By anyone’s reckoning, Mary Glowrey’s story is an extraordinary one. In this feature, we explore some of the ways that Mary was a pioneer in health and mission for the Church.
Born in country Victoria in 1887, Mary was educated through scholarships and became a successful Melbourne doctor. In 1920 she left her homeland, professional life and loved ones to live in Guntur in India. She joined the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and became the world’s first nun-doctor of modern times.
For more than 36 years, many of them as the only Catholic female doctor in the region. Mary treated or oversaw the care of hundreds of thousands of patients, most impoverished women, who would not consult male doctors. She also brought about significant changes as a visionary medical educator with an eye to a sustainable future for Indian healthcare.
Promoting holistic care
We hear a great deal today about holistic health. But one hundred years ago the field was only just emerging.
Before leaving Australia, Mary demonstrated a compassionate understanding of the social, environmental, occupational and nutritional factors which contributed to the well-being of people.
In 1916 she began to serve as the founding president of the Catholic Women’s Social Guild (now the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga). She was especially aware of the ‘bustling and over-full lives’ of women and the vulnerability of children. She saw that moral decisions and relationships could be affected by poor living conditions.
In her article ‘Sleep’ (one of many) from 1917, Mary seems positively contemporary with her emphasis on holistic self-care. She writes of brisk exercise, fresh air and good digestive function: ‘Deal fairly with yourself in this respect, and so help to preserve your most valuable asset —health.’
Mary combined medical acumen and spiritual presence. She displayed remarkable ingenuity and resilience in her missionary work in the face of nearly impossible shortages of medical personnel and resources. She studied traditional Indian medicines to develop more affordable remedies. She improvised where equipment was scarce, such as devising sterilisers out of old machinery.
Building Catholic health networks
Mary Glowrey was a genius of healthcare organisation and a true entrepreneur of interpersonal and institutional networking in India. She often wrote to other Catholic nurses, doctors, and the Bishops: ‘We must organise ourselves!’
Mary had a vision for a Catholic healthcare system. In 1943 she spearheaded an India-wide organisation now called the Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI), one of the largest non-government health care providers in the world. Today, CHAI auspices the care of over 21 million Indians annually and incorporates 76,000 healthcare professionals and over 1000 sister doctors.
Mary also instigated the training of Indian-born health professionals within an avowedly Christian setting. A champion of education, particularly for women, she trained compounders, midwives and nurses so that, formed in professional excellence, enriched with sound ethical and spiritual formation, they could effectively treat the needy in their homes, villages, and even by the roadside.
From her earliest years in India Mary worked tirelessly towards establishing a Catholic Medical College. St John’s College was opened in Bangalore in 1963, six years after her death.
Humble and spirit-centred leadership
Mary’s tireless work with the impoverished sick and needy, and her agonising experiences with cancer in the 1950s, drew her more deeply to contemplative prayer and solidarity with heart of the suffering Christ.
Her spiritual guide in Melbourne, Fr William Lockington SJ, and the inspiring Dr Anna Dengel, founder of the Medical Mission Sisters, modelled for her a ‘union with the Holy Spirit’ upon whom she called almost constantly. Her quiet demeanour blossomed into self-effacing strength and humble leadership, a massive tangible force for the Gospel and the healing of tens of thousands.
Dr Sister Mary Glowrey JMJ was declared ‘Servant of God’ on 27 March 2013, before 7,000 people, in the Cathedral of Phirangipuram in Guntur India. She is only the second Australian the Church has judged to be of such outstanding service and heroic virtue, love and faith that she can be given this title.
The Mary Glowrey Museum
The Mary Glowrey Museum at Australian Catholic University’s Fitzroy Campus opened in late May. The Museum features Mary’s story and legacy, illustrated by selections from her extensive correspondence with family and friends in Australia.
It includes audio-visual and interactive experiences and is situated in the space used by the Catholic Women’s Social Guild in 1916. School, parish and other tour groups are welcome.
The website can be accessed at www.maryglowreymuseum.info
Some more inspiring Australian Catholic women:
St Mary MacKillop. 15 January 1842 – 8 August 1909
Australia’s first saint. Mary’s life was dedicated to serving God by helping those most vulnerable. She and her fellow sisters established schools and helped the Australian poor, persevering with faith and trust in God even in the face of great opposition.
Caroline Chisholm. 30 May 1808 – 25 March 1877
‘The emigrant’s friend’. A number of Australian Catholic schools are already named after Caroline, who is remembered for welcoming unaccompanied and impoverished migrant women to Sydney, and helping them make a life in their new home.
Eileen O’Connor. 19 February 1892 – 10 January 1921
Co-founder of the religious order Our Lady’s Nurses of the Poor, Irene ministered to the poor and sick in their homes in Sydney. She achieved a great deal in her life despite living with severe pain and disability due to a fall that broke her spine at the age of three.
Irene McCormack. 21 August 1938 – 21 May 1991
A Josephite Sister, Irene went to Peru to accompany the poor in Latin America in 1987. She ministered among the people in Huasahuasi, in the Andes Mountains, helping poor children in their education and distributing emergency goods where needed. She was killed by guerrillas there in 1991.
Mary Vincent Whitty. 1 March 1819 – 9 March 1892
Born in Ireland, Mary was third Superior General of the Mercy Sisters and achieved a great deal even before she emigrated to Australia. Arriving in Brisbane in 1861, she established a network of schools and social institutions across Queensland.
Rosemary Goldie. 1 February 1916 – 27 February 2010
Rosemary was the first woman to serve in an executive role in the Roman Curia. She was an auditor in the Second Vatican Council, and was appointed as undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity from 1967 to 1978.