Mary Glowrey (1887-1957): Australian witness to hope in India

Mary Glowrey (1887-1957): Australian witness to hope in India

Robyn Fahy And Fr Dan Strickland MGL

When in early January 1920, a brass plate disappeared from the front of 82 Collins St, Melbourne, an extraordinary story remained untold for many years. The plate bore the inscription, Mary Glowrey, M.D. Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist.

Mary Glowrey was born in 1887 at Birregurra in Victoria. Of Irish descent, she was the third of nine children born into a loving and prayerful family. Each night the Rosary was said and with it a prayer for priests and doctors. Mary, recalling that practice many years later, wrote: "When my brother and I were respectively priest and doctor, I sincerely hoped that many another mother added that 'trimming' to the Rosary."

Mary's outstanding academic achievements would earn her a University Exhibition, an invaluable cash scholarship and, pursuing her literary interests, she began studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne in 1905. However, after a great deal of prayer and the encouragement of her father, Mary switched over to the medical course and graduated in 1910 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.

After completing her residency in New Zealand, she returned to build her own successful private practice in Melbourne, later working at St Vincent's Hospital and the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

God's call

A chance reading in 1915 of a pamphlet about the appalling death rate amongst babies in India fundamentally changed the direction of her life. Falling to her knees, Mary finished reading the pamphlet and knew God was calling her to help the women and children of India.

Meanwhile, Mary's busy schedule of external commitments continued. In 1916, she was elected as the first General President of the newly formed Catholic Women's Social Guild, now known as the Catholic Women's League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga. Deeply concerned about the economic and social inequities that women faced, this inspired group of young Catholic women sought to change society through prayer and action. This was the first large scale organising of Catholic women in Victoria.

During this busy time, Mary also studied for a higher medical degree with a particular emphasis on obstetrics, gynaecology and ophthalmology in preparation for her medical missionary work. She became a Doctor of Medicine in December 1919.

In January 1920, Mary left her thriving career as an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist and, surrendering herself completely to God's will, sailed for India to become a medical missionary with the Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Guntur. Pope Pius XI later bestowed a special blessing on her medical work and, as Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, she became the first nun-doctor missionary.

A woman of profound faith and brilliant achievement, she placed the remainder of her life at the service of the medical and spiritual needs of the people of India.

In time the small dispensary in Guntur grew into St Joseph's Hospital where Mary, for many years the lone doctor, trained local women to be pharmacists, nurses and midwives to help stem the tide of suffering.

Countless patients flocked to see the "gentle Sister Doctor" who often travelled to visit the sick and dying in outlying villages, crouching down to treat patients on the earthen floors of their small straw huts. She also studied and made extensive use of traditional Indian medicines.

Mary was said to radiate Christ by word and example and she never attempted anything without praying to the Holy Spirit, knowing that with such help all things are possible.

Recognising the vital need to promote the Christian use of medicine, Mary founded the Catholic Hospital Association of India in 1943. Her vision was the establishment of a Catholic Medical College in order to train professionals whose medical care would be grounded in an understanding of the absolute inviolability of human life and be placed at the service of life.

Suffering

For the last two years of her life, Mary shouldered the Cross of excruciating physical pain and suffering which she bore with extraordinary courage and patience. The sisters who witnessed her apostolate of suffering have described the calm, serene joy radiating from Mary's face, which struck all who approached her.

On 21 November 1956, the Feast of Our Lady's Presentation, Mary was sent a new and lasting cross. In trying to help her nurse, she grasped the rail of her bed with her 'good' right arm but the bone had become brittle as a result of the cancer that had now spread throughout her body and the arm broke, never to be mended. She just had to lie on her bed bearing her added suffering, accepting God's will as she had always sought to do. Her only regret, in her own words, "I have not done enough. I could have done more."

When Mary finally died on 5 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 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 a little over a decade after her death. One of her fellow sisters was amongst the first intake of medical students.

To obtain a copy of the prayer for the cause of Dr Mary Glowrey, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the General Secretary of the Catholic Women's League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga, Mary Glowrey House, 132-134 Nicholson St, Fitzroy, Vic, 3065.

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