An Irish missionary nun has been named among this year’s recipients of the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for her role in coordinating a response to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone.
On Sunday, Sr Mary Sweeney, a Sister of St Joseph of Cluny and a
native of Dungloe in Co Donegal, was named along with veteran
broadcaster Terry Wogan, who will receive a posthumous award in
recognition of his contribution as a broadcaster to Ireland and the
Irish community abroad.
Other recipients include Martin Von Hildebrand for his work promoting
economic, social and environmental rights in the Colombian Amazon and
Nora Higgins for her work with the elderly Irish in London.
The awards will be presented in December.
For over fourty-four years, Sr Mary Sweeney has worked “tirelessly”
and often with limited support, in the extremely challenging environment
that is Sierra Leone.
Through her efforts at the St Joseph’s School for the Hearing
Impaired in Makeni, she has given education, skills training and life
opportunities to the most vulnerable of people; children with a
disability in a developing country.
St Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired, Makeni was established in 1979 by the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny.
The school has become a pioneer of special education across Sierra
Leone and now welcomes more than 251 students from across the West
St Joseph’s School for the hearing impaired children is the only
school in West Africa offering primary education and language
acquisition according to the so-called Maternal Reflective Method (MRM)
supported with sign language.
This allows children to learn to speak, write and read in any
language, makes them more capable of functioning in society, taking up
official jobs or preparing them for further studies in secondary
education or in University.
The school’s primary objective is to provide an education for the
students to then occupy their rightful places in their local society,
both in the economic and cultural fields.
Sr Mary remained in Makeni to keep the school open during the brutal
civil war in the 1990s, and more recently she has played a significant
role in coordinating much-needed support for the Ebola response in
In recent years, she has focused her energies on promoting the
development of a curriculum for the training of teachers for special
needs education in Sierra Leone.
Responding to the news, Sr Rowena Galvin, provincial of the Sisters
of St Joseph of Cluny in Ireland, told CatholicIreland.net that the
order was “very proud of Sr Mary and delighted that her hard work has
“It is also an acknowledgement of the work that the Cluny Sisters
have done and continue to do not only in Africa but India, Haiti and
other parts of the world,” she added.
A Guardian article published for Christmas 2014, reported that though
Christmas gatherings were cancelled in Sierra Leone due to the Ebola
crisis, 900 children in one town were brought some cheer thanks to Sr
The special needs teacher distributed presents to children whose
families were hit by Ebola in Makeni, a busy commercial hub three hours
north of Freetown, after private donations of 1,000 shoeboxes with
presents arrived from schools in the UK.
“We started to distribute the presents because we wanted them to have
something. We couldn’t bring them altogether because of the ban on
gatherings this Christmas,” she related.
The boxes contained things like socks, shoes, sunglasses, notebooks,
markers, football jerseys. In one of them a child had even put in a few
“Some of these children have been traumatised. It is so fantastic to
give them something to show them somebody is looking out for them,” Sr
The boxes arrived at St Joseph’s school for the hearing impaired in
early December after supporters in the UK decided to take action in the
absence of an international response to Ebola in Makeni.