A selfless soul

Sister Martin will be remembered by her students for her dedication, compassion and amiable nature

A selfless soul

How often does a school principal know each student’s name from nursery to Grade 10 and remember it throughout her life, even 30 years after they have passed out? How often do you see a school principal escorting her students from the school gate to the corridor under an umbrella on a rainy day? How common is the sight of a principal picking up wrappers and litter and carrying them to the dustbin after the school break is over? Sister Martin was one such rare principal.

Sister Martin de Porres, who breathed her last on March 13, was a British nun. At the age of 28, she came to Lahore to devote herself to human service irrespective of caste, colour and creed. She was ninety-two and still busy like a bee in her mission. She didn’t let her students offer her a farewell. Instead, she chose a funeral.

Sacred Heartians have lost their beloved mentor and a family member. At her funeral in the school church, the entire alumni found it hard to hold back their tears, for they knew they were bidding farewell to their childhood. A smiling face that was gone forever brought tears to the eyes of thousands. The uncontrollable emotions of her former students flooded the social media.

Sister Martin made a phenomenal contribution to women’s education in Pakistan. The quality of education and character building under her guidance broke social barriers and built confidence in her students. Many of her students have excelled in their respective fields to become the pride of the nation. Thousands of others have quietly but significantly transformed society and stamped it with their personalities.

Sister had served in Europe for about six years when she received a call from Asia - she was needed in Pakistan. Who knew that one day she would become the pride of patriotic Pakistanis? She landed on the soil of Lahore, the city of saints and open-hearted people, on January 5, 1958, and stepped for the first time into Sacred Heart Convent School. She planned to serve and change the world and was full of new ideas. Her first assignment was to teach English to Grade 4 students. After some years, she also taught Grade 7 and Grade 8. Her creative and exciting methods kept the students alert, enthusiastic and involved in their lesson till the last minute.

Since 1992, she had been performing her duties as the principal, taking awareness lessons, teaching morality, equality, compassion and her personal motto, ‘Live for Others’ apart from handling other administrative responsibilities of the institute. No wonder she was often visited by her former students from all corners of the world. According to her devoted students she was the bridge that connected the silver sands of the past with the on-flowing river of the golden future.

The great famine of India at the end of the 19th Century was indirectly responsible for the establishment of the school Sister Martin was associated with. The fact that the school originated from an orphanage still lurks in its milieu with distinctive warmth of a mother’s lap for all of its pupils. Financial support from abroad was withdrawn when in 1908, the famine was over. In this darkness, the idea of a school dawned on one of the sisters. Who knew that the fame of this school would soon pass beyond any advertisement?

Sisters from Europe in the early days flocked like migratory birds transcending thousands of miles perching lightly in the waiting grounds of the school. There was one difference, though, with the change of the season, they didn’t take wings; they stayed. Their commitment had handed them a one-way ticket only. The scorching heat of Lahore didn’t thaw their ice-cold resolutions. Out of the sisters who had devoted their lives for others and joined their final abode in this duty only Sister Martin was left behind like the last child in the story of Pied Piper to tell the tales of courage and sacrifice to the new generation.

Day in and day out, as the school closed, Sister Martin saw the students heading towards their homes. Many completed school and went home for good. What was the strange passion that had closed the school gates for its principal from inside forever? Perhaps the merry-go-round of rules takes rounds so that those who come six minutes late should go back home while those who showed up sixty-four years earlier must never take to the tune of retreat.

Sister had been knighted in the Order of the Crown by the Kingdom of Belgium in 2014.

The government of Belgium communicated at first with one of her colleagues to enquire if Sister Martin would accept the award. Such was the reputation of a selfless person. What if she was offered to change seats and be part of the Royal Government itself? Those who know her know the answer all too well.

Sister was among the few people who accomplish most of the work they undertake. It seems that Nature had given her the gift of golden years so that we could see her contented smile and know its generosity when it puts time on hold to return and reward true dedication. The emotional sights at her funeral proved the point.

During an interview, Sister Martin was asked the meaning of the school’s motto, ‘Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God’. She replied smilingly, “I see God in every person I meet.” Roshani Kotigala, a Sri Lankan music teacher from Trinity College of Music, London, was brought to Sacred Heart Convent School by Sister Martin in 1998. She remarked, “Sister Martin was the most compassionate and loving soul I came across. Her ways of disciplining and grooming young girls were amazing and there won’t be any compatibility ever.”

While the international forums recognise our real heroes occasionally, we remain lost in a tragic slumber at the national level. Showering people from the world of glamour with prestigious awards might be permissible. Still, we must not be blind towards our real benefactors who remain away from the limelight by choice. How is it possible for us to forget that the destiny of a nation is shaped in its classrooms? And that no nation can rise above the level of its teachers.

It might be pertinent to note that no more nuns from abroad are coming to serve in South Asia for quite some time. This is because no more young girls in Europe are opting to devote their entire lives for this unique service. Sister Martin was the last reminder of a completely different way of life and thought that is now gone. We were lucky to see a foreign nun sweating profusely in summers taking rounds of the school, for there will be none after this.

The writers can be contacted at alifarazali01@gmail.com

A selfless soul