Irish nun who changed education for India’s poorest children dies

Sister Cyril Mooney Sister Cyril Mooney, an Irish sister who changed education for impoverished children throughout India has died at age 86. | Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An Irish nun who received India’s highest civil award, the Padma Shri, for her work in education, has passed away at the age of 86.

Sister Cyril Mooney, IBVM, died Saturday, June 24, in Kolkata, India, after a long illness. She was born on July 21, 1936, in Bray, Ireland. She was a student at Loreto Convent and it was there, at the age of 13, that she felt called to become a religious sister.

In 1956, she left Ireland and started her journey by ship to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). In 1979, she finished her doctoral degree in zoology and became the principal of Loreto Day School at Sealdah, Kolkata.

Inspired to use education as a means of creating change and empowering India’s poorest population, Mooney founded the Rainbow School Program. Previously, the convent’s school only allowed the well-off to attend, but thanks to this program, their doors were opened to the poor and have helped nearly 450,000 individuals improve their circumstances.

Under the program, 700 children who attend the school pay fees, and those fees provide free schooling for 700 other children who cannot afford to pay. 

“We mandated ourselves that we would take 25% of poor children every time we did admissions, and over time this moved up to 50%,” Mooney said in an interview with The Irish Times in 2015. “To help street children keep up their attendance, accommodation was provided on site in a model that has been copied by the West Bengal government.”

The nun also created a home at the school for roughly 200 street children who had no family.

Her school model inspired the entire country of India to follow suit. Since 2010, it has become mandatory for private schools to follow the 25% quota for disadvantaged students under the Right to Education Act.

Mooney recalled how “the [Indian] government said if the Loretos can do it, we can do it.”

Another initiative Mooney began was the Barefoot Teachers Training Program, which provided teacher training to young people from the slums near Kolkata who lacked the basic requirements for admission to teachers’ colleges.

Mooney and her team trained more than 7,000 teachers who were able to bring primary education to over 350,000 children with no access to education.

In 2007 she was awarded the Padma Shri Award by the Indian government. The award is one of the country’s highest civilian honors. In 2013 she received a distinguished service award, one of Ireland’s highest awards.

Mooney’s funeral took place at St. Thomas Church in Kolkata on June 27. This is the same church Mother Teresa laid in state for a week before her funeral in September 1997.

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