By Sarah Mac Donald
DUBLIN (OSV News) — Twenty-two women who attended a Catholic boarding school in Cameroon run by Irish missionaries flew to Ireland at the end of April to express their thanks in person to their former teachers, whom they refer to as their “mothers.”
The women graduated from Our Lady of Lourdes College in Mankon in 1986, a highly regarded all-girls secondary school founded by the Holy Rosary Sisters in northwest Cameroon in 1963.
Praxedes Banseka, one of the former students who flew to Dublin from Cameroon, told OSV News that the Irish nuns had “molded” the girls and “taught us that as a girl we could stand on our own feet and we had the potential for everything possible.
“We are here today thanks to them,” said Banseka, now a manager at the Cameroon Cooperative Credit Union League.
Banseka explained that growing up in Cameroon in the 1980s was more challenging for girls. The women attribute their professional success to the care, hard work and educational excellence provided by the missionaries from Ireland.
“Our class named ourselves the ‘Pacesetters’: We set the pace for others to follow,” she said.
Some of the past pupils had not seen each other in 37 years. They flew in from the U.S., Britain and Switzerland, as well as Cameroon. Warm embraces were exchanged throughout the reunion.
On April 28, the women religious and past pupils reunited for Mass at the Holy Rosary Sisters’ convent in Coolock, a suburban area on the northside of Dublin. In the afternoon, they walked the short distance to the local parish hall at St. Brendan’s for a meal and presentation to former principals Sister Mary Neville, who turns 90 in May, and Sister Nuala Lehart.
The simple surroundings were decked out in Irish and Cameroon flags. The past pupils wore red and cream clothes, a sartorial nod to the colors of their former school uniforms.
One of the organizers of the celebration was Sister Angéle Nkamsi, who has been based in Dublin since 2013 as a member of the Holy Rosary Sisters’ congregational leadership team. Sister Nkamsi highlighted how the gathering included accountants, engineers, teachers, nurses, medical doctors and even a doctor in philosophy.
“The professions are vast,” she told OSV News.
“All these women wanted to come in person to let the sisters see how grateful they are for the firm foundations they gave us,” said Sister Nkamsi, herself a graduate of the school. “They empowered us, and we experienced love from them. We left our families to go to boarding school at a tender age — some of us were 10 years old and some were 11. The sisters looked after us like we were their own children. We felt cared for and loved. They educated us and taught us to be strong women. They uplifted our dignity as women.”
Having lived in Ireland for 10 years, Sister Nkamsi is very aware of what can be automatic negativity toward religious sisters. But she believes Irish people need to recognize the good work of many religious sisters.
“The sisters learned about the culture of the people of Cameroon and took the people as their own and helped so many. I feel the people of Ireland should know that their own people carried love and transmitted it to us,” she said. “We imbibed it, and we’re coming back to say ‘thank you.'”
In Banseka’s opinion, “Irish people have a treasure which they are not valuing.
“We give so much value to what the sisters did — they changed so many lives,” she said.
Another member of the class of ’86, Prosper Ndifortah, lives in Maryland with her husband and children, where she works as a research assistant specialist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Holy Rosary Sisters, she said, instilled the Catholic faith in their students.
“Everything we do is based on our faith. They taught us how to be faithful to God and to serve God and others,” Ndifortah told OSV News.
The star of the reunion was Sister Neville, who returned to Ireland from Cameroon in 2000. After a presentation from her past pupils, right before her 90th birthday, Sister Neville addressed the packed room with emotion and told the women she felt “a great obligation” to their parents and the sacrifices they had made to give their daughters a good education.
She also paid tribute to Bishop Joseph Shanahan, who founded the Holy Rosary Sisters in 1924 in Killeshandra, County Cavan. “Since then, we have never had money, but we have had benefactors,” she said. “The people of Ireland sent us to you, and I am grateful for their generosity.”