Missionaries without borders

Missionaries without borders Misean Cara CEO Heydi Foster meets Sr. Margaret Sweeney from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny and former Cluny student Margaret Matudoda who now works with the UN. Photo: Sam Whelan Curtin.
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“Being a missionary is a life choice, and it is a choice for life – the notion of retiring doesn’t even enter into the equation,” Heydi Foster, CEO of Misean Cara, tells The Irish Catholic. Citing the example of one 90-year-old sister who in the last decade has set up internationally recognised schools in Haiti, she continues: “Missionaries do not retire at 65 – they keep working to make a difference in the world.”

Misean Cara means ‘friend of missions’ and Heydi explains that the Faith-based organisation is tasked with supporting 91 Irish missionary organisations around the world, channelling funding from the Government and private donations to help missionaries in the work worldwide.

“We accompany our members to work with the most vulnerable and marginalised – we were set up to work with the vulnerable,” she explains, citing how last year Misean Cara supported 263 projects in 51 countries, working with 1.5 million direct beneficiaries. The knock-on effect of this is, of course, incalculable.


“It was very surreal to come back to Ireland after being in Sierra Leone,” Heydi observes of a recent trip. “I was there visiting the Sisters of the Holy Rosary and the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. We wanted to visit them and see how communities are rebuilding their lives after the Ebola outbreak that started in 2013.”

The effects of this outbreak have been devasting, she says, citing the example of one 19-year-old who lost 19 family members, and pointing out that Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries anyway. While support from the Irish Government is vital for the religious working there, she stresses “We need additional support – there are so many orphans.

“It is one of the things that the Sisters of the Holy Rosary are doing. They are working with a lot of the communities, working with families who have lost everything.”

The ebola virus didn’t just kill individual people, she reiterates. “It destroyed entire communities, whole families and communities,” she says, detailing how missionaries such as the Holy Rosary and Cluny sisters are helping rebuild the ravaged society.

While none of the seven Holy Rosary Sisters currently working in the slums of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, are Irish, being instead from Nigeria and Kenya, Heydi is quick to underline how the community is an example of Ireland’s missionary activity and its legacy.

“They were set up by Irish sisters, so Irish missionaries are still making a difference around the world,” she says, adding that “they still have the Irish connection”.


Some distance away, meanwhile, Irish sisters are hard at work in rural Sierra Leone.

“The Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny have a school for the hearing-impaired in Makeni, which is, depending on the traffic, about three to four hours from Freetown –  it’s very rural,” she says. “They’re running this school that addresses the needs of children that are hearing-impaired, some of them are deaf, and they have been there for a very long time. It’s run by Sr Mary Sweeney, a lovely Irish woman from Dunloe in Co. Donegal, with a group of volunteers. She has been training teachers there to work with children that have disabilities. It’s a fantastic school.”

Such schools are especially needed given how disabilities can lead to children being shunned in the country.

“In Sierra Leone, like in many other countries, a child who has a disability is seen as a burden on the family and often times these children are abandoned, so then imagine a child who already has a disability having survived ebola!”

Both groups of sisters have been playing vital roles in the country since the ebola outbreak, she explains.

“I was visiting them because during the ebola outbreak, both the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny and the Sisters of the Holy Rosary supported families that had absolutely lost everything,” she says. “The Sisters of the Holy Rosary provided a number of life-saving services in the form of medical care, food, social support, and – really important – ebola prevention information.”

Noting how Sr Mary Sweeney has been in Makeni for over 40 years, Heydi emphasises that such religious carry on with their work heedless of their age, and says that they go where they’re needed.

“Missionaries don’t see a border, they don’t see barriers,” she says. “They overcome all of that. Missionaries do development a little bit differently: for us it’s about the long-term approach, it’s about dealing with the whole person.”

As an example of this this, she points to one sister who has worked in Haiti, Gambia, and Sierra Leone.

“Sr Louis Marie O’Connor, who is 90 years old, is an absolute powerhouse. She has set up a number of schools with connections in Sierra Leone and Haiti. After the earthquake she went to Haiti and realised there was absolute devastation, and decided to set up not one or two but three schools, starting in 2010,” she says.

“Right now she’s back in Ireland getting ready to go back to Sierra Leone – she’s incredible,” she adds. “Sr Louis Marie was one of the first Cluny sisters I met when I first started working with Misean Cara, and during the ebola outbreak she was the one securing funding to send to Sr Mary in Makeni, and five years on Sr Mary is working to support survivors, because there’s a lot of social stigma around ebola, and people need help to access vital services.”


The list of missionaries and missionary groups that Misean Cara is working to support around the world is genuinely staggering, a powerful reminder of the good religious can achieve when working as Christ’s hands in world.

Heydi cites the examples of the Jesuit Fr Tony O’Riordan, a proud Corkman who is fondly remembered in Limerick and now based in South Sudan. “He is working in four of the most remote, isolated, and perhaps dangerous parts of the world. He’s working with refugees and internally displaced persons in Maban County, around the Blue Nile,” Heydi says. “When I was there in June of 2018, there were around 154,000 people, now it’s just under 200,000 people.”

In the same country, she adds, another prominent Irish religious is Sr Orla Treacy. “She’s a Loreto sister who continues to dedicate her life to working with refugees and educating girls in South Sudan,” she says.

Sr Gina Herrity, meanwhile, is in Haiti with Viatores Christi. “She is working with children who have been abandoned because they have a disability. She is doing remarkable, life-changing work in Haiti,” she says.

“In Peru we have the Columbans, we have the Good Shepherd Sisters working in India, we have the Presentation Sisters,” she says, adding that the Daughters of Charity are “doing absolutely brilliant work in Kenya” where they are helping to care for those suffering from HIV and AIDS. “There are so many both male and female congregations,” she says.

“The Irish know both sides of this story: we know what it’s like to be displaced, we know what it’s like to have lost everything, and Ireland as a country, for such a small country is such a generous country, with a very long and proud tradition of supporting poorer countries.”

“It’s that Irish legacy,” she says.