President David Granger: Thank you. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Sister Mary Noel Menezes; Sister Celine; His Excellency the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom, Mr. Gregory Quinn; Professor Ivelaw Griffith, Vice Chancellor and Miss Gwyneth George, Librarian of the University of Guyana; Mr. Shawn McGrath; members of the head table; Alona Sankar; Winston McGowan; Nigel Gravesande; Mr. and Mrs. George Cave (Hello George); Mr. and Mrs. Cedric Joseph; Vic Insanally and other distinguished invites, religious Sisters of Mercy; ladies and gentlemen.
I am honoured to be in this academic company this evening and to say a few words about Sister Mary Noel Menezes and I think all of us have expressed our great joy in having to work with her, particularly in the University of Guyana. I, of course, met her as a student 30 years ago – as a mature student not an old boy – a mature student on campus and it is difficult to speak about a person’s life because nobody actually knows anybody else, you know and we don’t know people and it is difficult to really try to understand Sister Noel’s life. But I discovered that her life is driven by some very powerful ideas and to understand her is to understand the ideas which drive her; ideas which engendered her life.
We launch a book this evening; where did these words come from? Where did these articles and essays and lectures come from? They come from her idea, her world view; the way she saw the world around her and perhaps Winston [McGowan] chose a correct title, but it was her world view and her mission and I think her first sense of vocation was to instruct. She had a very powerful sense of self and I think being a teacher/lecturer was natural. I think she wanted to instruct people in what she felt was the truth- to teach, to train, to educate and secondly, I think she used her knowledge as an instrument to bring about change.
In this regard, we need to look at the context of the time, the country in which she was born and Nigel [Gravesande] pointed to that- what was Guyana like in the 1930s and the 1940s? Coming from the countryside you know, growing up at Bartica and Corentyne I discovered that Georgetown was a different place. It was much more stratified and I will say that in some respects life for the majority of people was almost stultified by race, by religion and by the lack of social mobility and by politics or the denial of political freedom to a large mass of people. It wasn’t a golden age, but that was the time when some of these- Winston was born in the 1940s he is older than me, he is an older old boy – but you have to understand what Georgetown was like in the 1930s and 1940s that is why when Winston speaks about Sister writing about then and now, you understand that ‘then’ is still a very important part of our lives. I don’t know what ‘now’ is – but you have to look at the historical context to understand Sister Noel; understand what British Guiana was like in the 30s and 40s.
The second point, which was emphasised by Nigel, was her Catholicism and her Christianity. Being a protestant myself- this is the 500th year of Protestantism – I started off in an Anglican School, then I went to a Moravian School, a Presbyterian School but at a certain point in my life I ended up in a Catholic school and I saw the difference and Catholicism was a powerful force in the middle of the last century. A huge imposing cathedral- it was a symbol of economic wealth in Guyana. It is a symbol of social prestige; a symbol of political influence. It was a very powerful factor. In fact, you could actually travel from cradle to grave without coming out of the Catholic community. Even in the part of Georgetown I grew up, there was a funeral parlour run by Sebastiani.
When you saw Sebastiani you almost wanted to die to have a funeral like that. You know, it was horse-drawn carriage with men in top-hats and tail coats and the name of the funeral parlour was called the Queens Town Livery Stables, I think, and of course those days when the hearse passed by gentlemen would take of their hats… You know, it was really powerful but all that was part of Catholic Guyana. You were probably born at Saint Joseph Hospital; you went to Sacred Heart School then you went to St. Stanislaus and then you ended up at Sebastiani.
But Catholicism was a powerful part of Sister’s life. For seventy years she has been a nun- from age seventeen to eighty-seven and as a nun you live in a place called a convent. A convent means exactly what it says; it’s a conventional life that is what it means so there is not much scope for ‘unconventionality’. A convent is a place where conventions are important and the religious Sisters of Mercy, although they are dressed differently now than they would have been dressed fifty years ago have taken that vow of service and poverty.
And of course, Sister and her beloved boys at the Saint John Bosco- the orphanage – and when she ran the orphanage, she ran the orphanage. I remember at one stage she asked me to record the army bugle calls to wake up the boys in the morning so they got a tape with the reveille and the last post. So I said, I wish I had that staff major, but she ran the orphanage along conventional lines of course. Of course, I don’t think she could always cope with the boys because once she tried to show them the Sound of Music and she couldn’t understand why the boys didn’t like the Sound of Music so she asked the boys what they wanted. “Action Sister, action!” They want to see Bruce Lee they want to see blood, but I don’t think Sister really … she was more conventional but the Sound of Music didn’t win hearts. So her Catholicism was important to her and she has abided with it as an officiate to the present day.
The second characteristic was her; forgive me if I venture into these areas, what I presume was her conservatism and I say this because it’s the old ‘then’ and ‘now’. I think most of us, who lived ‘then’ – and I was born in 1945, there were certain values that you held dear and I think she was really very concerned about the chaos that started to appear and that’s what she has written about. She has always talked her mind; she’s always written what she talked.
I remember she once told an anecdote which gives, again ‘then’ and ‘now’ – apparently somebody in the post-Independence period was making a U-turn on a busy street in Georgetown, and she said, “You can’t do that, you can’t do that” and the person said, “Lady, people like you can’t tell me what to do no more, you know!” That is the ‘then’ and ‘now’ thing that she started to see the change that was taking place and it was difficult to come to terms with that. Whatever it meant, it meant also that there was a transition that was a change from that old Georgetown to what she might have described as chaos.
So colonial society was pretty much as I said, fixed, static, maybe stagnant and people did not really expect or anticipate the changes which would take place and many of those changes were violent. Violence always upsets people. Nobody is accustomed to violence; nobody could ever get accustomed to violence. Although a lot of people try. People like order, but at certain times in our history violence became very prevalent. Those who came to Georgetown in the early fifties as I did would see a different pattern in the central business district. That pattern is almost completely gone now. The businesses that existed in 1950 were no longer there in 2000s more or less.
So the conservatism that she held dear was a hankering for order and rejection of the chaos, which she saw on the horizon. Sometimes chaos throws up change. It throws up improvement and sometimes the opposite happens, but always there’s continuity even as change takes place and she was a standard bearer for those values and those values are not subject to political whim; they’re not subject to change of government; they’re not subject to change in the regime and they represent what she would like to feel were eternal values in society, and it is this attitude that she took into her academic career.
That career reflected the values that she had growing up, that reflected the principles, the standards and she never changed. Even if she lives to be a hundred and eighty-seven, she’s not going to get rid of those values. Those values are her whole life; her Christianity, her culture and that is what gave her her passion and zeal. In her academic career – you will see evidence in this beautiful book – some of you will not have time to read the actual text but these essays and articles are representative and I think that apart from her actual historical research, again, if I could be so presumptuous, was her admiration for Elsa Gouveia [who] was really an iconic historian. I’ve spoken to other Caribbean Historians … and others who asked for a photograph, they wanted a photograph of Elsa Gouveia to keep in their offices, she was so important and I think that Elsa Gouveia made a very great impact on her life and her research and her desire to excel in the field of history. Elsa Gouveia of course, was a Guyanese.
I remember in 1988 looking at a display “Prominent Afro-Guyanese” and there was Elsa Gouveia sitting atop a pile of books. I went along a little bit and there was “Prominent Portuguese-Guyanese” -hello Elsa! So I think apart from that she was definitely a child of the Caribbean; she died very early. She was born five years before Sister in 1925 and she died at the age of fifty-five much too soon, but all those who knew and I had the good fortune myself to win an Elsa Gouveia medal at a stage in an earlier life, but Elsa Gouveia was, I think, an inspiration to Sister Noel.
I think she would admit that, but she gave us what I would call a granular method of instruction. Of course, she published two important books: A Guide to Historical Research and if that wasn’t good enough to publish another one called How To Do Better Research. This meant that once you passed through her hands you had to know to do better research and sometimes even if you’re grown up, you become an ‘old boy’ and you write something you ask yourself, “Would Sister approve of this?” You ask yourself, “Did I put the italics in the right place?” Because it was so demanding and you couldn’t misquote, you couldn’t juggle quotes and you could not do the ‘P’ word- plagiarise. You would see her belt over from her office to the library to check a quotation. You better get it right or else that would be an ‘F’.
Anything you thought you could get away with as a student, she would get there before you but her two books guided her students, generation after generation, to do better research and once you passed through Sister’s methodology course you could go into social sciences, other people who were not lucky enough to study history. This book that is being launched this evening, Guyana and the Wider World, gives you an idea of sister’s intellect, the range of her interests and the intensity, the passion with which she wrote. You wouldn’t always agree with her but – and I knew she knew that people didn’t always agree with her – but what she said was a valid statement of what she believed in and I think students who passed through her tutelage, who were taught by her are better. They were made to think…
Sister was a Caribbean woman, a Guyanese woman. She was proud of being a member of the Caribbean Association of Caribbean Historians. She is proud of her work in the Caribbean. She is proud of Guyana, her country, the ‘territoriality’ and in this regard I think that just like Elsa Gouveia she saw herself as a person who could function not only here, but in any other part of the Caribbean. She was very defensive of her country, very protective, very proud of this country, very protective, very proud of our patrimony.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very important event this evening. Those of us who have had the opportunity to be taught by Sister Noel will always remember her because her teaching helped to create the intellectual foundation, which gave you the ability to study further, to discuss, to go into any other field.
You felt you could research, you felt you could figure things out, you felt you could reason. You felt you could embark on any other field and you’ve heard some of the names who were called, one person became Chancellor of the Judiciary, another person became President. Wow! Sister, we love you. May God bless you.