Dungloe-born Sr. Mary Sweeney, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, received a Presidential Distinguished Service Award from President Michael D. Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin on 8 December. Speaking afterwards Sr. Mary said: “This award recognises the many people who have supported my missionary work in Sierra Leone over the past 44 years. Especially the people of Sierra Leone whose dedication greatly helps hearing impaired children. These people have helped me in every way through their financial and spiritual support. They have given me encouragement to continue my faith-inspired work through many trials, including the civil war and Ebola, to support those on the margins of society.
“I am grateful and full of joy to receive this award not for myself, but on behalf of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny who have served Sierra Leone for over 150 years, as well as the communities who have welcomed and supported them and other missionaries for so many years.”
“In particular” she said “ I thank the people of Donegal and the Friends of St. Joseph’s, whose on-going dedication enabled me to create school facilities that allow these marginalised children to get an education and take their role within their communities. Education is key to ending the cycle of poverty and deprivation in poor countries like Sierra Leone.”
St. Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired in Makeni was set up by Sister Mary and the Cluny Sisters in 1979 in response to the great need for suitable provision for children with disabilities in northern Sierra Leone. The school supports over 200 hearing impaired children, and has dormitory accommodation for those from long distances away. It provides education, skills training and opportunities to children with a disability who have been excluded from education, and often from society as a whole. Over the years the school has worked to dispel the deep seated belief that children with disabilities are incapable of being educated.
The school costs over €100,000 a year to run and shrewdly Sr. Mary has opened new revenue streams including a guest house, a farm and carpentry and tailoring business where some of the school graduates work and learn, providing essential employment and livelihoods training. She aims to make it partially self sufficient by growing some of their own food which includes pineapples, oranges, mangoes, papayas, and yams. Hens are reared and eggs are supplied daily to two supermarkets in Makeni.
Sr. Mary successfully lobbied for the establishment of a specialised teacher training institute for children with disabilities at the University of Makeni. Over the years, she has lobbied the Ministry of Education to recognise the importance of educating children with disabilities. The ministry now acknowledges the primary school and pays the salaries of its teachers but the school must meet all other costs.
Sr. Mary said: “Missionaries work alongside communities, empowering them and helping them to advocate and lobby for their basic rights. It is long-term work but it gives great satisfaction to see impoverished and disadvantaged people taking control of their own lives.” Currently, there are 1,100 Irish missionaries working in developing countries where the Irish are being succeeded by local and indigenous priests and nuns. A book – The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On – was published recently by Matt Moran outlining the huge contribution many thousands of Irish missionaries made in developing countries and how their legacy is being carried forward by local missionaries there. Sr. Mary was accompanied to the awards ceremony by one of her Indian-born colleagues who works in the school.
Special report by Matt Moran, former Chairperson of Misean Cara and author of the recently published book – The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On. Available to to order at www.books.ie, www.onstream.ie, and will be available shortly in the online shop of www.catholicireland.net. You can also find copies in Veritas in Abbey St. Dublin.
Photo Caption: Irish President Michael D. Higgins presents the Presidential Distinguished Service Award to Sr. Mary Sweeney SJC. Photo: Maxwells Dublin.