Her enthusiasm and commitment to education has not waned. Even at age 82, Sister Berchmans Conway sits in her office in the wee hours of the night meticulously going through question papers set by her teachers in order to make sure nothing is repeated and the questions correctly posed.
A living witness to the values taught by her such as courtesy, impartiality, generosity, cleanliness and orderliness, Sister Berchmans completed her Diamond Jubilee or 60th year in December, 2011, as part of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary.
The religious order of the Jesus and Mary Convents was founded by 19-year-old Claudine Thevenet, who had seen her two brothers shot in her presence during the French Revolution. This traumatic experience led her to form an order dedicated to looking after and educating the young and homeless. In 1818, an orphanage was set up in Lyon, France, and the first entrant was an abandoned child. Soon, the Congregation of Jesus and Mary took up the task of education in other countries.
The first Jesus and Mary Convent opened in Agra from where four sisters were sent to set up one in Lahore in 1876. Sialkot became part of Pakistan in 1947 where the Jesus and Mary Convent had already existed since 1856. The message carried by Jesus and Mary Irish nuns to India in 1842 was to educate young women to be “self reliant, capable of being good wives and mothers and creating happy homes, capable of earning a living by honest work and whose very presence anywhere would exude goodness and touch other lives.”
Irish to the core, Sister Berchmans, who was born in County Clare, came across as someone caring, honest in giving her opinion and being fair at all times. Early mornings saw her at the playing field overseeing the march past practice with her repeating “left, right, left, right” over and over again to make the girls keep in step. The grand march past and Fan Drill in 1968 was a masterpiece of choreography and grand ceremonies by her for parents to enjoy at the annual prize distribution. Her matter of fact approach to studies and extracurricular activities made parents repose the utmost confidence in her ability to keep a good watch over their precious child.
Sister Berchmans came to Pakistan at the age of 24 and has spent 58 of her 60 years teaching Convent girls here. Her passion for teaching the English language benefitted her students in more ways than just learning a language. The commitment to learning through giving feedback, drilling and practice and remedial teaching for weaker students became a hallmark of the classes she taught.
Sister Berchmans has touched the lives of countless school girls in Jesus and Mary Convents in Lahore, Murree and Karachi, as a mentor, counselor, friend and teacher. Her calling to the cause of education in an environment alien to her has been exceptionally fulfilled. The constant adherence to the call of duty over a span of 60 years has made Sister Berchmans a living example to emulate by all of us who are fortunate enough to know her.
The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore