“Tanzania, blessed place
I’ve walked your roads
Climbed your highest
Loved your children first
Saved me from wild bees did
Threw me down
white habited in the dust
when not a word of language
did I know.” (Golden Jubilee)
She was born by the Atlantic Ocean in Kilrelig, Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, Eire. When she completed business studies in Sherry’s College in Dublin, she worked and passed a government exam that gave her a transfer to the States and work as secretary to the Consul because she knew French at that time and English and Irish. In New York she heard about the Maryknoll Sisters who matched her spirit and, at the age of twenty-four, she entered Maryknoll in 1951.
After language study in Nyegina she responded to a need for teaching women in Makoko, Musoma. From there she moved to Kabanga, Kigoma where she ran a Catechetical Centre for African Sisters from five East African countries. She met a thirteen year old African girl with whom she is still friends decades later. In Africa women carry things on their heads and Agnes was carrying manure collected from the nearby fields. Sister Noreen needed some for her vegetable garden. Her first question was, “Why aren’t you in school?” “I’ve no school fees” was the response. Sister Noreen paid her school fees for the year, the equivalent of about $20. She was an exceptionally bright and talented young woman and earned scholarships from then on receiving her Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis and a year’s research fellowship there.
Sister Noreen became the Religious Education Coordinator for the Diocese of Arusha and taught in a minor seminary. When she and Sister Rachel Kunkler planned a lay leadership training centre in Arusha, a Tanzanian father with six children, William Kessy, left a secure government job to join their team. They trained two thousand lay leaders for small Christian communities in all the parishes. At the same time they had a small farm with ten young people working in animal husbandry to make the centre self-reliant.
For the past twenty years Sisters Noreen and Rachel, responding to a request from the Tanzania Ministry of Labour and Youth Development, have worked in the Iringa Region, both urban and rural, accompanying and facilitating projects for seven youth groups in four districts. These young people have been able to build houses for themselves and bring water into their villages, among other things. Presently the Sisters are consultants for women and youth groups on alternative energy—solar lighting and windmill water pumps; business and marketing skills for economic projects. They do HIV/AIDS counseling and prepare young, economically poor women for secondary and post secondary education which includes tutoring, getting scholarships and keeping contact while they are away at school.
Awards: Sister Noreen, being the mzee (elder) accepted an award from the President of Tanzania in 1995 honoring the work that she and Sister Rachel had done in the villages of the Iringa Region. The Lyadebwe Youth Group and Tanzania had also been honored in 1993 by UNESCO as Janka Sanga, the young chairman of the group was the person chosen to represent Tanzania from names submitted by every Region in the country. He attended a two week program in Paris and received a medal designed by Picasso, the only youth from a rural area.
Sisters Noreen and Rachel take their turns staffing the house of hospitality in Nairobi, Kenya for Maryknoll Sisters in Africa for retreats, meetings, medical care, etc. However, they are in touch with the folks in Iringa daily by cell phone and will go to Iringa every two months for a week or so working with the youth and economic projects. Sister Noreen also tutors.