Three generations of faithful women

Nan, Mum and Sarah worship together and inspire each other

I’m perched in the creche room at the back of my church – St James Anglican Turramurra in northern Sydney – alongside three generations of women from the same family: Jenny, 79 (otherwise known as Nan), Cathy, 54 (Jenny’s daughter,) and Sarah, 21 (Cathy’s daughter).

These three integral cogs in the St James community have agreed to meet with me, somewhat reluctantly, to talk about themselves but, more particularly, about each other. Jenny Hazell is the most hesitant – she really doesn’t like drawing attention to herself. But that’s hard to avoid when she and her late husband Bill were among the faithful few who started the 9am family service around 25 years ago – with only “a box of toys in the aisle and 30 adults and kids.” This congregation, which they are all part of, now has an average attendance of 230, including a thriving kids church with about 65 kids.

“Mum has been really important in showing me what God’s love is like.” – Cathy Petherbridge

Jenny’s daughter Cathy Petherbridge reminds her mum that she has also led Bible studies, been involved in women’s ministry and now collates the church bulletins every week. She’s also an “amazing prayer warrior”, Cathy adds. Jenny reciprocates by mentioning after the list of roles in which Cathy has served – kids’ ministry, in church services and Bible studies – that she “is very good at listening to people. I hear that from people all the time,” Jenny says, proudly.

Jenny, the matriarch, has attended St James for 52 years. She didn’t grow up in a Christian home, although her dad had a nominal belief in God and great Bible knowledge. He sent her to Sunday school by herself, which Jenny admits she found “dead dull and boring”. She would often truant, sitting in the tram shed until it was over. Fortunately, Jenny made her own decision to follow Christ around the age of 16 through attending a youth fellowship, where she met Bill.

The childhood experience that Jenny offered her own children, including Cathy, was very different to her own. She brought up Cathy and her two sisters in the church, where Cathy says she received a “huge amount of Bible teaching and community”. Christian values were also gently woven into the daily life of their family.

“Mum is the most generous, selfless person I know … She has been a quiet influence, in that she’s never been pushy, but she has quietly encouraged my faith,” says Cathy. “I know how important her faith is to her, so that’s been an encouragement to me. And Mum has been really important in showing me what God’s love is like and how we should treat others.

“Having the parents I had, it’s been easier to understand and believe in a loving God.”

“It’s through Mum’s servant heart [example] that I started serving in Sunday school.” – Sarah Petherbridge

Ten years ago, Cathy returned to St James with her own family (three kids and a husband) after worshipping elsewhere for quite a few years. She describes the experience of returning to the church as “a joy”. Over the past decade, she’s watched Sarah and her other two children come to faith and become involved in children’s ministry.

“There is no greater joy for a Christian mother than to see her daughter choose to follow Jesus,” says Cathy.

“I love that my kids are part of that community [at St James] … It’s actually quite an amazing place that three generations can come to the same service and feel comfortable.

“We just think it’s normal but I suppose, in this day and age, it’s not – so it’s very special.

“The intergenerational thing is really important because the world tries to separate you into oldies, youngies and parents … It’s really nice to be in a community that doesn’t necessarily label you like that.”

While Nan (Jenny) is careful to “tread a little bit carefully” to avoid embarrassing her grandkids at church, Sarah is certainly unfazed by having a host of family members there.

“I love that,” she enthuses. “In the mornings, I actively seek out Nan to give her a hug, even if it’s just a ‘hello hug; I’m off’ or if I can stay and chat for a bit.”

For Sarah, the examples of her mum and grandma have been integral in facing the pressures of life as a young Christian in an increasingly godless world – such as working in a secular workplace, mixing with those who party and get drunk, and feeling like a weirdo because you don’t sleep around.

“It’s hard – outside of church – to find people to encourage you in the Christian life,” says Sarah.

When asked how Jenny and Cathy have influenced her faith, Sarah says: “Mum has encouraged and shown me what a servant heart looks like … She’s always been a hard worker – and I’m not a very hard worker! … It’s through Mum’s servant heart [example] that I started serving in Sunday school.”

“Nan has shown me how to be generous with your prayer life – who you should be including and, when you should be including, people in your prayers.”

“My family has widened my Christian horizons enormously.” – Jenny Hazell

Jenny is quick to point out that Sarah and her other grandchildren and children have greatly enriched her Christian life too.

“My family has widened my Christian horizons enormously. They allow God to show me a window into future generations when I meet with their friends. I learn a lot, particularly how much harder it is for young Christians in today’s society than when I was young.”

“I stand amazed as they grow as Christians … and are so willing to give of their time and talents. So what really, really pleases me is that I can confidently say, as an oldie, that the future of the church is in good hands.”

As we wind up our chat, I ask their plans for Mother’s Day. The morning will begin with brekky in bed for Cathy, then church altogether and, later, a family afternoon tea. They stress that it’s just about being together, so will be celebrated without fuss or ceremony – in just the same way that this family churches, serves and does life together.

“Although, it’s nice to have the opportunity to acknowledge maternal effort. I think mothers are pretty special,” Cathy concludes.

“I do too,” Sarah chimes in. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have one!”