Remembering Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ

A Mass of Thanksgiving for the Life of Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ was held at her parish church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on 25 July 2014.  Phil’s sister, Madeleine Wright and her daughter Josephine gave this eulogy.  Sr Mary Shanahan RSCJ’s eulogy for Sr Phil can be read here.

My sister Phil loved mightily: she loved her family, the religious of the sacred heart, her church and her God. Throughout her life she gave herself unstintingly to each. The marriage of our parents, Mary Josephine Carroll of Kingaroy and James Bernard Tiernan of Murgon united two nineteenth century Irish immigrant families. Our cousins Bob Tiernan, Adrian and Rita Carroll, Bishop James Foley, Mary Finn, Michael Foley and Sr Joan Pender are with us today.

Known as Malie and Jim, my parents had four children: Ray, Phil, Dermot and Madeleine. Sadly Ray and Dermot have already passed, but my sisters-in-law Patty and Jill and their families are here with us today. We had a country childhood in Murgon: lots of cousins, open spaces, gravel rashes, church fetes and the tireless devotion of the local Presentation sisters. Mum and Dad – Malie and Jim – have 63 living descendants. Phil’s nieces and nephews number fifteen, and most are with us today. Phil’s grand nieces and nephews continue to multiply, at last count numbering forty-four.

Phil loved us all, remembering all our birthdays and celebrating each milestone in our lives. She joyously welcomed her sisters and brother-in-law Patty, Jillian and George, and as our families expanded over the past 55 years, Phil embraced all of our partners, their families their friends and each new arrival with delight. Today as a family, we join with Phil’s community the religious of the sacred heart in honouring our much-loved sister, sister-in-law, Aunty and great-aunt. To us she will always be Auntie Phil.

Phil’s parents, a school teacher and a publican, had big plans for all their children. When I was baptised, one of my mother’s friends asked why she had given both her daughters the same initials: M P —Mary Philomene and Madeleine Patricia. “Won’t their mail get confused?”, she asked. To this, Mum, who had spent her own life in small country towns, replied, “Well, I don’t expect they’ll be living in Murgon all their lives.”

Indeed, Phil’s life moved far beyond our hometown. She has had extended stays in Rome, France, Chicago, Boston, and all parts of the Australia and New Zealand province. She has travelled countless times to Europe, all over Asia, Latin America and the Pacific in her many roles with the order. She was a teacher, a leader, and a spiritual counsellor, with specialties in liturgy and facilitating retreats. Mum and Dad wanted her to have a full life – a big life. Phil has had this full and big life, touching people’s lives around the world in ways that our mother could never even have dreamed of.

Phil’s life spanned a period of great change. From the time she joined the Society, both the world around her and the world of her chosen vocation were in flux. The Second Vatican Council led to changes like coming out of the habit, into a new era of participation in the public world, a renewed charisma, a new openness… the mass in the vernacular… guitars in church. Phil embraced these expanding horizons eagerly, both in practical and theological terms. She had always dressed beautifully, and although she had never complained, and loved her habit, I’m sure that being allowed to style her thick brown curls again and wear a variety of clothing again in the hot Australian weather came as a relief to her. But mostly, Phil was excited by new theologies: Phil’s theological approach was a mixture of the old and the new. To the end, Phil loved a good medal. Her attitude was one of absolute devotion to Our Lady, to Christ and St Madeleine Sophie, and all the saints, and her devotion was one of sheer joy.

Wherever she went, out of her mysterious, neatly packed bags came the little pictures and symbols and reading materials that would transform any humble room into a holy shrine of meditation. She believed in the intercession of the saints in day to day life: St Anthony helped find her keys at least once a day, and a little student that she had loved and lost as a boarding mistress was the go-to girl for all sorts of intentions. But she was also an avid reader of cutting-edge theological literature. Through her reading and her studies she examined the nurturing side of God, and the relationship between Roman Catholic theology and social justice, poverty and human rights. Phil was too polite to be openly partisan, but she was not a-political. Her image of Christ was of one who was courageous, a champion of goodness and justice whose teachings she believed were capable of producing real change in the world.

Phil went to board at Stuartholme in Brisbane in sixth class. Our mum’s sisters Helen and Patricia Carroll, and dad’s sister Eileen Tiernan had preceded her. Phil loved her time at school and formed many lifelong friendships. From the beginning she was a leader, proudly wearing the blue ribbon and medal that denoted this special status, and eventually she became Head of the School.

Twelve months after finishing school, Phil “entered” – became a novice – at Rose Bay convent in Sydney. That was 1957. At that time the RSCJs (the Religious of the Sacred Heart) were a semi-enclosed religious order. For reasons that we find hard to understand today, visits were restricted, letters were limited, and telephones were only for important communications. Sydney was a long way from southern Queensland, and we were a hotel family, so it was hard for Dad to get away from the pub. We would make “lightning visits” to Sydney, the five of us squashed into an early model Holden, tearing through the night down the New England Highway, to arrive for a time-restricted visit in the parlour of the convent with our beautiful, beloved Phil. No matter how restricted, how brief the visit, I know that Ray and Dermot would agree, it was always worth it. Dad absolutely adored Phil, and missed her happy presence But he and mum were also extremely proud of her and they understood that her vocation was strong and deep and they had no doubt that her devotion to service and prayer would be life-long. How right they were. During my final year at Stuartholme, Phil was a teacher at the school, and a very beautiful young nun. The traditional black habit of the order with its starched white frilled wimple encircling the face flattered her, and Phil absolutely radiated warmth and love and intelligence. What an act to follow! What a role model!

During the sixties the strict rules of enclosure softened, and Phil was able to join in with family celebrations. A school friend wrote to me this week: “One of my lasting memories of Phil was on your wedding day, sitting in the front seat of your wedding car, glowing with pride and joy.” For each one of her family, Phil has made every effort to be present for significant events in our lives: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, births, house moves, illnesses and heart breaks. When I wrote to Paul, her nephew and godson in Boston who could not be here today, I said that the saddest thing was that his son Nicholas would not receive his fifth birthday present, which was undoubtedly packed in Phil’s luggage. Indeed, there would have been a gift of some kind for all the children in
Phil’s life.

Phil’s mark on the world spread beyond the family, beyond her great work in the Society. She reached, loved and influenced so many. Phil had a warm loving heart, but she also showed steely purpose in her pursuit of social justice. She lived every day down among the people interested and caring for each one of us, and she carried what she saw as the needs of families, religious, the members of the church to the decision makers. She was Chancellor of the Broken Bay diocese and sat on many influential committees within the Australian church. She was a forceful defender of social justice. As tributes have shown she was respected and loved at all levels.

Phil would have been saddened but not surprised by the events of the last week. Phil had only weeks ago written about the impact of war on her own family, with both her mother and father having siblings away at War when she was little. One of these men, Uncle Pat Tiernan, died in the Netherlands. 70 years ago. Phil attended a memorial for Pat with family members in Dodeward in May this year. The other, uncle Paddy, Carroll, returned from New Guinea, but the effects of that exposure to fighting on his health were life-long.

Phil understood that conflict zones are dangerous and unpredictable places where the aspects of civil society that we take for granted– like coordinated attendance at the scene of tragedy— are impossible. She knew this from experience, through the sisters in the order of whose work in places like Uganda, Nicaragua and Chile she was very, very proud. But she also knew because she listened. She paid attention. You only have to be like Phil and listen to people’s stories. We can all learn from her in this.

Nor would Phil have been surprised by the amazing kindness and courage shown by the villagers and miners in Ukraine who have banded together and worked under extraordinary circumstances to protect the dignity of the victims and to treat them with the love and care that they deserve. Phil believed in the goodness of people. She brought out this goodness, she allowed a space for it. Because of this, she always had amazing interactions with strangers in her travels. Even last Wednesday, as she left Joigny, she met a friend in Paris who reported that Phil had told her that just that day, two “angels” had helped with her luggage and guided her to the place they were to meet. We are comforted by the thought that people in the Ukraine have come to her aid, and to them we are very very grateful. We know that their recovery from this trauma will be long and unpredictable.

The circumstances of Phil’s death were random, tragic and violent. In contrast, the essence of Phil’s life was ordered, directed, peaceful and joy-filled. Phil was an audience for each of our lives. She loved, she listened, she guided. For this we are extraordinarily grateful. We have been so very lucky to have her in our lives. 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.

We would like to extend our condolences to all the families, in Australia, and in all the other countries, who have been affected by this disaster. On behalf of our family I would like to praise and thank the work of our government, the Department of Foreign Affairs and of the Australian Federal Police. Each and every representative has been respectful, kind, discreet, sensitive. Now, as she rests in peace, Phil must be so proud of her country.

Remembering Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ

One thought on “Remembering Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ

  • August 8, 2014 at 01:24

    On behalf of my brother, Basil Crain, my sister Carmel Clanchy, and myself, may I respectfully extend to Madeleine and her family our deep sympathy in their tragic loss of her sister Philomene.
    The Tiernan’s and the Crain’s were near neighbours in Murgon when we were children, living but two doors from each other. Together we attended the Convent school under the auspices of the Presentation nuns. Madeleine’s eulogy was a great tribute to Philomene, who exhibited such kindness to my late wife Cathryn, when Madeleine kindly invited us to the wedding of her son.
    May Philomene rest in the peace of the Lord, and Madeleine and her family be comforted in the knowledge of a life graciously lived.



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