Dublin born Mercy nun, Sr Mary Killeen, has been presented with a Presidential Distinguished Service Award by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins. The award recognises her outstanding development and humanitarian work amongst the poor and marginalised in Kenya since she arrived there in 1976.
Speaking about her award, Sr Mary said with the typical humility of missionaries: "I accept the award not for myself but on behalf of all the people who work with me now and in the past, and the donors and volunteers who have made my work possible for the marginalised and poorest of the poor. The greatest reward is to see deprived children being given an opportunity to explore their God-given talents and to live with some degree of dignity and respect."
Sr Mary is a native of Phibsboro in Dublin. She entered the Mercy convent in Blackrock at the age of 20 and trained as a teacher at
Carysfort College. She studied theology at Milltown Park and catechetics at UCD during the 1970s while teaching at primary schools in Dublin.
It was as a primary school teacher that Sr Mary went to Kenya in 1976 to join the staff of Our Lady of Mercy primary school in Nairobi. Close by were the large slum settlements of Mukuru and it was not long before she became involved in trying to address the huge problem of the thousands of children unable to go to school.
She initiated a diverse programme of education, health, and community services in Mukuru slums where 600,000 people live. Starting with a primary school, she developed the Mukuru Promotion Centre (MPC). This vast project now comprises four primary schools with 5,600 pupils, plus skills training in masonry, carpentry, plumbing, art, crafts, dressmaking, knitting, hairdressing, beauty, cookery, catering, hygiene, and vegetable growing.
Importantly, it includes a school for special needs children, plus a secondary school for 660 students, health clinics that have treated 800,000 people, social work services, street children rehabilitation, a support group for HIV/AIDS, and business training. With a strong focus on personal empowerment, she has educated over 170,000 people many of whom are now self-sustainable. Sr Mary's involvement also extends to other organisations working in Mukuru, including: St Marian's Children's Centre, St Mary's Viwandani Secondary School, and Mukuru Slum Development Project.
Sr Mary was chosen to represent the slum populations of Nairobi in addressing their issues to Pope Francis during his visit in 2016 - an event covered by world media, thus, highlighting the issues of poverty in a powerful manner globally. RTE's Nationwide reported on her work in November 2016.
Thanks to her commitment and inspiring leadership, MPC attracts a constant stream of visitors including the President of Slovakia in 2015. Irish President, Mary McAleese, visited the centre in 2001. Many people from Ireland and other countries volunteer in the activities of the centre each year. Currently, six volunteers from Wicklow and Carlow are working there. Her reputation reaches far beyond Ireland and Kenya, a fact demonstrated by the 50-minute documentary 'Sr Mary of Nairobi' produced by Austrian State Television ORF and broadcast in February 2017.
Gernot Lercher, producer of the documentary said: "From the first moment of meeting Sr Mary, I was deeply impressed by her relentless and brave efforts in improving the difficult conditions of millions of slum-dwellers in Nairobi. The word 'impossible' obviously doesn't exist in her vocabulary. Combative a person as I ever met, she is battling corruption and mismanagement in the Kenyan capital, always having the best interests of the poorest of the poor in her heart. I would even call her the 'Mother of Mukuru', which is one of the largest slums in Nairobi ."
John Slattery, Chairman of Irish NGO - Africa Direct - which has a long-standing partnership with Sr. Mary says that "walking through the extensive Mukuru slums with her is akin to accompanying a soccer star. She is well known and popular with everyone. A continuous flow of volunteers arrive to the Mukuru Promotion Centre from all over Europe, America and Canada. All are met at the airport, welcomed, shown around and facilitated to get involved wherever their skills can usefully be applied. Collaboration and goodwill in any form is encouraged. Religion is not a limiting factor, Muslims and others are welcomed in schools and services."
Mukuru Promotion Centre is suffering a significant shortfall in its operational funding this year. People wishing to make a donation to support Sr Mary's inspirational work can do so to Sisters of Mercy Kenya Mission Account, IBAN IE86 BOFI 9027 6896 6147 00, Bank of Ireland, 32 South Mall, Cork, or contact her through: www.mercymukuru.co.ke/
Sr Mary told me: "In terms of further education, we try to get sponsors for those children who are very bright academically but who
do not have the means to go any further. We have past pupils who now have university degrees, and others who have qualified to go but who do not have the means to continue. Hundreds of slum dwellers are now able to earn their living because of our intervention.
"Her approach is long-term partnership with funding agencies and other NGOs, particularly in Austria and Slovakia, as well as schools in Ireland."
"The partnership we have shared have delivered wonderful results for our combined efforts. Together we have enabled thousands of desperately poor children in Nairobi to take their place in society."
"We would welcome more support from groups in Ireland and the UK. Students from a number of schools volunteer with us regularly. In addition to their contribution to the work, the experience they gain is extremely valuable for their own development and their understanding of the realities of poverty in the world. I hope this award will awaken new interest in our work for the desperately poor and marginalised" she concluded.
Matt Moran is a writer and the author of book 'The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives ' which is available from: www.onstream.ie/
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