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One Loss from the Senseless Malaysian Airlines Attack

By Peter Finney, Jr. for the New Orleans Clarion-Herald

Religious Sister of the Sacred Heart Lynne Lieux grew up blissfully insulated in New Roads, Louisiana, and for more than three decades in her ministry as an educator of girls in the tradition of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, she has marveled at the richness of blessings and opportunities showered upon her in religious life.

You’ve heard it said, “Join the Navy and see the world.” Well, being a Catholic educator within a worldwide religious order, founded by Mother Barat in 1800 in Paris, isn’t far behind. Sister Lieux has seen the world from 35,000 feet and from the trenches: in England, Nicaragua, France, Australia, Louisiana, Taiwan and many other places in between.

So as Sister Lieux boarded her flight in New Orleans on July 17 to embark on a two-week retreat in San Diego – her flight plans got changed to somehow route her through Miami – she glanced at the text alert on her phone. A Malaysian Airlines jet had just crashed in eastern Ukraine.

“I said to myself, ‘I sure hope Phil wasn’t on that plane,’” Sister Lieux said.

Phil – Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Philomene Tiernan of Sydney, Australia – was probably the best friend Sister Lieux ever had. Even though Phil, at age 77, was 22 years older than Lynne, they had a 32-year bond of true sisters, a bond forged initially through Phil’s role as a spiritual mentor to a young sister and strengthened over the years despite the reality of living on exactly opposite sides of the world.

When Sister Lieux’s plane landed in San Diego, she had an email on her phone: Call the provincial office in St. Louis, no matter what time.

Yes, Phil was on that plane.

Terror act claimed 298 lives

The Boeing 777 was headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and eventually to Phil’s native Australia. Phil was among the 298 people from 11 countries killed by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired over eastern Ukraine, held by Russian separatists.

Just two weeks earlier, the two sisters had been together at educational and spiritual conferences in London sponsored by the Society of the Sacred Heart. Just as they always did in those rare times when they were together, they got up before dawn, prayed and took long walks. Emmaus had come to London.

“We had wonderful walks and conversations about our lives and where we were,” Sister Lieux said. “I guess there are friendships that call out the best of us, and we probably did that for each other. There’s a wonderful statement from Antoine de Saint-Exupery in ‘The Little Prince’: ‘Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.’ That gaze on God is probably what made us friends. I think what impressed me the most about Phil was that she was seeking God. It was obvious.”

A pilgrimage in France

Phil was excited about her plans, following the London conference, of going on retreat in France for two weeks, where she also would be able to travel to Joigny to see the birthplace of Mother Barat and then to Paris – to St. Francis Xavier Church – where the saint’s body is encased in a reliquary.

“She was so excited, so filled with joy and so peaceful,” Sister Lieux said. “In hindsight, you saw that she was ready to meet God.”

During her San Diego retreat, Sister Lieux, now the headmistress of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, tried to make sense of the senseless.

“I feel outrage because of this senseless act of taking the lives of innocent people,” Sister Lieux said. “There were 80 children on this flight. When something violent like this happens close to home, we are outraged and feel we need to take action, but we should be just as outraged about the children being killed on the beaches of Israel as we are about this.

“I heard a wonderful homily last Sunday about the weeds cropping up faster than whatever crop is growing. God lets the evil happen because it’s our job to convert the evil.”

‘Find rest for yourselves’

During the retreat, Sister Lieux reflected on the readings of the day for July 17. She had been so rushed in her own journey to San Diego and then in the aftermath of the missile attack that she had not had time to consider the words of Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

That Gospel passage also was exact one used on June 27 – the Feast of the Sacred Heart – when the Religious of the Sacred Heart worldwide traditionally renew their vows. Sister Lieux and Phil renewed them together in London.

“Do you realize we’ve been friends for 32 years, and this is the first time we celebrated this feast together?” Sister Lieux asked Phil.

Phil was revered in Australia. She was a novice master and later served as the provincial of the Religious of the Sacred Heart for six years and as chancellor of the Diocese of Broken Bay near Sydney. Her most recent ministry was as a spiritual director at a Sacred Heart school, Kincoppal-Rose Bay, in Sydney.

In the summer of 2006 – about 10 months after Katrina – Phil visited Sister Lieux at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. They spent one week traveling with 30 students to a mission in Nicaragua and another week visiting New Orleans and New Roads.

Another tragedy

They talked. They laughed. They prayed together. They reflected on the death of Phil’s brother, who had been killed in another act of violence when he tried to break up a fight in Australia and was hit in the head by a man wielding a 2-by-4.

Now, violence and evil have touched the Tiernan family again in an unspeakable way.

“When we get back to school, we have to begin to convert people by the way we live,” Sister Lieux said. “This can be done by the smallest acts of mercy and compassion and love – the interior disposition of the heart of Christ. Those are the things we are called to because we are of the Sacred Heart. The school’s title is not without meaning.”

And what of her dearest friend?

“I can be heartbroken and sad, but how can I regret that she has finally reached what her destination has been – to meet God face to face?” Sister Lieux said. “We spend our lives as religious for God, and our ultimate glory is to see God. I can’t resent that she has found the fullness of life that we believe in.”

(This article originally appeared in the New Orleans Clarion-Herald. Our thanks to Peter Finney, Jr. for permission to use it here.)