In honor of its 50th Anniversary, Thomas Aquinas College hosted a celebratory reception last Sunday just outside the nation’s capital. The featured speaker for the event was Sr. Deirdre “Dede” Byrne, POSC, a religious sister, veteran, physician, and nationally recognized champion of the marginalized and unborn — who also has many beautiful and surprising connections to the College.
“God has a really good sense of humor,” Sr. Dede told guests, “because I don’t think I would have even graduated from the Thomas Aquinas preschool, and here I am amidst all these academic leaders.”
Yet these words were typical of Sister’s characteristic humility: In addition to being a thoracic surgeon, she served nearly 30 years in the United States Army, retiring with the rank of colonel. She is today the superior at the Washington, D.C., house of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which, among its other ministries, provides free medical care to the poor and uninsured. She makes annual medical missions to Kenya, Haiti, and Sudan, and she oversees Heart Pro Bono PT, Washington’s only free physical therapy clinic.
Sr. Dede is best known, however, for speaking passionately in defense of the unborn at the 2020 Republican National Convention. “The largest marginalized group in the world can be found here in the U.S. They are the unborn,” she declared before a nationwide audience. “We are called to stand up for life.”
This commitment to the pro-life cause came up once more when Sr. Dede told some 150 alumni and other friends at the anniversary celebration about how she first came to learn of Thomas Aquinas College. “I was exposed to your beautiful school,” she began, “through the eyes of a 19-year-old girl who brilliantly shone the love of Christ.”
Early in her medical career, Sr. Dede worked at the Ventura County Medical Center, where she heard from fellow doctors about Angela Baird (’00), a TAC sophomore who was treated at VCMC after being gravely injured in a hiking accident in 1997. “Angela kept repeating, ‘I am offering all this up, my suffering, for the unborn,’” Sr. Dede recalled the amazed doctors telling her. “Sadly, she died on the operating room table, but that experience made such an impact … she brought brilliance through the hallways.”
After learning about Angela, Sr. Dede decided to pay a visit to the College’s California campus. “I was so touched and moved,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘I wish I could go back to school, go back here and learn.’ It was so breathtaking.”
Nearly a quarter of a century later, she would return to Thomas Aquinas College for Convocation 2021, this time on the New England campus in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, where her brother — the Most Rev. William D. Byrne — was the newly installed bishop. Over the last year, His Excellency has likewise become a good friend of the College, visiting three times, including for the Dedication Mass of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel in March.
“We’re grateful, indeed, for Sister’s friendship, and that of her brother,” President Michael F. McLean remarked to the Washington guests. Added Sr. Dede, “If you have any problems with him, I know his mother very well!”
Both Dr. McLean and Sr. Dede used the occasion to acknowledge the College’s legacy in this, its 50th Anniversary year. “Today we look not only back at the College’s accomplishments but, confident in God’s abiding providence, we look forward with great anticipation to another 50 years of Thomas Aquinas College playing a leading role in Catholic education,” said Dr. McLean. Added Sr. Dede, “I know your focus is to be faithful to Christ, as well as to the wisdom of the Church’s greatest thinkers, and to do so in complete fidelity to the Church and her magisterium. What a powerful witness you have been!”
In conclusion, Dr. McLean thanked those who attended the celebration, as well as Sr. Dede for her gracious words and her lifetime of service. “Sr. Dede has taken up Christ’s banner of love, love for the poor and the marginalized,” he said. “It was a great honor and a joy to have her with us here today.”