Sr Deirdre Browne has been a Loreto sister for 68 years and describes her life as having been ‘exciting and fulfilling’. She is well known for having written and composed the song ‘Come as you are’, but this is just one of hundreds of songs and compositions she’s created over the years. An accomplished violinist, pianist, teacher (primary, secondary and tertiary), writer, composer and choir conductor, she wes born and bred in Sydney but has called Melbourne home for the past 37 years. Fiona Basile sat down with her to delve into a life of music, faith and service.

Have you always loved music?

I come from a Celtic background—Irish, English and Welsh—so I was surely bound to be a music lover! I was influenced by my father, a well-educated pianist and singer as well as a writer and lover of poetry. He’d come home in the evening and play the piano and sing, and from the time I was very small, he would read poetry to me in the evenings as well as sing me lullabies. That was a beautiful thing for my ear. My mother died just prior to my eighth birthday, so that affected my life. I attended Loreto Normanhurst in Sydney from Grade 6 to Form 5, which was a formative period of my life, especially when it comes to music, education and my call to religious life.

Tell me about your time in boarding school?

My faith was nurtured by the nuns’ witness to Jesus and their authenticity. Boarding school life was, besides being a lot of fun, an oblique way of observing the religious life of a nun. Each morning we attended 7am Mass with the sisters, and shared evening prayer, which always included a hearty singing of a hymn with them in the chapel. I don’t know how many hundreds of hymns I would’ve sung at school! I came in time to think about the words of these hymns, particularly where children and young people are concerned. This set me up to be a careful composer of words as well as melodies for hymns. I remember, too, the spiritual formation we received through processions. One such was the feast of Corpus Christi where the local parishes joined us annually in the grounds of Loreto Normanhurst to process in honour of the Blessed Sacrament. It was a ritual that informed my interest in liturgical ceremony.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you?

My violin and piano teacher, Mother Lua Byrne ibvm, was a great influence. She was a very fresh-faced, smiling woman, intelligent and kind, and drew the best out of her students. She always had that sense of loving what she was doing, and she loved us. So it made a big difference to a small child to have such a beautiful woman as my music teacher.She brought my gifts out of me in a great way so that by the time I finished school, I was leading the school orchestra, I was music captain, and I was carrying the two instruments of piano and violin at the top levels. She’d prepared me well for performance studies at Sydney Conservatorium in 1953. It looked as if that would set me out on a career in music and I was happy for that. She introduced me to ethnomusicology in Form 5, and it became a life-long interest for me, with implications for pursuing the connections between music, spirituality, liturgy and culture.

Is there a piece of music that is particularly special to you?

I had a friend called Joan MacKerras, the sister of the famous international musician and conductor Sir Charles MacKerras (deceased). Even though she didn’t attend the school, Joan received lessons from this ‘famous’ Mother Lua. So one of my favourite pieces, even to this day, is the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D minor, which the two of us would play. The way Bach’s written it, particularly the second movement, is like a conversation between two violins. I love that piece, and I saw it later as God and the soul and this reciprocal relationship going on between the two of us. What’s God saying to me? What am I saying to God? I often return to it in retreat periods. It speaks profoundly to me of the God who is Love calling me to respond in love.

Why did you become a nun instead of forging a career in music?

Despite the fascination of a life in music, particularly as an orchestral player, I felt a deeper call to religious life. During my boarding school years, as mystifying as the sisters’ vocation seemed to me as a child, it presented as a very worthwhile way to live a fulfilled and spiritual life. Prayers that I had come to pray regularly, which were significant in my decision, included the ‘Peace Prayer of St Francis’ and the ‘Prayer of St Ignatius for Generosity’. I chose to follow Jesus in loving service along the path of Mary Ward’s Loreto sisters—to take up the opportunity to be with people who have shared the same faith, who cared and wanted to give their life for others. It seemed a generous thing to do. And in that generous movement, you felt there was love born in you at that time for what you were going to do, following the steps of Jesus, and believing strongly in the value of this way of life.

Can you describe the main expressions of your mission as a Loreto?

I wasn’t quite 18 years old when I joined the Novitiate in Ballarat. In 1957, my first mission was teaching in a kindergarten in Brisbane. I taught nearly everything through the piano, including numbers and religion—the children loved it! After eight years in the Order teaching primary and lower secondary students in a range of subjects, I entered the Bachelor of Music course at the University of Melbourne, transferring from performance to a specialisation in music education, including a year of a Diploma of Education. My time in Melbourne was extremely rich and formative. The illustrious priest musician Dr Percy Jones was one of my lecturers, a highly prominent international figure in church music. He invited me later to turn my hand to writing music in a folk style, and that’s how some of my music came to be published. My time at the Melbourne Conservatorium prepared me well for a return to Loreto Normanhurst Sydney in 1964 to become Director of Music, which lasted 10 years.

By 1974, I was missioned to Loreto College, Brisbane, in leadership and administration. During this time, I learnt and experienced the richness of parish community and liturgical prayer. I travelled to London to take up postgraduate studies in music at the Institute of Education London University, which opened me to a wider experience in both the academic and performance fields. I specialised in choral and orchestral conducting in summer programs, attended festivals, and set up field trips to places of excellence in liturgy and music in England, France, Italy and Spain—all to widen my knowledge and cultural experience. In 1983–84, I undertook a Masters in Liturgical Studies in Washington DC with a special interest in music. This program set me up to find how ritual and music can complement one another in a profound way, as well as giving me the history and foundations of liturgical and sacramental theology. It was truly enriching.

On my return to Australia in 1985, a 12-year period of teaching in two institutions commenced—Mercy Teachers’ College (later Australian Catholic University) and Yarra Theological Union. In both, I wrote my own courses ranging across philosophy of music, 20th-century history, liturgy and music, with a particular interest in Australian music, spirituality and culture. I was particularly fortunate to work alongside the founder of the only Bachelor of Church Music course available in Australia at the time, the internationally acclaimed Melbourne musician Roger Heagney.

A key formative period in my musical life in the Church of Melbourne came in 1988 with the invitation to join the Office for Worship team. This place was truly a centre of vitality, learning, collaboration and pastoral leadership, headed at the time by this incredibly erudite liturgist, professor, spiritual director and pastoral human being, Fr Frank O’Loughlin. He provided leadership through first-class theological input into parishes and assisting with resources to meet their pastoral needs. Margaret Smith SGS, liturgist extraordinaire, partnered me in visiting local parishes, providing workshops on the revised rites of the church and the liturgical seasons.

What is at the heart of your ministry?

In 2005 I accepted the invitation to be the writer of our revised modern Constitution Volume 11 for the Loreto sisters worldwide. With such a ministry, there was not much time for music, but I found composing poetic prose a music of its own kind. The style of the document was challenging in that it was to be of spiritual inspiration as well as legally accurate. There is an important line in that document: ‘Mission is at the heart of who we are, and love is the driving force that urges us on.’ So, to answer your question, I think it’s love. The love of education, of seeing people—young and old—grow. My life has been not one of being tucked away in a convent, but very much associated with people beyond. And what brings it together is my faith, and my music.

Sr Deidre Browne
Image supplied by Sr Deirdre Browne and used with permission

You are known for having written and composed the song ‘Come as you are’. What is the back story to this song?

It’s very simple. It speaks to people, because it’s about God’s love for each of us—I have loved you with an everlasting love, I will never forsake you, there is no need to fear. It comes directly out of my going to confession to a priest, and he said, ‘I don’t think God is worrying about half of that. Come as you are.’ People use the song everywhere, including in prisons. It’s extraordinary the amount of correspondence I’ve received over the years. People don’t think I’ve done anything else!

How do you use your time now?

As the years advance and my energies fade, I still love to be involved in whatever way I can in supporting and encouraging younger people to follow through their dreams. I have eclectic tastes, a deep love of words and music, and love of my way of life—a vocation of loving service in companionship and faith. It’s not so much what I do now; it’s what kind of a person am I in the doing. I wrote a line in the Loreto Modern Spiritual document that says, ‘When energy fails, the ministry of being is as authentic as the ministry of doing.’

It’s a time for gathering in and sorting what may be useful to others from my store of life experience—the failures and uncertainties, the lost opportunities, and the glorious moments. I’m happy that I am still able to do something, and that something is to share my love of music and my love of my way of life and faith. Mary Ward was an extraordinary person, and some of her quotes were so impressive, but one of them is ‘Women in time to come will do much.’ And we live with that responsibility to use our gifts to the full in whatever way we can.