Gardening With Soul

GARDENING WITH SOUL,  New Zealand, 2013. Documentary with Sister Loyola Galvin. Directed by Jess Feast. Rated G. 96 minutes.

There is no doubt that most audiences will feel all the better while watching this interesting and delightful film. And they will probably even feel much better by the time it has ended.

Over the years, there have been many documentaries which feature nuns reflecting on their lives, reflecting on religious life, reflecting on their place in the church. Audiences in the past were used to seeing such movie nuns as Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s or Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. Catholic audiences were possibly surprised or exhilarated by nuns in different habits in the 1960w like Rosalind Russell in Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows or Mary Tyler Moore with Elvis in Change of Habit. In later years, many sisters have complained that screen presence of nuns, generally in antiquated-looking habits which never existed, is limited to background in airports, railway stations… In the 1990s, there was Whoopi Goldberg, masquerading as a nun in a witness protection program, singing and delighting everyone (including the Pope) with her singing and leading a choir in Sister Act. On the more serious side, Susan Sarandon won an Academy award for portraying Sister Helen Prejean and her prison ministry in Dead Man Walking. A fascinating half-century of nuns on screen from Ingrid Bergman to Susan Sarandon.

Sister Loyola, who is featured in Gardening with Soul lived her religious life as a Sister of Compassion through that half-century – and beyond. Serving as a nurse during World War II and then entering the convent, she is in her 80s as this film opens and turns 90 towards the end.

The Sisters of Compassion were founded by Mother Aubert, a woman of enterprise with an openness to people of all faiths and denominations. The sisters have communities in New Zealand, Fiji and worked in Australia, especially in Broken Hill.

Perhaps the first thing to note about Sister Loyola is what a livewire she is, sprightly and birdlike, working in the garden, cherishing the garden, not only the plants but also the preparation of compost, doing some heavy lifting, and enlightening us about the processes of growth, with images of beautiful flowers, shrubs, and what happens every year, from winter through to autumn, which are the headings of the action of the film.

Since this review is written by a non-gardener (after dismal failure in that job many decades ago in the novitiate), the impact of the garden and gardening was visual. Real gardeners will no doubt appreciate so much more, not just visually, but understanding and appreciating what Sister Loyola does, along with her helpers in the garden at the Home of, Compassion in Wellington, New Zealand.

As the title of the film also includes Soul. Sister Loyola is a wise guide in matters spiritual, indicating the depths of prayer and awareness of God over many decades, but able to speak in very practical terms, using garden analogies, using the seasons, but able to explain many aspects of spirituality to a wide audience, even those not familiar with spirituality terms and ideas. But Sister Loyola speaks from long experience. There is a beautiful sequences of the sisters at mass, distributing Communion, as well is the elderly sisters in the background, at prayer, at meals, and the joy of celebrating Sister Loyola’s 90th birthday.

The director behind the camera (not always easy to pick up with the limits of the sound engineering of the film) asks Sister to explain her life, the possibilities of marriage but her grief at the death of a friend during the war, her work as a nurse, her vocation, the old-style, rather strict convent life, the practical changes to the habit and its materials and the decision to live in a more contemporary world in ‘mufti’.

And Sister has sound things to say about the state of the church (mentioning the advantage of New Zealand being a long way from Rome!), of looking after children in the homes, on kindness and tenderness to babies and children (with some footage of a film from the 1950s). At the end of the film, some visitors who were children in Compassion Homes, come to visit Sister Loyola and share their happy memories of their experiences with the sisters, which enabled them to have a life that they might never have had without the sisters.

Sister Loyola is also up-to-date with troubles in the Catholic Church, speaking strongly about the sexual abuse issues, using the word ‘humanity’ in her strong reflections.

For Catholics who are familiar with nuns, this film will be a most pleasant experience, being reminded of the best that they have known in their relationships with the sisters. Audiences not familiar with nuns will be charmed by the sprightly Sister Loyola, her sharp observations on life, her experience of living religiously and spiritually. Probably this will be the case for audiences 50 and over reminiscing about sisters. There may not be an immediate appeal to younger audiences – but should they happen upon Gardening with Soul, they might not be sorry.

A pleasing documentary that is very easy to recommend.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out May 22 1014.