AUSTRALIA: SAINTLY SR. MARY GLOWREY- MISSIONARY- MEDICAL DOCTOR
ARCHDIOCESE OF MELBOURNE REPORT: By Anna Krohn
The sign of contradiction
“In the course of my lifetime I have been called by many names – ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘slow coach’ and ‘dreamer’ – all names that are easily understood and perfectly applicable.”
(The Horizon, 1 January 1932)
It is not too difficult to imagine a slight smile on the face of the truly remarkable but characteristically self-effacing Australian Catholic woman as she penned the above words. Her name was Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ of the Dutch missionary order of the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, whose cause for canonisation by the Church was begun in India late last year.
There has been much excitement spreading about her life. She is noted on the University of Melbourne website and in newspapers and newsfeeds in countries as far apart as Vietnam, Canada, Poland and Italy. And with good reason!
Mary Glowrey combines the determination and shining person-to-person charity of Mother Teresa with the organisational genius of great Australian medical innovators such as the Rev. Dr John Flynn of the Flying Doctor Service and Fred Hollows but in some ways raised to the power of 10.
At school and university she felt “like a fledgling just dropped from the nest”, an ugly duckling whose peers called her a ‘timid mouse’. But her shyness was transformed into contemplative attention. Her self-effacing care made her a ‘first’ in a whole string of outstanding achievements.
Mary was one of the first women in Victoria to achieve a doctorate in medicine in 1919, having previously obtained outstanding results in specialist studies in opthamology, gynaecology and obstetrics. She was also the first general president of the first Catholic women’s organisation in Victoria – the Catholic Women’s Social Guild (now known as the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga) – in October 1916.
Many secular feminists might consider her silent decision to walk away from a successful private medical practice, from her leadership of a large women’s activist group, from personal possessions and her chances of any intimate family or maternal relationship to be totally misguided – in effect ‘good-for-nothing’. Yet they would surely admire the scope of her mission to the planet’s neediest sick people. She began her work in India as a sole medical practitioner with one room and one rudimentary medical cabinet. After 36 years, she had founded and led a hospital, nursing service and training centre that cared in one year for 45,728 inpatients, 562,454 outpatients, 6628 domiciliary nursing cases and more.
Her firsts continued. She may have been the first lay Catholic bioethicist (although this term had not been invented in her time) to write and research the social, theological and moral issues of medical procedures as early as 1907, when she penned a booklet against infanticide in the name of Archbishop Thomas Carr of Melbourne. She continued to intervene from India, contributing academic papers resisting the rise of eugenics, euthanasia and coercive population control in the European medical culture throughout the 1930s and ’40s.
She was the world’s first religious sister to be permitted to practise medicine, she established the first ward for incurables in India and she inspired the building of India’s first Catholic medical college. During the famine, violence and disruption of World War II, she founded the first Indian Catholic Health Association in 1943.
As her Indian biographer, Florence Swaminkannu writes, Mary was a pioneer of “tremendous zeal and ‘fight’ as opposed to passivity” and had from her earliest professional years a “forthright” though “unassuming candour and practicality”. Holiness typically unifies paradoxical opposites creating a new and marvelous whole.
How did an intelligent but reticent young woman born into a simple but devoted Western District Irish Catholic family (on 23 June 1887) – at a time when Catholics and women had to struggle – find the way to such an extraordinary life and how did she understand her vocation?
Perhaps the most powerful insights into this come from Mary’s own simple reflections related on the type-written sheets of her incomplete autobiographical sketch, which she entitled: God’s Good for Nothing.
Listening in on her thoughts, we can see how God called her to his love through what Blessed Edith Stein describes as a woman’s holiness (the feminine genius): “a vivid empathy” for both the goodness of all created life and a burning desire to “want to be there for another human being”.
The treasury of her family
In the town of Watchem at the age of six, she became entirely capable of a wide range of self-sufficient tasks – “making jam, soap, candles and simple meals.” Making something out of nothing became a miracle she worked in her later medical work. At the same very early age, she also had a powerful insight that formed the rest of her life: “that if I should always do what was well pleasing in God’s sight” then all things would be clear and even sin would be impossible.
Mary was the third of seven children, and was deeply formed by the everyday prayer life of her family and particularly of her beloved mother and father, Margaret and Edward Glowrey. Regular ‘trimmings’ on the Rosary included a plea for more priests and doctors. In addition, it was understood through the example of her parents that all the baptised were ‘apostles’, years before this was articulated and confirmed by several 20th-century Popes and Vatican II.
Her mother Margaret was a gifted untrained catechist who ‘met’ children and others at their own pace. Mary called this ‘mother’s apostolate’ and it deeply impressed her. Mary’s mother taught her to wait patiently on God’s will – not as if God was some remote and dictatorial tyrant but as a loving Father who called us to live in relationship with Jesus Christ through the very real power of the Holy Spirit. Thus in her remote Australian town, Mary had a true taste of Trinitarian mission. Later her dedication to the Holy Spirit was to play a vital role in her work as a missionary doctor.
The call of the culture of life
In a very moving letter to her family from India, on her father’s death, Mary wrote that the guileless disciple of Jesus, Nathaniel, reminded her of her father Edward Glowrey: “Dada’s goodness was that of that unobtrusive, self-forgetting kind, which is so precious and so rare.”
It was Edward who gave Mary the strongest encouragement in the apostolate of medical studies, particularly supporting her against the common view that medicine was an unfeminine vocation. With Mary’s mother, he opened her mind to offering hospitality and social justice to a group of travelling Indians who would regularly stay on their property and were nursed back to health by the family. “My father’s kindness to this group of Indians was not an isolated instance. He was kind to everybody … His solicitude extended to the spiritual as well as the temporal welfare of those he met,” writes Mary.
Her parents also gave her a sense that what she did with her life – as with every single life – mattered to the world and to God. It is clear from her writing that her experience of her own serious childhood sickness (diphtheria and rheumatic fever), the loss of a baby brother and sister, and her keen vision of the grief caused by this, formed an indelible channel in her vocational reflections.
She realised that grief “was a real physical pain” and that losing a precious baby could leave “a void that could not be filled”. She also realised that her family’s tenderness with the dying was not just a social custom but a mission owed to all people.
It was this ‘vivid empathy’ that drew Mary away from her deeply loved humanities studies, at which she excelled, to medicine. There was a surprisingly ecumenical encouragement in her vocation, from the Presbyterian town doctor to a Protestant who pointed out Catholic medical principles during a controversial procedure which they both opposed.
Dr Mary Glowrey, who would spend herself in the almost impossible task of curing and reverencing the bodies of the newborn, pregnant, plague-ridden and dying people of Guntur, experienced first hand the ‘gnawing disease’ of bone cancer as a final culmination of herself becoming like Christ – a path first shown to her through her family.
Her confidence in saying ‘yes’ to her religious life and heroic mission in India was a joining of smaller dots of light from her early life. This definitive calling, which came after Mary had listened to a Scriptural homily given on Hospital Sunday on 24 October 1915 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, marked the beginning of a health apostolate which would ultimately help countless millions. At the end of her extraordinary life, Mary said ‘yes’ once again and shouldered the Cross of excruciating physical pain and suffering. Mary’s only regret, in her own words: ‘I have not done enough. I could have done more.’
Anna Krohn is a sessional tutor in the Nursing Department at Australian Catholic University, the National Bioethics Convenor for the Catholic Women's League Australia and an academic skills adviser at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.