Inspired by the Jesuit way

“My life has always circled around Ignatian spirituality”,
says new JEA Executive Director Barbara Watkins.


Interview with David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia 

Your family background, your interests, as well as your career path, all seem to intersect meaningfully in the context of your new role. Would you agree? 


Yes, I definitely think so. I’m one of eight children and my parents were very faith-filled Catholics, so they raised us to be the same. My siblings and I were – and still are – very much of the view that we should be of service to the community, because that was instilled in us from a very young age.  


While my parents themselves didn’t have university degrees, education was something they regarded as very important and so we all went on to gain university degrees and establish ourselves in our respective careers. They instilled in us: not merely to serve others, but to lead a faith-based life with a high element of looking after others’ entire being. 


What does this position, Executive Director of Jesuit Education Australasia, mean to you in terms of your vision and your personal mission? 


That’s a really big question. I think I’m a bit of an open book. In terms of Jesuit education and formation and even governance, things are going so well. What you do in a role like this is really to create a value-add element on top of what is an incredibly precious and historic nucleus. It’s not a personal sense of wanting to create something; it’s more about accompaniment and about being strong in Jesuit spirituality while emphasising who we really are. The more experienced you become in your field you know it is not about enforcing anything, instead we work to enhance relationships and actions with our acquired experience, wisdom and knowledge, and we do this with a collaborative approach.   


This discernment would have been deeply grounded in your years at St Aloysius’ College Milsons Point and Loreto Normanhurst, as well as your time spent looking after 70 schools in NSW. 


The thing that was pivotal for me was my time at St Aloysius from 1989 to 2000. Fr Tony Smith (the late Fr Tony Smith SJ was the longest-serving headmaster of the college, from 1986 until 2003) was pivotal in my career. Tony never saw any of the complications that may have existed, especially in the context of that time, and he employed me, encouraged, and challenged me.


You always need one person who sees in you what others may not. 

Definitely. He would have seen something in me that I probably didn’t even see in myself at the time, and for that I am eternally grateful. Back then, I think I was probably just functioning hand to mouth but when someone comes into your life and shows faith in you and your ability, then you are suddenly enabled to be fully alive. That in itself is very Ignatian by definition. Also, I grew because of Tony’s belief in me. During that time I first met Fr Paul Mullins (now the Socius at the Australian Province) and so many other Jesuits who are still a part of my life today. I was lucky. 


There was a bit of God in that. Not everyone always enjoys their career but I have been really blessed to have that aspect in my life. You’re only given one of these lives to live and you have to live it to the best of your ability and do the most for others in the process. 


What made you move to Loreto? 


A few years after I started at St Aloysius, Tony promoted me, then he made me the Director of Pastoral Services and later, he was the one who encouraged me to go for the role of Deputy Principal at Loreto Normanhurst. After the then Principal retired, I then threw my hat in the ring and I got the role as Principal. So, I had 11 wonderful years at St Aloysius and then another 18 fabulous years at Loreto Normanhurst. 


What was it about your time at St Aloysius that drew you to the Ignatian way of life? 


It was the influence of the liturgies and of the Jesuits themselves, and the fabulous lay staff who worked together so well. The Jesuits were living a life of deep Catholic faith and were very with it, very connected. The Jesuits were young men who had such a depth of knowledge. The way in which they spoke, and the manner in which they could impart the intelligence they had about education, social justice and social awareness was really inspirational. In addition to all of that, I’ve always been struck by the life story of Saint Ignatius. 


Where was your own Ignatian approach formed? 


In terms of staying within Ignatian spirituality, I was deeply formed at St Aloysius and then this was further deepened whilst at Loreto Normanhurst. You cherish all those stories you hear and all that history, as well as an understanding of what it means to be truly Ignatian. It’s interesting to note the influence that St Ignatius had on Mary Ward. The Constitutions and that overall influence of St Ignatius and Mary Ward were incredibly valuable to me.  


Although I have never been to Manresa, I found my way to that element through the Mary Ward stories. Her own deep connection with the Jesuits and Ignatian sprituality formed her but it also formed my life in significant ways. At Loreto Normanhurst we had a boarding school of 200 students and luckily I had all these connections with a group of amazing Jesuits who would come up and say Mass for us on a Sunday nights for the Boarders or on special occasions. The Jesuit commitment and way of life are a very big part of who I am.


When you wake up in the morning, having taken on this role, what exactly puts a spring in your step? 

It’s always the people. Relationships. That’s central to everything that you do. I love getting to know great people who inspire you by doing their daily work. You’ve got to be happy in your own skin. Unless I’m the happiest I can be, I cannot possibly be a good worker, a good colleague, a good mum, a good grandmother. If that’s not the case, how could you hope to inspire anyone? If I can be the best person I possibly can and I’m in a place where I feel like I belong and where I can make my best contribution, I embrace that. It makes you feel whole, a person fully alive.


Click here to read more about Jesuit Education Australasia. 

The mission of JEA is to nurture Jesuit and Companion school education ministries as Catholic institutions within the tradition of St Ignatius where the ethos and identity of each College reflect the spirituality of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the Jesuit and Ignatian tradition and are in conformity with the doctrine, rites and practices of the Catholic Church. 

Banner image of Barbara Watkins by David McMahon.