First anniversary of Sister Philomene Tiernan

Sr Phil Tiernan  Photo: Diocese of Broken Bay, Australia

Sr Phil Tiernan Photo: Diocese of Broken Bay, Australia

A year ago a Sacred Heart nun with Irish roots, Sr Philomene Tiernan RSCJ, was among the 298 passengers and crew killed when Malaysia Airways flight MH17 was brought down over eastern Ukraine. The Border Mail, a newspaper of the Fairfax Regional Media group based at Wodonga in Victoria, has published this article about her by Paul Mc Geough from the Sydney Morning Herald on the first anniversary of her death:

If your roots are Irish Catholic, you’ll be able to decode the contours to the life of Sister Philomene Tiernan – and you might even ask if its neat bookends are a message from God.

I can say that because I’m Irish-born and was reared in an Australian Catholic home – and I can hear that “bookend” question tripping off my late mother’s tongue. “It’s the providence of God,” she’d say of the inexplicable – like the abrupt end to the life of this living saint who along with 297 others, died when Malaysia Airways flight MH17 disintegrated in the skies over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Beneath a gentle, sunny demeanour, Sydney-based Sister Phil, as she was known to so many, was quite a force in Catholic religious and educational politics. She had inherited what her younger sister Madeleine Wright, of Richmond, Victoria, calls her Irish publican father’s charm: “she was patient and charmingly persistent – she knew just how to get her way when she wanted the church community to agree to something.”

Sister Phil was one of the last MH17 victims to be identified and almost a year on, her remains are still in Europe. But a plan is being finalised for three members of her sprawling family to travel to The Netherlands in the coming weeks, to attend her cremation and bring the ashes back to Australia for burial.

“We all still miss her very deeply,” Wright, said in a phone interview, in which she shared tales of family members clinging to mementos of a much admired aunt – one of Wright’s sons says he’ll never launder a scarf that belonged to Sister Phil “because it has her lovely smell”; and when Wright wears a jumper that was Sister Phil’s, her five-year-old granddaughter snuggles in, telling Wright that she “smells like Aunty Phil”.

Sister Phil was the product of a seriously Irish Catholic family. The marriage of her parents Mary Josephine Carroll and James Bernard Tiernan united two 19th century Irish immigrant families in Queensland. In a eulogy delivered at the memorial mass in July last year, Wright acknowledged the presence of Bishop James Foley and Sister Joan Pender, two of a dozen or more cousins who, like Sister Phil, had become nuns or priests. As Sister Phil was before her, Sister Pender is the current head of the Society of the Sacred Heart order of nuns.

About those bookends … when MH17 crashed to earth, its debris and the remains of the passengers and crew were strewn across the gloriously ripening sunflower crops of Donetsk province, in eastern Ukraine. Recalling the memories of home that the young Sister Phil took with her in 1957, when she entered the Society of the Sacred Heart, a semi-enclosed order of nuns, Wright recalled: “We used to have sunflowers at the house in Murgon [in Queensland] – they grew under the tank-stand every year.”

The cloistered life of the nunnery, with its restrictions on contact with family and the outside world, left some in the Tiernan family feeling as though they had been robbed – “a heaviness descended on our household,” Wright said as she wrote of the family goodbyes in the austere parlour of Sydney’s Rose Bay Convent. “Dad absolutely adored Phil, and missed her happy presence.”

The MH17 crash, it seemed, had snatched Sister Phil from them for a second time, after decades in which the late Pope John XXIII’s command that the church ‘throw open the windows’ had allowed her to return to the bosom of her family, in a dual role as matriarch and counsellor to an Irish mob that, by the time of her death, numbered 63 nieces, nephews and grand-nieces and nephews – all of whose life milestones she marked and most of whom she called weekly by phone. “Phil had returned to the intimacy of family life,” Wright told me.

But perhaps the eeriest echo of family history was in how the manner of Sr Phil’s death mirrored that of her paternal uncle Pat, an RAAF airman whose plane was shot down while returning from a bombing mission over Germany in 1944 – when Sr Phil was a seven-year-old.

Brought down by German anti-aircraft fire, her uncle’s flight ended over The Netherlands – his plane crashed near the Dutch village of Dodewaard. Sr Phil’s fateful flight began at Amsterdam, just 100 kilometres north-west of the village where locals erected a monument to her late uncle and his crew, and it was brought down by missile fire in a separatist war being fought in Ukraine.

One of the very special appointments on Sister Phil’s 2014 European sojourn had been to attend a ceremony at Dodewaard to mark the 70th anniversary of her uncle’s death – for which she was hosted by local families.

One of the few to touch on Sister Phil’s strength as a church politician, was Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous, who on her death, remarked that Sister Phil was “quite a woman, yet very forceful…” Writing an obituary for Fairfax Media, her nephew Dermot Tiernan noted her “steely focus that typified life in Depression-era country Australia”.

Wright dwelt on the commitment of the Society of the Sacred Heart order of nuns to turning girls into well-educated and strong-minded young women and on Sister Phil’s reading of liberation and feminist theologies. Other family members told of her personal educational philosophy, which emphasised a need for women to play strong roles at all levels in society and about her interest in “cutting-edge theology”.

She was a relentless scholar – studying academically and religiously. She was an inveterate traveller – criss-crossing the globe for work and study and sometimes managing to fit in some play, which usually revolved around catching up with family members in exotic places.

In the Irish catholic way, this was the “big life, the full life” her parents wanted their daughter Philomene to have – and of which they and her siblings were so proud.

“We’ve been so very lucky to have her in our lives,” Wright said. “She was beautiful, clever, strong, determined. She was full of love, and so often full of joy. She made people happy. She helped. She listened. She forgave, she forgot, but most of all, she loved.”

Sr Phil's RSCJ cross and rosary. recovered from the plane wreckage, were among the items stolen last month from her sister's home in Richmond, Victoria  Photo: Victoria Police

Sr Phil’s RSCJ cross and rosary. recovered from the plane wreckage, were among the items stolen last month from her sister’s home in Richmond, Victoria Photo: Victoria Police

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney reported that on Friday, a special prayer service was held attended by students and staff at Kincoppal-Rose Bay school to remember Sister Phil. The school observed one minute’s silence as they remembered the nun, who for more than thirty years was associated with Kincoppal-Rose Bay and the Rose Bay community. The variety of roles held by Sr Phil included that of teacher and pastoral care provider both to students inside as well as those outside the school. She was also Director of Boarding at Kincoppal-Rose Bay and from 2002 until 2012 was Director of the Kincoppal-Rose Bay School Board.

“We are all honoured to have known her,” says Hilary Johnston-Croke, Principal of Kincoppal-Rose Bay who says flags at the school will be flown at half-mast on Friday.

“Sr Phil always wanted us to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside Australia’s national flag,” she says, explaining that one of the first things the school did to honour Sr Phil and her memory was to install an additional flagpole so that both flags could be flown together.

The Sydney community of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus also remembered Sr Phil on Friday at a Mass at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick. The 77-year-old much-loved Queensland-born Sister was among the 298 men, women and children who lost their lives when their flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over East Ukraine. All on board including Sr Phil and 37 other Australian citizens and residents were killed.

Sunflower seeds from the Ukraine crash site have been collected and will be planted in the school grounds in spring

In one of life’s strange coincidences, Sr Phil had been visiting the Netherlands with other members of the Tiernan family for the memorial service in the Dutch town of Dodwaard Uden for her uncle, Flight Sergeant Patrick Tiernan who was shot down and buried in the town during World War II.

After the memorial service, Sr Phil had travelled to All Hallows College, Dublin where she spent the month of May last year completing a faith and spirituality renewal course. As part of her time abroad, she visited St Francis Xavier Church in Paris where the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart is buried and spent time in a retreat in Joigny, before returning to Amsterdam for the flight home.

While the horror, shock and loss of so many lives will remain for decades to come, for the students and staff at Kincoppal-Rose Bay, for her close and extended family and for the Community of the Sacred Heart, Sr Phil is remembered not because of the terrible circumstances under which she died, but for her joy, her love, her faith and compassion, and as an ongoing role model and inspiration for students at Kincoppal-Rose Bay.

“We have tried our best to normalise her memory. With each other and with our students, we talk about her in the most natural way, saying Sr Phil would enjoy this, or Sr Phil would have said that,” Ms Johnston-Croke says. “At graduation last year I also spoke of Sr Phil’s wisdom, compassion and joy and how she was a Sacred Heart Woman we aspired to be.”

Sister Philomene Tiernan and Principal of Kincoppal-Rose Bay Hilary Johnston-Croke

For the Principal of Kincoppal-Rose Bay, Sr Phil was both a mentor and close personal friend. “She raised me to help me become the Sacred Heart educator that I am today. She was a great role model – as a Sacred Heart woman, educator of great faith and intellect with a strong commitment to social justice and to personal growth. She has left a wonderful legacy for us all to treasure for the rest of our lives,” she says.

While Sr Phil has been remembered on the first anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Flight MH17 by the school and students she loved, and to whom she dedicated so much of her life, a celebration of her remarkable life will take place twelve days later (July 29th) when Kincoppal-Rose Bay’s officially opens a new Learning Centre and a Boarding Bursary program, both of which will bear her name.

The Sister Philomene Tiernan RSCJ Learning Centre will be formally opened by Sr Phil’s first cousin, close friend and fellow religious, Sr Rita Carroll RSCJ and will be blessed by Monsignor Tony Doherty, Parish Priest of St Mary Magdalene, Rose Bay. Invitations to the launch and blessing feature one of Sr Phil’s much-loved sayings: “Darling, you are doing so well!”

Together with Sr Rita, who is also Deputy Chair of the Kincoppal-Rose Bay School Board, the ceremony will be attended by the Provincial of the ANZ (Australia and New Zealand) Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sister Joan Pender and members of the Sydney Sacred Heart community.

The new learning centre named after Sr Phil will provide Kincoppal-Rose Bay with state-of-the-art collaborative learning spaces along with the latest in audio visuals for collaborative teaching and learning.

“The Centre is very much about how Kincoppal-Rose Bay is creating spaces for students so they can develop the skills needed for the future and a 21st Century world,” Ms Johnston-Croke says. Not only would Sr Phil approve of such a Centre being established but she would be equally delighted with the Boarding Bursary, particularly in light of her long and close engagement with boarders, particularly during her time as Director of Boarding at Kincoppal-Rose Bay.

The Sr Philomene Tiernan RSCJ Boarding Busary will means-test applicants and provide the financial support to families on lower incomes to enable their son or daughter attend and board at one of Australia’s oldest private Catholic schools.

Within less than 12 months of the MH17 tragedy efforts by members of the Kincoppal-Rose Bay community and those who knew and loved Sr Phil have not only managed to raise enough money to operate the Boarding Bursary over the next few years, but enough money to operate the Bursary in perpetuity.

“This is not just a tribute to the hard work many people put in to raise these funds but a tribute to Sr Phil, and how much she was loved and the esteem in which she was held,” says Ms Johnston-Croke.

Sr Philomene RSCJ (left) visited the grave of her uncle Patrick Tiernan who died when his plane was shot down over Holland during World War II

Later in spring there will be another ceremony dedicated to Sr Phil when sunflower seeds collected from the field in which the doomed MH17 flight came down in East Ukraine will be planted in the school grounds in her memory. Award-winning Australian journalist Paul McGeogh and photographer Kate Geraghty were among the foreign journalists reporting from East Ukraine after the Malaysian flight was shot down, and who on impulse collected sunflower seeds from the killing fields to give to grieving families to plant as a special keepsake and potent reminder of those they had lost.

“Our seeds are among the second batch to be sent to Australia,” says Ms Johnston-Croke who believes that the garden of sunflowers along with the Boarding Bursary and Learning Centre created in Sr Phil’s name will ensure her legacy is not only meaningful but continues to resonate with students and staff for many years to come.

Sr Phil was among the last of the 298 passengers and crew on the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines’ flight to be identified, and it is understood that members of Sr Phil’s large extended family are currently in the process of organising dates and finalising plans to travel to the Netherlands to attend her cremation and bring the ashes back home to Australia for burial.

Eulogy for Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ 2014

A Mass of Thanksgiving for the Life of Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ was held at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Randwick on 25th July 2104.  This is the eulogy that Sr Mary Shanahan RSCJ gave for Phil.  The eulogy given by Phil’s sister, Madeleine Wright and her daughter Josephine, can be read here.

Sr Mary Philomene Tiernan, known to us as Sister Phil or simply Phil, entered the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1957.  Apart from her family, the Society became Phil’s life.  In 2004 in a letter to the Society on the feast of the Sacred Heart, the Mother General wrote “As Religious of the Sacred Heart whose mission is to discover and reveal the love of His heart, love has fashioned our identity; it is our desire and our delight.”

Phil’s identity was definitely fashioned by that love which she shared so fully and faithfully with others.

One of her former students when she was Boarder Mistress at Rose Bay in the 70’s wrote on twitter that Phil had ‘sculpted’ her.  It reminded me of the story of the boy who saw a sculptor chipping away at a piece of marble.  Much later as he passed by again he saw, instead of the block, a lion and he asked the sculptor, “how did you know there was a lion in the marble?”  Phil’s work of education was to believe that there was a lion, so to speak, in each one and to help each one to chip away to discover the beauty that is within. It was the same with her religious sisters.  One wrote that she was a very friendly, affectionate and encouraging person who had the ability to let everyone she was with feel worthwhile.  She had a great sensitivity which drew her to those in need.  Another younger RSCJ recalls that when Phil was Provincial she knocked on the door of her room and said, ”I want you to know I’m always available to you. So I’m going to come and see you often so that we get to really know and trust each other.”  “ Phil made a difference to my life,” the religious said, “ and to my commitment as an RSCJ.  Whether knowingly or unknowingly she made me believe I was a beautiful person at the precise time when I was questioning my vocation.  I never wavered again.”

This gracious sensitivity was with Phil all through her life.  One of our English sisters who met Phil when she was last in London wrote of the wonderful impression she made, staying with the elderly sisters before attending the Janet Stuart Conference.  In her words Phil was not only kind and courteous but outstandingly considerate and sensitive.  She gave of herself in her quiet and dignified way to each of us.  “I was”, she said, “especially struck that she took the time and trouble to greet each one in Duchesne House personally.”

Innumerable tributes have been paid to this religious whose identity has been fashioned by love and they all stress this same gift of herself, someone who always knew how to light us all up even when we were at our worst.

Phil loved the Society of the Sacred Heart and her desire and delight was to serve it in every way she could.  She had a number of leadership positions in the Province after she made her final profession in Rome in 1965.    She was named Mistress of Novices in 1984; became a member of the Provincial Council and then Provincial of the Australian-New Zealand Province in 1993. As Provincial, Phil encouraged two of the sisters in Braybrook in Melbourne’s west to open part of the community to care for Vietnamese mothers and children.  And when a call came from the Bishop of Rockhampton for sisters to go to Blackall in Queensland to be a presence there, two of our sisters responded to Phil’s call.  She went with them to ensure they were settled and had what they needed.   Then in 2004, after working in another position, she became the Director of the ANZ Network of Schools, a position that brought her into close contact with the Principals of our four schools.

Though not exactly a leadership position she was a convener of the Madeleine Sophie Programme for six years and gained the love and respect of the many women who participated in that programme.  One who was a participant and then worked with Phil as a convener felt that she walked taller and stronger for having known her. Being recognised in these different roles meant a lot to her and affirmed her in the way she needed.  Another role which gave her an opportunity to carry out her gift as a sculptor was as Boarder Mistress at Rose Bay.  Her experience in boarding enabled her to offer a much appreciated  contribution to the life of boarders at Kincoppal-Rose Bay when she returned a few years ago to be a staff member at KRB.

But Phil used her gifts in a much wider field than the school, dear as that was to her heart.  She was for a time a member of a committee of the Archdiocese of Sydney where the now Archbishop of Hobart found how determined she could be. And Cardinal Pell in sending a message of sympathy through Bishop Comensoli had this to say, ”Sr. Phil will be remembered as a bright spirit and great inspiration to many not only in her school community but also throughout the Sydney Archdiocese. She will be greatly missed.”

After completing her six years as Provincial, which was followed by a sabbatical, she became Chancellor of the Broken Bay Diocese in 2000. She appreciated the opportunity this role gave her to work in a more specialised way for the church. The Bishop relied on her and even when she retired from the position of Chancellor he entrusted to her the guidance of the Ecclesial Women he had established in the diocese and named her Vicar.  She continued in this role along with her other ministries.

She was involved in the spirituality programme at Kerever Park and was a retreat director and spiritual director there.  She continued this work of retreats and spiritual direction.  She reached out to people in her sensitive and compassionate way which drew people to her especially when they needed her guiding hand. Her loving heart drew her to those who did not come to her.  On Thursday evening she went to Cana to cook a meal for the inhabitants there.  Her community would have known though not too many of us knew of this outreach of hers. Phil did indeed have a life which she lived to the full though it was not free of suffering.

Phil was a woman of the heart and for such women suffering comes through the heart.  As one of her religious friends noted she suffered intensely with her loss of work, her family sorrows and any injustice she witnessed.  She suffered, too, because she felt that her gifts were not always acknowledged and used.  She gave richly to others but others also gave to her by affirming her in a way that helped to raise her spirits and enabled her to give of her best.

Phil was well prepared for her different ministries.  She completed her Bachelor of Education at Macquarie University in 1976 and followed this when she was in Melbourne by doing a CPE at Mercy Hospital.  In 1981 and 1982 she was a student at Loyola University, Chicago and completer a Masters in Pastoral Studies.  She spent six months of her last year in the States in the noviceship in Boston and doing a course in spirituality at Boston College.  She was well prepared to be Mistress of Novices when she was appointed to that position in 1984.  She was Vice-Principal of Duchesne College in Queensland University in 1991 but returned to Melbourne to continue her work in the noviceship until she became Provincial in 1993.  Phil continued to do short courses to upgrade her skills.

She gave the same attention to planning her sabbatical in the second term of this year.  She went first to All Hallows College in Dublin to follow a course of some weeks in spirituality/ theology.  She really enjoyed the Celtic spirituality that was part of it.  She knew how to benefit from opportunities offered and her time in London at the celebrations in honour of the centenary of the death of Janet Erskine Stuart opened her not only to studies of Janet’s spirituality and educational philosophy but also to time spent with RSCJ from different parts of the world.  Phil lived through relationships and gave of herself to these.  Everyone who knew her during these days said how happy she was.  It was all a great preparation for her retreat in Joigny, the birth place of Madeleine Sophie Barat and now a centre of spirituality for the Society.  Apart from the retreat there was a four-day workshop on the Constitutions, all part of Phil’s planning.  Her retreat was directed by an Irish RSCJ whom Phil had met in Rome in 1993.  During the retreat the Director suggested to Phil to think about her death and gave her a poem, “So What Will Matter.’  Excerpts of it read:

“Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.  There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or day.  What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those that loved you. What will matter is how long you will be remembered by whom and for what.”

Phil did pray over that poem and found it wonderful and looked forward to sharing it with friends in Australia.

She left Joigny to go to Paris to catch the train to Amsterdam.  But first in Paris she wanted to visit the church where St Madeleine Sophie rests.  There she arranged to meet a friend at the church and to have lunch with her afterwards Her friend  recounted for us Phil’s adventures in getting to the church – on time!  The taxi took her to the wrong place but happily she met a young tourist, Juliette, whom she called her second angel; the first helped her onto the train with her heavy cases.  Juliette walked with her to the church where she met her friend and her third angel. After praying for some time at the shrine of Madeleine Sophie she talked to an alumna from our school in Tokyo, Rose Bay and 91st Street, New York, a small world but one that touched the internationality of the Society.  Phil lit a candle to Sophie and they left for the train that would take her to Amsterdam.  She began her journey there with a ceremony in honour of her uncle who was shot down during the Second World War and was buried in Holland.  This family connection was very important to Phil as were all her family.  Her love for each one was evident.

The memories of those that loved Phil will be of a woman who loved.  She spent the two months before her tragic death preparing for it in an unintentional way.  An alumna of Stuartholme, where Phil went to school, had married and had lived and worked in England for many years.  A group of Stuartholme alumnae were attending the events honouring Janet Stuart and included a Visit to Joigny.  She joined them and met with Phil in Joigny.  Wanting to find out what Phil was doing and living she asked her, “Where are You?”  “In heaven”, replied Phil.  It seemed that the God to whom Phil had given her love and life wanted to ensure that she was at her best to enter her new life. Phil, the sculptor, had been chipping away at her own piece of marble and the retreat and the experiences of her sabbatical brought to beauty the lion that was within her.

For us the words of Janet Stuart may help us to accept her sudden and tragic leaving us.

I must learn to live by faith.

Like the weaver,

Never seeing the plan of my life,

But trusting to God for it and working on the wrong side as it seems,

But working for a reality.

Not for my reason or the imagination of my own fancies,

But one of which God has not only designed the whole,

But has counted every stitch

And tied every change of thread

From the beginning to the end.

Mary Shanahan RSCJ, 25th July 2014

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