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While Pell Faces Jail His Cousin Is Packing Her Bags

Monica Hingston, 78, just won in the Faith category at the Australian LGBTI awards. She flew from Melbourne to Sydney for the ceremony, along with nine friends and family members.

Her story isn’t as well known as her cousin’s, because Monica is an intensely private person. She was a nun for 27 years. Humility has been a guiding principle of her life. But her story, which I persuaded her to tell me last year in a magazine feature, deserves to be known.

It deserves to be known because it’s one full of juxtaposition and irony and it’s the ultimate example of love winning, despite all obstacles.

Monica became a "bride of Christ" in Ballarat in the early 1960s.
Her story is lesser known than her cousin's, Cardinal George Pell.  (Image: Supplied)

During her 27 years as a nun, Monica met another nun in the convent, named Peg. They met in Chile where they dedicated their lives working to educate and empower Chile’s impoverished and oppressed women, who struggled under the patriarchy of the Pinochet regime.

Monica and Peg, who’d been a nun for 35 years, fell passionately in love. When they declared this to one another, they knew they had to write to the Vatican to be released from their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They left the convent but continued to help those Chilean women and stand up to the dictatorship there, facing water canons, secret police and torture threats.

READ MORE: Cardinal George Pell To Face Pre-Sentence Hearing After Guilty Revelation

Back in Australia, the couple lived just outside Melbourne in domestic bliss. During this time, in 2004, Monica wrote a letter to her cousin in response to his vigorous opposition to same-sex relationships, encouraged by a diktat from the Vatican. She did so by describing the love, care and passion she had for her “soulmate”, Peg, in a powerful letter to him. It’s one of the most poignant descriptions of love I’ve ever read.

Monica and Peg, who would go on to champion gay rights. (Image: Supplied)
Monica and Peg dedicated their lives to educating and empowering oppressed women in Chile. (Image: Supplied)

Pell ignored the letter and, after consistent follow ups, Monica was reluctantly persuaded to make it an open letter. She did it, she told me, to help any young lesbian and gay people who were struggling. It was the front page splash of both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the next day. Monica -- whose number was unlisted -- received dozens of calls and emails from people desperate to track her down and tell her how much she’d helped them, by standing up to this goliath.

That year, Monica and Peg were invited to be Chiefs of Parade at the Sydney’s Mardi Gras. These two former nuns sat in a convertible car in the pouring rain, waving to the cheering crowds for the brave stand they’d taken.

READ MORE: This Is The Most Romantic Story You'll Hear For Valentine's Day

Monica never got to marry her soulmate, in no small part because people like Pell influenced conservatives to consistently block marriage equality and tell Monica her relationship was "depraved" and inferior. They were together for 27 years until Peg's death.

I spent two days with Monica, just after the Yes vote, as we awaited parliament to finally enact the legislation, the will of the people. She shared with me her profound sadness that her dearest Peg was not here to see this day.

Monica shared her story with me after the Yes vote. (Image: Supplied)

Monica read me Peg’s final letter to her -- a greeting card with a painting of an owl on the front. It was written when Peg was very sick -- just before gallbladder cancer took her away from Monica. In the card, Peg writes that owls are symbolic of “intelligence, brilliance, perspective, intuition, quick wit, independence, wisdom, protection, mystery and power. You are all of these, dearest Mon.”

Tasteful owl keepsakes could be spotted throughout Monica’s home and garden.

Owls figurines throughout Monica's home symbolise her bond with Peg. (Image: Supplied)

One morning, a year into her all-consuming grief over Peg’s death, Monica heard a “cawing of crows”. They were attacking something in a small tree outside her front window -- all its larger branches had been cut off except one.

Monica slowly raised her window blinds, in shock.

It was an owl. A “big, beautiful white barn owl with a heart-shaped face” -- sat there in broad daylight.

It ignored the crows and held her gaze for 15 minutes -- long enough for her to take a careful picture -- before flying away. Monica finally felt the fog lift. Through tears, she told me: “I just had this well of joy, that I was alive. And no longer alone.”

The photo of the owl, a powerful moment in Monica's life. (Image: Supplied)

When we met, one major institution -- marriage -- was modernising as another -- the Catholic Church -- was in crisis. Her story bridged these bookends.

Monica spent her life in the same family as Pell, and gave most of her life to the same church -- but came out with a very different view of love, equality acceptance -- and consent.

READ MORE: Bittersweet Memories A Year After The Marriage Equality Vote

While one member of the devout, extended Pell family is to be remanded, another is being lauded -- over an issue the Catholic Church obsessed about -- homosexuality. All whilst child abuse was happening and being covered up in its own ranks.

The difference between George Pell and his cousin couldn't be starker. (Image: AAP)

READ MORE: Hugh Riminton: The Cardinal's Legacy Is One Of Crime And Cover-Up

READ MORE: Can The Church Survive Pell's 'Catastrophic' Sex Abuse Conviction?

As Pell -- once mooted to be Pope - awaited the fate of his appeal, his cousin sat next to me, waiting to hear if she won an Australian LGBTI award for sharing her powerful story.

Either way, I couldn't be prouder of her.

Monica Hingston was shortlisted and won the Faith LGBTI award, and Gary Nunn was shortlisted for the Media Professional LGBTI award at the Australian LGBTI awards ceremony in Sydney, Friday, March 1.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Twitter: @garynunn1