A Mass of Thanksgiving for the Life of Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ was held at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Randwick on 25 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, 25 July 2014