Sister Una Is Building a College

Sister Una O'Connor, a Passionist sister, is building a college. It's a dream she has had since she came to Jamaica, West Indies, in 1992 to offer her services as an educator. Soon, Sister Una recognized that one way to help Jamaica's booming population of children was to train their teachers, since a well-educated child has a good chance in the world -- and a country with well-educated children can count on a better future, too.

"But it has to begin with teachers," Sister Una says. "I think especially of the teachers in our basic schools who teach children from three to six years old, a critical time for children's development. In some areas of Jamaica the children are poor and have a long walk to school. They often don't have enough to eat. But poor children shouldn't mean poor schools.

"I believe teachers can help them, although their teachers are not well-paid and sometimes don't have all the training they need. I admire the dedication and experience of these teachers, but they need opportunities to grow professionally."

In 1993, Sister Una, with a dedicated staff of professional teachers, began an evening college program for 18 basic-school teachers at St. Paul of the Cross School in Mandeville, Jamaica.

"We created an individualized program, tailored to the teacher, because none of them could afford full-time study away from their jobs," Sister Una explained. "It was to take six years to complete. In 1999, five of the original group were awarded a diploma. The program currently has over 50 students in the teacher training program, while others are studying for personal enrichment in the areas of guidance and counseling, computer technology, language skills, art and music."

Sister Una is now seeking accreditation for the program from the University Council of Jamaica, as part of a larger educational outreach sponsored by the Catholic College of Mandeville, and she is moving the program to buildings on a tract of land provided by the Mandeville Catholic Diocese.

Sister Una was born in Dublin, Ireland, into a family that prized education. One of four sisters, she looks back with appreciation at the education she received from the Sisters of the Cross and Passion in Ireland. Entering the community in Ireland, she later taught in England; then, in 1960, she went to the United States where she taught chemistry at Mount St. Joseph College in Rhode Island and at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. She obtained a doctorate from the University of Rhode Island in 1979.

From 1985 to 1991, Sister Una served as provincial of the North American province of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion. Afterwards, a visit to Jamaica convinced her to come to the island in response to the expressed need of Bishop Paul Boyle for teacher training. Two years later, she was asked to serve as principal of St. Paul of the Cross High School. At the same time, she continued to work with the college program for training teachers. right: Sr Una in Jamaica

Today, Sister Una smiles at the play of God's providence, as she seeks accreditation for a college in Jamaica, far from her birthplace in Ireland and from the United States where she spent so many years as an educator. "I believe the Lord prepares us. In the past, I was involved in getting schools accredited in the United States. In England, I taught all levels and it prepared me for Jamaica, because the English system is similar to here. It's as if everything I've done in the past seems to be coming together."

But it's not an easy task. She has become a familiar figure in government offices and before educational accrediting bodies in Jamaica, where things move slowly and dreams are not quickly accepted. Sister Una, however, will not let go of her dream, and training school teachers is only the beginning. She sees so much else to do.

"So many are leaving school after grade nine, especially the boys. There is a dire need to provide basic education for people who have left the system. And what about a Catholic university here in Mandeville?" she says.

Introducing her to other educators at a meeting some time ago, one of her colleagues remarked: "I don't know why she doesn't want to be called 'Doctor,' because she is. She likes to be called 'Sister.'"

"I believe I have been blessed since I was a child," Sister Una says. "I have received so much and my religious commitment is important to me; it's a way I give something back."