Irish nun who has helped almost half a million street kids in India get an education
An Irish nun never thought she would end up spending 60 years in India educating some of the poorest children.
Sr Cyril Mooney from Bray, Co Wicklow left Ireland in 1956 when she was 19 for Kolkata. (formerly Calcutta)
She was awarded the Padma Shri which is the highest award a civilian can get in India for her work in education.
Born in 1936 with a brother and sister in her family, Sr Cyril won a scholarship to Loreto Convent in Bray and decided to become a nun at the age of 13.
She rushed home to tell her mother who wasn’t convinced because her older sister had a similar idea before her.
Sr Cyril explained: “My older sister also had an idea to be a nun.
“She forgot all about it.
“My mother had to tell the nuns that she wouldn’t be doing it.
“When I came along, my mother thought it was a phase that girls go through.”
The now 79-year-old set off for India by boat in a journey that started from Dun Laoghaire.
The ship passed through London, the Canary Islands and South Africa before finally reaching Kolkata.
Sr Cyril said: “I was 19. I took it for granted that I would be seeing all these places.
“I never thought I would be 60 years in India, we just simply went.”
But her eyes were opened when she saw first hand the shocking poverty on the streets of Kolkata while she lived what she felt was a comfortable life.
Sr. Cyril said: “What hit so strongly was that we were inside a compound and we knew nothing about the poverty outside.
“We had all of our schools and they were nicely run but we didn’t pursue any of these situations of poverty that we saw.”
It was a huge change from the Ireland that she was used to.
The Bray native said: “It began to dawn on me how different the situation was in Ireland where we had poor people but people were doing something for them.
“The chances of poor children getting into Indian schools wasn’t good.”
She began a “rainbow” project to bring poorer girls into a previously well-off Loreto college.
She became principal of Loreto Sealdah in 1979.
Her work has helped a staggering 450,000 people to better lives.
She said: “When I took over in Loreto Sealdah, I found that the vast majority of children on the street weren’t going to school at all.
“A large number of well-fed, well-dressed children were being sent to school, on the outskirts were poor kids not going. “
Sr. Cyril took action, mixing rich with poor and helping children who would otherwise not have got a decent education.
She said: “I didn’t say: ‘We’ll be bringing poorer children in’, I just brought them in.”
The parents of rich children paid fees which subsidised the poorer children going to school.
Street children needed a place to stay so Sr Cyril let them sleep in the school at night.
She said: “They didn’t have a place to stay.
“The girls were exposed on the streets which was a dangerous situation.
“They were prone to all kinds of things happening to them.
“Our schools closed at 4pm every day and the day school children went home.
“The school was empty.
“We had fans, lights, desks and classrooms free.
“So children would come in and sleep.
“Children would tidy and clean up after themselves with help from some adults.
“The schools had washing facilities with toilets and showers. “
Sr Cyril insists that after a few weeks, you couldn’t tell the difference between students frpm both backgrounds as all wore the same uniforms and used the same books.
In 1983 Sr Cyril took a trip to Ireland to raise money so more children could attend the school.
Her trip included visits to many Loreto schools explaining the plight of poor children in Kolkata.
The Gay Byrne Show on radio provided her with a platform to get her message across.
She said: “I talked about the fact that more than half the world’s children who were not in school were Indian.
“I got a great reaction, a lot of people responded.”
She was known to locals for riding through the streets of Kolkata on a scooter in a nun’s habit.
She is now retired from her day-to-day duties at Loreto Sealdah but is working with the West Bengal Government to help street kids get an education.
Sr Cyril said: “I am working now with the Government, we have opened 25 boarding schools where everything is supplied by the government.
“It is being done for kids who were living in the streets – there is no way they would get into a regular school.”
In 2007, she was given the prestigious Padma Shri award from the Indian Prime Minister A P J Abdul Kalam.
She said: “The president of India gave me the award for doing this stuff because nobody had thought of doing it.
“I was very pleased with myself and more pleased that I had many people collaborating with me.”
Mother Teresa was another winner of the award years before and Sr Cyril was very fond of her.
She said: “I knew her very well and she knew me.
“Mother Teresa was a very nice, kindly, humane person.
“She was much older than I was.
“She worked down the road from me in Mother House where she is buried now. “
Sr Cyril believes there is much for Ireland to learn from multi-faith education in India.
“We have all religions in our schools.
“Treat everybody the same no matter what their background is.
“Ireland could learn a readiness to reach to people but I think it is already there.”
She has also trained thousands of village teachers to improve education in rural communities with her ‘barefoot teachers’ training’.
Big changes in Ireland are obvious to her.
The Loreto Sr said: “I was home in Ireland for visits during the Celtic Tiger.
“People were getting a lot of good things.
“This was in the sense that children were getting enough to eat and plenty of toys.
“I think it has gone the other way around now, they are very aware of their shortages and lack of having the same things.”
Sr Cyril has singled out young Irish people today for particular praise and has been very impressed with volunteers that have travelled to Kolkata.
She said: “The quality of the young Irish people that come out to Kolkata is truly exceptional in comparison with anywhere.
“The Irish come out with one clear intention which is to serve.”
Source: Irish Mirror