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."
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