Call to India

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Sailing for India

Mary Glowrey pictured on the boat to India. © Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga

“It is up to Him to point the way and for me to follow.”

Dr Mary Glowrey, 2 November 1916

Formed in an openness and surrender to the will of God over many years of selflessness and prayer, Mary Glowrey left her thriving career as an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist on the 21st January 1920. She sailed for India to become a medical missionary with the Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Guntur. She later learnt that this day was also the first Wednesday of a special annual Novena made to St Joseph by the Sisters of the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in India each year.16 Among their intentions was medical help for their missions.17

Pope Pius XI bestowed a special blessing on her medical mission work and Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, as Mary Glowrey was then known, became the first nun-doctor missionary.

Mary Glowrey placed the remainder of her life at the service of the medical and spiritual needs of the people of India, as an expression of her own deeply held love for God and for humanity. The small dispensary in Guntur grew into St Joseph’s Hospital where Mary Glowrey, for many years the lone doctor, trained local women to be dispensers, nurses and midwives to help stem the tide of suffering. She often travelled to visit the sick and dying in outlaying villages, crouching down to treat patients on the earthen floor of their small straw huts. She also studied and made extensive use of traditional Indian medicines.

Her whole life in India consisted of serving God and the sick. Mary Glowrey was said to radiate Christ by word and example. The poor were the people of her choice and incurable patients had a special place in her heart. She gave herself wholeheartedly to her patients, for she saw Christ in each and everyone. ‘Her life was a continual leaving God for God in His people.’18 Sister Mary could usually be found in the Church or in the hospital. She would often walk between these two locations reading a medical journal or correspondence. Countless patients flocked to see the ‘gentle Sister Doctor.’ There was no pretence of any kind about her. She was so humble that she could talk as easily with a child as she could with an intellectual.

The-Doctors-Visit 350
Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ caring for a young boy with leprosy, circa 1930. © Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga

In 1943, Mary founded the Catholic Hospital Association of India which has grown to become the largest Non Government Organisation (NGO) in the health care sector. Mary Glowrey recognised the vital need to promote the Christian use of medicine. Her vision was the establishment of Catholic Medical and Nursing Colleges in India in order to train professionals whose medical care would be grounded in an understanding of the absolute inviolability of human life and placed at the service of life.

Mary Glowrey had infinite confidence in Divine Providence. A fellow nun who knew her well said: “It is almost certain that Sister Mary never attempted anything and never finished anything without seeking the aid and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such was her devotion to and union to Him in her daily work. This proved again and showed her deep humility in her realisation that without the gift of the Holy Spirit she could do nothing, but with Him she could attempt all things. She did attempt the impossible at all times and she tried to inspire others to attempt them also.”

For the last two years of her life, she shouldered the Cross of excruciating physical pain which she bore with extraordinary courage and patience. On 21st November 1956, the Feast of Our Lady’s Presentation, Mary was sent a new and lasting cross. In trying to help her nurse, Mary grasped the rail of her bed with her ‘good’ right arm but the bone had become brittle as result the cancer that had now spread throughout her body and the arm broke, never to be mended. During this last illness, Sister Mary managed to translate the revised Holy Rule from Dutch into English with the book suspended over her bed so that she could read it.19 Sister Mary’s only regret, in her own words: ‘I have not done enough. I could have done more.’20

Mary died on Sunday the 5th of May, 1957. Her last words were: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” and “My Jesus, I love you”.

At her requiem Mass, the Bishop of Guntur described Mary Glowrey as a “…special creation of God…a great soul who embraced the whole world.” It was in Bangalore, where Mary Glowrey so courageously lived the final months of her life, offering her suffering to God for her dreams for India that St John’s Medical College was eventually built almost a decade later.

16. Glowrey, op. cit.
17. Ibid, p 20.
18. Authors Unknown, Account of the Life and Work in India of Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart (Collated in 1968 by Sister Mary Stanislas).
19. Florence Swamikannu, op. cit., p 165.
20. Authors Unknown, op. cit.
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