Darra and Cathrin Boerma

Darra and Cathrin Boerma.


By Paul O'Rourke

Cathrin Boerma was affectionately known as “The Pope of Don College” during her long “chaplaincy papacy”.

“Throw a prayer up to the big guy’’ was a constant, playful refrain from a grateful school community.

One teacher asked if she was talking to God when she interrupted a conversation to take a call “from my boss”. It was Devonport Chaplaincy CEO Andrew Hillier.

Cathrin worked full time as a chaplain at Reece High School, Don College and Devonport High School for about seven years before recently moving into a chaplaincy support position with Devonport Chaplaincy. Her husband Darra is now working fulltime as a chaplain at Reece and Devonport High Schools.

She was the first chaplain at Reece, and the first female chaplain at Don.

“Don College was used to having a chaplain and has a very welcoming culture,” she said.

“Reece took a little longer. They were wary, but once they realised I wasn’t going to hit them with a Bible or brandish a cross, the barriers came down.”

'A chaplain’s worth is forged more in crisis than celebration.'

“At one school we had a student suicide; two months after another student died in an accident. That was a tough time trying to negotiate your own emotions, versus the teachers, versus the students.

“That was a very challenging time, but also very rewarding to be able to build relationships and restore hope in the midst of a crisis.

“It was about being a constant presence, a constant listening ear, validating their feelings without judgment.

“As a support team, we debriefed extensively to make sure we hadn’t missed anything and to reflect on what we could do better.”

The crisis led to Cathrin delivering mental first aid training for teens and those caring for youth.

The courses are now run regularly for parents, teachers and caregivers.

“While I was able to ask students about their mental health, I became more intentional about directly asking students if they were considering suicide.

Suicide threat

“I’ve actually had students come into my office and say, “If I couldn’t see you today, I was going to kill myself’. While that may have been a throwaway line, I realised what the impact of a chaplain can be.”

Cathrin said the strength and uniqueness of chaplaincy was the unstructured and somewhat informal nature of a role that is so different from a teacher, parent or health professional.

“We’re a buddy, a pal, a confidante. When we grew up, there were aunts and uncles or adults at church or within the community you could talk to. We now have a generation of kids, many of whom don’t have that stable available person in their life.

“I tell the kids to consider me an older aunt to walk beside you. Obviously I’m duty-bound to report certain things, but I tell them they can offload about the teachers, or offload about your mum, and I will be there to listen and negotiate that tough relationship.”

The diversity of a chaplain’s role is evident in tasks ranging from helping a student source a dress for the formal, to delivering homework and food hampers, to comforting and reassuring teachers and parents.

Falling into chaplaincy

Cathrin fell into chaplaincy after she and Darra both lost their jobs.

She had worked in senior management roles within the aged care sector and a church. Darra was a builder.

They became interested in chaplaincy and youth work when they saw some of the challenges affecting teens attending the church youth group.

They started volunteering at youth group in a parental/supervisory capacity, and Cathrin offered her services as a relief chaplain.

“It was only ever meant to be a temporary thing,” Cathrin said.

“We were waiting for our house to sell so we could go overseas to Bible College, but the house wouldn’t sell.

“A part time job came up at Don College, and I took it. The house sold not long after.”

Darra, who had started his own business working in the building trade, became more interested in becoming a chaplain after volunteering one day a week in a school breakfast program.

“I love being a chaplain and couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Darra said.

“It’s so rewarding to be an ear and to be a support for them, but that is not always that easy as they are trying to manage life inside and outside of school .

"We also run breakfast clubs where the students can come and have food, as some come to school without.

“I'm finding that the students are investing into my life as well.”

Cathrin says raising their own three children who are now adults, and their friends, as well as coaching soccer teams, has been a useful training ground for their roles in chaplaincy.