St John Bosco Orphanage:
Caring for abandoned and motherless boys by Edlyn Benfield
Stabroek News
June 30, 2002

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The St John Bosco Orphanage and Convent appears like an oasis of serenity in the East Coast village of Plaisance, despite its propinquity to the bustling market which straddles the railway embankment road.

It is true the compound echoes with the sound of young boys at play, but it is a happy sound, which adds an element of vitality to an otherwise tranquil aura.

For thirty-four years, Sister Mary Noel Menezes, a Sister of Mercy, has mothered generations of boys in this orphanage, assisted for the last thirty years by Sister Celine Marie Kirsch.

Initially, the facility kept 50 to 55 boys, however, at present there are 42 boys.

"When I was younger, I was able to cope with a lot more boys than now," Sister Menezes explained. She said that the boys, who are often abandoned at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC), can be admitted from the age of three and can stay until they are 16 years old.

The procedure is that when no one turns up to collect them from the hospital, they are then taken to the Red Cross home in D’Urban Backlands, Georgetown, where they are cared for until they are three years old, after which the orphanage can admit them.

And where do they go after being discharged at 16? In March 2000, the `Mercy Home’ in Prashad Nagar, which is equipped with every convenience, was opened, making it possible for boys who are too old to remain in the orphanage to have a sheltered home until the age of 21. They are given the opportunity to obtain employment and some of their income is utilised to maintain the facility.

Sister Menezes noted that the majority of the children at St John Bosco had mothers who had chosen to abdicate their responsibilities. "There are mothers who really shouldn’t be mothers. These young women must be adequately educated because to bring a human being into the world is a very special thing," she said.

She disclosed that there were mothers who had left several of their offspring at the institution. Despite offers to some parents by the orphanage to render the necessary assistance if they opted to keep their child, the situation had not changed.

Some parents, said Sister, returned when the child turned 15, and in other instances, children went home at vacation time. However, others were never claimed, as in the case of one little boy, who was left at the institution’s gates when he was just under three years old. No one ever came to visit him.

Sister Menezes noted that there was a problem of child abuse in the society and expressed the view that this was often the result of poverty and a lack of proper education, in addition to having missed out on quality family life.

"They need love, especially the younger ones. They need someone to tell them that they are special," she said of the children under her care.

The St John Bosco convent with part of the orphanage to the left of the picture.

When asked if they ever returned to the orphanage, she replied: "Yes, sometimes. It is heartwarming when the boys grow up and come back." She noted that when love is combined with the right degree of discipline, positive attitudes were engendered.

"Although the key is to love them, you must enforce discipline," she advised. Sister Menezes said that the gift of sharing was instilled in them, as many members of the public, when celebrating their birthdays and on other special occasions like Christmas, distributed meals to the boys. It was pointed out to the boys that the example of persons giving on occasions when they were expected to receive, was one to be emulated.

She said too that the love shown to the children was often returned tenfold, as on Mother’s Day, the children presented lovely cards to them and even presents. But like everything else, there were instances where there was no evidence of gratitude.

The orphanage is maintained by donations and gifts from voluntary organisations.

And the children have everything which can be found in a regular home. The institution boasts a large video and book library - with the latter open to the children of Plaisance village - as well as eight computers. At Christmas, the boys are given beautiful gifts from various donors.

According to Sister Menezes, the order of the Sisters of Mercy was founded in 1831 by Sister Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, and in 1894, some sisters came to Guyana. Catherine McAuley’s hallmark was a great concern for the poor.

The Sisters of Mercy once occupied the building, which is now the Canadian High Commission, but they sold it to its current owners some 25 years ago.

The Sisters of Mercy first went to Plaisance 100 years ago in 1902.

The orphanage itself, however, dates back further, having been established by Father Luigi Casati, an Italian Jesuit in 1879. According to a pamphlet giving a brief history of the institution, he gathered together a number of homeless boys he saw running around the streets of Plaisance.

He then started a boys’ band, which was the origin of the orphanage. "By the end of the century, because of failing health," says the pamphlet, "Father Casati was no longer able to care for the boys. In 1902 the orphanage was placed under the care of the Sisters of Mercy, who continue to maintain it today."

Sister Menezes, a history professor, told this newspaper that when she was a lecturer at the University of Guyana (UG) in 1968, she had moved to the Plaisance convent in order to be nearer to campus.

Over the years, donors have been very generous. The Mercy Home in Prashad Nagar for older boys had been purchased and furnished within six months, for example, while the present orphanage building in Plaisance had been erected in 1935 by William Fogarty Ltd.

"I have a very long list of people to pray for," Sister remarked. Among these were the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club in Philadelphia, Rebecca Anwar, Thelma Lewis, Banks DIH Ltd, members of the Diplomatic Corps, Vic Insanally who provided free tickets to cricket games hosted in Guyana, Art Williams and the Harry Wendt Aeronautical School, and many others, particularly in the United States and England. Furthermore, the children hardly suffered from health problems and received regular general check-ups, free of cost, at the St Joseph’s Mercy hospital. They also were given dental care.

Sister Menezes recalled how a short while ago, an eight-year-old had been brought to them and from the inception, it had been observed that he was not very robust. After noticing that he wheezed regularly, he had been taken to the St Joseph’s Mercy Hospital where Dr Mootoo had examined him. Using a donation of US$500, the child had been taken to Trinidad under the watchful eyes of Dr Mootoo, where it had been discovered that there were two holes in his heart. The child is still receiving treatment.

In the area of schooling, the boys attend nursery, primary, community high and secondary schools, and some are at the Marian Academy on scholarships.

Thirty-four sisters over the years have worked at the orphanage, now 123 years old.