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clare-byrneSister Clare Byrne

1939 - 2015

Born: 24th February 1939

Entered Religious Life: 3rd February 1958

Died: 14th December 2015


Address given by Sr Marie Carroll, at the funeral of Sr Clare in Merrion

Sr. Clare Byrne or Mary Jo as she was known to her family was born on 24/2/1939, the fifth child of Mai and Eugene Byrne of Coolbeg Co. Wicklow.  Mary Jo entered the Religious Sisters of Charity on 3rd February 1958 and was finally professed in August 1963.

Her first contact with St. Mary’s Merrion was in January 1961 when she was missioned to the “Old School” for pupils with a visual impairment.  It was with there that Clare discovered her talent for working with children with a Visual Impairment.  To prepare for her future ministry she was missioned to train as a teacher in the Freobal College of Education, Sion Hill, from 1961-1964.  It was at this time I came to know Clare as I was her College Companion for the three years and we have remained friends for the past 54 years.

Having completed her training, Clare was then missioned to St. Mary’s Merrion where she joined the staff of the new purpose-built school.  It was here that Clare was able to give free reign to her giftedness for teaching children with a visual impairment and three years later she completed her Post Graduate Diploma for the blind and Partially Sighted in Birmingham University after which she returned to teach in St. Mary’s School.

In 1977 she was seconded to the Department of Education to set up the first Visiting Teacher Service for Visually Impaired Children in Ireland.  This involved working closely with the Department in surveying the need, within the 26 counties, for the setting up of a Visiting Teacher Service, a service which continues to operate to this day.  Clare’s people skills enabled her to liaise with Parents, Pupils and Teachers of Mainstream and Special Schools.
As any daughter of Mary Aikenhead will tell you, missioning for ministry can take you anywhere and Clare found herself ministering in Mountjoy Street, Baldoyle and Lakelands.

After which she was re-missioned to St. Mary’s Merrion where she was appointed Principal of her beloved school for visually impaired for the next 16 years.  Due to the Department’s policy of mainstream integration and the success of the Visiting Teacher Service, facilities for pupils with a visual impairment in the Rosminian Centre in Drumcondra became co-ed and the school in St. Mary’s Merrion was closed in 2005.

While teaching in Merrion Clare was missioned to the community in Bray.  Not only did she find herself back in her native Co. Wicklow but was able to give rein to her love of nature though tending the Community Garden and her deep desire to grow in creation spirituality.  She lived the words of Pope Francis from “Laudate Si” in realising her responsibility within creation and her duty towards nature and her Creator.
Clare also served as Local Leader in Lakelands and Stanhope Street Communities.

Last September Clare shared with me the wonderful celebration she had been part of when two past pupils, Christine and Sr. Eileen, organised a reunion to celebrate what they owed to Merrion regarding the success of their lives and careers.  One of them summed up the experience of the day in her Thank Note when she wrote,  “ I found it a moving and nostalgic occasion”  

On her retirement from teaching, Clare was missioned to Cabra West in Dublin 7.  I quote the following from the December RSC eNews..
“Congratulations to Cabra West Parish on achieving an Eco-Congregational Ireland Award. One of the aims of the Congregation in coming to Cabra West was to promote ecology and Care of the Earth.  Sr. Clare Byrne RSC, who is a great believer in all to do with Creation, was the inspiration and motivator of all that happened subsequently in relation to environmental care.  The Parish has celebrated Creation Time from 1st to 4th September each year since 2008, the aim being to create an awareness locally of the importance of caring for the Earth and how this may be done…..”  

In March 2013, due her severe illness, Clare was missioned to her dear Merrion under Assisted Living in Apartment 4 where she continued her treatment and leading life to the full until her final illness in November 2015.  She often spoke of the support given to her by her family, the Sisters, Staff and her friends during this time.

On Tuesday 8th December Clare’s number came up on my phone.  I rang her back and she told me she had had a bad turn that morning.  I asked her whether she would like me to call in and she said “I’d love that, …I don’t feel well, it’s Time!”  When I was with her she checked had I done some things which she has requested and gave me cards to post.  That was the evening she asked for prayers from the Sisters in the Province and spoke to me of how good the Sisters are when they are asked to pray for Sisters who are seriously ill.

When Clare was planning what she wanted for today, it was her dearest wish that it would be a Celebration of her life, and to be true to her wishes, I now invite each one of you, family, sisters, staff, colleagues and friends to join us in that Celebration.

Marie Carroll RSC  17/12/2015


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 yearsshe 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 inWalthamstow 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 1978she 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 herfriends – 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, sheyielded 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.