To India with love

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Dr Mary Glowrey, fourth from right, at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne in 1915. PHOTO: Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga

Trailblazing Melbourne woman could be our next saint

On 27 January, 100 years ago (in 1920) a ship, the SS Orsova, docked in the Port of Fremantle in preparation for its long voyage to London. It was sailing via the port of Colombo on the South West Coast of today’s Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).

Disembarking briefly on that summer day, was the 33 year-old Victorian Catholic woman and Doctor of Medicine, Mary Glowrey, for her first and only visit to Western Australia after something of a rough six-day voyage from Melbourne.

Dr Mary’s adventure was in many ways one into the unknown. Photos of her from the voyage, show the usually-reserved woman, brimming with smiles and excitement. She was convinced that her journey was in response to God’s will for her to serve the Gospel and the Indian people as a religious medical sister.

She was ingenious and inventive in her confrontations with drought, famine, plague and with the common shortage of medicine and equipment.

By her early 30s, Dr Mary Glowrey’s depth of faith and her achievements were already remarkable. Today she is recognised by the Catholic Church as a ‘Servant of God’ for her example of outstanding goodness and faith.

At a time when very few women studied medicine she graduated from Melbourne University in 1910 with Bachelor Degrees in Medicine and Surgery. She established her own practice, worked in a number of emergency and outpatient clinics at Melbourne hospitals and embarked on specialist studies in ophthalmology, obstetrics and gyneacology.

In 1919 she overcame an even rarer goal, completing a Doctorate in Medicine. She is honoured by her alma mater, Melbourne University in a tribute to women medical pioneers.

The young doctor, above, at her graduation with an MBBS from the University of Melbourne in 1910. PHOTO: Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga

As the first President of the Catholic Women’s Social Guild (1916) (which is today the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga) she directed her medical insights into articles, talks and classes which would assist the social, working and personal lives of women.

The Day in Fremantle

We know from her subsequent letter writing how much Mary relished, the sights and sounds of her last ever day on Australian soil in Fremantle and Perth.

She was greeted by relatives, including her paternal uncle John Glowrey and his family. Her uncle John had moved to Western Australia, where he became the Mayor of Coolgardie, an MLC and then a successful publican of the Palace Hotel on St George’s Terrace.

Mary was enthusiastic and humorous about her short visit to Western Australia. She visited Cottlesloe beach, King’s Park and St Mary’s Cathedral. She wrote: ‘There is nothing in Melbourne to compare with Kings Park and the Swan River … The river is so wide and beautiful it is more like a harbour to eyes accustomed to the Yarra.”

On her arrival in India in February 1920, Mary became a professed sister in the (originally) Dutch missionary order of Jesus Mary and Joseph and as Dr Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart JMJ would be the Church’s first religious sister and medical physician.

“God has guided me wonderfully, so now I want to thank you, Mama, for that lesson of long ago, and Dada for expressing God’s Holy Will in the matter of studying medicine.”

She worked for the rest of her life in India, beginning in Guntur in the southeastern state of Andra  and its surrounding regions. For much of that time, she was drastically under-resourced and often worked as the sole medical practitioner demonstrating such organisational dexterity and foresight, that she was able to tend to tens of thousands of patients, while establishing a hospital, training local people in nursing and pharmaceutical compounding, running mobile clinics and corresponding with local bishops and religious communities.

She was ingenious and inventive in her confrontations with drought, famine, plague and with the common shortage of medicine and equipment. She also kept up a lively correspondence with Australia and kept abreast of research and ethical controversy in Western medicine and society.

Mary Glowrey departs Melbourne aboard the Orsova in 1920. PHOTO: Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga

With a unique grasp of the importance of ethical, organisational and medical co-operation between Catholic professionals and institutions, and while India was experiencing the deprivations and dangers of the Second World War, Dr Mary founded the Catholic Hospitals’ Association in 1943.

Today her legacy lives on in the Catholic Health Association of India which currently plays an important part in that nation’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Remarkably, the Association established by Dr Glowery CHAI currently cares for over 21 million Indians each year and comprises 3,500 member agencies, 500 hospitals and clinics, 5 medical colleges, 7,600 healthcare workers and 1,000 religious sisters who are also qualified doctors.

The Association has, in recent months, assembled on-line training programs, devised sanitary protocols, and outreach packages and multi-lingual campaigns to the most disadvantaged people in India.

By November this year, with an estimated 440,000 active COVID-19 cases and more than 853,000 deaths, the CHAI network is working with the motto, “reaching the unreachable” by assisting clinically and socially with Corona Life Care (a hotline set up in response to the pandemic), a geographical online food network and providing assistance on the frontline.

This year, the Indian Doctor and professed sister, Dr Sister Beena Umi, who works in Mumbai as part of the CHAI network, reflected something of the ethos first founded by CHAI’s Australian founder so many years ago.

In a blog posted on the CHAI website she reflected on the intensity of her experiences of the heat, suffering and crisis during the pandemic – but also of the power of prayer, the real joys and sense of God’s presence with her co-workers and patients during this time:

Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ, at left. PHOTO: Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga

“I experienced God’s providence and protection in a tangible way as we received spiritual and material support from many friends, well-wishers and benefactors.

“Their generosity and magnanimity helped our hospital to steer ahead even when we had suffered financial crises. The powerful presence of the Divine Healer and his miraculous healing touch is experienced by all of us, especially our patients as they restored back to health and wholeness.”

Writing from India in 1924 to her parents, Servant of God Mary Glowrey thanked them for their wise and faith-filled formation of her sense of vocation. She reflected on how she was acutely aware of the intergenerational importance of the example and transmission of wisdom and faith: “God has guided me wonderfully, so now I want to thank you, Mama, for that lesson of long ago, and Dada for expressing God’s Holy Will in the matter of studying medicine,” she wrote.

“For day by day I see more clearly how in healing the sick one comes in touch with souls, souls more weak and suffering than the bodies.”

For more information visit the Mary Glowrey Museum.

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