By: Matt Moran
Sr Patricia McLaughlin – a native of Loughgeil, Co Antrim and a Loreto missionary nun ministering in Peru since 2000 – has been presented with the 2017 Palmas Magisteriales Award which is the highest honour granted by the Peruvian State to teachers whose work has contributed significantly to the development of education.
Sr Patricia said she was both honoured and humbled to receive the award on behalf of the Fy y Alegria School where she is the founding principal. “Children everywhere deserve a good education. God has no favourites. If our work can make a difference to the life of one child, then, it is worthwhile” she said.
In 2013, the school which is located in the shantytown of Jicamarca on the outskirts of the capitol, Lima, won La Bueno Escuela - the Best School Award - and was hailed as a model in education. The best school award was given by the Ministry of Education, businesses and the national television channel. It was a nationwide search for a good school at a time when the education authorities and business people were very worried about the low standard of education. Sr. Patricia says: “I think we got that award because we had shown that poor children can achieve as much as any others if they are given the chance”.
Sr Patricia attended Loreto College, Coleraine, and joined the Loreto sisters in 1976. She did her teacher training in St. Mary’s University College, Belfast and taught in St. Brigid’s Secondary School in Omagh from 1984 - 1987. She went to Gibraltar and taught for two years in Westside Girls' Comprehensive, then in Loreto primary school for 3 years, and was head teacher there for eight years.
In 2000, she volunteered to work with children who were in greater need and after learning Spanish she went to Peru where two Loreto sisters were working in a shanty town in Jicamarca not far from Lima. The people there were looking for a school, and had approached the Jesuits who run a group of schools known as Fy y Alegria schools (Faith and Joy). Their aim is “inclusive education” making sure that the poorest and most vulnerable people have an excellent education. To begin such a school in Jicamarca, the people had to give land for the school within their community and find a religious community to run it. The Loreto Sisters were asked if they would be willing to take this on and Sr Patricia accepted the challenge.
There was no water, electricity or sewage but the school was started in April 2002 with three very basic classrooms without doors or windows for 120 children. From the outset, Sr. Patricia was determined to give the children the best education possible. “These children need the best” she says. “We now have a beautiful school with a good library, and computers. They’re learning how to cook. They need music and dance for a well rounded education – we have a choir … and a football team. It’s not just mathematics and English and language. I try to give at least 500 children a good meal every day – the only nutritious meal they get. I can’t afford to feed them all, but I give it to the children who need it most. Many of the mothers are single parents who go out to work to provide for their children”.
By 2011 the children were taking first place among the thousands of schools in Lima in the national exams for seven year olds in maths and language. Today, the school has expanded with
1,000 pupils, and is considered to have one with the best reading levels in the country with pupils reading more than 300 books in the year. It has obtained many awards among them first place in the Evaluation Censal 2011 and winning The Best School Award in 2013. It is a haven of colour, fun and learning, a contrast to the surrounding grey dusty landscape and impoverished environment. Many visitors come to see how the school is operated and achieving such good results.
Sr Patricia’s vision for the school has been simple from the beginning. “We need to believe one hundred percent in education as a means of transformation. It is the only thing that will give these children a fighting chance to extricate themselves out of the cycle of poverty” she says. “I talk to them about the need to change here, to be agents of change. They need to transform this place. Because if not these children, who? And education gives them such a different way of looking at things – an opportunity their parents did not enjoy. They leave here with self esteem and dignity.”
A whole person or holistic approach is the development model practised by missionaries whose social justice work in poor and marginalised communities is driven by their faith values. Sr Patricia is the third member of the Loreto congregation whose outstanding work has been recognised publicly with awards over the past few months. Sr Mary Owens received an award from the Ministry of Health in Kenya, and Sr Orla Treacy who ministers in South Sudan has been named as recipient of the Hugh O’Flaherty International Humanitarian Award in Ireland.
(Matt Moran is author of The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On)