By: Matt Moran
An Irish Presentation Sister, Sr Loreto Houlihan, is the subject of a documentary - Sister India - produced by Irish film-maker, Myles O'Reilly. Sr Loreto, born Peg Houlihan near Carrick-on-Suir in Co Tipperary in 1927 has spent 70 years teaching in India where she recently celebrated her 91st birthday. The film is currently being screened at a number of film festivals in Ireland and in India.
The idea for the film was sparked by another Irish woman, Áine Edwards, who has been living in India since 2003 where she runs a business consultancy service. "My many conversations with Sr Loreto" she says "evoked a passion in me to produce a documentary on her. I wanted to not only share her story, but also to celebrate the work of so many other Irish educators in India, as this era draws to a close and another starts."
"The Irish legacy of education in India is one of Ireland's strongest links with the country" says Áine. "The seeds have been sown for the Indian sisters to take this legacy forward for the next generation of children. Sister India was made to preserve not only the story of Sr Loreto, but to remember all the Irish who have dedicated their lives in the service of education and community support in India."
The first Presentation mission in India began in 1842 when four pioneering sisters from Ireland arrived in Madras (Chennai). The mission spread to many other states in the Indian sub-continent including Rawalpindi which later became part of Pakistan. Sisters from India went on to establish mission foundations Matlock in England, in Zimbabwe, and in Zambia. More recently sisters from India are also ministering in Thailand, Slovakia, Ireland, and the Holy Land. There are currently 165 sisters living and ministering in a number of states including Tamil Nadu, Goa, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. They are involved in formal and informal education, social work, health and pastoral care, as well as justice, peace, and advocacy on behalf of those on the margins, especially women and children.
Film-maker Myles O'Reilly said that he is not very religious but was invited to follow Sr Loreto Houlihan, and found her deep love of India and its people absolutely heart-warming and deeply resonant. "Sitting in front of her and listening to her talk was like being warmed by the hearth of an Irish fireplace on a rainy day hearing stories as she it from 'the long ago'. I learned from her that India and its culture retains more of the life she left 70 years ago in Ireland than the country of her birth today, and so she chooses to live the rest of her days in India for that natural familiarity" he concluded.
Born into a large family in 1927, Peg Houlihan grew up in hard times, especially in the 1930s with a worldwide depression and an economic war between Ireland and Britain. By the time she was five years old, her mother was already a widow as her father, a blacksmith, had died. In 1943, 16-year-old Peg left her rural farmhouse in Tinhalla near Carrick-on-Suir in Co Tipperary. She joined the Presentation Sisters in the UK before departing for the distant shores of India. Her ship set sail from Liverpool to Bombay as the Second World War was drawing to a close, and she celebrated her 17th birthday on board. During that journey and its many blackouts, Sr. Loreto bravely looked forward spending a lot of time on the ship learning the ancient Tamil language.
After landing at the port of Bombay, the rest of the journey was by train down to Madras. On arrival at the Presentation Convent, there was a letter waiting from her mother. It opened with "Céad míle fáilte" to India. Sr. Loreto speaks lovingly of that letter, as she knew it was a huge sacrifice for her mother to let her go. It was a gift of the utmost love for a mother to let her daughter go with the words "keep up your brave heart Peg, all will be well". They never saw each other again.
Sr Loreto dedicated her life to love and serve others through education in Chennai. After completing her teacher training at Church Park College in Madras, she went on to work as a primary school teacher spending most of her life at St Joseph's Anglo-Indian School in Perambur in north Chennai. The children in her class were six years old and over the years, she has taught three generations of families, and become a well-loved and respected person in the community. In class she says she was strict, but outside of school, "I didn't have enough fingers for them to hold onto."
After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian government asked the Presentation Sisters to continue their education, and the doors were opened to the indigenous population, which in India is almost 80 per cent Hindi. The children were encouraged to celebrate their culture in the schools. Áine Edwards says: "the adults I meet nowadays who attended schools where Irish brothers and sisters were teachers, talk fondly of them and their education. The late chief minister of Tamil, Nadu Jayalalitha, has spoken of her school days at Church Park as being the happiest of her life." What a great tribute to Irish missionaries who devoted their lives to the service of the people of India.
Today, Sr Loreto says she is "blessed with strong faith, good sleep, and no regrets", and intends to live out her life in her beloved India. Venerable Nano Nagle - founder of the Presentation Congregation - has been her role model in life. Nano is known as "The Lady of the Lamp" - a pioneer of Catholic education in Ireland during times of penal law.
Reaction to the film has been very positive as typified by Jennifer Bastian in Australia: "My sisters and I were students of St Loreto at St Joseph's Presentation Convent in Madras many years ago. We now live in Australia. Sr Loreto is a true example of Christ's love for humanity. She is one beautiful human being" she said.
Sister India has been screened at the Dingle International Film Festival and the Silk Road Film Festival. It will be shown at the Fastnet Film Festival on 23-27 May and at the International Christian Film Festival in Florida. Then in August, it will be shown at the Ink Well Theatre in Tracton, Co. Cork on 18th, and at the Clare Island Film Festival.
2018 is the tercentenary of the birth of Nano Nagle and will be marked by a programme of commemorative events at Nano Nagle Birthplace (www.nanonaglebirthplace.ie) at Ballygriffin, Mallow. The film will be shown there and also at Nano Nagle Place (http://nanonagleplace.ie ), Douglas Street, Cork City.
In 2008, Sr Loreto featured in the series of audio recordings of the stories of Irish missionaries recorded by Maurice O'Keeffe of Irish Life and Lore (www.irishlifeandlore.com/) in an oral history project he undertook in collaboration with the then Irish Missionary Union.
Matt Moran is a member of the Board of Management of Nano Nagle Birthplace, and author of book - The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On - that is available online from www.onstream.ie.