Sister Maria Goretti: An inspiring mother to many Jamaicans
“She is a mother to me.” That was the heartwarming refrain sung by many when asked about Sister Maria Goretti. Born and raised in New Zealand, she spent over two decades in Jamaica transforming the lives of inner-city boys at the Alpha Boys’ Home, now Alpha Institute. When she wasn’t their den mother on the property, she was their teacher in the classroom and band manager on the road, driving them back and forth from several gigs. Nurturing by nature, Goretti provided unwavering support and became a beacon of hope for the bright future ahead of those young men in her care.
Sister Goretti recently sat down with The Gleaner Lifestyle team to share more about how following her calling led to engaging in some groundbreaking work in the Caribbean. Born in 1940, she recalled living a good life back home in New Zealand. “We grew up in a good time; childhood wasn’t as complicated as how the young people have today,” she explained.
PRAYED FOR A SISTER
Her mother wanted all girls and she received those blessings in five beautiful forms. A lover of the outdoors, Goretti loved bike riding, as well as playing cricket and netball. So how exactly did she transition from a tomboy to a sister? Goretti believes it was because this was her mother’s dream vocation.
“You see, my mother was adopted and her earlier time was spent with the sisters of Mercy. She kind of wanted to be a sister, but with her background, she didn’t really know how to go about becoming one. She always prayed to have someone in the family become a sister,” she shared. And her mother’s prayers were once again answered when a young Maria became a sister at the tender age of 16. “I was fairly young,” she added.
Goretti would go on to be a sister for over 30 years before setting sights on her new mission in Jamaica. “A couple of her leadership team members had visited The Mercy in Third-World countries and they had come to Alpha Boys’ School. At the time, we were closing our girls’ boarding school and I was in charge of that.” After finishing that chapter, she would be looking to start another and when she read what the needs were at Alpha, it was a no-brainer. “It is somewhere where I could respond, I’d be of help and it would be growth for me,” she added.
Moving here, she said, was extremely incredible because she was accepted from the very start, always felt right at home, and enjoyed the work. “My fear, which I told them back in New Zealand, was if I had to return, it would be because of the heat,” she said with a laugh, adding, “And then when I first came, I thought it might have been the mosquitos.”
When asked what it was like switching from all girls to all boys, Sister Goretti revealed that it was much easier working with the latter. “Boys are much easier to deal with, “ she confessed, adding that based on her observation girls can be petty, gang on each other, and suss about it all. “With boys, you correct them and it’s sort of finished.”
Responsible for putting boys in the band, she is happy that they turned out to be incredible musicians and upstanding men in society.
With no plans for when her tenure would be over, she spent all of 21 years making a positive impact on the lives of young boys, and she would have loved it could have been extended even longer. She appreciated the support of her fellow sisters, supporting teaching and administrative staff, volunteers, and older boys who would mentor the younger ones coming up.
Since being back in New Zealand, she has visited the island on occasion and the boys, now men, all make it a point of duty to honour the remarkable role she has played in their lives.
Entrepreneur Jermaine Mitchell said he doesn’t know where he would be if it wasn’t for Alpha and Sister Goretti. “I came here in 2001 and stayed here until 2008. It was great. When I came and saw that it was only boys at the time, I ran away,” he explained. He was placed with Alpha by the court because his mother had been bringing both him and his brother to the stoplight with her while she hustled for money. “When they brought me to Sister, she told me that this is a good place, I just needed to settle in and get to know others.” He saw someone familiar and was reassured that he would be fine. A year after that, they brought his younger brother and the two settled into the music programme.
“Words can’t explain how much Sister means to me. I still hear her voice in my head. It was just always love, fun, and enjoyment,” he added.
Travis Wedderburn said that Sister Goretti has been a guiding light in his life. “She has always been there for me whilst at Alpha Boys’ School, offering her advice, wisdom, and support. Her kind and compassionate nature has taught me to be a better person and to always strive for excellence in everything that I do. She is an inspiration to me and to those around her, and I am grateful for the impact she has had on my life.”
Security director, Kempton Lewis, said that back in 1995, Sister Goretti sat him down after coming in and gave him his first meal. “That was my first proper meal in years. Sister Maria is an angel sent from above to us on Earth. She taught me how to take care of myself. I didn’t know how to spell my name until age nine and that was all because of her; she taught me how to read.”
A SOURCE OF SECURITY
Past student and staff member, Alphonso Matthie, said that for him, Sister represents security, integrity, dedication and a nurturer with the desire to make others successful. “Her influence and words of advice are what I use to guide my life now. I love Sister; she is what all mothers should aspire to be.”
Ezroy Brown, who has been a member of the Jamaica Defence Force, said he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for Sister Goretti. “I came to Alpha in 1994 at the age of 10. I was very lonely and sad. While sitting down on the step outside in the wilderness, Sister Goretti came over to me and asked, ‘Why are you crying, Ezroy?’ She knew my name even before I knew her. I could not read nor write, but she told me that she saw potential in me and that I would achieve great things in life.” By the end of summer, he had made improvements and a year later, he was able to read.
Playing with the band at events that included government officials and other foreign dignitaries, Sister was there to ensure that the members maintained discipline and were professional at all times.
While they all lament over the fact that the home element is no longer in effect, all parties, including Sister Goretti, are grateful for the journey. She is equally disheartened that being a nun is a dying profession, attributing that to the time. She is encouraging others, however, to reach out and help others in any way possible.