Sister Philomene Tiernan was "on a spiritual high" the night before she died, according to a friend.
"She had been on a spiritual retreat to Joigny in France, as part of her trip," said Hilary Johnston-Croke, principal of the Sydney Catholic girls school Kincoppal-Rose Bay. "I had an email from her from Amsterdam on Wednesday night and she was in fine spirits, on a real spiritual high."
Less than a day later, Sister Philomene would be dead, one of the 298 victims – including 28 Australians – killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in Ukraine.
A special Saturday mass was held at St Mary Magdalene church in Rose Bay, in memory of the life of Sister Philomene, who was described as an integral part of Kincoppal-Rose Bay, where she had worked for over 30 years as a teacher and boarding mistress.
"She touched a lot of the girls' lives," said a teary Mrs Johnston-Croke. "She was also a personal mentor to me."
More than 150 people attended the service, including local politicians and nuns from the congregation of the Sacred Heart, to which Sister Philomene belonged. There were also scores of Kincoppal staff and students, past and present, many of whom embraced one another.
"She made school feel like home," said a former boarder, Rachel Fowler. "When you saw her around, she always remembered you; she was always interested in what you were up to."
Monsignor Tony Doherty, who had known Sister Philomene for 30 years, led an emotional service in which many of the parishioners wept openly.
"Phil was a woman of immense charm," he said. "She was a gentle spirit whose gentleness had been confronted by violence."
He prayed that "nothing in her life would be lost now that she was no longer with us" before asking a parishioner to read from Ecclesiastes 3:3, "the wisdom literature" that tells of there being "a time for everything under heaven, a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for war and a time for peace".
Everyone's life is "an unfinished symphony", Monsignor Doherty said, something that has "an astonishing truth in the life of this woman".
The service was not a formal funeral, he said, "just a chance for us all to get in touch with the story of this remarkable woman".
Kincoppal-Rose Bay plans to celebrate her life with an event on Sunday.