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Malaysians mourn Irish nun who pioneered girl education

Sister Enda Ryan set up iconic Assunta schools and the first private hospital in Malaysia
Sister Enda Ryan is seen with her former students in this file image.

Sister Enda Ryan is seen with her former students in this file image. (Courtesy: Lily Lee)

Published: April 08, 2024 11:42 AM GMT
Updated: April 09, 2024 06:42 AM GMT

Thousands in Malaysia have paid tributes to an Irish missionary nun who pioneered girls' education in her adopted country for decades. 

Sister Enda Ryan died on April 7 at the age of 96, according to her religious congregation, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM).

FMM is an international Catholic religious order founded in British India in 1877.

The nun has been widely hailed as the founder of the iconic Assunta schools and for helping to build the Ave Maria Clinic, now the Assunta Hospital, the first private hospital in Malaysia.

The schools and hospital are in Petaling Jaya, a newly developed satellite town for Kuala Lumpur.

Many have posted on social media lauding the nun's contributions.

Born Eileen Philomena Ryan on December 30, 1928, in Galbally, Ireland, she joined the FMM in 1947 and came to Malaya in 1955 after graduating from university with a degree in education.

The government requested the FMM nuns to open schools for girls whose education was disrupted by the Communist insurgency.

Malaysia was then under British rule, and it became an independent country in 1957.

In 1958, Sister Ryan became headmistress of the newly established Assunta Secondary School. The school began with three classes for girls aged 13-14, and by 1963, it had 900 students and 34 full-time teachers.

Lily Lee, one of the nun’s students from Batch 1964, hailed her for her contributions to education.

“I so enjoyed the singing lessons with her because I love to sing. She had a beautiful singing voice,” she added.

Lee recalled her as stricter in many ways. "She'd shoo away the La Salle boys [from the boys’ school across the road] who stood at the fence, watching us Assunta girls during games or practices,” she told UCA News.

Jacinta Vythilingam, a student of the 1987 batch, told UCA News that Sister Ryan had composed the school song.

"We still sing it proudly at every major school occasion. Her passion for music and her beautiful voice always uplifted us,” she said. 

Vythilingam said the nun also promoted racial and religious harmony.

“There was no race or religious [segregation] in school. There were only Assuntarians,” she said, adding that many female leaders in Malaysia today are alumni of Assunta school.

Among her famous students is Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Lourett D’silva, a 1971 batch student, said she was initially terrified of Sister Enda.

“But when she started teaching us Catechism and Bible knowledge in the upper forms, I found her to be a very good teacher,” she recalled.

She also remembered the nun as a “very empathetic and sympathetic” person who visited her family to join the funeral of D’silva’s father and asked students to pay respects to him on the way to St. Francis Xavier Church.

The nun retired in 1989, but she was a leading figure in developing education policies and practices in Malaysia, making her an education icon.

In 1966, the Malaysian government bestowed citizenship on the nun for her contributions to education in the country.

During her 31 years of service, she received numerous national awards and was conferred an honorary doctorate in humanities from Taylor’s University in 2022.

Ryan's burial is scheduled for April 11.

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DR.CAJETAN COELHO
Respectful farewell to Sister Enda Ryan. Eternal rest grant unto her O Lord and let your perpetual light shine upon the departed soul.
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