This article first appeared in The Beat, the news magazine of Cabrini Health in Australia. Given the extensive nature of this account, we will share the story of Sr. Alice over the next few weeks.

Cabrini Sr. Alice ZannonSr. Alice identifies not as Australian, Italian, English or American – she is at heart, a Missionary Sister, always ready to go wherever she is sent to carry on the work of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini and her congregation.

Sr. Alice Zanon, MSC is unfazed by the dynamic life she has led as a Cabrini Sister. As a first-generation Australian daughter of Italian parents, she was raised in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick East. She entered the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus aged 23 in Malvern in 1968. Prior to that, Sr. Alice had been working in a secretarial capacity to the managers of an insurance firm in Collins Street and at the resources firm Ampol Petroleum. During her lunchbreaks, this young city woman would attend Mass at St. Francis Catholic Church in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. Her colleague and friend Greta noticed how happy Alice always looked after she had attended Mass and received Holy Communion and asked whether she had thought of entering religious life. Indeed, she had. “I perceived a calling to enter religious life but procrastinated, as I did not know where to go,” said Sr. Alice.

While working with the Legion of Mary and during a weekend stay at Ave Maria Retreat House for Women in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon, Alice sought the counsel of the late Rev. John Robinson, a Vincentian priest, to whom she opened her heart about her desire for religious vocation. He told her about the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and their work at Cabrini Malvern. She learned there were 22 Sisters missioned there including Sisters who worked in administrative roles. Alice saw a place there for herself and made contact with Sr. Ilia Xavier Peveralia MSC, who was Superior and Hospital Administrator from 1968 until 1973. “I was drawn by the international nature of the community – seven nationalities were represented among these Sisters and as a child of immigrants, I never looked anywhere else,” said Sr. Alice. She remembers the late Sr. Ilia with great affection. “She was a good, kind, compassionate Sister, a mentor and a friend,” said Sr. Alice.

Sr. Alice entered religious life on Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini’s Feast Day (13 November) in 1968 and made her perpetual vows in February 1978. “It was a good day to enter,” she said. Her decision made, it was time to break the news to her parents – mother Serena and father Segundo Diano, comanager at a concrete and paving firm – who were initially devastated, as they felt that they were losing their precious daughter. “My father took the news particularly hard but my mind was made up.”

As Italian immigrants, Alice’s parents had worked hard to provide Alice, her sister Dina and two brothers Danny and Angelo with a good education, a better life than they themselves had had and a comfortable future. Alice and her siblings attended Mass regularly and went to Catholic schools. Alice had attended Our Lady Help of Christians primary school in Brunswick East and later, Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy where she was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. Her siblings are alive today and themselves grandparents. Sr. Alice sees them on her infrequent visits to Australia, which included attending the Feast of the Sacred Heart Mass in the chapel at Cabrini Malvern in June 2015.

While missioned in Australia, Sr. Alice was among four Cabrini Sisters who went to Perth to serve at a home for assisted living where she remained for four years. Whereas three Cabrini Sisters worked in this home, Sr. Alice worked at a kindergarten for Italian children operated by the Italian Consulate. To acquire further training as an educator, she attended the Churchlands Teaching College (now part of Edith Cowan University). “I had not expected to become a teacher,” she said. “Yet the seed fell, took root and all fell into place.”

Cabrini Sr. Alice ZannonOn her return to Melbourne and during her sabbatical year in 1977, Sr. Alice attended Assumption Institute in Rosanna, north-eastern Melbourne, together with Sisters from Australia and south-eastern Asia. “It was a great year during which we all grew spiritually,” said Sr. Alice. Her perpetual vows made, Sr. Alice was asked by Sr. Regina Casey MSC, Superior General in 1972 to go to London where St. Francesca Cabrini Catholic Primary School, Honor Oak, was located in the city’s south-east. The journey from Australia to England was not an easy one for the young sister. “I was crying on the aeroplane, as I was leaving my family and country and did not know what would be waiting at the other end,” she said. She undertook further teacher training for three years in London, achieving a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of London. So began her classroom career, which lasted from 1979 until 1993, teaching all subjects to children of all ages.

With the new decade came a new challenge: Sr. Alice was asked to go to Cabrini Missions Swaziland. “It had been my childhood dream to go to Africa and work as a missionary,” said Sr. Alice. And so, she did. Sr. Alice attended a six-week enculturation program, in order to prepare for life in Africa. At this time, she stopped wearing her veil. “It does not matter much about what I wear; all I need is my ring and my cross,” she said. “I have always been treated with respect because of my calling – it is not about the habit you wear but your commitment.” She spent three years teaching English and religion to the high school students at St Mary’s Mission, Lobamba, Swaziland.

After three years in Swaziland, a new mission arose for Sr. Alice: she was invited by Sr. Pietrina Raccuglia MSC (Provincial, Stella Maris Province) to consider taking up a ministry at Cabrini High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. “I didn’t have a clue about New Orleans,” said Sr. Alice. “I spent three days there and I loved it, so I answered yes. It has a casual and friendly atmosphere and a slower place of life. I felt that I could fit in and saw myself being happy living and working here.” She relocated from Swaziland to New Orleans, moved into her on-campus accommodation on the Bayou St John and began teaching religious education in August 1996.

~ from The Beat, Cabrini Health; with thanks to Christine Elmer and Kate Stivala