Sylvia Wright: Meet Leeds's own Mother Teresa

Sylvia Wright was living the comfortable life of someone at the top of their profession when she decided to cash it all in to help strangers on the other side of the world.

Grant Woodward hears her remarkable story.

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'We don't have seasons like this in India, we just have hot, hotter and hottest," says Sylvia Wright, smiling as she surveys the blossom trees, budding branches and colourful blooms of an English spring.

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"So being back here and seeing the flowers coming out is beautiful.

"I still think of it as home and I know people think I might come back for good. But just as I didn't really plan it when I went out there, I'm not really planning to come back."

Twenty-eight years ago, Sylvia Wright was living a short distance from here in Adel. A senior lecturer training future nurses at Leeds Metropolitan University, she lived a comfortable life with a wide circle of friends.

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But slowly the feeling began to gnaw at her that she could, and should, be doing more.

"My father's family were farmers and had a lovely place in East Keswick," she recalls, in an accent that still marks her out as a native of Yorkshire. "I thought, I can live here and not do any harm to anybody. But then you think, Well, you won't do any good either, will you?"

The idea to do something extraordinary had taken root some years earlier, when she worked with immigrants arriving from Pakistan and other parts of Asia.

Sylvia became fascinated by their culture and, when they spoke of the wonders she could work among the poor and sick in their own countries, she started to consider a very drastic change of career.

"I began to feel that my life here was a very comfortable life and so for at least a few years I would go and try to help people less fortunate than myself.

"I sold my house and car, as well as the property in East Keswick, and went to India. People thought it was very strange and that I was quite mad. And, at times, I suppose I thought I was maybe a bit mad myself.

"My brother, in particular, used to get very exasperated. He used to say to me, 'Why can't you just be normal like everyone else?'

"Everybody had a view about it, and it was totally different from mine.

But once I'd made up my mind to do it, that was it."

Sylvia headed to Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, about a four-hour drive from Chennai, formerly Madras.

It is a sacred city that attracts pilgrims from all over the world and Sylvia knew of an order of nuns with a small hospital there.

"First of all I wrote to Mother Theresa, because she was the only name I knew and I thought she would be able to guide me.

"But she suggested that I enter the order and I decided that wasn't for me, so I went to this place in Tamil Nadu and found that it was mostly a rural area and the people were living in these desperately poor villages.

"At that time it hadn't really rained for four years, so people were not able to work in the fields. It was a very sad place and I thought I could do something to help them.

"The idea was to stay five years, then I'd come back and would be young enough to take up my career again, but of course it didn't quite work out like that."

Sylvia began working in six villages, training local people in preventive medicine and how to detect the first signs of disease.

But soon she was getting a lot of questions from curious officials who wondered who this woman was and what exactly she was doing there.

"They were used to white people going out there to convert people to a particular religion and assumed I was doing the same," she says. "When they realised I wasn't doing that they decided I must be a spy.

"I told them, 'What is there to spy on in Tiruvannamalai? A few cows?'

"Fortunately the British High Commission got involved and gradually the officials came to realise I was just trying to do something to help the people."

She would visit the villages daily, seeing up to 400 patients a day, until the villagers asked if she had thought of setting up a small hospital.

"And that's how it all started," she says. "And from there it just grew and grew."

By 2002 the small hospital with room for barely a dozen patients had become a 200-bed building with 13 wards, an intensive care unit and two operating theatres.

Today, the hospital treats around 8,000 patients a year, as well as 80,000 outpatients.

A school for the region's many deaf children was opened in 1996, followed by a vocational training centre, clinics for health matters ranging from cardiac conditions to Aids and a centre for training local


Unsurprisingly, the money Sylvia had taken with her quickly ran out, so she was indebted to a group of friends back in Leeds who, from very early on, sent what they could to help fund her work.

That eventually became the Sylvia Wright Trust, which is now a registered charity and this year provided nearly 400,000 to support her efforts.

"I didn't have a five-year plan or anything like that," she smiles. "I would make it up as I went along really, much to people's horror. I used to write home and they would think, 'What's she doing now?'

"But each thing has been in response to what appeared to be a need and people asking if I could do something. And there is always something saying to me, 'This is not enough. You can do more'."

Sylvia says she has been helped in her work by her strong Catholic faith, which was one of the reasons for her going to India all those years ago.

"Christianity has always intrigued me," she says. "What exactly does it mean?

"So I read what our Lord says and decided that what he described was the way I wanted to live, 'Go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow me'.

"I just thought that if I'm going to live then that's the way I want to do it. It hasn't always been easy, especially at the beginning, because it is a totally different culture and way of living.

"A couple of times I thought, I'm going, I can't do this anymore. Once I even got into the van and started off for Chennai, but about halfway there I turned round and came back again.

"Everybody's life has ups and downs, but basically I know this is my job, this is my duty and you get on with it."

Sylvia has never married, despite being tempted 'once or twice', and her time is now taken up by the heavy workload that comes with coordinating a staff of 400 and working with the Indian government to improve healthcare in the region.

When she says that none of what she has done has been with the thought of personal reward in mind it is impossible not to believe her.

Nevertheless, she does admit she enjoyed having a chat with the Queen, just the two of them, when she received her MBE.

"The Queen came on an official visit to India and presented it to me personally. Of course, everyone said, 'Only you could have the Queen come to you rather than you go to her!'.

"But for my OBE I came back because I thought I would like to have a look at Buckingham Palace and see what it was like."

Sylvia sees the forthcoming years as ones of consolidation, ensuring that the infrastructure her hard work has put in place can remain in place long after she has gone.

As for her own plans, she is less sure.

"I have always lived without planning and I think I will probably die in the same way," she says.

"But whatever happens, I will take it in my stride."

* A Concert for Sylvia to raise funds for the Sylvia Wright Trust will take place on Sunday at 2pm at Notre Dame Sixth Form College in Leeds.

Tickets priced 5 or 10 for a family are available on 0113 2037228.

Paula Dillon, President of Leeds Chamber Commerce.

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