Sister Mary Noel Menezes received the Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of the West Indies at the recent graduation ceremony, at the University’s Sport and Physical Education Centre, St Augustine. Born in Guyana 75 years ago, Mary Aileen Menezes entered the community of the Sisters of Mercy in 1947 and received her religious training in Pennsylvania, USA. In 1950, Sister Mary Noel came home to teach at St Joseph High School, and two years later entered St Joseph’s Training College in Jamaica where she gained a Teacher’s Diploma in Education with Honours for her thesis “The Teaching of Art and Craft in the School.” Returning to Guyana, she taught at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Girls’ School until 1963.
Sister Mary Noel’s studies for the Bachelor of Arts degree in History at College Misericordia, Dallas, Pennsylvania, and a Master of Arts in Latin American History (summa cum laude) at Georgetown University, Washington, DC was followed by a teaching stint at Sacred Heart College, Belmont, North Carolina, and College Misericordia from which she later received an Honorary Doctorate in Humanities. In 1967, the highly acclaimed educator began a long and vibrant teaching career at the University of Guyana in the Department of History, with a break in 1970 when she was offered a Ford Foundation Fellowship — an American Award — to read for her PhD at the University of London. Her thesis — “British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana 1803-1873” was published in 1977 by Oxford University Press, and through to 1995 Sister Menezes continued to produce a spate of books which led to her carrying out extensive research in the main archives of London, Holland, Portugal, Madeira and the United States. She has also published innumerable articles in a variety of journals.
When Sister Menezes was appointed Chief Supervisor of the MA Programme in Guyanese History in 1973, the History Department at the University of Guyana became the first in the university to offer a Master’s Degree. In 1977 she was made Head of the Department and three years later became Professor of History. It has been a full teaching career for the now retired lecturer whose students included James Rose, current Vice Chancellor of the University. The well-travelled nun has presented papers and lectured at universities in Holland, England, USA, Bahamas and the Caribbean and in 1982 received a Government of India scholarship to visit and teach in universities there, such as, Bombay, Poona, Delhi and Calcutta. “It was a fantastic time but I do not think I would ever relive it as it was harrowing. But it was very worthwhile and I enjoyed it.” Professor Menezes has been the recipient of a number of awards and honours but one of the highpoints in a brilliant career was her initiation of a research methodology course at UG which prepared students to write, not only their research papers, but also their theses, using her two text books A Guide to Historical Research, and its subsequent edition How to do Better Research which is widely used in the university.
“You cannot write anything unless you have solid research, particularly in history,” said this soft-spoken and down to earth woman. “You may be wrong in your opinion but you have no right to be wrong in your facts, and whether it’s a paper, article or book you have to know where to find the material. So I thought it was necessary to put a course in, not just at the end of the academic years, but in the first year as you cannot ask them to do a paper and not give them the tools. The book was written to benefit students throughout the university. No matter the area of study.” A chance remark to this woman, whose great grandparents came from Madeira, that nobody was writing the history of the Portuguese and what was she going to do about it, took her to Madeira and the start of her history of Portugal. And by 1985 published this first book to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese who came in 1835, and from then has also done several articles in journals.
In addition to her contribution in the field of education, Sister Menezes ran the St John Bosco Orphanage for boys three to 16 years old from 1968 until 2003: “Teaching at the university, going to the Home early on evenings to read stories to the children, and then home to check Masters’ thesis for students. I never regretted it. But writing in a milieu of youngsters was not very possible, a child with a high temperature came first, so I had to go to England every year from 1973 up to last year to do my research and writing, with the help of study leave from the university and grants as Royalties do not come to me, it is part of our community, we do not own anything.” Five years ago, Sister Mary Noel opened the Mercy Boys Home for boys 16 to 21 because on leaving the orphanage some of them had no one to go to or nowhere to go. “I had to raise funds. They must have a job or must be going to school. So far one has gotten a scholarship to a college in the USA.
“Boys from 16 to 21 need more care, guidance and support than the younger ones. It’s a crucial age as there are so many pressures with relationships and love and they need to talk to someone about it.” Mary Aileen Menezes always wanted to be a nun: “As far as I remember, I never thought of anything else, much to the horror and objections of my mother. When I look back at my life I have been very, very blessed. God has been very good to me in so many ways — little and big ones — family, community, friends, and wonderful students.” At age 75, Sister Menezes remains very busy and is still doing what she has always done since the 1970’s: “Visiting and helping the patients at the leprosarium three times a month. These people whose eyes and extremities are affected have no complaints, yet they cannot see. They are marvellous people who are always trying and will never tell me they are not so good.”