Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
3 Apr 2013
As a schoolgirl
Ellen Boisette preparing vestments
hated the feel of the coarse head-cloth fabric beneath her fingers as she stitched samplers in her weekly sewing class. But her complaints fell on deaf ears.
"Sister Clover would have none of it. Telling me it was up to me to do better. She warned if I didn't learn to sew well on rough fabrics I'd never be able to sew fine fabrics," she recalls laughing and insists when she left school she was considered no more than a "very mediocre sewer."
Perhaps Sr Clover inspired Ellen because almost seven decades later Ellen is one of the finest seamstresses in the Sydney Archdiocese.
For the past 30 years has meticulously repaired many of St Mary's Cathedral's liturgical vestments some of which date to the earliest years of the Australian Catholic Church.
Working with the some of the finest and often fragile liturgical silks, satins and brocades, she also oversees the tailoring and detail of contemporary liturgical vestments for many of Australia's bishops, priests and deacons.
"When I'm working on a cloth of gold and using the finest gold thread I think of Sr Clover and hope she is up there watching me," she says.
Full of humour and easy laughter, over the years Ellen has accumulated a vast knowledge of liturgical vestments as well as the history of the Cathedral and the Catholic Church in Australia.
Responsible with Sacristan, Chris Backhouse for two recent popular exhibitions of liturgical vestments held in the Crypt in 2010 and 2011, Ellen is also the person who designed and made the angel costumes the children wear each year at the First Sunday in Advent Mass and the blessing of the outdoor Nativity that follows.
Ellen has worked with St Mary's Cathedral as a volunteer for the past 30 years
"It was Ellen's idea for the children to carry baskets filled with rose petals to sprinkle as they lead the procession from the Cathedral and into the Square at the end of Mass," says Helen Hofman, House and Events Manager for St Mary's Cathedral.
Helen is filled with admiration and praise for Ellen and her remarkable and ongoing contribution to the Cathedral.
"She is a tireless and faithful worker and a great 'ideas' person as well as a beautiful seamstress," she says, adding that Ellen was not only a vital member of the St Mary's Flower Festival Committee but is a faithful committee member of the Friends of St Mary's Cathedral.
A mother and devoted grandmother of three, Ellen was still in her 40s when she was first approached to help repair Cardinal Norman Gilroy's galero - the traditional pre-Vatican II wide-brimmed Cardinal's hat - as well as the Cardinal's cappa magna, both of which had been planned to be used as an historic exhibit at the Cathedral's triennial Flower Festival of 1983.
"A priest I knew was a former couturier and tailor. He was the one who triggered my interest in liturgical vestments and although I have no idea why he thought I might have some ability, he vowed to teach me everything he knew as long as I promised to do exactly what he said. He was a perfectionist, and I'll never forget the time he sent out a set of vestments for repair and restoration. The repairers didn't keep the sacred braid trim but instead threw that away and replaced it with cheap gold lame. He was furious and told me what they had done was rubbish and made me promise I would never make such a mistake."
The priest also lent Ellen books on liturgical vestments and after she began repairing altar cloths for the Cathedral as well as frontals, which used to be used on the Cathedral's former wooden altar, word of her ability quickly spread.
Among the early vestments she was asked to repair was the rich brocade chasuble embroidered with silk thread dipped in gold bullion, Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch had donated to the Australian people in the early 1800s.
"I was amazed the chasuble hadn't been destroyed in the Cathedral fire of 1865. But  somehow the vestment had survived," she says.
By 1983, Ellen's dexterity with a needle together with her knowledge of different vestments and their history was well known throughout the Archdiocese and she was the obvious person to not only repair Cardinal Gilroy's tasselled galero and his cappa magna for the Cathedral's Flower Festival, but to mount an historic exhibition about the Cardinal in the Cathedral's Sacred Heart Chapel.
Ellen is widely known for her detailed needlework
"The galero was the hat that in pre Vatican II times was traditionally given to cardinals on their elevation and which on their death would be hung above their tomb and left to disintegrate and become dust, symbolising the cardinal's passage from the earthly life," she explains.
The cappa magna was also a pre Vatican II tradition and was the long flowing cape worn by cardinals so that when on horseback the "unsightly rump" of the animal was covered.
Ellen's knowledge and detail about pre-Vatican II times as well as the post Vatican II significance of various liturgical vestments is remarkable, as is her knowledge of history of each of the Cathedral's Archbishop Cardinals. This includes the tale of Cardinal Gilroy's youthful period as a telegraphist before the outbreak of World War I when he was fined one shilling - "a considerable amount at the time" - for not folding the telegrams properly and not putting them straight in the envelopes.
"The year I did the exhibition about Cardinal Gilroy was the 100th anniversary of telegraphy in Australia so I tracked down the original fine and we had that on display. We also had the GPO's telegraphy men wire up the Cathedral so that throughout the Festival people could buy a telegram at the front door and then collect the telegram they'd sent from behind the main Altar," she says.
It seems hard to believe that more than 30 years ago when Ellen was first asked to join the Flower Festival Committee she was unsure if she would have the energy or even if she might live long enough to be "of any use."
"I had a heart attack in 1983 and was given about 10 years to live. But with the advances in medicine I'm still here," she says and is convinced that along with prayer and faith in the Lord, triple bypass surgery in 1995 saved her life.
Faith and prayer were also important to her last year when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent several months of gruelling chemotherapy. Her cancer is now in remission and her energy, ideas and commitment to the Cathedral continue unabated.