The Highways and Byways story begins with Father John Corcoran Wallis, founder of the Missionary Sisters of Service who established Highways and Byways – a Community of Service, to grow their missionary outreach. This is John’s story:
John was a priest in the Archdiocese of Hobart. Throughout his long life, he was remarkably attuned to the needs of people and the movements of the times and had a particular pastoral care for and outreach to people on the margins, the isolated, the forgotten and the disadvantaged.
In 1944, in Launceston, Tasmania, he founded a community of women whose mission would take them into the highways and byways of Australia and beyond. Their motto comes from the parable in the Gospel of Luke, 14: 14-24. Like the people sent out in that parable, these women were to seek out people wherever they lived, visit them in their homes, gather them in communities, support and empower them in their lives and in the faith education of their children. That community became the Missionary Sisters of Service.
Father John is remembered as a man of great humanity, humble and generous, with an infectious laugh, a wicked sense of humour, a tremendous zest for life and a deep abiding love of God and God’s people.
Born in Yea, in country Victoria, Australia, in his growing years Father John experienced first hand the impact of isolation. Not long after he began his priestly ministry in Tasmania, he met that isolation again when he visited Bruny Island. It had been months since a priest had been on the island. Visiting the Hawkins family, he met a mother whose plea would stay with John for the rest of his life: “Father, what about us? Why can’t we have sisters to teach our children? Does no one care about us in the bush?” That was in 1933.
After ten years of thinking, praying, talking and writing about the needs of people out “beyond”, he called together women who were willing to meet the challenge of pastoral work in isolated and rural areas.
John Wallis was a man of God and a true pastor for his people. He sought them out in their homes, in hospitals and prisons. People experienced him as a man of deep understanding, compassion and wisdom. His love for God flowed over into his love for people and for creation. His vision was vast and practical. A wide reader himself, he had a great appreciation of the importance of good reading in the development of an informed and vibrant faith-life. In 1938, in Hobart, he established a Catholic Library and in the 1940s a Catholic bookshop.
One of the biggest events of John’s life was the Second Vatican Council; he relished the changes that brought the Church alive for people in a new way. People sought him out for retreats and spiritual guidance. He had a special care for priests in isolated parishes and regions, not only in Tasmania, but throughout Australia. He kept in touch with many of them.
To the end of his life, John maintained a young a vigorous spirit, always keeping abreast of the times. A lover of nature, he took up bushwalking and nature photography later in life. He loved to share his photos as greeting cards in his proliferous correspondence. He had a great spirit of freedom accompanied by a practical sense of when and how to apply the law. For him there was one law that took priority over all others, and that law was LOVE. He was truly a remarkable man.
Father John died in 2001 at the age of 91. A fuller outline of his life can be found here.