Lives Remembered

Sr Breid Cunningham: Co Tyrone-born Loreto sister changed thousands of girls' lives in Kenya

Sr Breid Cunningham lived and worked in Kenya for almost three-quarters of a century

CO Tyrone native Sr Breid Cunningham lived and worked for 73 years in Kenya where her talents as a teacher and school principal changed the lives of tens of thousands of African girls.

She is remembered as a meticulous and dedicated educator as well as a very kindly person who was popular everywhere she served.

Former pupils have recalled her warm heart and “beautiful and captivating smile” since her death on December 18 in her 100th year.

However, Sr Breid, interviewed in 2018, was typically modest about devoting almost three-quarters of a century to God’s work thousands of miles from home.

"I don't think I would like to change my life at all, I would do it all again," she said.

Sr Breid was born Maura Cunningham in 1921, the second of 13 children of Patrick Cunningham, a Nationalist MP at Westminster and owner of Strathroy Dairy outside Omagh, and his wife Isabella (O’Neill).

Four of her brothers would also enter religious life, a remarkable contribution from one family.

Their aunt, Mother Teresa O'Neill, was Superior of the Loreto community in Omagh and head of the convent school, where Maura boarded so she could attend Mass every morning.

She entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dublin aged 18 and after making her final profession in 1947 was asked to serve in Kenya.

Her father and sister travelled to Southampton to wave her off on the long trip, the ship still covered in camouflage following the Second World War.

Sr Breid’s first posting was in Eldoret, where she was taught in the order’s primary school.

She would go on to work in Loreto institutions around the country including as headmistress in several schools, ending her career in Mombasa.

Before the Sisters opened their first school in Kenya in 1936, education for African girls was virtually unknown.

The Irish nuns helped change the culture and have been responsible for educating many prominent women in Kenyan society, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and the wife of President Uhuru Kenyatta, himself a product of the Holy Ghost Fathers on a shared site.

As well as teaching, Sr Breid found joy in writing and publishing a Rosary book. Her mantra until her last breath was “Jesus mercy, Mary help”.

She was able to visit home several times, including for a sabbatical year in Dublin in the late 1960s, and family members also made the trip to Kenya.

The Loreto order, who will celebrate their centenary of working in Kenya this year, said she was a great educator who will be greatly missed by her fellow Sisters, family, pupils and friends.

She was laid to rest in Msongari outside Nairobi following Requiem Mass at the Loreto Convent chapel there.

Sr Breid is survived by her sisters Rosemary (Marshall) and Carmel (Rosen), brothers Fr Tom, Fr Seán and Eamon, and extended family. She was pre-deceased by her brothers Páraig, Fr Séamus, Fr Colum and Michael and sisters Kathleen (Nolan) and Breid.

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