Women's Interfaith Fellowships Create Tomorrow's Dynamic Leaders

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
9 Jan 2015

Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowships celebrate women and create leaders across Australia

The Young Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowships enrich and deepen faith and provide those awarded Fellowships with the unique opportunity not only to study with some of the nation's outstanding theologians and lecturers, but to learn from one another.

"For me, it was also a wonderful opportunity to meet other young women from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and form strong bonds with them," says Bedelia Melville, assistant to the Archdiocese of Sydney's Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Relations.

Bedelia is one of the 16 women from 12 dioceses across the country selected to join the two year Fellowship program which ran from 2013-2014.

An initiative of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) the Young Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowship Program began in 2006.

In acknowledgement of the rich contribution women make to the Church and their individual communities, the program is designed to enable successful candidates to undertake a formation program, study for a Certificate in Theology through the Broken Bay Institute, deepen their understanding of interfaith relations and become dynamic and inspirational leaders.

Andrea Dean OPW's Fellowship Coordinator

During the earlier years of the program, those awarded fellowships travelled to Canberra to participate in an intense 15-week live-in full-time course at the Australian Catholic University's ACT campus.

"Trying to juggle work, study, relationships and in some cases the demands of young children meant many of women were unable to take time out to spend four months in Canberra. So we decided to make the program more flexible," says Donella Johnston, Director of the ACBC's National Office for the Participation of Women (OPW).

From the fourth intake which began in February 2013, the fellowship program was spread over two years with an intense four day seminar attended by all candidates held at start of each of the program's four semesters with the rest of their studies, thanks to advances in technology, able to be carried out online and via social media.

Last month the ACBC announced the names of the 14 young women selected to participate in the fifth Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowship program for 2015 and 2014.

The successful candidates who hail from dioceses across the country will meet for the first time at the four-day intensive live-in seminar to be held in February 2015 at the Sisters of Good Samaritan's Mount St Benedict Centre, Pennant Hills.

The first cohort to receive Young Catholic Women Fellowships in 2006

"We will also be there to welcome them and speak to this new cohort, and encourage the young women embarking on the program which changed our lives," says Bedelia.

Bedelia and the 15 others in the 2013-14 group who were awarded Young Catholic Women's Fellowships gathered in Sydney in November when they were presented with their graduate certificates.

When accepting the Fellowship, Bedelia had already graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a Masters degree. But she insists that the two year program enabled her to further her studies as well as gain new perspectives and important insights from the other women on the program.

"I feel enormously privileged to have been granted a fellowship and given what was a unique and very special opportunity," she says.

Bedelia Melville (left) Kathryn Lambkin (rear) and Maria Vieira during one of the Fellowship program's four day seminar-retreats

With ages ranging from 25 to 35, those taking part with Bedelia in the 2013-14 Young Catholic Women's Interfaith Fellowship program included primary and secondary school teachers, a senior management consultant, a family and faith educator, a lawyer with the Australian Federal Police, a Public Relations Officer and an executive support officer with the NSW Department of Family and Community Services.

"Some of us were single, others were married and we were all a wonderful reminder of the broad diversity of the Church in Australia," Bedelia says.

The 14 women selected for the 2015-2016 program are not only equally diverse but also of the same high calibre.

Sponsored by various religious congregations, institutions and Church agencies, each Fellowship is  valued at $12,000 and covers all tuition, travel, accommodation and administrative costs during the two years of the program's faith formation and academic study program.

Bishop Peter Ingham, the ACBC's delegate for the Council for Australian Catholic Women says the fellowship program is one of the best things the Bishops Conference has done for women in the Church.

"At the foot of the Cross, the women were the ones who stood by Jesus. They were the first to witness the resurrection and in many ways, I think this gives us a scriptural basis for the lifting up of women in our Australian Church, and to really support them and empower them to lead,"  he says.

Candidates are selected by the ACBC's National Office for the Participation of Women who also manage and administer the program. Andrea Dean is Fellowship Co-ordinator.