UWI honours Sister Mary Noel Menezes
History This Week
By Winston McGowan
November 3, 2005
Last weekend one of Guyana's most distinguished scholars and most noble citizens was honoured by the University of the West Indies at its graduation ceremony at the St. Augustine campus in Trinidad.
Sister Mary Noel Menezes respectfully and affectionately called "Sister" or "Sister Noel" by those who know her, was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D). She was the only female among a small select group of four eminent Caribbean nationals who were awarded honorary doctoral degrees by the region's premier educational institution.
Whereas the other three awardees, namely Professor Raymond Gosling, a scientist, Justice Joseph Archibald and Mr. Tajmool Hosein, a legal luminary, were honoured for their academic/profes sional achievements, Sister Menezes' award was in recognition of both her academic accomplishments as a professional historian and her altruism. At a special luncheon in honour of the four Honorary Graduants, the host, Dr. Bhoendradatt Tiwari, the Pro vice-chancellor and Campus Principal, commended her for being a rarity in today's increasingly materialistic world by being a scholar who was a genuine philanthropist. At the same function she and the other awardees were described by the university's Guyanese vice-chancellor, Professor Nigel Harris, as "persons of substance and stature."
Most of Sister Menezes' life as an academic was spent at the University of Guyana. After teaching for two years at colleges in the United States of America in the mid 1960s, she joined the U.G. staff in September 1967 and served there until her retirement 23 years later in 1990. During this lengthy period she had numerous academic achievements.
Among them was the enviable reputation that she gained, as being one of the institutions most stimulating and engrossing teachers. Moreover, Sister, an efficient, creative, fearless administrator, served as head of the Department of History for nine years (1977-1986), transforming this hitherto humdrum department into one of the finest departments in the entire university.
Furthermore, in 1973 she initiated the university's first Master's Degree Programme - a M.A. in Guyanese and West Indian History. She served as the Chief Co-ordinator of this programme for 17 years, from its inception to her retirement in 1990.
In that capacity she trained a new generation of professional Guyanese historians. Some of them, notably Dr. James Rose and Dr. David Chanderbali, respectively the current vice-chancellor and Registrar, Mr. Tota Mangar, the Dean of the School of Education and Humanities, and Ms. Cecelia McAlmont, the Head of the Department of Social Studies, are still serving the university. Others, including Dr. Basdeo Mangru, the university's first Master's graduate, Dr. Marguerite Chase-Garvey and Dr. Kimani Nehusi, are pursuing successful academic careers overseas.
Sister Menezes was one of U.G.'s leading researchers and most prolific writers. Her research greatly enhanced knowledge especially of two areas in Guyanese history in which she became the recognised authority. These areas are the history of the Amerindians, the subject of her doctoral dissertation at the University of London in England from 1970 to 1973, and the history of the Portuguese.
She produced four books on these two subjects, namely, British Policy Towards the Amerindians in British Guiana, 1803-1873 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); The Amerindians in Guyana 1803-1873. A Documentary History (London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1979); Scenes from the History of the Portuguese in Guyana (London: The Author, 1986); and The Portuguese of Guyana: A Study in Culture and Conflict (Gujurat: The Anand Press, 1992).
Two other of her numerous publications are particularly cherished by students. Her book, The Amerindians and the Europeans is one of the most informative sources of knowledge for this popular theme in the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) Caribbean History syllabus. Secondly, her Guide to Historical Research, later revised with a new title, How To Do Better Research, continues to be an invaluable guide especially to university students in all disciplines on research methodology.
Sister Menezes' growing stature as a historian received special recognition on three occasions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first occasion was in 1978 when she became the first female president of the Association of Caribbean Historians, the regional body of historians founded in 1968. She served in that capacity for two years. Secondly, in 1980 she was promoted to the position of Professor of History at U.G., the first holder of this post. Finally, in 1981, she was appointed a member of the Drafting Committee of UNESCO's General History of the Caribbean.
At her retirement from U.G. in 1990 Sister Menezes was honoured in a touching public ceremony on campus, the first of its kind for a member of the teaching staff in the university's long history. This was clear evidence of the high esteem in which she was held by the university community.
While recording achievement after achievement as a teacher, administrator, re-searcher and writer, Sister Menezes remarkably found time to be involved in a number of philanthropic activities. As the UWI public orator, Professor Barbara Lalla, stated in the citation for Sister before presenting her to Chancellor Sir George Alleyne to receive her honorary degree last Friday evening, she is "a selfless and effective humanitarian... who rendered phenomenal humanitarian service."
Her most demanding and amazing philanthropic work was her 35 years of service (1968-2003) at the St. John Bosco Orphanage in Plaisance, where she lived and was in charge for most of this period. Furthermore, since 1970 she has been visiting the Mahaica Hospital for patients suffering from Hansen's Disease regularly and also served at the Cheshire Home in Mahaica for twenty years from 1981 to 2001. Moreover, in 2000 she started a Home-Mercy Boys' Home for boys leaving the St. John Bosco Orphanage at the age of sixteen who have no one and nowhere to go. She presently manages this new home.
Among her many other acts of public service are the following: a member of the Council of Management of the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital from 1985-2002; a member of the Heritage Society from 1985 to the present; a member of the Advisory Committee of the Canadian Organisation for Development through Educa-tion (CODE) from 1989 to the present; and a Member of the Advisory Council of Guyana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 2002.
Sister Menezes has been the recipient of numerous awards during the past thirty-five years. Among them were several prestigious fellowships from institutions in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Portugal and from the government of India.
She also received national recognition when she was awarded the Golden Arrow of Achievement by the government of Guyana in 1982 and the Outstanding Guyanese Women Award in 1989.
Sister Menezes' academic work and public service are partly an expression of her religious vocation. Since 1947, when she was admitted into the Sisters of Mercy in Dallas, Pennsylvania, in the United States, she has been an active member of that community. From 1990 to 1998 she served as the Regional Supervisor of these sisters in Guyana. During those years, in 1994, she wrote a History of the Sisters of Mercy to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their work in Guyana. More recently, in 2004, she was invited to become one of the six members of the Mercy Inter-national Research Commis-sion; a body designed to encourage scholarly use of the archival and other resources of the Sisters of Mercy worldwide.
Sister Menezes' recent award of an honorary doctorate degree is the second occasion that she has been the recipient of such an honour. The first occasion was in 1983 when her Alma Mater, the College Misericordia in Dallas, Pennsylvania, where she completed a B.A. Degree in History in 1964, conferred on her a Doctorate of Humane Letters. This new award which she received from UWI last week, 22 years later, is clearly well deserved. Sincere congratulations Sister.