Sr Philomena Ryman
loved movies, but was also most influential during the heady days of Vatican II. Sr Sharon Price writes
Sr Philomena Ryman RSM (pictured) was a true woman of the Church and a woman of
influence who, at 92, still had a commanding presence.
She was a forward thinker, a pioneer who coupled strong commitment with sound business acumen.
Sr Philomena died on March 30, after a lifetime of
devotion and service which saw her as a secretary, teacher, hospital administrator, Superior General and a driving force for women religious in NSW.
She was instrumental in the formation of the Institute of
the Sisters of Mercy in Australia and was one of the founders of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which directed its work to religious life issues of the day, the renewal of life in religious
communities and the ministry of the sisters in light of the teachings of Vatican II.
As secretary and later president of the conference, she was a prominent leader among the women’s congregations in the days
of Vatican II and the renewal which followed.
Sr Philomena began life in The Rocks as Mary Kathleen Ryman on December 4, 1908.
She spent much of her younger life in Balmain, Glebe and The Rocks.
Her childhood was not without difficulty.
Her father enlisted during World War I and her mother was often unwell, so the rearing of the family fell to Mary’s paternal grandmother and, after her death, to
The lack of parental support and her itinerant existence were adversities that Mary faced head-on and through which she developed great self-confidence, courage and determination.
failed in an attempt to win a scholarship at the qualifying certificate to continue her schooling, so she left school at the age of 14.
But, with the encouragement of the Sisters of Mercy, from whom she
received her education at St Patrick’s School in The Rocks, she then completed two years in commercial classes, learning typing, shorthand and book- keeping.
She was employed as a secretary by Australasian
Films. It was probably there that her great love of movies began!
Mary joined the Sisters of Mercy in January 1929 and as Sr Mary Philomena, after a period of training and education, began her teaching
career at her old school, St Patrick’s in The Rocks.
It was later, when she was teaching at St Patrick’s Commercial College, that she came into contact with the business world of Sydney.
greatly appreciated for her business acumen and the generosity with which she offered her secretarial expertise to those in need of it.
Sr Philomena also taught at Lavender Bay and Monte Sant’ Angelo
Her 23 years in teaching stood Catholic education in Sydney in good stead: she was one of a number of religious leaders who worked closely with the Catholic Education Office in the difficult days of
the 60s and 70s when Catholic education was expanding at a great rate.
She was the first woman appointed to the Catholic Building and Finance Committee in 1968, serving for 8 years.
and drive for excellence characterised her long association with the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney which began in 1956 when she became administrator of the Public Hospital.
She held this
position until, in 1963, she was elected superior general of the Sisters of Mercy, North Sydney, a position that precluded her from this role in the hospital.
However, she remained a member of the hospital
Board during her 12 years as leader of the congregation.
Sr Philomena resumed the role of administrator in 1975, a position she held until the Mater Public Hospital closed in 1982.
During the period
of intense lobbying of the government that preceded the closure of the public hospital, she wrote an open letter to the voters of NSW.
“If you believe the Mater should be given the new lease of life it
desperately needs, write to the Premier, Mr Wran,” she wrote. “Tell him what you think and demand that he act.”
She was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June 1976 in recognition of her
contribution to health care.
Sr Philomena believed in the need to prepare for change, rather than passing from crisis to crisis.
Her forward-thinking attitudes saw her serving on a large number of
committees and she was instrumental in the endeavours of the Mercy Sisters in Australia to join together in one association.
She worked with representatives of the Union and Federation groups of Mercy Sisters
in the 60s and the Conference of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia in the 70s.
Unity was achieved in 1981 with the formation of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia.
In 1963 the
Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious was set up in NSW. It became a national body in 1965.
Sr Philomena’s disarming openness freed many another leader to discuss “reality” – a great gift she
She attended the inaugural international meeting of Mercy Congregations in Pittsburgh, USA, in 1966. Then, a year later. was Australia’s delegate to the first Union of International Superiors
General meeting in Rome, which she continued to attend every year until 1973.
Responding to a call from the bishops for missioners, she travelled to Papua New Guinea every year from 1964-1974, first visiting
the site of the proposed mission at Pumakos and then visiting the sisters assigned to Pumakos and later, Mt Hagen; she also attended meetings in Port Moresby (1970–74) to establish the Conference of Major Superiors
in Papua New Guinea.
Major superiors whose congregations operated hospitals had come together in 1955 to form the Catholic Hospitals’ Association of NSW providing a forum for discussion of the issues facing
Catholic hospitals, including industrial matters.
Sr Philomena was a strong influence and a sometime office bearer in the hospitals’ association, which, by 1974, was extremely active in opposing the
government’s plan to rationalise health care facilities in the late 1970s.
Sr Philomena’s energies and achievements were monumental. She will be remembered as an astute businesswoman and a great raconteur –
famous for showing slides and telling stories about her overseas trips.
Her hospitality and spontaneous generosity were notable. She delighted in responding to needs, be they great or small.
Philomena’s niece recalled in the eulogy “the best present you could give my aunt was something she could give to someone else”.
Sr Philomena spoke the truth at a time in religious life when that was not the
popular thing to do.
She was tireless in promoting the mission of the Church, particularly in the fields of health, education and welfare. She lived through times of great change, responding with energy and
acumen to the challenges of the day.
Her last years were spent in retirement at McQuoin Park, Waitara. where she continued to exercise her talents for leadership and advocacy.
Sr Philomena’s death on
March 30 marks the passing of an era for women religious in NSW.
Mass in thanksgiving for her life was celebrated at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College Chapel, North Sydney on April 4.