Vietnamese Catholic Community celebrates the life of Sister Patricia Byrne RNDM

09 Jun 2022

By Contributor

By Grace Feltoe

Sr Patricia addresses the Vietnamese Catholic Community in Perth. Many treated her as ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ due to the love and support she gave to so many. Photo: Supplied.

The birthday of beloved Sister Patricia Byrne RNDM, who passed away on 4 August 2020, is marked on 11 June. Although she died two years ago, her ever-giving, generous and kind nature is still remembered and cherished in the Vietnamese Catholic Community of Perth today. Joseph Nguyen, former President of the Community (2019-2021), speaks of Sister Patricia with much admiration and still feels the loss of her passing.

Born in 1928, she lived a very vibrant life of education and travel, while always returning to her roots in Perth. She could speak French and German fluently and was capable of teaching Latin. The eldest of six, she was born into a loving family and received most of her education by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission in Katanning, Western Australia, before finishing at Sacred Heart High School, Highgate. Sr Patricia was a dedicated, talented student who excelled academically as well as musically, being an accomplished pianist and organist. Following on from her secondary education, she went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts with Honours from the University of Western Australia.

At the age of 21, she felt the calling to religious life, entered the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission as a postulant in January 1949, and became a novice in August that year, taking the name Sr M St Gemma Galangi.

Sr Patricia taught in schools in Fremantle and Sorrento for the initial 30 years of her religious life. Teaching large classes was not easy for her but smaller and one-on-one classes were memorable experiences for her students as she inspired them with her own love of language.

In the 1960s, while studying a Masters Degree in French at the University of Western Australia, she won a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris which she attended in 1968. A fortuitous meeting with the Directrice of RNDM College in Charenton, Sr Marie Benedicte, led her later to become Sr Marie’s secretary once the Directrice became the Congregational Leader. This position allowed her to travel to many provinces in France and meet many Sisters across the Congregation.

A transformative time for Sr Patricia was her first visit to Vietnam. Her interest in the country peaked in the 1950s due to knowing Sr M St Catherine Harris from there and also having fellow Sisters as pen friends, whom she was finally able to meet. From there, her love and understanding of the people grew greatly.

In 1975, she returned to Perth from her time in Rome and taught at Our Lady of the Missions High School in Fremantle until 1980. By 1983, Sr Patricia was at a crossroads with her sense of mission in her vocation and went to Rome to participate in the Spiritual Life Program.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Sr Patricia returned to Perth with her prayer and concern answered. Archbishop Hickey, then Director of Social Services in Perth, instigated that she provide pastoral support for the influx of refugees from Vietnam, who had been coming since the 1970s.

Unlike her past 30 years of teaching, the next 30 years opened a great missionary love and cause in Sr Patricia that teaching could never satisfy. From meeting new refugees at the airport at all times of night and day, preparing homes for new arrivals, driving people to appointments and hospitals, dealing with government departments, helping find schooling and being present as emotional support, Sr Patricia became ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ to a multitude of Vietnamese and Cambodian families, Christians and non-Christians alike. 

Mr Joseph Nguyen remembered distinctly one night in 1983, while he was a young man living with three other refugees in Leederville, Sr Patricia came by to give them all blankets. “You make sure you keep warm,” she said to him. Such consideration and care for everyone are what Mr Joseph Nguyen remembers so greatly about her.

Sr Patricia passed away on the afternoon of 4 August 2020 at Mercy Care, having had Mr Joseph Nguyen pray by her bedside that morning.

The crowds at both the Vigil Mass at the Vietnamese Catholic Community and Requiem Mass at Sacred Heart Church, Highgate were testament to the amount of people touched by the life of this generous religious Sister. The evidence of emails and cards from overseas on her death showed her work elsewhere had not been forgotten either. Former students also attended, including Hon Kate Doust, President of the Legislative Council of Western Australia, who made an address to Parliament in honour of Sr Patricia after returning from the funeral.

Many are indebted to the work Sr Patricia Byrne undertook in the refugee community in Perth, her work as a teacher and time overseas, and Mr Joseph Nguyen intercedes through her in prayer to this day. As she helped so many, may the Church pray for her soul to be at rest with the heavenly Father.

Read Hon Kate Doust’s address to Parliament on 12 August 2020. C40 S1 20200812 p4764b-4764b.pdf (parliament.wa.gov.au)