“As a Sister of Mercy I must say it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I have had great challenges, but the way I and the other Sisters get by is because God gives us grace, and multiplies our efforts. With a little, a whole lot has been done.”
By Dennis A. Nichols
The Sisters of Mercy religious order has been operating and ministering in Guyana for more than a century, starting some 63 years after it was founded as an Irish Catholic congregation of women in 1831.
In Guyana, the local body manages several institutions, among them the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Kingston, the St. John Bosco Boys’ Orphanage and Bosco Academy in Plaisance, the Mercy Wings Vocational Centre in Sophia, and the Mercy Boys’ Home in Prashad Nagar. At the helm of these entities is a woman who has dedicated her life to serving the sick, the poor and the underprivileged in our society with compassion and Christian fortitude, this week’s special person, Sister Julie Matthews.
Recently elected (in 2013) as President of the Caribbean, Central America, South America (CCASA) Sisters of Mercy, Sr. Julie has oversight of the Sisters and Ministries in Belize, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Chile and Argentina (and of course, Guyana), and travels extensively among these countries, giving leadership to the vision of the congregation’s commission. She also travels occasionally to the United States of America where the headquarters are located.
HOW DID IT ALL BEGIN?
Earlier this week I visited the Plaisance orphanage where she resides, and spoke with her about her life’s work.
How did it all begin? With a chuckle, Sister Julie, whose youthful appearance belies her age and experience, said that although she grew up in the church, she had no idea that she would become a nun and enter into a life of celibacy, and compassion for the less fortunate. In fact, she recalled, while growing into adulthood, she imagined like many young women of her age, that one day she would get married and start a family – maybe a subconscious allusion to the idea that she would later be part of a virtual household of caregivers.
Julie Matthews was born in 1963, in Alberttown, Georgetown, the last of four children born to Elaine and Pat Matthews, former Central Bank Governor. She attended Our Lady of Fatima Church on Robb Street, and was schooled at St. Rose’s High before starting her first job, as a lay person, with the Guyana National Cooperative Bank (GNCB) in 1983. That job, she asserted, helped to instill in her a sense of discipline and commitment that would subsequently prove to be assets in her later endeavours.
But God evidently had other plans for her although, she admits, those who knew her well couldn’t imagine her living a life of asceticism. A brief encounter in Trinidad proved a turning point in her life.
“In 1987, I went to Liturgy School in Trinidad, and whilst there I just had an overwhelming experience of God’s love for me, and His mercy and forgiveness. I ‘fell in love’ with God, and I felt I wanted to give my entire life to him. I didn’t know how, or when, or where, or anything, and just gradually I began… I met a Sister of Mercy; I saw and heard what they did, the type of work they were involved in, and the passion they had for those who are poor and marginalized, and I thought ‘You know, I would like to do this’,” she enthused.
SISTER OF MERCY
It was an epiphany, and it was transformative. Two years later, Julie Matthews joined the international congregation as a Sister of Mercy, and hasn’t looked back in 25 years. And those years have done little to dampen the spirit and the passion of the young woman who was received as a candidate for the sisterhood in July 1989 at the Meadowbrook Convent, one of several managed by the group, with whom she recently celebrated her silver jubilee.
But the foundation for her vocation was laid much earlier with her participation in church activities
at Fatima. These included singing in the church choir, teaching Catechism, and leading a youth group – activities which continued even after she started working at the bank. But it wasn’t until after the 1987 Trinidad experience that she really ‘got into’ her calling. She embarked on a two-year period of formal training as a novitiate, the first stage of the religious order, spending one year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States, and the other year in Guyana. Then in 1993, she took her first vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Three years later she confirmed her commitment by taking her Final or Perpetual Vows.
During this period Sister Julie entered the University of Guyana, in 1993, to study Social Work, graduating four years later as Valedictorian/Best Graduating Student. It was also during that time that her interest in this sphere of activity was kindled, complemented by her earlier commitment to work with socially-deprived persons. By then she had become involved in her first ministry as Assistant Youth Diocesan Coordinator, a position which entailed planning youth programmes for the diocese, in other words the whole Catholic community in Guyana including the hinterland regions. She was also employed as an Assistant Lecturer in Social Work at UG, from 1997 to 1999.
While lecturing at UG, Sister Julie was elected Regional Superior for Guyana which meant that she was given charge of the entire Sisters of Mercy community with oversight of the various ministries, although each ministry has someone who manages it. They include the institutions already mentioned, and the convents. Through these ministries several outreach programmes are planned and executed by the Sisters, mostly in the areas of education, health and social work. The Meadowbrook Convent, for example, runs tutoring programmes for disadvantaged children in that area, while the St. Joseph Hospital has one for people living with AIDS. Sisters also visit and minister to patients with Hansen’s disease in Mahaica and inmates of The Palms on Brickdam. But it is with the Mercy Wings Vocational Centre, and the St. John Orphanage and Bosco Academy that Sister Julie is most closely associated.
THE MOST PRESSING NEED
Elaborating on her involvement with the Vocational Centre, she recalled that it was during a health outreach initiative in the Sophia area that the idea of such an institution was first conceived. The Sisters of Mercy operated a mobile health service out of the St. Joseph Hospital, and it was during visits to this depressed community that a needs assessment for the clinic there was discussed, and it was determined that the most pressing need was the answer to the question – ‘What can we do for our young men and women who have dropped out of school, or didn’t get the opportunity of completing secondary education for one reason or another?’
In answering this question she thought about the skills and experience the Sisters had in relevant areas. “I thought, well, we are educators, and I am a social worker, so we began to work with the community in Sophia and some other people, and the vocational centre was opened in 2000,” she disclosed. The group actually started under a tent, but less than four months later, in May of that year, this structure was transformed into a small wooden building, constructed by the very students who were being trained, under the supervision of their instructors. Thus the first ‘real’ classes began, and fourteen years later, they are still being kept, now in professionally-constructed buildings. Because of these initial efforts, she noted, the Sophia youths were imbued with a sense of deserved pride and achievement.
Continuing in that vein, Sister Julie observed that many people associate her with the Sophia Centre because they know about her passion for education, and for young men and women who struggle with self-worth and character-building. So in addition to the vocational skills, they are given courses in adolescent development which help to build morals and character, and instill in them a sense of self and of achievement, whereby they will feel empowered to make ‘something of their lives’. As they complete these courses, examiners from institutions such as the Carnegie School of Home Economics and the Government Technical Institute observe the trainees in their final examinations, after which they graduate and move on to complete their education or enter into employment.
Sister Julie is also the current director of the St. John Bosco Orphanage in Plaisance. She recalled that upon her arrival there in 2003, she observed that the children, who were in the public school system, were not doing well; in fact they were all failing. Noting that this was defying the laws of probability, she and the Sisters of Mercy decided to start a school right there at the orphanage with the primary school children who were to be taken out of the public system and home-schooled for a year, then returned to the government school. But the home schooling went so well that the children stayed on until they could write the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE) and move on to high school. Eventually they relocate to another of the organization’s institution, the Mercy Boys’ Home, after they leave the orphanage, at age sixteen.
She nevertheless is quick to admit that her work can be very challenging at times.
“The boys come with so many emotional problems, often because of issues like abandonment, separation, abuse and violence, and they really need to be loved and nurtured.”
She says that providing the kind of one-on-one attention each child needs (because each one is different and has a personality of his own) is one of the biggest challenges faced at the orphanage, noting that this aspect of nurturing is applied in addition to giving them an education as well as food, clothing and health care. But the bottom line, she emphasizes, is to let that child know that nothing he does could ever stop her from loving him. “To me,” she concludes, “that is the greatest challenge.”
In 2010, this indefatigable champion of youth empowerment had a new Bosco Orphanage built to replace the old building, shortly after which she started a school steel band orchestra. Her directorship there involves the supervision of an administrator, a headmistress, and a teaching staff of six. And with less than 30 children to instruct, she acknowledged that the small classes facilitate individual attention with the result that the children do well overall.
‘BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME’
Reminiscing on how she has grown and developed in her life thus far, Sister Julie says, “As a Sister of Mercy I must say it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I have had great challenges, but the way I and the other Sisters get by is because God gives us grace, and multiplies our efforts. With a little, a whole lot has been done.”
This ‘whole lot’ includes, as noted before, visiting the other CCASA territories and overseeing the operations of a number of educational and rehabilitative institutions including schools and junior colleges, orphanages, and homes for women who have suffered domestic abuse and violence. She observes that this is part of a larger commitment to social justice, which covers issues of gender discrimination, human trafficking, systemic corruption, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
These efforts are collectively termed ‘works of mercy’ and Sister Julie Matthews, being the ‘chief worker’ as it were, continues to use her ample social and managerial skills to effect improvement in the lives of the poor, sick and underprivileged in Guyana, and farther afield. With respect to this kind of dedication, she asserts with a simple reiteration. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I really do like my life!”
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