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President honours Sr Mary Killeen’s work with the poor

By Sarah Mac Donald - 02 December, 2018

President Michael D. Higgins presents the 2018 Presidential Distinguished Service Award for Peace, Reconciliation and Development to Sr Mary Killeen. Photo: Maxwells.

An Irish nun who works with street children in the slums of the Kenya has been presented with a Presidential Distinguished Service Award by President Michael D. Higgins in recognition of her work with the poor and marginalised in Nairobi.

At Áras an Uachtaráin, Sr Mary Killeen was praised for 42 years of outstanding development and humanitarian work.

Austrian State Television, ORF, made a 50-minute documentary titled Sr Mary of Nairobi which was 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.

“As 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.”

Responding to the honour, the Dublin-born Mercy Sister commented, “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.”

Having trained as a primary school teacher, 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 where 600,000 people live, and she became involved in efforts to provide education to thousands of children unable to attend school.

She initiated education, health, and community services programmes in the slums. Mukuru now has four primary schools with 5,600 pupils. Other education projects provide skills training in masonry, carpentry, plumbing, dressmaking, catering and vegetable growing.

Sr Mary Killeen addressing the Pope in Nairobi in 2016.

She also established a school for special needs children, a secondary school for 660 students, as well as health clinics that have treated 800,000 people, social work services, street children rehabilitation, a support group for HIV/AIDS, as well as business training.

She has overseen the education of over 170,000 people, many of whom are now able to make a sustainable living.

Sr Mary was chosen to represent the slum populations of Nairobi in addressing their issues to Pope Francis during his visit in 2016.

RTE’s Nationwide reported on her work in January 2017.

A native of Phibsboro in Dublin, Sr Mary 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 around Dublin.

John Slattery, Chairman of Africa Direct which has a long-standing partnership with Sr Mary, said that “walking through the extensive Mukuru slums with her is akin to accompanying a soccer star. She is well known and popular with everyone.”

He explained that a continuous flow of volunteers arrive at 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,” Mr Slattery said.

Mukuru Promotion Centre is suffering a significant shortfall in its operational funding this year. Those 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 the website.

Separately, Sr Bridget Tighe from Ballindoon, Co. Sligo, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Divine Motherhood also received an award from President Higgins.

Sr Bridget has served for almost 25 years in the Middle East, supporting the Palestinian people, providing care to the most marginalised, often in extremely difficult conditions.

Sr Bridget Tighe (Photo: Trócaire/John McColgan)

Her first assignment was to Jordan, where she worked with Palestine refugees.

In more recent years, she has worked for Caritas Jerusalem – helping those in need, regardless of religious or political affiliation, in health and psycho-social care, social assistance, job creation, micro-finance, food security, youth work and drug abuse prevention.

In 2015, she was appointed executive director in Gaza, where she served for three years, supporting the provision of emergency medical care and humanitarian relief in the aftermath of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.

In January 2018, she was appointed General Director of Caritas Jerusalem and moved to Jerusalem, where she now lives. She continues to travel widely throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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