A Feakle woman who taught the assassinated prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, has become the first Irish recipient of a prestigious national award in the country. Sister Berchmans Conway was conferred with the Sitara Quaid-e-Azam (Order of the Great Leader) award, by the Pakistani President for her services towards education and promoting inter-faith harmony.
Sister Berchmans Conway, a Catholic nun, is the principal at the convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi.
The Embassy of Pakistan in Ireland has confirmed that Sr Berchmans Conway, born Bernadette, is the first Irish recipient of this particular award, which is very rarely bestowed. Just two other Irish people have received civil awards from Pakistan – Patrick Rowan, honorary consul-general for Pakistan in Ireland and Irish author, Gabriel Rosenstock.
Sr Berchmans is a native of Clashmore, Feakle, the second youngest of four. She has been living and teaching in Pakistan since 1954.
She did her noviciate in Gortnor Abbey, Crossmolina, Mayo, and after spending a year-and-a-half in Spain she took up assignment in Pakistan where she taught with the Jesus and Mary order in Murree and Lahore. She continues to teach at the school where she is now principal. Among her pupils was the future prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.
Sr Berchamans’ brother, Brendan Conway said his sister is “on cloud nine” having received the award.
“We telephone one another on a regular basis and she told me around mid-March that she was due to have this conferred on her. The Sitara Quaid-E-Azam is a rarely conferred honour to a lay person. She was honoured not particularly as a nun but as an educationist. Nobody from Ireland had ever got it before and certainly no one in the order had got it. She is totally on cloud nine about the whole thing,” Brendan said.
He explained that the family grew up in Clashmore and, although Brendan now resides in Kilkenny, the home farm is still in Feakle and in the capable hands of their nephew.
Brendan said when his sister left for Gortnor Abbey it was difficult for his parents, as Mayo and Clare were considered very far away at that time.
“They did go to see her at the ceremonies of her entering the convent. She wasn’t out of the world but it was a serious break when she was chosen to go to Pakistan. Pakistan was only a dot on the atlas at that stage. Her mission initially would have been largely to help people of an impoverished nature and there would have been no scarcity of them,” he said.
He explained his sister was particularly involved in preparing Pakistani girls at second level for “the Cambridge matriculation”, many of them from the richer families, who would then send their daughters on to college in Cambridge.
“She taught one noble person who was later assassinated. She had maintained some kind of general contact with Benazir Bhutto, who called to see her a few times. Benazir Bhutto did visit Ireland some years ago and called to see the nuns in Goatstown from that same order and she referred to the fact that she was a student of Sr Berchmans,” Brendan outlined.
He said there was a worry among the family for his sister during times of conflict in Pakistan.
“The order seemed to have guardianship from whoever is in power; they have always been assuring her that the nuns will not be exposed to any violence and they offer protection to them when they are having a shoot out there.
“We were assured, warned and begged not to feel worried about her being in a war zone because there was protection available to them and that seems to have held true thus far but tomorrow is another day I suppose,” Brendan added.
The last time Sr Berchmans Conway was home was two years ago but she has always been interested in life in Clare and usually enquires after the progress of Clare hurling team.
“She did say that she wishes to live out her age to the end in Pakistan but the nuns go where they are told to go. She is still working a full day in the classroom and she absolutely loves it,” Brendan concluded.