MH17 nun was 'prepared for death' says her spiritual director
by Susan Gately
The Australian religious who was a victim of the Malaysian Airways tragedy was prepared for death, according to the nun who was her spiritual director for the final weeks of her life.
Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ, who was in her late 70s, was one of 298 passengers and crew who died on the Malaysian Airways flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpar which crashed in eastern Ukraine. It is believed it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists fighting against the Ukrainian Government.
The incident has provoked a storm of international condemnation, with Governments across the world demanding action by Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring the culprits to justice.
The tragedy has been compounded by the callous way the separatists have been seen rifling through the victims’ possessions, and the delay in allowing bodies to be removed from the crash scene. The victims, who were drawn mainly from the Netherlands and Malaysia, included many from these islands.
Sr Phil was a much-loved sister, who had given her life to God at an early age in the Society of the Sacred Heart. She was returning to Australia from a sabbatical period during which she had taken a month-long course in All Hallows College in Dublin, visited friends in Scotland and attended an academic conference marking the centenary of Janet Erskine Stuart RCSJ, a renowned English educator, in London.
Acting as close companion and spiritual director for the final weeks of the nun’s life was an Irish religious, Sr Aideen Kinlen RSCJ, former Provincial of the Irish branch of the society. When she heard the news of Sr Phil’s death Sr Kinlen said she was “dizzy with shock”.
“I helped her pack and we tried to reduce the weight of her luggage as she prepared for the long journey home,” she told The Universe. “It is so strange to have accompanied a person during the last days of her life without realising it.”
Sr Philomene Tiernan RSCJ, known to her friends as Sr Phil, worked at Kincoppal Rose Bay Catholic School in eastern Sydney. She had been at the school for over 30 years, holding a variety of roles including director of boarding, teacher and chaplain.
The school’s principal, Hilary Johnston-Croke, said the school community was “devastated by the loss of such a wonderfully kind, wise and compassionate woman who was greatly loved by us all.”
According to Sr Aideen Kinlen RSCJ, Sr Phil was in a very positive frame of mind as she returned to Australia, full of news to be shared, and plans for the future. The women had met at a conference in Roehampton University and attended a further gathering of the Society of the Sacred Heart on the life and spirituality of Janet Erskine Stuart at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hertfordshire.
Immediately afterwards the women set off for Joigny, France, the birthplace of the founder of the order, St Madeline Sophie Barat. There Sr Phil had an eight-day guided ‘one – on – one’ retreat, with Sr Aideen as her spiritual director. During the retreat the women became very close.
“She was an exceptionally warm person, kind and sensitive. She had a great sense of humour and her goodness was in keeping with that,” said Sr Aideen.
Joigny “breathes the love of God” and Sr Phil was well-prepared to meet her maker, she said. Sr Aideen recalls two strong promptings she experienced which she passed on to Sr Phil. One was a writing entitled So what will matter.
It begins ‘Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days. ‘What will matter is not what you got but what you gave, not what you learned but what you taught, not your memories, but the memories that live in those that loved you.’
Another day, out of the blue, Sr Aideen thought of Heaven. “It is not a subject I’d normally dwell on,” she recalls, but she shared her reflections with Sr Phil who at that point in the retreat was passing from a reflection on the Passion to the Resurrection.
When the Australian religious left Joigny on the day before taking flight MH17, she was “in a deeply happy place and yet rooted in reality,” recalls Sr Aideen.
Back in Australia, the community she left behind has been rocked by the news of her tragic death. On Saturday last about 200 members of the school community gathered for a special memorial Mass.
“I can’t tell you how much she’ll be missed,” the school principal said. “She was just so loved by our community.”