in my life. Because the church was changing at the time, I could see there wouldn’t be priests or religious to do what previously had to be done. And that was what came to me, and I was gifted enough by God to study theology, which has guided me in my work over the last two decades,” she said.

“Even though I have been in Pastoral Ministries for nearly 20 years, I still think that, in many ways, I am a teacher. I am sure I have taught many people, many things. It has just been a different call of teaching.”

Even with a growing family of five children over the coming years, Teresa continued to work out-of-hours in pathology, studied and, while in school leadership, taught religious education, mathematics, science, senior biology, and studies of Religion.

You may be thinking, ‘How did she do it?’

How did Teresa remain so passionate and committed to her faith, be actively involved in her local church, raise five children, and study, all while working in significant career roles?

However, after hearing Teresa speak of her life story, it all seems just part of the course in her life.

And with Allen’s support, she didn’t see it as unusual or unachievable to be involved in everything she was called to. Asked if it was hard, Teresa says, “Well, yes, it was tricky, but we made it work, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

“I know it sounds strange. But having a family and children and studying shows them that if you are committed to doing something, you can do it. Now they live by the same philosophy,” she said.

Listening to Teresa’s story, the overriding impression is that she is committed and passionate about her work and purpose but unaware of the impact she has had on the people around her.

Samantha believes that one of the reasons Teresa positively influenced so many was her capacity to invest in everyone she met, particularly her staff, whom she often supported by walking them through life, helping them discern what their journey might be, and unpacking that.

“When you look at Teresa, she was someone who lived and breathed the church, she lived and breathed her faith, and she took all of her staff on that journey as well, helping them with whatever they had going on for them, in their work or personal life,” she said.

“I think one of the things that I was most fond of was Teresa’s ability to sit in a space and dream. So, with Teresa, no ideas were off-limits. There was always a possibility of bringing something to life and making something a reality.”

Reflecting on the experiences that brought her to this point, Teresa says that it was an honour to be a female leader at a key transitional moment for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and that she felt well-supported to do so.

“In my role, I was empowered to be that person; it could have been stopped or thwarted in any way, but it wasn’t. I was accepted for who I was and how I went about things,” she said.

“I was allowed to dream, which is an important aspect of my story. Whoever the Bishops were allowed that dream to sort of become real. And then, I was given the opportunity to work with others to make that possible.”

When Teresa announced that she was resigning from her position, she received overwhelming support, with emails and cards recalling experiences shared and hallway conversations. However, one common theme left her surprised.

“Most people talked about being a female leader at this time in the church and what that had meant to them. This was a humbling for me,” Teresa said.

So, what’s next for Teresa?

Anyone who knows her understands that she is always on the move. In fact, when Teresa shared her story for this article, she was on a road trip with Allen and had visited three States in one day!

Rather than sitting and enjoying some downtime, this hectic holiday seems fitting for this new phase of her life, and she clearly has no plans to slow down.

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