Loreto nun brings education to girls living on the streets of Kolkata

by Julian S. Das


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Padma Mukherjee considers Sr. Cyril Mooney as her second mother, the one who gave her identity and a place in society.

Now 27, Mukherjee had spent 19 years at Loreto Day School in Sealdah, a suburb of Kolkata. She was in the first batch of students in the Rainbow night-shelter home where Mooney, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was the principal.

The Irish-born nun, who is now 79, has changed the educational landscape in India through her innovative methods, opening the gates of the church-run English medium schools to street girls.

Mukherjee, who had lived on the streets of Kolkata, says Mooney provided her with the best of everything, starting with a shelter for her when she was just 5 years old, until she completed her studies.

"If not for the vision of Sr. Cyril, hundreds of girls like me would be still living on the streets of Kolkata, forced to face hostile surroundings, human trafficking and flesh trade," Mukherjee told Global Sisters Report. Mukherjee now works at Nil Ratan Sarkar Hospital in Kolkata, one of the oldest medical colleges in India.

She described Mooney as a loving and caring person who understood that girls like her had nowhere to go, and she took good care of them.

Mooney launched Rainbow because of her dissatisfaction with a system that did not allow poor girls and those living on the streets to have access to quality education that Christian schools and colleges offered.

She told GSR that her disillusionment with the system began during her first assignment as a teacher in Lucknow, capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, after completing her doctoral studies in zoology. "The same feelings continued to taunt me when I was assigned as the assistant principal at Loreto School, Entally, in Kolkata," she recalls.

It was after she took charge of Loreto Day School in Sealdah that Mooney began to put into practice her vision of integral, inclusive education. By taking the girls to villages to educate the rural children, she instilled patriotism in them.

The Rainbow project gave the girls a sense of service, and the teaching and extra-curricular activities prepared them for a fruitful career, Mooney says.

Although the work assignment was not directly related to their studies, Mooney says, in her experience, only one parent objected to her taking his daughter to a village because he thought she would not be safe there. The student was given an alternative assignment.

Most parents welcomed Mooney's initiatives because they could see a change in these urban, middle-class girls. The project offered the girls opportunities to take part in outreach programs and time to reflect on their experiences with the poor.

Mukherjee says Mooney was strict with girls like her and it helped them make use of the facilities to build their future.

Mooney made history when she opened Loreto Day School, Sealdah, to any girl wanting to tap into the education offered there, recalls Loreto Sr. Marion Vase, the school's present principal.

Vase has 151 girls from the streets residing in her school, 64 of them attending the regular school, while others go to nearby vernacular medium schools.

The Rainbow children are integrated into the system, and it is often hard to say who is a Rainbow child and who is not, Vase says.

Many Rainbow girls recently participated in the school plays, "Alibaba and the Forty Thieves" in English and "Chitrangada" in Bengali, she says.

Following the principle of inclusive education that Mooney insisted on, the Sealdah school has admitted several differently abled girls, and the teachers take care of their needs so that they may become part of the whole system.

This is one place where there is great happiness, seeing all the people, especially the poor, feeling at home, Vase says about the school, which shot to fame under Mooney's innovative approach.

Soon after taking charge as the principal of Sealdah Loreto School in 1979, Mooney began admitting half of the school's students from the slums, providing for all their needs but insisting their parents pay what they could afford toward their children's education.

The Rainbow program has changed lives. Many girls have completed their studies and are now back in Loreto schools as teachers. Others are married and settled in life. Mukherjee's sister is married to Mooney's nephew in Ireland.

Mooney recalls that in 1983 the girls who lived on the streets would wait outside the Sealdah Loreto School for the regular classes to get over, so that they could enter the premises to study. Soon Mooney arranged to keep the girls in the school terrace building during school time, while the other school girls were trained how to teach them. Gradually, the new girls were ready to join the mainstream school.

The existing schoolgirls did not lose any of their study time, but they used their work education time to coach the new girls. "Receive to give" was one of the slogans that Mooney repeated to the students. She told them that the poor children were as precious to her as they were to their parents. She invited her girls to sacrifice their leisure time. Those who did not wish to join the effort were given alternatives to build similar values.

Mooney insisted there was no reward for doing the Rainbow coaching nor any sanction for not doing it, but all her students at some point volunteered to coach the poor children.

Her second innovative method was the Barefoot Teachers Training she offered to the teachers of the villages. This aimed to enrich the educational system in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal with Kolkata as its capital.

"I call it Barefoot Teachers Training because, in order to walk, all that you need are the feet and not the shoes," she says. She made the learning experience practical, removing the unnecessary theory part. She introduced into her school the best and new methods used in Ireland's primary schools.

Mooney bemoans that teachers in village schools are not properly trained. Her training method encouraged teachers to return to their villages to raise the quality of education in their schools. Over the years she has trained thousands of village teachers.

She says her educational approach was in tune with the charism of her congregation founded by Mary Ward. Ward too wanted to let poor girls have access to quality education, along with rich and middle-class students.

Mooney also considers her role as an evangelizer through education, pointing out an alternative method to enrich and ennoble education. Bringing the new values of justice and honesty can make the nation great, she asserts.

Recognizing Mooney's contribution to education, the Indian government honored her in 2007 with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the country. The church in India was slower to take note of her innovative methods and contribution to the field of education.

But there is a time for everything, Mooney notes. Today five Loreto Schools in Kolkata admit girls who live on the streets to their campuses, as part of the Rainbow project.

A strong message from Mooney is that the power of education surpasses the power of money, says Theresa Mendes, who is in charge of social work at Sealdah Loreto Day School and a close associate of Mooney's for 27 years. The nun has taught the girls, especially the "Rainbow children," that they can face any situation and can compete with anyone else, Mendes told GSR.

The first great impact of Mooney's innovative methods was felt in the girls themselves, Mendes says. The Rainbow project persuaded the girls that they were no less than the others.

The septuagenarian nun treats everyone, the teacher and the janitor, on equal terms and interacts with them with equal respect and regard, Mendes says. This instills self-respect and confidence in the support staff, she adds.

The nun also trained students of Morning Star College, a regional seminary in Barrackpore, some 15 miles (25 km), north of Kolkata. Several other religious congregations also sent people to Mooney for "barefoot teachers" training.

When Mooney began her work among the poor, few supported her. However, the situation has changed over time as various groups show great interest in reaching out to the girls on the streets, one of the most vulnerable groups susceptible to human trafficking, Mendes said.

Mooney regrets that she did not document all that she went through to give shape to her innovative methods. She now plans a book on inclusive schooling.

She is not worried about recent innovations such as smart classrooms (classrooms where there is a high level of technology used). There is no substitute for teachers, who cannot be dispensed with, even with best of technology put to good use, she asserts.

Mooney is currently adviser to the government of West Bengal state on the Government Residential Schools Program for Out-of-School Children. She oversees 15 homes started in 2012, with 700 boys and 800 girls, up to the age of 14 and picked up from the streets of Kolkata. The government plans to start 10 more such homes soon, with Mooney's help.

[Jesuit Fr. Julian S. Das was the editor of The Herald, the weekly of the Calcutta archdiocese, for five years until this June. He is now on a three-month mission in Bangladesh. He was also the director of Jesuit-managed Chitrabani ("sound and light"), founded in 1970 in Kolkata, as the first media center in eastern India. This article is part of a collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a news portal started in March 2013 to focus on religious and social issues in India.]