By Simone Delochan
Someone in a crowd, after an animated discussion of which she was part, once commented to Sr Phyllis Wharfe SJC that she would make “a great archbishop”. Her response, “Are you trying to make me a man?”
Archbishop Jason Gordon during the homily at her Funeral Mass on November 26, quipped that she should have said instead: “Why would you offer me so little?”, such was the magnitude of her contribution to Church, society and nation.
To a large congregation which filled the chapel at St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain, Sr Maureen Alexander SJC, Provincial Superior, in her eulogy detailed the many accomplishments that marked the breadth of committed service Sr Phyllis proffered over the 50 years.
Her early exposure at the age of three and a half while at kindergarten under the care of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, and in the years following, inspired Sr Phyllis to make the choice of religious life at 19, and defer the national scholarship she had earned as a student of St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph.
An academically gifted woman, she graduated from The University of the West Indies, St Augustine with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and French; then later, a Master’s in Education degree in Philosophy, Psychology and Theology from Birmingham University, and her PhD from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio in 2005.
Passionate about education, and with an excitement for learning, she transmitted these in her years as educator and administrator, becoming principal of SJC San Fernando in 1985, after teaching previously in both SJC Port of Spain and St Joseph. A fluent French speaker, Sr Phyllis often acted as translator, of both English and French, during conferences and symposia.
Sr Maureen also highlighted the leadership role she had within the community, where her expertise and readiness to take on challenges were evident. In the wider Church, she was in the forefront of the move to indigenise the liturgy after Vatican II. Her initial answering of the Call “spoke to the patriotic leanings” and her commitment to God and service. She was, ultimately, an “outstanding exemplar”.
Her fidelity to her faith, and immense dedication underpinned the Archbishop’s homily as well, as he described her as an “outstanding citizen of Trinidad and Tobago”, “an outstanding disciple”, “an incredible woman of faith” and an “outstanding Catholic”.
Paying homage to the Cluny Sisters in Trinidad as a whole, he noted their commitment to “education, formation, Church and society” and the tireless giving of themselves “in all sorts of ways that allow this nation to be a better nation.”
They, he said, “formed a generation of women that understand what womanhood is, and how the dignity of womanhood is…at a time when that was not the most evident way of seeing life.”
Commenting on the depth of her character, the Archbishop said that hers was a life not “just lived out in the external world” but “lived out in the internal world” as she had an understanding of God. More than this, he saw her life as mirroring Christ’s, especially in His Passion, with His deep surrender to the will of God.
The Latin root of the word ‘passion’ means ‘to be docile’, and in Christ’s Passion, He was not active. Instead of going out and doing, as He had in His three years of public ministry, “it was now being done to Him”.
Similarly, with Sr Phyllis, “Things were being done to her body…that passion as she becomes now passive…in the hospital lying there week after week, where she was in mind a lion and a tigress ready to roar and conquer the world.”
In his final conversation with her, he says she was at the stage of her life where she was “absolutely conscious of who God is, where God was, and where God was in the midst of this passion”. Hers was “a happy death, a good death”.
Among the concelebrating clergy at the Funeral Mass were Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General, and Bishop Emeritus Malcolm Galt CSSp. Msgr Kenneth Spence performed the Final Commendation. Bridgid Annisette-George, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Christine Kangaloo, Senate President were among the mourners.