THE former principal of an African school has been reunited with her old students who travelled from all parts of the globe to mark the Cork woman’s 90th birthday.
The 1986 class of Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School for Girls in Mankon, Cameroon, met with former Irish missionary Sr Mary Neville making for emotional scenes at Dublin Airport in recent days.
The women joined Sr Neville and the Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Dublin for festivities that included a birthday celebration in addition to traditional Cameroonian dance performances courtesy of her former students.
Sr Neville, who is from Rockboro Avenue in Cork city and attended school at South Presentation Convent, was inspired to pursue religious life after hearing of two Holy Rosary sisters living in the convent.
Many former students, who helped name their graduating class ‘The Pacesetters’, said they owe much of their success to the trailblazing former missionary. Their determination over the years has led to them entering into careers in pharmacy, cloud technology management, social entrepreneurship and enterprise and industrial analytical chemistry.
This was in spite of adversity at the time that meant the education of boys was prioritised over their female counterparts.
Sr Mary Neville spoke to The Echo about the difficulties for her then students who have since carved out successful careers in the US, UK, Norway, Switzerland and Cameroon.
“The boys were always educated first,” she explained.
“If a family had anything left over they would educate the girls too. However, I remember one family who put eight of their daughters through Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School and that was so wonderful.
“I always told the students that a boy and girl are equal before God.
“I told them not to ever put a boy on a pedestal or to look at him as superior because they were capable of just as much.
“Even though a lot of the careers were male-dominated I told the girls they could do anything they wanted provided they worked hard in life.”
The Cork woman also proved an invaluable emotional support to girls attending the school.
”I had a theory that when a child gave trouble there were problems in the home. If a child wasn’t doing well or they were acting naughty I’d ask them how things were at home. I tried to help them and comfort them.
“My theory is that a child is never bad. They might do a bad thing but that doesn’t make them a bad child.
“I was always convinced of that because a child is naturally good. They might be mischievous but not bold in that sense.”
She described seeing the girls for the first time in so many years.
“Some of the girls I hadn’t seen since they were young girls of 14,15 and 16. The last time I saw them they had cropped hair and school uniforms.
“Now some of them are grandmothers. It was amazing and literally overwhelming to see them again. It was incredible to think this had all been arranged through a WhatsApp group.”
Former Our Lady of Lourdes student Claire Minang, who took the lead in organising the visit to Dublin, expressed her gratitude to Sr Mary Neville on behalf of her entire class.
“Sister Mary was truly a mother and a mentor to us,” Claire said.
“The education was strict and structured, but we enjoyed every moment of it. It made us feel important, that we were worthy of the Sisters’ investment of time, which was unusual in Africa when girls were looked at as being unequal to boys.
“The school and the Sisters made us feel like we were somebody, like we could be whatever we wanted. That’s what I walked out of there with and I think that’s why we’re so proud. We know what we got out of it. The experience was just remarkable.”
Sr Mary Neville’s students had been planning the reunion for a year in advance of their visit.
“It was so prayerful, almost like a retreat,” Sr Neville said of the celebrations.
“We spoke about our memories and they were imitating things that I did and said. It was so funny but also very nice.”