"I am grateful and feel it is an honour for our congregation and the missionaries who have gone before me - all of whom did great work. It is also an honour for those with whom I have been privileged to work these past 54 years here in Bangkok”.
Sr Louise Horgan, a Good Shepherd Sister in Thailand, received a Presidential Distinguished Service Award in recognition of more than 50 years' work with vulnerable women and girls. She was presented with the award, the highest honour for Irish people living overseas, by President Michael D. Higgins at a ceremony in Farmleigh House, Dublin on 2 December 2021.
Speaking earlier in the year, Sr Louise said that news of the award came as a "big surprise". “I am grateful and feel it is an honour for our congregation and the missionaries who have gone before me - all of whom did great work. It is also an honour for those with whom I have been privileged to work these past 54 years here in Bangkok. Our stories are interwoven and I would like to highlight the courage of women who have struggled and worked hard to help themselves and their families, coping with hardships I have not had to endure."
Born in May 1934, Sr Louise grew up near Templemartin, Co Cork and went on to study domestic science in Cork. After her profession and before she joined the missions, she was sent to Dublin to train as a nurse. After seven years in Sri Lanka, Sr Louise was sent to Bangkok to join Good Shepherd's first mission in Thailand. Her companions were fellow Irish Sisters Sr Leila Begin, Sr Kevin McDonald and Sr Bernard Walsh, all of whom spent many years in Thailand.
In 1978, Sr Louise founded the Fatima Self Help Centre in Bangkok, dedicated to helping women and girls break out of the cycle of poverty by producing craft work such as sewing and dressmaking.
However, the Fatima Centre is just one project among many that share the compound in Din Daeng, Bangkok. Other programmes include a pre-school for children from the slums, adult education and skills training, a live-in programme for 'at-risk' teenage girls, school sponsorship for those in the community and a refugee education programme.
"As needs came to our notice, we responded appropriately," she explains. "Those involved include our small community of sisters who take responsibility for each programme and who work with our lay partners - staff and volunteers - who use their skills and experience for the benefit of the women and who clearly share our commitment to the mission.
"Our vision is that through the provision of opportunities and inclusion in our programmes, that their lives will improve and they will live with dignity. I believe that in keeping with the congregation's focus, we have in more recent years been striving to empower the women more - no longer a model of charity but one of participation and engagement.”
The COVID crisis has made life even more challenging for many of the women and their families: "For us in Thailand, the number of infections and deaths have been thankfully low but the economic fallout has been extremely difficult. For families, who at the best of times have little, loss of employment has impacted their lives greatly. There was a three-month 'stay at home’ order and while we were still able to employ a group of women during that time to produce much-needed masks, the majority were not working. They were able to register for 5,000 baht a month from the government but this was less than their normal income and when the centre reopened, a number of women, for whom transportation was a problem, did not return. We have been trying to help them with start-up activities nearer their homes.”
"Family members who worked in the tourism industry (on which Thailand's economy relies heavily) or in restaurants also lost their jobs, which added to the financial burden and subsequently led to social problems," she adds.
Sr Louise is thankful that she gets to travel back to Ireland to see her brother and connect with her roots. She also retains strong links with the Irish province, having received much support from home over the years. "During the days of Sharing Fair Ireland, we were in constant contact. Sr Catherine Hughes was a tremendous support along with the sisters in Waterford and worked so hard to sell our products. She also helped us with additional needs through donations which they receive from friends there, wanting to support our work.”
She is grateful for continued donations from people back home, and the project has also benefitted from grants received by the congregation from Misean Cara. The Irish Embassy in Bangkok also provides assistance.