In December 1855, five European sisters left Agra and made a long trek to Sialkot to establish the first Catholic school in what is now Pakistan. Just short of their silver jubilee on the shores of India, the French order of the Religious of Jesus and Mary made a sojourn to a land unknown to them, with their religious order in unstable conditions. St Claudine Thevenet had commented on the order she founded that “It seemed to me that I had launched upon a foolish enterprise without any guarantee of success”. Despite these misgivings, trusting in the Lord, and with zeal to educate the young, and especially girls and the underprivileged, the nuns left their native land to toil in foreign soil for the rest of their lives. Then, in December 1855, at the request of the Archbishop of Agra, they braved the Punjab winter and arrived in Sialkot on February 15, 1856. As a history of the school notes: “With Mother St Gonzaga at the helm, work was begun to ready the place for boarders and day scholars. One can well imagine this dynamic missionary, together with her willing group, preparing a fit place in which to receive needy children of the district and to serve them. Parents were informed of the importance of sending their daughters to school. Visits were made to the homes. It took time for many to grow accustomed to the idea that girls should attend school. Finally, the day arrived for the opening of school and the nuns thought of the work so dear to the heart of their Foundress.” Hence started the education mission of the Religious of Jesus and Mary in what is now Pakistan, where hundreds of women have spent their entire lives devoted to the cause of girls’ education, long before anyone else even contemplated such initiates, let alone start them.
Similarly, in 1842, the Presentation Sisters left their abode in Ireland and made their way to Madras, India, to start their work among women and girls in India. After spreading in parts of southern India, they made their way to Rawalpindi in 1895 under the determined leadership of Mother Ignatius McDermott and two other sisters. Then, on October 1, 1895, a school was opened with ‘three sisters, three girls’ and the foundations of nearly a dozen ‘Presentation Convents’ was made in north India and later Pakistan.
These are the stories of just how two out of nearly a dozen women’s orders started their work in what is now Pakistan, labouring day and night to educate girls, to give them the knowledge, respect, confidence and zeal to do good in their lives and the world. Education has been their ‘labour of love’ for the past 150 years, and they left their home and hearth — sometimes never to see it again — to dedicate their lives to the uplift of people who were strangers to them, who at times abused and mocked them, and who never really understood why these women left their own people to work in our country (and some still do not understand). Yet, they followed Hazrat Isa’s (A.S) command to love everyone, every single human being, despite the differences of caste, colour or creed. This universal command of Christ was their ‘mission’ and hence, they were ‘Christ’s missionaries’. Hardly anyone has ever converted to Christianity from these convents, but then that was never their aim. Serving God by helping His people was and is their sole aim, and their long service to our country is a testament to this fact.
I am sure several women reading these pages have been educated at these convents, and rather than viewing them as something ‘foreign’, they regard them as much a part of their lives — and that of Pakistan — as anyone else. In fact, their claim to Pakistan is stronger, more time-tested and lasting than the momentary claims of several others. Hence, I found it rather bizarre when these religious organisations were termed ‘International NGOs’ recently by the government. If being in the land of Pakistan since 1856 is being ‘international’, then I am at a loss to understand the world; if spending your whole lives serving the cause of education without remuneration and worldly benefits is being an NGO, then maybe all of us should become an NGO. If leaving your loved ones and spending the rest of your life in another land is being an INGO, then perhaps we should learn from and emulate them.
This Christmas season, let everyone reading this ring up any nun they ever came across and who contributed to their development and say, “Merry Christmas sister, and thank you”.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2015.