Educator & Philanthropist
Sister Menezes, a nun, Emeritus Professor of History, recipient of honorary doctorates, lives in and runs an orphanage. She has led a life of selfless service to care for the sick and needy. From her early years, in her life of devotion and dedication, she has become one of the good and the great in the finest and noblest traditions of the Catholic Church. She is Portuguese and a fellow Guyanese.
Guyana Graphic’s feature headed ‘Sister Mary Aileen Menezes PhD’ which was submitted by distinguished writer Pamela Snow on September 8, 2012, is a reverential tribute to this wonderful person. The above photo appears in the feature.
Sister Mary Noel Menezes was born in 1930 in Kingston, Georgetown in the then British Guiana. At a very early age she had a calling to be a nun and lead a life of faith and devotion to God and dedication to serve the needy. At age 17 in 1947 she went to the USA, to enter into the Sisters of Mercy community in Dallas, Pennsylvania, to receive religious training.
The Sisters of Mercy is a religious order of Catholic women. A Sister of Mercy like a nun takes vows to give herself entirely to God for life, and to serve God’s people
especially the sick, poor, uneducated and helpless, and to help them to lead fulfilling lives. A Sister of Mercy combines a life of prayer with a life of active ministry. Sister Mary became an active member of the Sisters of Mercy community.
Sister Mary returned home in 1950 and started to teach at St Joseph High School. In 1952 she went to St Joseph’s Training College in Jamaica where she gained a Teacher’s Diploma in Education with Honours for her thesis “The Teaching of Art and Craft in the School.” She returned home to teach at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Girl’s School. She taught there until1963. She taught the GCE Advanced Level -English Literature, Religion, Art and Civics and History.
Sister had acquired over ten years of teaching experience when she decided to study for a degree. She returned to Dallas Pennsylvania where she entered the College Misericordia. This was like home from home. College Misericordia was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, with the same values of an education of caring and service to others.
She studied for the Bachelor of Arts degree in History and obtained her degree in 1964. She immediately proceeded to Georgetown University, Washington, DC to study for her masters, obtaining her MA in Latin American History ( summa cum laude –with ‘highest’ distinction ) in 1965.
Georgetown University, is a Jesuit institute of higher learning in the USA. Its Jesuit tradition promotes the university’s commitment to spiritual inquiry, civic engagement, and religious and cultural pluralism. Students are challenged to engage in the world and become men and women in the service of others, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community. These values have been at the core of Sister Mary’s way of life.
Armed with her MA, she went to do a teaching stint at Sacred Heart College, at Belmont, North Carolina. She taught at colleges in the USA for two years.
In September 1967, Sister Mary returned home and joined the staff of the University of Guyana, in the Department of History. She had by now acquired substantial academic qualifications and a formidable body of teaching experience. She soon made her impact as an educator and a historian.
In 1970 Sister Mary was offered a Ford Foundation Fellowship – an American Award – to study for her doctorate at the University of London. Her thesis was – “British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana 1803-1873”. This was published in 1977 by Oxford University Press.
Dr Menezes had established herself as one of the University of Guyana’s ‘most stimulating and engrossing teachers’ and in 1973 she was appointed the Chief Supervisor of the MA Programme in Guyanese and West Indian History. Then the History Department became the first in the University of Guyana to offer a Master’s Degree.
Sister had acquired a reputation as an efficient, creative and fearless administrator and in 1977 she was appointed Head of the Department of History at the University of Guyana. She made great improvements to this Department to make it, reputedly, the finest in the entire university. She held the position as Head up to 1986.
Sister’s ‘growing stature as a historian received special recognition.
In 1978 she became the first female President of the Association of Caribbean Historians, the regional body of historians founded in 1968.
In 1980 she was promoted to the position of Professor of History at the University of Guyana. She is the first holder of this post.
In 1981, she was appointed a member of the Drafting Committee of UNESCO’s General History of the Caribbean.
In 1982, the Government of Guyana, honoured her with the Golden Arrow of Achievement (AA).
In the same year she was awarded a Government of India scholarship to visit India and to teach at Universities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Poona.
In 1983 her Alma Mater, the College Misericordia in Dallas, Pennsylvania, conferred on her a Doctorate of Humane Letters.
In 1990, after 23 years of outstanding service, Sister Mary Noel Menezes retired from her post at the University of Guyana.
Education was significant but only one part of the service Sister trained herself to provide. She had taken vows when she entered the Sister of Mercy community to serve God and God’s people. She saw that as her primary purpose in life and while she served as an educator, she grasped the opportunity in 1968, to serve outside of the University to run the St John Boscoe Orphanage at Victoria Road in Plaisance Village, in East Coast Demerara.. She also lived there.
She was first and foremost a member of the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy (RSM) –Religious Sisters of Mercy and after retirement from her post at the University of Guyana, she served from 1990 to 1998 as the Regional Supervisor of the Sisters in Guyana.
In the year 2000, at age 70 Sister Menezes founded the Mercy Boys Home. Boys from age 16 to 21, are accommodated at the ‘Mercy Home’ in Amla Avenue, Prashad Nagar in Georgetown.
Sister Menezes. Educator and Philanthropist. International Recognition.
The works of Sister Mary Menezes, as educator and philanthropist, became widely known and valued. In 2005, the University of the West Indies, conferred on Sister Menezes an Honorary Doctorate of Law. This was at the graduation ceremony, at the University’s Sport and Physical Education Centre, at St Augustine, Trinidad.
Winston McGowan, well known journalist, in his report, headed ‘UWI honours Sister Mary Noel Menezes’, published in Stabroek News of November 3, 2005, gave an account of Sister Mary’s inspiring life and achievements. It stated inter alia:
‘Sister Mary Noel Menezes respectfully and affectionately called “Sister” or “Sister Noel” by those who know her, was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D). She was the only female among a small select group of four eminent Caribbean nationals who were awarded honorary doctoral degrees by the region’s premier educational institution.
‘Sister Menezes’ award was in recognition of both her academic accomplishments as a professional historian and her altruism. At a special luncheon…the host, Dr. Bhoendradatt Tiwari, the Pro vice-chancellor and Campus Principal, commended her for being a rarity in today’s increasingly materialistic world by being a scholar who was a genuine philanthropist.
‘She initiated the university’s first Master’s Degree Programme – a MA in Guyanese and West Indian History…In that capacity she trained a new generation of professional Guyanese historians. Some of them, notably Dr. James Rose and Dr. David Chanderbali, respectively the current Vice-Chancellor and Registrar, Mr. Tota Mangar, the Dean of the School of Education and Humanities, and Ms. Cecelia McAlmont, the Head of the Department of Social Studies, are still serving the university. Others, including Dr. Basdeo Mangru, the university’s first Master’s graduate, Dr. Marguerite Chase-Garvey and Dr. Kimani Nehusi, are pursuing successful academic careers overseas.
‘Sister Menezes was one of UG’s leading researchers and most prolific writers. Her research greatly enhanced knowledge especially of two areas in Guyanese history in which she became the recognised authority. These areas are the history of the Amerindians, the subject of her doctoral dissertation at the University of London in England from 1970 to 1973, and the history of the Portuguese.’
Sister Mary’s publications, which are many include these books:
British Policy Towards the Amerindians in British Guiana, 1803-1873.(1977);
Goodall’s Sketches of Amerindian Tribes (1977);
The Amerindians in Guyana 1803-1873. A Documentary History. (1979).
Amerindian Life in Guyana (1983)
Scenes from the History of the Portuguese in Guyana (1986);
The Portuguese of Guyana: A Study in Culture and Conflict (1992).
The Amerindians and the Europeans. This is one of the most informative sources of knowledge for this popular theme in the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) Caribbean History syllabus.
Guide to Historical Research, later revised with a new title, How To Do Better Research. This has been an invaluable guide to university students in all disciplines on research methodology.
Winston continued: ‘Two other of her numerous publications are particularly cherished by students. Her book, The Amerindians and the Europeans is one of the most informative sources of knowledge for this popular theme in the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) Caribbean History syllabus. Secondly, her Guide to Historical Research, later revised with a new title, How To Do Better Research, continues to be an invaluable guide especially to university students in all disciplines on research methodology.
‘At her retirement from U.G. in 1990, Sister Menezes was honoured in a touching public ceremony on campus, the first of its kind for a member of the teaching staff in the university’s long history. This was clear evidence of the high esteem in which she was held by the university community.
‘While recording achievement after achievement as a teacher, administrator, re-searcher and writer, Sister Menezes remarkably found time to be involved in a number of philanthropic activities. As the UWI public orator, Professor Barbara Lalla, stated in the citation for Sister before presenting her to Chancellor Sir George Alleyne to receive her honorary degree…she is “a selfless and effective humanitarian… who rendered phenomenal humanitarian service.”
Distinguished Journalist Angela Pidduck, had written an article headed ‘Sister Mary’s brilliant career’ which was published in Newsday, on Sunday November 6, 2005. In her article Angela gave an absorbing account of Sister Mary’s fascinating career and achievements. She stated inter alia:
‘In 1967, the highly acclaimed educator began a long and vibrant teaching career at the University of Guyana in the Department of History, with a break in 1970 when she was offered a Ford Foundation Fellowship — an American Award — to read for her PhD at the University of London. Her thesis — “British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana 1803-1873” was published in 1977 by Oxford University Press, and through to 1995 Sister Menezes continued to produce a spate of books which led to her carrying out extensive research in the main archives of London, Holland, Portugal, Madeira and the United States. She has also published innumerable articles in a variety of journals…The well-travelled nun has presented papers and lectured at universities in Holland, England, USA, Bahamas and the Caribbean…
‘One of the highpoints in a brilliant career was her initiation of a research methodology course at UG which prepared students to write, not only their research papers, but also their theses, using her two text books A Guide to Historical Research, and its subsequent edition How to do Better Research which is widely used in the university.’
Describing Sister Mary as ‘this soft-spoken and down to earth woman,’ Angela quoted the Sister on her approach to research: “You cannot write anything unless you have solid research, particularly in history.You may be wrong in your opinion but you have no right to be wrong in your facts, and whether it’s a paper, article or book you have to know where to find the material. So I thought it was necessary to put a course in, not just at the end of the academic years, but in the first year as you cannot ask them to do a paper and not give them the tools. The book was written to benefit students throughout the university. No matter the area of study.”
Pamela Snow’s feature of Saturday September 8, 2012, provided this interesting note on Sister Menezes’ writings. Pamela wrote, inter alia:
‘Author of several books, Menezes has published extensively on two major subjects: the history of the Amerindians in Guyana from the early 19th century and the history of the Portuguese community. On both topics, she is a recognised academic authority.
‘Sister Menezes is the recipient of a scholarship courtesy of the Government of India and it took her on travels throughout India where one of the professors enquired “if anyone was working on the history of the Portuguese in Guyana and what she was doing about it,” which created the impetus for her interest in the Portuguese community…(The Portuguese presence in India date back over 500 years.)
‘Needing money to finance her research in Madeira, Menezes was assisted by an Australian woman who, it turned out, was taught by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy and wanted to give something back. “So I went to Madeira, met professors, attended conferences, got grants. I am the only person to have written on the Portuguese in Guyana,” she said.
‘Menezes, who is from a Portuguese-Guyanese family, (her great-grand parents had come from Madeira) said she had to learn Portuguese to do her research and is today the only historian in Guyana who speaks the language.’
Her book was written in 1985 (published in 1986) to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese who came in 1835.
The photo above is from a report in University of Guyana website Newsletter. ‘Emeritus Professors installed at 43rd Convocation at the University’s 43rd Convocation held on December 5, 2009, headed ‘MOMENTS TO CHERISH – 2009 CONVOCATION, University of Guyana’
Sister Mary continued to receive honour and recognition. On 5 December 2009, Sister Mary Menezes and two other retired staff members of the University of Guyana were installed as Emeritus Professors at the University’s 43rd Convocation. ‘The title of Emeritus Professor is conferred on retired members of the academic community who attained the rank of Professor; achieved the distinction of personal chairs; honourably distinguished themselves in the service to the University, in the pursuit of scholarship and in the administration of the affairs of the institution’ as a mark of esteem.
Ministry of Service to the Needy
Sister Mary’s achievements as an outstanding educator did not deflect her from the real mission in her life. She trained from her teens and committed her heart and soul to serving the disadvantaged. Her exemplary service to the needy recorded in the writings of the journalists and publications named above, include these credits.
Sister Mary has done ‘demanding and amazing philanthropic work for 35 years of service (1968-2003) at the St. John Bosco Orphanage in Plaisance, where she lived and was in charge for most of this period. Furthermore, since 1970 she has been visiting the Mahaica Hospital for patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease regularly and also served at the Cheshire Home in Mahaica for twenty years from 1981 to 2001…
‘Among her many other acts of public service are the following, a member of:
The Council of Management of the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital from 1985-2002;
The Heritage Society from 1985 to the present;
The Advisory Committee of the Canadian Organisation for Development through Education (CODE) from 1989 to the present; and
The Advisory Council of Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2002…
‘Sister Menezes’ academic work and public service are partly an expression of her religious vocation…;she has been an active member of that community ( the Sisters of Mercy in Dallas, Pennsylvania). From 1990 to 1998 she served as the Regional Supervisor of these sisters in Guyana. During those years, in 1994, she wrote a History of the Sisters of Mercy to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their work in Guyana…In 2004, she was invited to become one of the six members of the Mercy Inter-national Research Commission; a body designed to encourage scholarly use of the archival and other resources of the Sisters of Mercy worldwide.’
Sister Mary had to skillfully balance discharging her duties as lecturer at the University, research and writing, with those of caring for the children at the orphanage. She explained:
“Teaching at the university, going to the Home early on evenings to read stories to the children, and then home to check Masters’ thesis for students. I never regretted it. But writing in a milieu of youngsters was not very possible, a child with a high temperature came first, so I had to go to England every year from 1973 up to last year to do my research and writing, with the help of study leave from the university and grants as Royalties do not come to me, it is part of our community, we do not own anything.”
Sister Mary said she had always wanted to be a nun: “As far as I remember, I never thought of anything else, much to the horror and objections of my mother. When I look back at my life I have been very, very blessed. God has been very good to me in so many ways — little and big ones — family, community, friends, and wonderful students.”
Sister Mary who was still busy in 2005, and was still doing what she had always done since the 1970’s, said: “Visiting and helping the patients at the leprosarium three times a month. These people whose eyes and extremities are affected have no complaints, yet they cannot see. They are marvellous people who are always trying and will never tell me they are not so good.”
Guyana Chronicle online, in a feature headed ‘John Bosco-God’s angel of mercy’ published on December 1, 2012, provided a historical background to the establishment of the St John Bosco orphanage in Guyana. This was run by Sister Mary for some years and she lived there as well.
The orphanage was named after St John Bosco, an Italian priest from humble beginnings who, through his love, devotion, exemplary care and service to thousands of poor helpless boys, was exalted to sainthood by popular acclaim. He was canonized on Easter Sunday 1934, by Pope Pius XI. The service of the Roman Catholic Church in bettering the life of the disadvantaged is well known throughout the world. The work of St. John Bosco is one such example. Guyana Chronicle online stated inter alia:
‘The Bosco orphanage in Guyana has nurtured many children who would otherwise have been left on the dungheap of life, and this amazing institution owes its genesis to one amazing man – veritably one of God’s chosen- (St John Boscoe)…
‘Happy faces of children reflect the love and care they receive from their caregivers. At a time when survival was difficult in 1879, Italian Jesuit priest Father Luigi Casati, Roman Catholic missionary in Guyana, gathered together a number of homeless boys he saw running around the streets of Plaisance. That was the genesis of the St. John Bosco Orphanage.
‘For in excess of three decades, Sister Mary Noel Menezes, a Sister of Mercy, has nurtured the bereft boys at the St. John Bosco Orphanage (Bosco Orphanage) with the assistance of Sister Celine Marie Kirsch.
‘The St. John Bosco Orphanage and Convent…provides a home where love and care are showered upon boys, most so scarred that they need more than is normal of these commodities to once more learn to trust another human being. But the happy sounds of boys at play in a family of a different dispensation than the normal is testimony to the great heart of many who contribute in a continuum of giving that most often lasts all of their lifetimes.
‘God’s chosen ones and a legacy of faith and love…Love, care and discipline are expended in equal measure to shape responsible and rounded personalities; and many times, when the boys achieve success in their adult lives, they return to provide help to the only home and family they have ever known.
‘Sister Menezes said the love that they shower on the boys is returned many times over; and the appreciation of the boys is expressed in many ways, especially on Mother’s Day, when they receive hand-made cards and other tokens of affection from the boys.’
Guyana Times international, published a feature on February 22, 2013, headed ‘A lifetime of devotion’, on the Mercy Boys Home, how Sister Mary was able to start the orphanage and run it. The article stated inter alia:
‘At age 82, Sister Mary Noel Menezes enjoys a sense of fulfilment having promised her life exclusively to God and towards selflessly helping others
‘Sister Menezes entered the Sisters of Mercy community…an institution of Catholic women “who commit their lives to God, deepening their relationship with God and serving God’s people, especially those who are sick, poor and uneducated. Its mission is to help people to overcome the obstacles that keep them from living full dignified lives…”
‘Sister Menezes has led an exciting life of academic recognition and adventurous travels. Now retired, Sister Menezes enjoys her time at the Mercy Boys Home, which she founded in 2000. “Having worked for 35 years with the St. John Bosco Orphanage and seeing that the boys who left there had nowhere else to go after they turn 16, I decided to open the Mercy Boys Home. I always refer to the home as a miracle home.
“When I decided to buy the property…it was selling for $14M. I told the owner I couldn’t afford that much…I could buy it for $10M; of course, I didn’t have any money, but somehow I knew it would’ve worked out favourably. The same evening the wife of the owner called me and said her husband decided to sell me the house for the $10M. I asked why…she said because he grew up in the St John Bosco Orphanage in the 1930s. I told myself that this was definitely the hand of God.”
‘Excited about this new venture, Sister Menezes wrote benefactors in Guyana and other countries, and in six months, she was able to buy the house. The Mercy Boys Home is mainly operated by funds given by benefactors. Boys from the ages of 16 to 21 are given accommodation. The boys do their own shopping, cooking and cleaning. Sister Menezes disclosed that they pay for their telephone bills and the home takes care of everything else, including utility bills.
“We even try to get jobs for them also. Many of them residing here at the moment are currently employed. Two of the boys who lived at the home have migrated and are now getting their Masters at universities in the US. Many have moved on to better themselves and some have even started their own businesses. We were able to get a scholarship for one of the boys to pursue studies at UG…Many who have left usually would come back and tell us how difficult it is for them out there, because they don’t enjoy the things they once did when they were at the home. That is why I encourage them to save because I want them to be able to afford the comforts they had here when they leave,” she related.
‘Sister Menezes noted that with her age in mind, she is currently looking at training one of the boys to take over the administration of the home as she sees it as a “necessary” place for boys leaving the orphanage. “I would like to say a special thank you to all the generous benefactors who have supported us throughout the years because without them we could not maintain the home,” thanked Sister Menezes.
An exhibition of photographs of honoured Guyanese women was opened at the Public Buildings in Georgetown. This was featured in an article in Guyana Chronicle online on March 7 2014, headed ‘Photographs of honoured Guyanese women on exhibition.’ Of seven Guyanese women honoured this way, was Sister Mary Noel Menezes, the ‘first and foremost a member of the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy (RSM). She is a prominent Caribbean historian and educator, achieving the highest academic distinction and serving as a role model for women pursuing academic careers…’
Sister Mary from her early years chose the path of service to God and God’s people, in the noble traditions and life of devotion and dedication of nuns and priests, of the Catholic Church. Some of them have achieved great fame, but most have been unassuming and hardly ever heard of except in their immediate locality. It is a blessing to us all Guyanese that one of us is dear Sister Mary, a model like the very best anywhere in the world, an examplar of achievement, devotion and dedication, an outstanding educator, carer sister to orphans, and a truly devout Catholic child of God.
This short biography has been based on information obtained from the sources listed below on the internet. We acknowledge with grateful thanks the information provided in the various publications by well known writers and journalists and photographers.
Websites accessed March 17.2014
Guyana Chronicle online:guyanachronicle.com/photographs-of-honoured-guyanese-women-on-exhibition/.March 7.2014.
Book: ‘Scenes from the History of the Portuguese in Guyana. Published by: Sister M N Menezes. RSM. ISBN 0951153102. Published 1986.
3 April 1014