A native of Cloona, County Sligo and a member of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, McGowan oversees a Catholic mission in the parish of Bariga, located in Lagos, one of the world’s largest, poorest cities with a population approaching 18 million people.
The Boston connection comes through her brother Bill McGowan, a veteran leader in the Irish Massachusetts community who has been active on the grass roots level for almost 40 years.
He helped initiate the Donnelly Visa campaign back in the 1980s and is a generous supporter of local fundraisers for local Irish families.
Since 1997, Bill and his wife Bridget have organized an annual fundraiser for the African mission, relying on the generosity of Irish immigrants – tradesmen, blue collar workers and small business owners that make up the heart of Boston’s Irish community.
To date they have raised over half a million dollars for the mission.
The money raised in Boston “accomplishes miracles in a country like Nigeria,” says McGowan from his office in Quincy, where he runs McTaxes, a bookkeeping and income tax service. His wife Bridget owns the Dupont Insurance Agency nearby.
When Sister Jo, as she is known, arrived in Lagos in 1992, the parish was afflicted by poverty, crime, abuse and neglect, and there were 400 children to educate.
The school was in ruins, and there was no electricity or running water. Her first project was to restore the building and get the utilities hooked up.
Today, the parish has been turned into a thriving educational oasis, where over 1,200 children are educated, fed and cared for on a daily basis. There is a brand new school, with programs for the handicapped, self-help programs and counseling for children and adults.
Indeed, the new school houses 32 classrooms, a new library with over 5,000 books, and a day care center. The Boston money has helped purchase a photocopying machine and computers for the classrooms.
Many of her students have been trained to become teachers at the school, and some have found their vocation to enter the convent. English is the spoken language, but the nuns also teach French and Yoruba, a dialect in West Africa with more than 20 million speakers.
It’s been a miraculous turn-around that speaks to the dedication of Irish missionaries, but Sister Jo is quick to acknowledge that it won’t have been possible without Boston’s Irish community.
“The joy and hope you share with these, our poor suffering ones, should be a great source of great consolation to you,” she wrote to the committee last year.
Bill McGowan is proud of his sister for her accomplishments but also her courage. Her mission was interrupted, but not deterred, in 1995, when she was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and had to return to Ireland for nine months for chemotherapy. She made a complete recovery from the cancer.
Her dedication to helping the poor goes back nearly half a century.
Born Hannah Josephine McGowan, she was the eighth of eleven children. She entered the convent in 1960, taking the name Goretti in honor of the Italian saint.
She began her teaching career at the primary school in Crossmolina. In 1979 she was sent by her order to join a missionary effort in New Zealand, where she became principal of St. Patrick’s primary school in Wainuiomata. Sister Jo spent twelve years there, before returning to Crossmolina for a year.
The 10th annual fundraiser in support of the mission is scheduled for this Saturday, October 20, from 7:00 p.m. to midnight at Florian Hall in Dorchester. Music is being provided by the Dennis Curtin Band, Irish step dancing by Maureen O’Leary and the Green School of Dancing
Sister Jo, who has also built a new school in the nearby village of Ifeoma, is in Boston for the event to proudly show photographs of her children and evidence of the great work being done in Lagos – with help from Boston’s Irish.
For more information, call (617)376-3252.