70 years of service

Sister Mary Benedict... the nun who calmed gangsters, trains and cares for thousands of Jamaicans

Executive editor — publications

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sister Mary Benedict chuckled at the memory of her father's discouraging words when, at 16 years old, she was inspired to become a nun. 'Let her go, she won't last an hour,' she recalled him saying.

“But here I am, 70 years after,” she told the Jamaica Observer with a broad smile on her face.

That diamond white anniversary was actually February 2, 2018, and yesterday the nun with the disarming smile who got gangsters in the tough central Kingston section of Jamaica's capital to stop fighting — a feat that contributed to the Jamaican State investing her with the Order of Distinction — was celebrated at a mass at St Paul's Cathedral in Mandeville.

While she was actually looking forward to the mass, Sister Mary Benedict confessed that she was just as interested in a post-mass lunch which, she hoped, would raise money to help keep the Laws Street Trade Training Centre running and contribute to a fortnightly project under which she and her associates help at least 400 poor Jamaicans each fortnight.

“Every other week we give packages to 400 indigent people,” Sister Mary Benedict explained. “The packages contain toiletries, cornmeal, rice, sugar, mackerel, sausage, bread and crackers, among other groceries.”

“Recently, Max Jardim of Rainforest Seafoods started giving us 200 pounds of cod fish, so what we do is cut it up into quarter-pound pieces so everybody can get a piece,” the nun explained.

She's been engaged in this philanthropic gesture for about 10 years and, according to the centre's Manager Michael Chong, “For every 400 inside receiving packages, another 400 are on the outside waiting.”

It's an indication of the difficult living standards of many Jamaicans, but Sister Mary Benedict and her team are not daunted as they get help from a number of firms, among them National Baking Company which donates cash, bread, and biscuits.

In addition, the centre is one of the many beneficiaries of the Alliance Buccaneer Memorial Golf Tournament held each November.

“We get like $1 million from them,” she said. “That helps to buy some of the stuff, but it doesn't stretch too far; it goes for about two months [so] we also do catering and other things to make money.”

However, the centre's only consistent source of income is its bakery, which was established from the armistice Sister Mary Benedict brokered with the warring gangs 35 years ago.

“I called all of them together and I said 'let's decide now, we're going to have peace but we need something', and they said 'Sister, we would like a bakery',” she related.

However, the women in the community, who had started receiving sewing training at the centre but were forced to stop when the space was needed to accommodate the growing number of students from the neighbouring Holy Family School, said they wanted to revive the sewing project.

Moved by the community's zeal to be engaged in income-generating activities, Sister Mary Benedict said she approached Paul Cooper, who at the time was president of the Rotary Club of Kingston and served on the school board.

“I said to him 'Paul, we need help' and he said 'Yes, I know' and asked what we needed,” the nun related.

She said she told him about the conversation she had with the community and Cooper set about raising funds, which led to the building and handing over of the centre within a year.

“We've had a lot of successes and we've been like a stabilising influence in the community,” she said, adding that the bakery employs 12 people.

Asked how many people have been trained at the centre over the years, Sister Mary Benedict said she couldn't give a definitive number. However, she was sure it stood in the thousands.

“I went to [Jamaica] Pegasus [hotel] once and the sous chef was one of the young men who received training here,” she said, unable to mask her pride.

In its early days the centre was equipped with a sewing machine donated by Richard Issa, who operated a store at Princess Street in downtown Kingston. Eventually the operation grew and the women were making aprons, gowns and other items for Kingston Public Hospital, the Red Cross, and St John Ambulance.

“Women were streaming in by the 20s, 30s, learning to handle the industrial machines,” Sister Mary Benedict said. However, just this January they had to close the sewing room.

“The people who were coming were not very interested in it because they did not see a future in dressmaking any more, as they thought people would prefer to go and buy something in the store which would be much cheaper; So right now we are just trying to see what we can try to do,” she said.

According to the nun, she and her associates have been talking with the operators of Sutherland Global Services, the second-largest employer of labour in the business process outsourcing industry.

“They will get the people that we want to help in the community trained,” she told the Sunday Observer, explaining that the training of 20 people initially will be conducted at the Laws Street centre, with the hope of increasing the number.

“Space was an issue, but now that we have the sewing room we have more space, so maybe we can expand that,” she said, adding that the finer details of the arrangement are still being worked out.

The opportunity to help people in this way was what drew Sister Mary Benedict to the convent, as she experienced first-hand the life of service offered by the nuns at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Manchester.

“When I got there at age 11 I met all the sisters who worked among the poor, especially Sister Marie Therese, who was head at Alpha Boys' School at that time. She always spoke about the boys and their needs, and cases where they were abandoned — and the sisters took them and took care of them. That really struck me as something that I would like to do and I think from there, the five years I spent as a boarder and seeing what the sisters did and how they lived together in community, I thought that maybe I should make a try at it,” she told the Sunday Observer.

Since then, the now 86-year-old nun has taught at Alpha Boys' and Girls' schools, and was principal at Holy Family in central Kingston, a community she has been serving for 53 years.




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