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Irish nun honoured for her services to the people of Pakistan

By Sarah Mac Donald - 13 July, 2019

Sr Berchmans Conway

Sr Berchmans Conway from Co Clare is to receive the highest honour of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, in recognition of the almost 70 years she has dedicated to teaching in Pakistan.

The Benedict Medal will be presented to Sr Berchmans by the Archbishop of Westminster and Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, during a graduation ceremony.

Sr Berchmans taught the assassinated prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, as well as the recently deceased human rights activist, Asma Jahangir.

Other students of hers include Hina Gilani, Nergis Mavalvala, Sharmeen Obaid, Shireen Mazar, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, Tehmina Janjua, Sana Bucha, Nasim Zehra, Atiqa Odho and Jugnu Mohsin.

The 89-year-old taught at convents of the Jesus and Mary Order in Lahore, Murree and Karachi.

In 2012, while she was principal of the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi, Sr Berchmans was awarded the Sitara-i-Quaid-i-Azam, one of the highest civil awards given by the President of Pakistan, for her services in education and promoting interfaith harmony in Pakistan.

A special Mass to celebrate the conferral of the prestigious award was held on 25 March 2012. More than 600 people gathered at St Anthony’s Church in Karachi for Mass, which was celebrated by Columban missionary Fr Robert McCulloch.

Sr Berchmans will become the fifth recipient, and the first woman, to be presented with the Benedict Medal.

Previous recipients are Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople; Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland; former Archbishop of Canterbury Baron Williams of Oystermouth; and Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief executive of Ofsted and alumnus of St Mary’s.

Speaking ahead of the ceremony, former British cabinet minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is a visiting professor at St Mary’s University, said the government of Pakistan should consider making the Irish nun an honorary citizen of Pakistan in recognition of a lifetime of teaching and promoting interfaith relations in Pakistan.

“Sr Berchmans taught Muslim, Christian, Parsi, and Hindu children at the convents of Jesus and Mary in Lahore, Murree, and Karachi to promote education, empowerment, and interfaith harmony. She deserves recognition at all levels,” Baroness Warsi said.

“I had the privilege of visiting Sr Berchmans in Karachi and I saw at first-hand how her work and presence has created a lifetime of interfaith understanding. Like her students, colleagues and peers I am delighted that Sr Berchmans is receiving the Benedict Medal from St Mary’s University as part of their summer graduation ceremony at Westminster Cathedral. It will be a fitting occasion for someone who has given their life to education and to helping young people achieve their dreams.”

Born in Clashmore, Feakle, Co Clare in 1930, she was the second youngest of four. Sr Berchmans joined the Convent of Jesus and Mary in 1951 in Willesden, London. She did her novitiate in Gortnor Abbey, Crossmolina, Co Mayo, and after spending a year and a half in Spain, she took up an assignment in Pakistan in 1953 when she was 24.

The first Convent of Jesus and Mary in Pakistan was opened by four sisters in Lahore in 1876.

Before her assassination in 2007, Benazir Bhutto kept in touch with Sr Berchmans and on a visit to Ireland she called in to see the members of the Jesus and Mary community in Goatstown in Dublin and referred to the fact that she was a student of Sr Berchmans.

Bishop Richard Moth, chair of the governing body of St Mary’s said, Sr Berchmans’ dedication and commitment to the thousands of students she has taught was an inspiration to anyone committed to the vocation of teaching.

“We are honoured that we will be able to present her with the Benedict Medal during our Institute of Education’s Graduation Ceremony. Her examples of inclusivity and respect will guide our graduates as they embark on their own teaching journeys and continue to inspire future generations,” Bishop Moth said.

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