Early feminist devoted herself to educating young Zambian girls


Sr Joseph Helen (Dorothy) Cunningham:SISTER JOSEPH Helen (Dorothy) Cunningham, in her 104th year, was last week laid to rest at the Religious Sisters of Charity graveyard in Donnybrook, Dublin to the poignant rendition of the Zambian national anthem sung by a group of fellow sisters.

Her association with Zambia dated from 1948, when she was one of three founding Religious Sisters of Charity for a new Zambian region, or Northern Rhodesia as it was then known. She set sail with the other two for Northern Rhodesia, travelling for four weeks by boat – The Athlone Castle – rail, bus and lorry before arriving in Chisekesi Siding on a dark morning on October 28th, 1948. Her diary of the journey was published in 1998.

She was born Dorothy Cunningham in Ballacolla, in what was then Queen’s County (Laois), on July 1st, 1908. She had one brother, Jim, who died in 1995.

She was educated at Ballacolla national school and the Loreto convent in Kilkenny. Following her arts degree studies at UCD she taught in Mountjoy Street School in Dublin, remaining there until she entered the Religious Sisters of Charity on October 5th, 1931.

After her religious profession she went back to Mountjoy Street and taught there for 12 years.

Following a year’s further study in Scotland, she went to teach in a secondary modern school in Walthamstow in England before moving to Zambia in 1948. Her first 15 years there were spent in the teacher training college run by the Jesuits, and it was here she began her work in promoting the education of girls – beginning with the setting up of a girls’ secondary boarding school in Roma, Lusaka.

Committed to raising the status of women, she was a feminist before the word became commonplace, dedicating herself to the education of young girls in Zambia which at the time was considered a waste of time and money.

From the outset Roma Girls School earned a good name for its education standards and holistic approach to education. On Zambian Independence Day in 1978 the Order of Distinguished Service was conferred on Sr Helen by president Kenneth Kaunda for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of education and social work.

In 1978 she returned to Ireland and worked on rewriting and updating the constitutions of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Subsequently she was appointed as local leader to the community in Crumlin before her appointment to the provincial leadership team. She lived her final years in the convent and the hospice at Harold’s Cross, Dublin, where she had visits from community, friends and family.

Sr Joseph Helen (Dorothy) Cunningham: born July 1st, 1908; died January 9th, 2012