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Saying Goodbye to Sister Gemma

Saying Goodbye to Sister Gemma

Many of you may remember Sister Gemma Cassidy rsm as ‘the toffee lady’ here at Santa Maria College. Sadly, she passed away on 16 August 2022, at 95 years of age. In this article, we take a trip down memory lane, to reflect on the incredible life and legacy of Sister Gemma. 

After leaving school in the 1940s, Gemma had a deeper yearning to answer God’s call to religious life, and so joined the Sisters of Mercy Novitiates, Victoria Square in 1948. She was professed in 1951 and was given her religious name, Sr Mary Gemma.

As a professed sister, Gemma began her ministry by teaching at a variety of local primary schools, one being Santa Maria (formerly known as Mel Maria).

She also had a long association with the Catherine McAuley Family Centre, Subiaco, now MercyCare. She was known for her creative ways of fundraising to support the centre, and this is where she began her involvement in toffee-making!

When working in Santa Maria’s primary school, Gemma certainly found a niche to make toffees for the missions. She became widely known as ‘the toffee lady’.

Sister Florence O’Sullivan, during her eulogy at Sr Gemma’s funeral, tells a story…

“The principal at the time, Sister Sheila Sawle, once came to sample a toffee; she met Sister Gemma the next day and said ‘you can expect a big bill from my dentist! I lost a filling!’. Sister Gemma retorted, ‘Shiela, toffees are made to lick not bite’.”

Years later, Sister Gemma wrote “Sadly, my days as the Toffee Lady were numbered when Santa Maria became a ‘sweet free zone’, starting with the tuck shop and then ME”.

All jokes aside, Sister Gemma was unique in a warm and loving way. She had a personal charm that drew people to her; she did not have an ounce of rivalry in her.

In very small ways, she lifted the spirits of those around her with her innate sense of fun.

We asked some members of the Santa Maria community to share some of their fondest memories of Sister Gemma.

Sister Gemma is remembered by the boarders including myself as ‘the toffee lady’ because she sold toffees at the College to fundraise for those in need. A gentle woman who lived a life of Mercy, who always had a special place in her heart for the boarders. Her sense of calm and compassion was appreciated by all who met her. May she rest in peace. Jennifer Oaten, Principal and Class of 1986.

I always disliked toffee, but by the time graduation came around Sister Gemma’s were the best. She is one of the many staff I have fond memories of and was only thinking of her a few days ago. RIP Sister Gemma, I’m sure there is a beautiful big tree set aside for you. Janine DeVree Watson, Class of 1987.

When I was at Pignatelli, Sister Gemma made us workbooks with covers of wallpaper offcuts on which she would do an illustration. There was always a little bit of excitement to see what drawing you’d get. She was already legendary back then, as we all knew of her toffee trade-up at Santa Maria, and couldn’t wait to try them ourselves. Well worth the wait – they were so delish. Thank you, Sister Gemma, for brightening up our day, one 10c toffee at a time! RIP. Erin Sullivan, Class of 1991.

Yes, the toffees were the best, but I always saw them as an opportunity for her to engage with us students and check-in. Chats with Sister Gemma always left me smiling and feeling good about myself. Rebecca Delane, Class of 1995.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Sister Gemma and her family. May she rest peacefully.

For those who are interested, below are two of her famous toffee recipes. 

Recipe 1

Description
Serves: 100
Preparation time: 20 minutes, refrigeration time 2 hours 
Cooking time: 15 minutes 

Ingredients
12 cups caster sugar
6 cups cold water
1 tsp cream of tartar
100 patty cases 

Method

  1. Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan and place on the stovetop. Do not stir but keep on the heat and bring to the boil, while watching it closely to ensure that it does not burn. 
  2. After a few minutes, test the mixture. To test have a bowl of cold water and place 1 teaspoon of the toffee into the water, if it hardens, it is ready to pour. 
  3. When the mixture is tested and ready to pour, carefully place it into the patty pans, cool and then place in the refrigerator for at least two hours. 

Recipe 2

Description
Serves: 20 toffees
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

Ingredients
3 cups white sugar
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tsp hundreds and thousands (optional) 

Method

  1. Lay out 20 patty cases, on a tray or in muffin tins. 
  2. Place sugar, water and vinegar in a large heavy based saucepan and stir over a low heat until sugar has dissolved, or approximately five minutes. Without stirring bring mixture to a rapid boil and boil for 12 – 14 minutes. Test toffee by dropping a few drops of mixture in cold water, when it sets hard it is ready. If it is cooked for too long it will burn and taste bitter. 
  3. Remove toffee from heat and allow to stand for 2 minutes, so that bubbles will subside. Pour gently into the paper patty cases. Sprinkle with hundreds and thousands, if desired and leave in a cool dry place to set. Store in an air tight container. 
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