Sr. Miriam Therese O’Brien

O’Brien, Miriam Thérèse (1945–2006), religious sister, educator, and aid worker in west Africa, was born Colette O’Brien on 18 April 1945 in Antrim town, the eldest of three daughters of Matthew O’Brien and his wife Mary (née Nash); she also had a younger brother. She attended St Joseph’s Primary School in Antrim and then St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena, where she was very happy, and decided when she left school at 17 to join the Sisters of St Louis and become a teacher. She entered the Institute of St Louis in Monaghan town as a postulant, and took the name Miriam Thérèse. The St Louis Sisters had had schools throughout Ireland since the 1860s, but since 1947 the order had begun to shift its focus by developing educational and health missions in Ghana, Nigeria and California. O’Brien entered the convent in 1962, the year when the second Vatican council first met, and she was professed in 1968, so she experienced religious life both before and after the major changes brought about by the adoption of the directives embodied in the council document Perfectae caritatis (1965). The Sisters of St Louis, along with other religious, gradually introduced modern dress, new methods of formation, and new ways of living communally; work outside the convents, and especially in the mission areas, was greatly facilitated when sisters no longer had to travel in pairs and wear the traditional floor-length habit and white headdress.

Sister Miriam qualified in 1970 as a secondary-school teacher at St Mary’s Training College in Belfast, and taught music in St Malachy’s High School, Castlewellan, Co. Down, and in St Genevieve’s High School in west Belfast, during the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the early 1970s, the Northern Ireland civil-rights movement influenced many young catholics, introducing them to radical thought for the first time. Thus when Sister Miriam read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the oppressed (first English edition, 1970), she immediately identified with its message; she said herself that this seminal work in the development of liberation theology ‘blew her mind’ and shaped the rest of her life. Liberation theology, having spread rapidly from Latin America after a famous conference at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, provided a new empowering rationale for the work of missionary orders in the world’s poorest areas. Proponents argued that Christ’s radical message for the poor had been subverted by church establishments and must be reinterpreted by positive action in communities, to foster political change and bring about economic and social justice.

Sister Miriam was sent in 1974 to Nigeria to the Institute of St Louis’ mission field; the post-colonial chaos and poverty she encountered there could have crushed someone without a strong faith and commitment. Her religious faith was matched by her conviction that education to enable change could transform the world. After two years teaching English and Bible study in the relatively privileged, fee-paying St Louis Grammar School in Owo, Ondo state, she joined a team in Mushin, a slum area of Lagos, where she helped set up a Samaritan project for homeless, disturbed and disabled people. This was the kind of enterprise envisioned by liberation theology, where intervention by outsiders facilitated the development of a ‘basic Christian community’, in which health care and education for adults as well as for children would bring changes to a locality, and inhabitants would liberate themselves by bringing about their own transformation. O’Brien eventually was coordinator of thirteen basic Christian communities, encouraging adult literacy projects and primary health care.

O’Brien’s experiences in Nigeria consolidated her outlook, and she strongly urged the Institute of St Louis to adopt what liberation theol+ogy describes as ‘a preferential option for the poor’, and to consider other forms of apostolic work, rather than their traditional educational and health roles. Her influence prevailed at the institute’s 1985 general chapter, at which she was chosen one of three co-leaders of the Sisters, serving from 1985–92, and her radical outlook motivated even those who did not always agree with her. The institute’s pledge to support the poor and marginalised, and to work to transform unjust structures, was informed by the west African experiences of Sister Miriam and her colleagues. She had a similar effect at the same time as a board member of Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the catholic church in Ireland.

In 1992 Sister Miriam joined the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to work with and for refugees in Liberia, riven since 1989 by a civil war. She was based in Gbargna, the headquarters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, one of the militias involved in the chaotic conflict. At first the town was relatively safe, protected by the notorious child soldiers and other troops loyal to Charles Taylor of the NPFL, and Sister Miriam’s team was able to provide services to internally displaced refugees, but food shortages were worsened by international embargoes. In September 1994, after a visit to Ireland to seek contributions for aid, she returned to a dramatically worse situation; Gbargna had been overwhelmed and the country was completely destabilised, with savage violence, ethnic cleansing and internecine struggles. The training centre from which Sister Miriam worked had been destroyed for the second time; her team had fled to Côte d’Ivoire, and it was only with great difficulty and personal danger that she was able to follow them. With help from Liberian friends, she travelled for several days on a home-made cart on the train lines, with little food and water, and menaced by armed gangs. She managed to get to Guinea and made her way to Côte d’Ivoire, where in the capital, Danané, she worked with the JRS, organising provision for some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing across the border from Liberia. The JRS had to provide food and shelter, as well as attempting to educate, train and rehabilitate traumatised and wounded individuals. Sister Miriam was appointed coordinator of the JRS in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea (as she had been also in Liberia), and was the first woman to hold such a post within the organisation.

After fifteen years of terror, Liberia in the late 1990s gradually became more stable, allowing the repatriation of refugees, and Sister Miriam went back to Gbargna, where in 2000 she and Liberian colleagues founded a local NGO called Development Education Network Liberia (DEN-L), which continued the work of the organisation she had set up in the first ceasefire in Liberia in 1991–2. In 2000, the country’s economy, infrastructure and social order were all in ruins, and DEN-L worked to encourage planning for a positive future alongside coping with the present exigencies. The organisation partnered Trócaire in providing education and training to local people, particularly women, to enable them to become community leaders in attempting to improve conditions in their home villages and in setting up collective decision-making structures, the forerunner of any hope of democracy. Conditions were still far from normal, with constant danger of a new civil war; at the end of April 2003, Sister Miriam reluctantly had to leave Liberia again, after an upsurge of the indiscriminate, drug-fuelled violence involving former militias and child soldiers.

She took the opportunity of an enforced stay in Dublin from 2003 to study in Kimmage Development Studies Centre, and completed an MA in 2004, analysing the effects of war on NGOs in general, and examining the genesis and contributions of DEN-L. Her approach to her subject was based on her belief that visionaries alongside politicians and scientists would be able to find ways to transform the world, if they were able to share leadership with people who might otherwise have been seen as victims or clients. During these years, as also throughout her career, Sister Miriam lobbied for assistance for her causes and consolidated relationships with organisations and individuals in Ireland who were prepared to help with support for Liberia; St Louis schools in Ireland raised funds and exchanged students and teachers with partner schools in west Africa, and Irish businessmen and organisations assisted with material donations and funds.

Sister Miriam was planning to return to Africa on 23 October 2006, but became seriously ill, and in early November was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It proved inoperable and she refused treatment from which she could see no benefit; she died on 14 December 2006, in Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross, Dublin. She was buried in Latlurcan cemetery, Monaghan town, close by the St Louis convent. In a tribute to her life’s work in west Africa, the headquarters of DEN-L in Gbargna was re-named the Sister Miriam Thérèse O’Brien Memorial Training Centre. The Institute of St Louis and partner organisations, working through the Liberia Solidarity Group, continue to support education and sustainable development in Liberia.