Strict religion, abstinence and the movie Sister Act. Just a few things that spring to mind when one thinks of nuns.
Yet one incredible Sister with the wit of a comedian and cheeky grin which refuses to fade has thrown all conventions out the window, proving nuns can roll with the best of them.
Crime thrillers, motorbikes and the wind lashing her face on the open road — that’s more like it for this local humanitarian.
Born and raised in Warrnambool, Sister Luka Kenna is the first to admit she’s always broken the mould when it comes to the sisterhood.
Recalling her high school years at St Anne’s College in Warrnambool, it’s hard to not laugh when she describes her relationship with the nuns in charge back then.
“I was the biggest plague the nuns ever had,” she says with the characteristically friendly chuckle I would come to hear so much.
“School was the last thing on my mind. It was a wonderful social experience and I spent most of the time seeing what I could get away with.”
She recalls being the message girl for fellow students, running notes to their boyfriends after school.
“And it worked vice-versa, I would also run notes from the boys to the girls,” she laughs.
“I was always in trouble, and I deserved every bit of it.”
Keeping the teachers on their toes and being more interested in riding horses, Sister Luka left school in year 11. In a strange twist of fate she would go back to finish her education later in life, when she, herself, was a nun.
She’s quick to point out that although cheeky, she always had the greatest respect for the nuns during her schooling.
“I admired them, they were all wonderful people and they were a big influence on me becoming a nun,” she says.
It was in 1958 at age 19 that Sister Luka entered the convent in Ballarat.
A family background including hotels and horse racing — her father Joe was once a bookmaker — Sister Luka explains with not an ounce of regret why she made what some would say is the biggest sacrifice: becoming a nun.
“For me it was never a sacrifice,” she says.
“At the time it was post-World War II and there were a lot of Catholics coming to settle in Australia, and I wanted all of these people to have the same brilliant life and opportunities I’d had.”
She said it was at this time she decided to become a teacher, in order to impart her wisdom and knowledge to others.
“But I remember saying to my mother and father, ‘I can’t do this alone, I’d have to belong to a community where I’d have support’,” she says.
“It was with the chance to pass on Catholicity, the ability to teach, and the support of a trusted community that I became a nun.”
When she can’t be found roaring up the Hamilton Highway heading back to Warrnambool on her 125cc scooter (more on that later), the 74-year-old is likely guiding one of many children and adult students through her own specially designed numeracy and literacy programs at Centacare.
Three days a week, plus a fourth dedicated to lesson planning, Sister Luka helps countless locals on their path towards a brighter future.
“It’s my calling,” she says.
“I don’t know what others would call it, but it’s definitely part of something much bigger than all of us.”
She said it was clear early on what her path should be.
“After I left school I went on to do infant teaching and it was at that stage I knew God had his hand on me,” she says.
“What I learnt there, so early on in my career, is what I still use every day of my life.”
Having spent most of her 20s teaching in primary schools around the state, including lengthy stints in Robinvale and Whycheproof, Sister Luka moved back to Ballarat.
Returning to her original convent, she taught at Ballarat North and St Alipius primary schools.
It was during this time that her brilliant mind and unquestionable talent began to shine.
As her 20s ended and her 30s began, Sister Luka saw changes in the education system. Changes she didn’t like.
“I really started to notice there was a big gap emerging between primary curriculum and secondary, and I had a very strong desire to do something about it,” she says.
“So many of my pupils were becoming disenchanted with it being so hard to transition from primary education to that in high schools.”
Never one to stand back and watch, Sister Luka launched into action. She went back to her studies, gaining a Bachelor of Education, a Bachelor of Religious Education and a Masters of Education.
Then came what she describes as “the biggest honour of my life”.
Hired by renowned Melbourne book publishers Hawker Brown, Sister Luka wrote her first bridging program, titled Literacy through Literature, which was published in 1989.
“And if that wasn’t enough they asked me to write Literacy through Literature book two,” she says with a satisfied chuckle.
“To have such a respected publisher ask me to write a second book was really very special.”
After more than 50 years teaching in primary and secondary schools, many using the books and programs she developed, at 70 years old Sister Luka called it quits.
But, true to her nature, she couldn’t sit back without continuing to help others.
Five years ago she approached Centacare, asking if she could help.
A local organisation providing professional services, including teaching to anyone in the region, Sister Luka gave Centacare an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Introducing one-on-one programs tailored to individual needs, she has helped countless individuals sent her way, while continuing to publish new literacy and numeracy programs online.
“I wanted to continue helping people, but I wanted to do it on an individual basis,” she says.
And help people she has — many with reading and writing and putting them back on track towards leading happy and fulfilling lives.
Ironically, she recalls one of her most successful cases, a man she helped for more than two years who came to her “with a hate for all things religious”.
“He couldn’t believe his case officer had sent him to a nun and I can tell you his language was more than colourful,” she says with a laugh.
“Yet now, he says we are the best of mates.”
Asked why she’s had so much success in transforming the lives of people in need, Sister Luka says it comes down to one thing: trust.
Not only does she trust the people she helps, but it doesn’t take long before they have complete trust in her.
Her presence is calming and inspiring and it’s only a matter of minutes before I feel I’ve known her my whole life.
As for that motorbike.
“The sisters and I call her Vino,” she says with pride.
“It’s an upgrade on the 50cc scooter I had some years ago. That one was just too slow.”
Geared up in full leather which she says “makes me look like one of the Hells Angels”, Sister Luka regularly scoots down to Warrnambool to catch up with friends — although it can take a while.
“It should only take a couple of hours, but by the time I stop and socialise on the way it can almost take all day,” she laughs.