The one woman in the world Kerry can't say to to

The one woman in the world Kerry can't say no to, by Danielle Teutsch
18th April 2004
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

She greets the Prime Minister with a hug and has a rose named after her. And she's the only woman Kerry Packer can't say no to.

When Sister Bernice Elphick needed money for a new project at St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst, she would often turn to Mr Packer.

Clearly and compellingly, she would outline her case and, within minutes, the media magnate would be signing a cheque.

Ros Packer told The Sun-Herald that her husband had called Sister Bernice "the greatest fund-raiser of all time".

"She would just say, 'Darling, I know you'll fix it,' " Mrs Packer said.

"But because of the respect in which we all held her, we knew she was not asking for any money that was not needed."

Now in her 80s, the softly spoken Sister of Charity is known to have raised millions of dollars for the hospital over the years through the respect she commanded and her quietly persuasive manner.

Sister Bernice is being honoured today with the naming of a new wing of the hospital's Xavier building.

Mrs Packer, former Governor-General Sir William Dean and NSW Governor Marie Bashir will attend, and Prime Minister John Howard has sent a congratulatory message lauding her "generosity of spirit", leadership and foresight.

Through her 40-year association with St Vincent's, first as the Mother Rectress and later as instigator of numerous hospital projects, Sister Bernice attracted a "who's who" of powerful people into her orbit - from Neville Wran to Sir Frank Packer and former prime ministers John Gorton, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke.

Sister Anthea Groves, a Sister of Charity on the campus, said Sister Bernice was equally comfortable rubbing shoulders with the political fraternity, the wealthy or the poor.

"It didn't make much difference to her," Sister Anthea said. "She knew how to get the best out of people."

Sister Bernice helped establish the Garvan Institute in 1963, and was the driving force behind the opening of the St Vincent's Clinic in 1991, modelled on the Mayo Clinic in the US.

She oversaw the expansion of the hospital campus to include the private hospital and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

When there was a suggestion that heart and lung transplants be performed at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sister Bernice calmly explained to then premier Neville Wran that they should stay at St Vincent's.

As usual, she won the day.

St Vincent's Clinic foundation president Ted Harris said almost every development in the past 40 years had "seen the hand of Sister Bernice". Even after she retired in 1997, she still helped out at the clinic with advice until 2002.

She now lives in a retirement village run by the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart order in Kensington.

"She would have made a great acquisition to any company board. She had very sensible business acumen," Mr Harris said.

If she was persuasive, it was in a "quiet, determined way", he said. "She never lost her temper."

Because of her famous discretion, Sister Bernice became a confidante of many of the rich and influential, including the Packer family.

Mrs Packer said Sister Bernice had been a "very, very important" part of the family for many years.

"At times of enormous strain, her clear blue eyes have given us a sense of comfort," she said. "She has always been there when we've needed her."

When it came to fund-raising, it was her great charm and singular faith that won over donors, Mrs Packer said.

And what did Mr Packer have to say?

"He says it has been a great joy to know her - but that it has not been inexpensive."


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Kerry Packer Biography (ABC Online)

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