Speech to Parliament: In Commemoration of Sister Philomene Tiernan

On behalf of the people of Kingsford Smith I offer our sincerest condolences and thoughts to the families and friends of the victims of the unspeakable crime and tragedy that was the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

I wish to pay particular tribute to the life of Sister Philomene Tiernan. Sister Philomene was a resident of Kingsford Smith and her light shone brightly, touching the lives of countless people in our community and beyond. Sister Philomene, as the Deputy Prime Minister has pointed out, was returning home from attending a spiritual retreat in Joigny, France, where she boarded the ill-fated flight MH17. Sister Philomene's passing was especially devastating for the students and staff of the Kincoppal-Rose Bay School of the Sacred Heart, where she worked as a teacher and a spiritual leader.

A tragedy of unfathomable proportions, the downing of MH17 and the loss of 38 Australian citizens and residents is intensified by the exceptional character—and the stories that we have heard here in the parliament today—of those who, unfortunately, lost their lives. Sister Philomene is proof of that.

She was born on June 17, 1937 in Kingaroy, Queensland, the second of four children to Jim Tiernan and his wife, Mary. Mary Philomene Tiernan grew up in the small town of Murgon, in Queensland's South Burnett farming region before joining the Society of the Sacred Heart soon after leaving school. She would go on to work and study in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Boston, Chicago, Rome, Paris, Grenoble and Manila before coming to the convent and school at Rose Bay in Sydney in 1957. Over the next three decades, she completed several bachelor's and master's degrees as well as diplomas in theology and clinical pastoral education. Sister Phil, as she was affectionately known in the community, worked in different roles for the Society of the Sacred Heart on four continents, and spoke English, French and Italian.

I was fortunate to attend the memorial service, where the pain of those mourning the loss of Sister Philomene was acknowledged but also, importantly, the contributions that Sister Philomene made in many different walks of life in our community were celebrated. The parish priest of Rose Bay, Monsignor Tony Doherty, described Sister Phil as 'a woman of astonishing grace, great charm and above all, a gentleness. I think the first thing that you were struck with was her gentleness and her courtesy. Her character had a profound effect on people.' That character was visible and noticeable in the effects on the children, the students of Kincoppal-Rose Bay, when I attended those memorial services. This is a person who spent her entire life helping others through pastoral care and of course bringing out the best in young Australians through education.

Her legacy will live on in the young women who have learnt from her humility and her spirituality. Philomene Tiernan is survived by her sister, Madeline, two sisters-in-law, one brother-in-law and 63 nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews. One of those is George Wright, the National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party, who spoke to me fondly of the memories of his wonderful aunt. Her brothers, Ray and Dermot, predeceased her. May she and those who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy rest in peace. Our condolences and thoughts are with their families and friends.

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