Sent to India to study small lizards, Sister Cyril Mooney ended up working to transform the country's education system, one student and one school at a time.
She began by throwing open the doors of a Roman Catholic-run private girls school, designating half the spots to girls who couldn't afford the tuition, food, books or uniforms.
"Education is not learning from books -- it is societal transformation," says Mooney, 75, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manitoba last week for her innovations in education.
The member of the Roman Catholic order the Sisters of Loreto will speak about her work at a free public lecture at St. Paul's College, 7 p.m. on June 11. She is on campus until mid-July, when she will travel to Liverpool, England, to pick up another honorary degree from Hope University.
In India since 1956, the Irish-born Mooney earned a PhD in zoology, taught at Loreto College in Calcutta and then became principal of the Loreto Day School Sealdah in 1979.
Not content to run a Catholic private school for girls from upper-class families, Mooney went beyond the walls of the institution to meet people in the neighbourhood.
Mooney opened up half of the 1,400 seats in the Calcutta school to poor students, changing the merit-based entrance requirement to a lottery system and inviting street children to stay overnight and receive tutoring from Loreto students during the day.
"We have empty schools at night," she explains of how she began the Rainbow program for street children.
"I said, 'Why not make use of this space and take these children in?' "
For the last half-dozen years, University of Manitoba students and graduates have visited Loreto Day School as part of an intensive field-study program.
"When I take my students there, they are just blown away by this school," says Rev. David Creamer, who teaches religion and education at the university.
"They do very innovative things at that school."
In addition to her work at the day school, Mooney also built more day schools, developed curriculum and initiated teacher training programs in remote villages, training youth with limited futures to become primary-school teachers.
"If you take them in and show them how much they know and how to use what they know, then they blossom," Mooney says of the program that has trained several thousand teachers and reached 350,000 children.
Now reluctantly retired from the school after more than three decades as principal, Mooney plans to return to India in summer to become an education consultant to the state of West Bengal, bringing her innovative approach to education to government-run schools.
She was officially recognized for her work in 2007, when the president of India awarded her the country's fourth highest civilian honour. Mooney and Mother Teresa are the only foreign-born recipients of the honour.
"My order is telling me, 'Now that you're free, you can go all over the world and spread your message,' " says Mooney, referring to the 300-year-old Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the Sisters of Loreto are also known.
The Indian government recently implemented mandatory education for children up to age 14 in an attempt to increase the literacy standards in the country.
"It was just the realization even 50 years after independence, many children are not in school," Mooney says of the right-to-education law.
"Half of unschooled children in the world are in India due to poverty and lack of schools."
Once the children are inside the classroom, Mooney also hopes to change what they learn by attempting to change the competitive nature of Indian education to a more community-based approach.
During her years at Loreto, she eliminated the academic ranking system where one student in a classroom would be singled out as the best student and instead recognized the achievements of many.
"The most important thing to teach children is whatever you have gotten, it's not just for yourself," she says.
"If you have something, it's for you to give."
That commitment to others is evident to everyone who meets Mooney, says a Catholic priest and U of M professor who visited Mooney in India two years ago.
"One of her quotes that stood out for me is, 'When I go to heaven, Jesus is not going to ask if I was a nun or was I a principal of a school,' " recalls Rev. Jeffrey Burwell of a conversation he had with Mooney.
"He's going to ask, 'Did I help the poor?' "