An Irish nun who won a prestigious humanitarian award said she hopes it will encourage other missionaries to continue their dangerous work, as well as spread a broader appreciation of the work of religious in Ireland.
Wicklow-born Loreto Sr Orla Treacy, received the ‘International Women of Courage Award’ for her outreach work and educational mission in South Sudan. It was presented by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, while First Lady Melania Trump spoke at the ceremony.
“It’s heartening to think that people would see South Sudan and see the work of the missionaries and would acknowledge that. Definitely it’s a boost for all of us,” Sr Treacy told The Irish Catholic this week.
“The conversation in South Sudan was: will this award help our mission in South Sudan? I think if anything else comes from that that’s an extra bonus, if people see religious in a positive way,” she said.
Stressing that she had been out of Ireland for many years, Sr Orla said “if the award gives some positive publicity to the Church in Ireland, then great, if it doesn’t then that’s okay.
“I think our agenda was very much was about trying to promote our missionary work among the poorest of the poor in South Sudan, to those who are struggling most,” Sr Orla said.
Matt Moran, author of The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On, who has documented the work of many Irish priests and religious, described the award as “hugely significant”.
“This is an important award for Ireland, but also globally because it highlights the diversity of the work that religious engage in and the risky territories where they work”.
He said that “courage is an understatement” when it comes to the work of missionaries like Sr Orla.
“This award is hugely important in highlighting the heroic work of Irish missionaries, particularly at a time when there is a belief that Irish missionaries are history,” he said.
Mr Moran estimates that there are currently around 800 Irish missionaries working abroad.
He said he hopes the story of Sr Orla will help overcome “forgetfulness in Ireland about the huge contribution of priests and religious.
“Very often in the Irish context the caricature is of bad nuns. No one wants to minimise the bad things that happened, but this was very much a minority, so it’s really important that the stories of missionaries are told and that Irish people learn to recognise and appreciate this,” Mr Moran told The Irish Catholic.
Highlighting the dangers faced by many missionaries, Sr Orla says that in recent years two missionaries have been murdered in the country, but as religious “our business is not the war, our business is the people”.
As principal of Loreto Secondary School in Rumbek in Lake States, considered the premier girls’ school in the impoverished country, Sr Orla has spent well over a decade empowering thousands of pupils through education, despite ongoing civil conflict and discrimination against young women, such as forced marriage.
Now in its 13th year, the US State Department’s award recognises women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.