by MINA AMSO
Known as the “affirming”, “empowering of people”, and “encouraging” Sister of Mercy, the late Sr Pauline O’Regan, RSM, CBE, DCNZM, is described by her friend Sr Marie McCrea, RSM, as someone who “loved people”.
“A truly prophetic leader, a clear thinker, a good listener, a wise woman, a
gifted storyteller with a wonderful sense of humour,” Sr Marie recalled.
Sr Pauline O’Regan, a member of Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa, Sisters of
Mercy New Zealand for 75 years, passed away on May 2, at Essie Summers Retirement Village in Christchurch.
The 96-year-old sister was surrounded by her Mercy community and family,
and her Requiem — attended by around 500 people — was celebrated at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral by Fr Chris Friel, and concelebrated by Fr Kevin Burns, who delivered the homily. Tributes were given by Mary O’Regan (niece) and Sr Marie McCrea.
In his homily, Fr Burns paid tribute to Sr Pauline by echoing the message of Matthew 25:31-40. The passage highlights the priority Christ places on his followers to serve others.
“As followers of Christ, [our] way is the way of love, and being attentive to the needs of others. On this way of love, we are ready to relinquish something of ourselves for the sake of another or for a community in need.
“It was to live this expansive life that drew the young Pauline O’Regan to seek entry into the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy,” Fr Burns said.
Sr Pauline joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1942, in Timaru. She was professed as a sister two years later and served in education, teaching in Catholic schools and colleges throughout the South Island, including in Greymouth, Christchurch and Timaru.
The majority of her career in education was at Villa Maria College, where she was principal for 17 years from 1950 to 1966. Villa Maria principal Deborah Brosnahan said Sr Pauline was probably “the most significant person, in some ways”, in the college’s 101-year history.
“Because she came at a transformative moment at the history of the college. We were really a little backwater school that was not performing, just struggling along. She was directed to come here. She was directed to complete her Masters. They clearly saw the talent she had, to be the boarders’ mistress and, at the same time, run the school.”
Ms Brosnahan said Sr Pauline “transformed” the school.
The Mercy sister worked to increase the school roll from 48 to 450 girls and lifted the academic, sporting and cultural standards and performance to a higher level.
She also served as principal at Mercy College in Timaru from 1967 to 1968. In 1973, Sr Pauline formed a community in Aranui, in east Christchurch, with two other sisters, Sr Teresa O’Connor and Sr Helen Goggin. For more than 40 years, they lived and worked with the people in this area, supporting women to become leaders in their own communities.
“This was a very enriching experience for all of us. Pauline’s faith was strong and unwavering,” said Sr Marie.
“She was passionate about living the Gospel and has taken part in many political actions on behalf of the powerless and oppressed. I remember her, in the 1970s, standing outside the house of the then-Minister of Social Welfare, in support of solo parents not having their benefits cut.”
In the 1995 New Year Honours, Sr Pauline was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to education and the community, and in the 2001 Queen’s Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM), also for services to education and the community. However, when titles were reinstated under then- Prime Minister John Key in 2009, she turned down the title of “Dame”.
Sr Pauline was also a prolific author. The book she wrote in partnership with Sr Teresa O’Connor, titled Community — Give it a Go! has been widely used by community workers throughout New Zealand. It was later turned into a workbook, titled I Can Change Anything — But Not On My Own. Her book There is Hope for a Tree is a clear-eyed challenge to the Catholic Church from one on the inside.
After her death, tributes flowed for Sr Pauline on Villa Maria’s Facebook page. Lyn Tyson, a past pupil, wrote: “Huge
respect and admiration for all Sister Pauline accomplished in her life. Honoured to have been one of her pupils at Villa.
Grateful for the love of history and the discipline she instilled in me. Many fond memories, including trying to get past her with dyed hair after school hols . . . a total no-no . . . sent home to wash it out. Loved her books and corresponding with her as an adult about them.”
Another past pupil, Carol Fitzsimmons, wrote “She was history teacher when I and my sister were boarders in the late sixties [and] early seventies, she was tiny, tough and could clear two netball courts in the middle of the school just by walking through from the boarding school — everyone knew that walk [was] scary. She was tough, but well respected. Thank you for the service to God you did.”