Sister Phyllis was born Mary Philomena Heaney in Dublin in 1937 and grew up in Kilberry Parish, Proudstown, Navan, County Meath. She was one of four children, two boys and two girls, and was very proud of her Meath origins. Educated by the Sisters of Mercy in Navan, she worked as a shop assistant before joining MMM in 1960.
After profession she spent time in our holiday house in Killybegs, County Donegal, where her duties included caring for the retired Bishop McGinley and helping to restore exhausted missionaries back to health. Later she worked in the maternity hospital kitchen in Drogheda.
Phyllis always wanted to be a nurse. She completed her general training in Drogheda in 1973 and her midwifery training at Hillington Hospital in Middlesex, England in 1974. In early 1975 she was assigned to Brazil to work in community health care and pastoral care. She did this for nine years, based in São Paulo. She found that, as in many places around the world, there were people on the margins of society, hidden from view and stigmatized. Her work with those with physically disabilities was called Christian Fraternity of the Sick and Handicapped. During this time, she met Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and co-founder of the Faith and Light communities.
Around 1985 she met the founder of the first L’Arche in Brazil, Sylvia Taveres. This was inspirational for Phyllis’ work with special children. Around 1991 she went to a new parish in Jardim Angela, where she began a ministry with people with intellectual disabilities. Her meeting with Vanier inspired her to form a Faith and Light community there. The group continued to grow in Holy Martyrs Parish and the surrounding area. Families were encouraged to have a vision of living life to the full and were helped to reflect on the beauty of being blessed with a special child.
Another strong influence in her life was her home. She spoke of her father digging lambs out of the snow in winter and bringing them into the warmth of the kitchen, where her mother would sit near the fire, put them on her knee, feed them and massage them back to health. The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd was very strong in Phyllis’ spirituality and in her life’s mission.
She dreamed of having a house where children with intellectual disabilities could stay and be cared for while their mothers had a weekly day off to care for themselves. The target groups would be the most vulnerable, economically poor, and rejected from their area. With help from the Saint Patrick’s Fathers and parishioners, Phyllis obtained donations, mostly from Ireland and England, to buy a suitable house. Called Nest of Hope, it used the image from a book by Jean Vanier of a nest as a safe, supported, and secure place that allows the young to fly when they are ready. It is a welcoming centre with a garden.
When people were received there the spoken, or often unspoken, question was: ‘Voce me ama?’ (‘Do you love me? Do you really love ME?’) Listening to those questions and responding, volunteers began to hear the voice of Jesus and to discover his face in those suffering faces. The Nest became and still is a revelation of the unconditional love of God. It could be said to be a house of Christian formation for the parish and surrounding area. While the original plan was for mothers to have time for themselves, these enterprising women instead took jobs such as doing laundry to earn an income.
Another dream came true with the establishment of The Forum for Included, developed to struggle for the rights of special people, to be their voice to the authorities. It advocates for access to services and for developing services that are needed. It was discovered that children with forms of autism were not being diagnosed. Because The Forum’s work, there is now a centre specifically for looking after autistic people and people with mental disabilities under twenty-one years.
During the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, another celebration took place in São Paulo. Phyllis helped to organize The Dance of Happiness, with all the intellectually limited persons in Jardim Angela and other areas. Phyllis described it: ‘We had great fun and ALL won an Olympic medal. You should have seen our smiles and joy and those of the mothers. Then we had a big party with presents. The place was full of joy and happiness and our families went home feeling valued, precious and special, including me and all our Forum members, friends and volunteers.’
Commenting on her work with people with autism, Phyllis said, ‘It is a great privilege to be here with them.’
In 2017, forty-two years after she first went to Brazil, Phyllis returned to Ireland suffering from a serious illness. A loving, quiet, selfless person, at first she helped in the Motherhouse, moving quietly and happily, watchful for those who needed a helping hand, doing the simple community tasks that were so needed and appreciated by everyone
In her final days when illness was relentlessly taking over her body, she searched for the face of God, not hidden by snow but racked by pain and suffering. She recognized and accepted that as a final gift of God: having lived as Jesus asked of her, she was to die like Him. She was admitted to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital for several weeks and died there peacefully on 10 September 2019.
At her funeral there were eight concelebrants, including her two cousins, Fathers Séamus and Seán Heaney. The auditorium was packed with family, neighbours, Brazilian missionaries, MMMs and staff members. The Mass was streamed live to São Paulo, where Phyllis spent most of her life, and ended with a hymn in Portuguese sung with gusto by all with Portuguese/Brazilian connections. The statue of Nossa Senhora de Aparecida and the Brazilian flag were brought to the altar at the offertory.
Surely these words were addressed to Phyllis: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Mt 25:40 NIV).