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Mary Aileen Menezes was born in Georgetown, (then) British Guiana in 1930. She entered the community of the Sisters of Mercy in 1947 and received her religious training in Pennsylvania, USA. In 1950, Sister Mary Noel came home to teach at St Joseph High School, and two years later entered St Joseph's Training College in Jamaica where she gained a Teacher's Diploma in Education with Honours for her thesis "The Teaching of Art and Craft in the School." Returning to Guyana, she taught at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Girls' School until 1963.
Sister Mary Noel's studies for the Bachelor of Arts degree in History at College Misericordia, Dallas, Pennsylvania, and a Master of Arts in Latin American History (summa cum laude) at Georgetown University, Washington, DC was followed by a teaching stint at Sacred Heart College, Belmont, North Carolina, and College Misericordia from which she later received an Honorary Doctorate in Humanities. In 1967, the highly acclaimed educator began a long and vibrant teaching career at the University of Guyana in the Department of History, with a break in 1970 when she was offered a Ford Foundation Fellowship - an American Award - to read for her PhD at the University of London. Her thesis - "British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana 1803-1873" was published in 1977 by Oxford University Press, and through to 1995 Sister Menezes continued to produce a spate of books which led to her carrying out extensive research in the main archives of London, Holland, Portugal, Madeira and the United States. She has also published innumerable articles in a variety of journals. In 2005 Sister Menezes was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of the West Indies, St Augustine.
When Sister Menezes was appointed Chief Supervisor of the MA Programme in Guyanese History in 1973, the History Department at the University of Guyana became the first in the university to offer a Master's Degree. In 1977 she was made Head of the Department and three years later became Professor of History.
Professor Menezes has been the recipient of a number of awards and honours but one of the highpoints in a brilliant career was her initiation of a research methodology course at UG which prepared students to write, not only their research papers, but also their theses, using her two text books A Guide to Historical Research, and its subsequent edition How to do Better Research which is widely used in the university.
Author of several books, Menezes has published extensively on two major subjects: the history of the Amerindians in Guyana from the early 19th century and the history of the Portuguese community. On both topics, she is a recognised academic authority.
Author of How To Do Better Research, a book geared primarily towards students of history, Menezes believes that regardless of the field one is in, one must understand how to do effective research.
Mary Aileen Menezes always wanted to be a nun: "As far as I remember, I never thought of anything else, much to the horror and objections of my mother. When I look back at my life I have been very, very blessed. God has been very good to me in so many ways - little and big ones - family, community, friends, and wonderful students." At age 75, Sister Menezes remains very busy and is still doing what she has always done since the 1970's: "Visiting and helping the patients at the leprosarium three times a month.
Sister Menezes is the recipient of a scholarship courtesy of the Government of India and it took her on travels throughout India where one of the professors enquired “if anyone was working on the history of the Portuguese in Guyana and what she was doing about it,” which created the impetus for her interest in the Portuguese community.
Needing money to finance her research in Madeira, Menezes was assisted by an Australian woman who, it turned out, was taught by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy and wanted to give something back. “So I went to Madeira, met professors, attended conferences, got grants. I am the only person to have written on the Portuguese in Guyana," she said.
Menezes, who is from a Portuguese-Guyanese family, said she had to learn Portuguese to do her research and is today the only historian in Guyana who speaks the language.
Apart from her work at the University of Guyana and at the order where she has held several offices, including that of regional superior, Menezes was resident manager for 35 years of an orphanage for boys aged between two and 16. She also founded the Mercy Boys Home for boys who leave the orphanage at 16. She has, in addition, been a regular visitor to Hansen’s Disease patients at the Mahaica Hospital.