This is an abridged version of the eulogy given by Sr Roberta O’Flaherty CHF at a memorial Mass on Thursday, October 5 for Sr Columba Byrne CHF who died in Ireland on September 27.
Sr Columba Byrne, died on the feast of St Vincent de Paul, one of the patron saints of the Congregation of the Holy Faith Sisters (CHF), and on October 11 we celebrated the Feast of Margaret Aylward, our Foundress. All who knew Sr Columba know how much she loved the Congregation and I am sure that Margaret Aylward and all the patrons are now welcoming her to her heavenly home.
The poet TS Eliot talks about “A condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.” Sr Columba was certainly brought by God to ‘a condition of complete simplicity’ during her last few days.
However, the journey to that moment cost her not less than everything during her life: the cost of leaving home; of giving – giving of time, talents, energy; the cost of letting go – letting go of family, the sudden death of her sister, of her Dominican friends, of Srs Pacelli and Emerentia, her community members of 30 years, of a lifetime’s work in Holy Faith Convent, Penal, of a culture, and a beloved country. Her recent years of illness cost her her independence and the possibility of a relaxed and leisurely retirement.
But Sr Columba was a generous and cheerful giver, a selfless woman, full of zeal and enthusiasm and she has left a wonderful legacy.
She entered the Congregation in October 1959. She trained in Carysfort Training College, later did her degree in University College, Dublin and taught in Dublin before being sent to Trinidad in 1972. Having just finished a degree in Irish, understandably she was rather taken aback by being sent to Trinidad! However, she was a woman of faith and of faithfulness to her vocation – when she said ‘yes’ at her profession, she said ‘yes’ to whatever God was going to ask.
Sr Columba believed strongly in total immersion in a culture if you wanted to be an effective missionary. In her case, that strong belief and total immersion really turned into a love affair between herself and Trinidad. In her life, the saying ‘Bloom where you are planted’ proved to be true, and hers was a generative planting and she attracted collaborators drawn by her enthusiasm, her faith in them and her kindness.
Sr Columba was a very dynamic person who helped to energise many a flagging spirit. To those she worked with, she made everything seem possible. One said “she pushed me way beyond my comfort zone” and yet she was loved for her sense of fun, for her ability to enjoy life. Another said: “Whenever I needed any kind of wisdom, I turned to her. When I needed to go ‘liming’, she went with me.”
When she arrived in Trinidad, Sr Columba spent six years in Sangre Grande working on the North Coast, but it is with Penal and Siparia that she will be forever associated. She was responsible for changing Holy Faith Convent, Penal from a private fee-paying school to a Government-assisted school and also starting a Christian youth rally in the Penal school that has continued without a break for 34 years.
She has been described as “an extraordinary individual, a visionary, courageous and undaunted who worked tirelessly to accomplish her dream”. Our foundress told us: “Our chief care is for the poor and our principal object the defence of the faith.” Sr Columba took these words very much to heart and over the years encouraged all of us and the students in our schools to contribute to the education of young people in Haiti.
She was a passionate believer in education as a way out of poverty, but her special love was for religious education. She studied at Boston College and Berkeley, California. All the fruit of that study went into her work for the faith. She was creative in her approach to ministry, always open to learning, always ready to try new ways.
As Director of Catechetics, she trained untold numbers of teachers and catechists, and even, in collaboration with others, wrote the textbooks when they were needed. On her retirement as Director, Archbishop Edward Gilbert wrote: “Your leadership in the field of Catechetics and religious education has been unparalleled, not only for the Archdiocese but also for the Caribbean Church.”
Sr Columba’s mission was not only to Trinidad and the Church in Trinidad but also to the Congregation. She served two consecutive terms as regional leader. Yet, in daily life, she was always a sister among sisters, kind, thoughtful, fun loving and companionable.
She gave lovingly to her community in Siparia until she could give no more, and then when the time came, left it all and went back to Ireland. She lived out the prayer of Ignatius, another patron of the Congregation – to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to look for rest, to labour and look for no reward.
We thank God for Columba’s time among us, and we believe that after all her labours, she is now experiencing the joy and peace of her heavenly home.