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kathleen-byrne2Sister Kathleen Byrne

1925 - 2015

Born: 27th June 1925

Entered Religious Life: 4th February 1946

Died: 13th April 2015



Eulogy given at Sr Kathleen's funeral

by Sr Rita Dawson, Provincial Leader, England/Scotland

Kathleen was born on 27 June 1925 and entered Religious life on 4 February 1946.  Her First Profession was in August 1948, with her Final Vows in August 1951.  This means Kathleen has served in Religious Life for 69 years (which would be approximately 4 life sentences!!).

Kathleen was known earlier in the Congregation as Sr Joseph Clare.  She was born in Ballymartin being the second of 6 children to Johanna and Matthew Byrne.  

Kathleen’s eldest sister, Margaret, became Sr Joseph Xavier when she followed Kathleen into the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity.  
Kathleen was next in the family, followed by Anna, who also entered religious life to the Holy Rosary Sisters.  
The next child was the only boy, Patrick.  
The youngest girls were Carmel and Joan.  Kathleen’s family were always important to her and as many as possible of them would meet up in Dublin during the summer holidays.  Kathleen would also regularly travel to Knock with at least two or three of her sisters.
While her sisters went on to African Missions, Kathleen spent all her religious life in England.  

Kathleen had very good health until she needed heart surgery in April 2006.
Kathleen’s journey and ministry started in Bath in 1948 until her Final Vows in 1951.  She then moved to Hackney for two years before going on to Hammersmith for twenty years.

On leaving Hammersmith in 1973, Kathleen was missioned to Sowerby Bridge as Leader until October 1979 when she moved to Basildon.  Kathleen was in Basildon for two years and subsequently was missioned to Bristol as Leader in 1981 until 1987.  Kathleen then had a year’s sabbatical and returned to Hackney following this as Ministress for eleven years.

After a short period in Canning Town from 1999 until 2002, Kathleen retired to Bristol but continued to visit the elderly during this time.  In 2008, Kathleen had her final move back to Hackney where she has been cared for lovingly since.

She had a great sense of humour and a hearty laugh.  She liked a game of scrabble and especially, loved to get a good score, also liked a game of cards.

Kathleen was a homemaker and showed wonderful hospitality to all.
In the Convent she loved cooking, making special apple pies and marmalade.
She was always very kind especially to our elderly sisters and those who were sick.  The people who knew her in her ministries before she came to Hackney often ask about her, remembering her with affection.  

She was very close to our Lady and prayed the rosary daily.  She took people on Pilgrimage to Lourdes.   She loved a trip to Our Lady’s shrine at Aylesford; she was a deeply spiritual woman.  

Kathleen died surrounded by the Community on 13 April 2015 at 11.55am

Saint Ambrose said:
We have loved them in life let us not forget them in death
Of all the Gospel accounts, the story of the Last Judgement is the one which challenges and frightens most of us.  It is interesting that Matthew locates this story immediately before his account of the Passion and death of Jesus as one of the very last Testaments of Jesus.  At the Last Judgement on what basis will God separate the sheep from the goats?  The saved from the lost?  It is not how often we went to Church, not how much I did for Charity, not even on whether I served the Church in an official capacity - as Cardinal, Archbishop, Bishop, Priest, Superior General or even as Provincial - it is something much more demanding and challenging for all of us.  

I was a stranger and you made me welcome, I was naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me.  For as often as you did this to one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did it for me.  This is a  very frightening thing for all of us because we all know how often we fail to see Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters.  How often the last thing I want to do is to see Jesus in those who need us most.  It is too demanding.  Serving others is both challenging and demanding and yet this is what Jesus did and what he has instructed all of us to do.  Just as he gave himself, shared himself and broke himself for others out of real love, so also must we give ourselves, share ourselves and sometimes break ourselves for others – and for love.   How good we are at doing this will be the basis on which we will be judged worthy of a place in the Everlasting Kingdom of Justice, Peace and Love.

One thing I ask of the Lord, for this, I long to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life.

This is where Kathleen is now dwelling with her Lord surrounded by all those who have gone before her – her parents, her sister and all those she loved. May she Rest in Peace.

We have loved Kathleen in life let us not forget her in death.

Sr. Joseph Helen Cunningham.


We are standing this morning on holy ground: the place where Mary Aikenhead spent the last years of her life as an invalid – a woman whose vision, courage and practical common-sense gave birth to our Congregation and to our long and graced history of service of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Today we are celebrating the life of Sr. Joseph Helen, a woman who cherished that charism, serving those in need with fidelity and generosity, and who also spent the last years of her life here in the Hospice. 


The readings this morning are both comforting and challenging. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. He invites us to put our hope and our trust in Him and in His promise to be with us, steadily and constantly as we try each day to walk his way, to speak his truth, to live his life. It is an apt description of the life and commitment of the woman whom we are remembering here.


In her 103 years of life, Sr. Joseph Helen lived through historical and global changes that are impossible for us to imagine. She experienced seismic shifts in Church and state. She witnessed wars and famines on a world scale. Through all of those years she remained steadfastly faithful to the constant core of who she was as an RSC. She was born Dorothy Cunningham in Ballacolla in Portlaoise on 1st July 1908. She was an only girl, with one brother, and was much loved by all. Her childhood and youth reflected the calm ordinariness of children’s lives at that time. Following her degree studies she spent some months caring for her mother who was ill and then secured a job teaching in Mountjoy St. School in Dublin. Her father was not impressed! His comment on hearing of that place was: “It doesn’t sound like much of a job but you like working for the poor and you’ve always been good at it”. She remained there until she entered the Sisters of Charity on 5th October 1931. 


In the first reading we are told that God gives strength to the wearied; that those who hope in Yahweh will soar like eagles, run and no grow weary, walk and never tire. That was so true of J. Helen throughout her active life. She was missioned back to Mountjoy St. after her religious profession and taught there for 12 years. Following a year’s further study in Scotland, she went to teach in a Secondary Modern school in Walthamstow in England for a year. And then came the call to be one of our three founding Sisters of the Zambian Region, or Northern Rhodesia as it then was.


In 1948 they set sail, travelling for four weeks by boat – The Athlone Castle - rail, bus and lorry before arriving in Chisekesi Siding on a dark morning on 28th October 1948. Sr. Helen kept a diary of the journey which was printed for the 50th anniversary and which gives a fascinating insight into their journey and how they coped with, what was for them, such a strange and almost ‘alien’ environment. 


One can only imagine the anticipation and anxiety, the challenge and the loneliness, the wonder and the doubts that marked that journey and her first months in Zambia. It was a place and people that she came to love and cherish. She committed herself to the education of girls and brought the gift of knowledge and freedom to countless women who still remember her with gratitude and appreciation. There are many past pupils with sad hearts in Zambia at the moment – their sadness at her passing tempered only by their gratitude that she is free from the debilities of her age. And that mourning is echoed this morning among our sisters there in the Region and here in this Chapel in the sisters who lived with her and shared her life for those 30 years.


Her first 15 years in Zambia were spent in the Teacher training college run by the Jesuits and began her work in promoting the education of girls – beginning with the setting up of a girls secondary boarding school in Roma in Lusaka. Nine years later she was appointed Regional Leader and on Independence day 1978 she was conferred with the Order of Distinguished Service for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of Education and Social work.


While she was a formidable woman in many ways, with high standards and expectations, her devotion to her religious life and her commitment to education was recognized and appreciated by all who knew her. She was a strict disciplinarian, spoke the truth without apology and demanded very high standards. At the same time her heart was compassionate and her generosity and hospitality were known and appreciated by all. 


Like all of us, Helen has known suffering and joy, tears and laughter, pain and happiness, loneliness and friendship. And she had strong relationships with her friends – too numerous to mention – but exemplified in the love and devotion of Sr. Mary Bernadette Collins and Catherine Fallon. Up to the end she valued and enjoyed her relationships with her nieces, nephews and other family members and followed their lives with interest, with love and with prayer. 


In 1978 she was missioned to Ireland and worked on our Constitutions. Subsequently she was appointed as local leader to our community in Crumlin before her appointment to our Provincial Leadership team and consequent arrival here in Our Lady’s Mount in 1981.


Sr. J. Helen’s commitment to Mary Aikenhead's charism was single-minded and she never compromised on that. The second reading confirms her attitude to life: nothing outweighs the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus.  It is only through Him, with Him and in Him that we can find life and happiness and fulfilment. Rooted in that conviction, she endorsed and embraced anything that served the people for whom she cared in a better, more dignified or respectful way.  


She suffered in her growing debility and weakness these last years and all of us – family, community, friends and colleagues - were saddened as we watched her suffering and her struggle to cope. In spite of the wonderful, caring staff who surrounded her and the sisters and friends who were her constant support, she had difficult and dispiriting days. Yet she never gave up . Her faith in Providence was the touchstone of her life. In the midst of all her pain and letting-go she was confident that he was with her, holding her, comforting her and in the end, calling her to himself. And when that call came, she yielded her spirit to the Lord, peace-filled, calm and trusting - blest with a death that had no struggle, no pain, no fear. And perhaps I can end with some words of hers, written in the diary of which I spoke, on her arrival in Chikuni: “Now that we have reached our Promised Land we must thank God and Our Lady for our very pleasant and on the whole easy journey which we have had . . . . “ Those words echo, not only the journey to Chikuni, but her life journey, now at its end as she moves, we believe, into the fullness of the Promised land of God’s life and love.