A conversation with Sister Libbey: “It’s all of us”

“I’ve got this passion for helping people make sense of faith and life and link the two together….Often, the people in the pews are the ones who miss out….to reach everybody, you need to be in the parish.”

This statement by Sr Libbey Byrne captures a central tenet of her ministry as Parish Leader at Myall Coast Catholic Parish. The parish encompasses St Brigid’s, Bulahdelah; Our Lady of the Rosary, Karuah and St Stephen’s, Tea Gardens.

While her home is at Tea Gardens, Libbey has pastoral responsibility for the communities that gather around each of the three churches, often participating in clergy gatherings along with other lay leaders. It’s nothing for Libbey to clock up 1000 kilometres in a week!

As a Sister of Charity for 35 years, her focus is service of the poor. She quotes founder Mary Aikenhead, whose mission was, ‘To bring to each person the love, tenderness and concern of Christ for the poor, seeing Christ in everyone we serve.’ This begs the question the Sisters are always asking: ‘Where are the poor now? What does ‘poor’ mean?’       

Libbey grew up in Sydney, educated by the Sisters of St Joseph and the Sisters of Charity. Her mother had been raised in Newcastle so the Hunter region is familiar to her. She taught in Catholic secondary schools before joining the congregation. The Sisters were the first women religious in Australia, arriving in 1838 and ministering initially to convicts in ‘female factories’ in Parramatta and Hobart. This led to teaching the children of convicts and later, establishing medical services that were the foundation of St Vincent’s Hospitals, now under the banner of Mary Aikenhead Ministries which the congregation set up to continue the governance of its ministries in perpetuity under lay leadership.  

Now there are different needs – including parish ministry and adult faith formation, particularly in isolated areas. Having studied theology and worked in Special Religious Education, sacramental formation and congregational leadership, as well as completing a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry and Spirituality at Boston College, Libbey is well qualified to walk with people and offer opportunities to grow in faith, understanding and community. She brings with her ministry experience in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Dioceses of Wollongong, Parramatta and Broken Bay. While Libbey has administrative responsibility for the parish, her pastoral focus is caring for those whom she frequently calls “my people”.

Libbey works with others to prepare the parish liturgies and the communities are served by sacramental ministers, Fathers Kevin Kiem and Phil Doyle cssp of Raymond Terrace, as well as occasional visiting priests. For the recent Triduum (Easter liturgy) she ensured that members of each Mass community were prepared for ministry and that all was in readiness. While the Eucharistic liturgy is the domain of the ordained minister, there are other liturgies, including those at local aged care facilities, some ecumenical, all of which need to be prepared and co-ordinated.

The parish calendar is an indication of the variety of activities on offer, ranging from Anointing Masses and St Vincent de Paul Conference meetings to community initiatives such as Women’s Shed, Wrap with Love, men’s discussion group and Yummies 4 Mummies.

When families choose a funeral liturgy outside Mass, Libbey leads the community in prayer. She recalls a recent early morning request to visit a home where a woman had passed away during the night. She regards the time spent with the family members before their loved one left the home for the last time as an enormous privilege.

Like all parish communities, the Myall Coast Parish has had to grapple with the reality of sexual abuse by some clergy and church personnel and the revelations of the Royal Commission. One way Libbey sought to support her people was by offering a Liturgy of Lament during Lent. As she says, “We all have to sit in the ashes and we have to do it collectively. People are expected to ‘get on with it’ and often they’re not asked how they’re feeling. It’s very hard for the priests and we need to ask them how they are − and it’s all of us, and we need to support each other as the People of God.”

Another initiative is what parishioners call ‘Conversations with Sister Libbey’.  Participants sit at tables, café style, and an icebreaker question leads to easy chat. A popular starter was ‘What is your favourite hymn?’ (singing a few bars was optional). Libbey provides some input on a topic such as ‘Formation of conscience’ or ‘Morality’ and there is opportunity for questions and, of course, spirited conversation.  

On a lighter note, old-fashioned movie evenings are popular. A thought-provoking film is accompanied by sandwiches and sausage rolls, and afterwards, there are Jaffas and Fantales!

Cathie Henry and her husband Robert are relative newcomers, choosing a sea change from Kurri Kurri to Tea Gardens. Cathie is committed to the parish community and says, “We are very fortunate to have the strong leadership skills of Sr Libbey, who displays a genuine feeling of community. Sr Libbey is not only committed in ministering pastoral care in a kind and caring manner but also demonstrates a passion to provide opportunities which help encourage continued faith development. No doubt working within three parish communities can be at times a heavy workload but Sr Libbey does this with dedication.”

Like all parish leaders, Libbey’s ministry is guided by the five pillars of the diocese:  Mission & Outreach, Formation & Education, Worship & Prayer, Leadership & Structure, Identity & Community. The scope of her ministry is limitless – but then again, she’s not doing it all by herself, she’s leading her people. She says, “You’re an enabler, not the be all and end all. You need to be empowering other people.” There is a parish pastoral council and a team attached to each Mass centre.

Like her predecessor, Sr Margaret Valentine rsc, Libbey is passionate about using her God-given gifts to strengthen and encourage the People of God on the Myall Coast to live lives infused by faith and enriched by belonging to a faith community. The church that many knew as younger people is different − smaller, hopefully humbler − but always, God’s pilgrim people.

Leaders like Sister Libbey Byrne are effective because not only do they have the gifts of leadership, but they are always looking beyond themselves and beyond tomorrow. They know the words of the prophet Habakkuk:

Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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