Sisters of the Past

Sister Isabel - Betty Hepburn

Profiled in December 2002

20 January 1921 - 25 September 2000

 Betty Isabel Hepburn was born 20/01/21 in Hamilton to Margaret (nee Hannigan) and Harry Hepburn. She had one sister, Ruth. Her father worked as a foreman with New Zealand Railways. It was in her family home that Isabel’s strong faith and great love of music and song was nurtured.

She attended Waipukurau Convent Primary School and then went as a boarder to Sacred Heart College in Wanganui. She faced her academic studies enthusiastically, and her sister remembers her enjoying one to one conversations in French with her rather intimidating French teacher.

Betty entered the Sisters of St Joseph in January 1937. Though quite young, she was professed in 1940, taking her second name and becoming Sister Isabel. She spent the next two years teaching in the Catholic Primary School in Manaia, Taranaki. Thus began her primary teaching career of 21 years, which took her to various schools around the lower North Island. In 1953, she attended Loreto Hall Catholic Teachers’ college in Auckland, and in her second year held the office of Senior Student.

In 1961, she was appointed Mistress of Novices, in charge of the formation of young women joining the Sisters. For the next 13 years she would capably fulfil this task, overseeing the move of the novitiate from Mt St Joseph in Wanganui, to Kelburn, Wellington in 1974. This was a time of unprecedented change in religious life and in the Church. Isabel stayed well abreast of the changes required, and was able to open up the new vision of religious life to those in her care. Novices well remember her great love of nature - which enabled her to see the sacred in the ordinary.

During these years the musical gifts engendered in her home were much in use in training young women for teaching. It was at this time the Kaiwhaiki people of the Whanganui River, asked for her assistance in preparing their choir for the national Catholic Hui. This was the start of an on-going relationship and deep friendship with families involved in this prize-winning choir.

In 1976, Isabel took on a major project when she was asked to write the life story of one of the founders of the Sisters, Julian Tenison Woods. She spent three years in dedicated research, and became a knowledgeable and committed advocate of Julian. Her book, ‘No Ordinary Man’ was published in 1979.

She then involved herself in pastoral work and some part time teaching in Wanganui. In 1983 she became a staff member of Marcellin Hall, Auckland. She was a member of the community there for the following four years. After this time she remained in Auckland, making her home the Convent in Ponsonby. Here her ministry continued in her senior years as she involved herself in ESL teaching, and pastoral work. Her compassionate presence, warm understanding and listening ear made her a ready companion of the elderly and people with disabilities.

Sister Isabel died suddenly on 25th September 2000. Mass was celebrated for her in Sacred Heart Church Ponsonby, and the large community of family, friends, religious and Pacific Island people gave her a fitting farewell. She was brought back to Wanganui for a time to be with her Sisters and friends, particularly the Maori people of the river. Her funeral Mass was held in St Mary’s Church, Wanganui on 29 September 2000. In her eulogy, Sister Lucille, who had been Isabel’s companion in Auckland for her latter years, said:

“Isabel, you responded generously to God’s call and you were faithful.
We give thanks for the gift that you were,
and pray now you will be blessed
with the fullness of God’s loving presence.
Haere atu ra, e te tuakana
Kia au to moe i roto i te Ariki.”

Gallery / Whakaahua

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