Canonization process begins for pioneering French missionary nun

Mother Gertrude died in 1905

By Matters India Reporter

Nagpur: A French missionary nun, who brought succor to lepers and victims of famine and cholera of late 19th century in northern India, is the latest candidate for sainthood from the country.

Mother Marie Gertrude Gros passed the first stage of the canonization process on November 29 when Archbishop Abraham Viruthakulangara of Nagpur closed an archdiocesan enquiry into her heroic deeds.

The closing ceremony took place at St Francis De Sales Cathedral in Nagpur, the central Indian city that the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (SMMI) nun had used as her base of her activities that spread even to current Bangladesh.

Sister Gertrude, as she was popularly known, died on March 18, 1905, at the age of 55, at Dhaka where she had gone to visit an ailing nun. She died of gangrene on a foot that spread to through the whole body.

The canonization process began in 2005 when her congregation approached Archbishop Viruthakulangara to begin the cause. Six years later, the archbishop obtained the transfer of competency from Rome to initiate the cause in Nagpur.

Mother Gertrude received the title of Servant of God on December 13, 2012, at St Francis De Sales Cathedral.

Meanwhile, several SMMI sisters and lay people gave witness to various favors they received through Mother Gertrude’s intercession.

The archdiocese exhumed her mortal remains on January 25, 2015, and placed them in a new casket and interred in a new tomb.

Mother Gertrude was born as Felicie Gros on March 27, 1850, in Paris. She lost her father Eugene Gros when she was five years old. Her mother noticed in her an exceptional intelligence, a reflective spirit and helped her to develop all this qualities, says “Pathbreaker,” a biography of the nun published by the congregation.

At the age of 22, she joined the Daughters of St Francis De Sales, an association founded by Father Henri Chaumont, and professed vows on January 29, 1875.

The association’s constitution allowed its members to lead a religious life in the world provided they regularly attend the weekly meeting. The rules also made provisions for community life for those who want to dedicate themselves to the service of God.

From the beginning, Mother Gertrude was given many responsibilities in the association and in 1882, she was elected superior of the first house.

In the same year, the congregation’s council decided to give special formation to those who wished to serve in the missions. The team chosen for the missions was known as Catechist Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (CMMI). Marie Gertrude was among the first to volunteer for the missions.

In 1884, she became a general councilor and novice director.

In 1889, Bishop Alexis Riccaz of Nagpur requested the CMMI congregation to send sisters to work in India. Mother Gertrude led the three-member group that Nagpur on November 2 of the same year.

Bishop Riccaz invited the pioneer nuns to serve at the Poor House at Untkhana, a stable for camel that was converted into a cell for the poor. The house managed by the Nagpur municipality sheltered the physically and mentally challenged and patients of leprosy.

The residents of Untkhana called Mother Gertrude “Badi Amma” (big mother). The sisters with the support of the municipality and the diocese converted the poor house from an asylum into to a “Home of Love” for the destitute, the biography says.

Gradually the nuns transformed the house into a rehabilitation centre. Currently it houses differently abled children and the elderly and destitute.

Mother Gertrude responded to the needs of society. During famine and cholera outbreak in the 1990s she opened the home to the refugees and victims of epidemics.

Many widows and children came to the sisters for safety and shelter. In 1890 the sisters began to admit orphans and widows after a poor woman came to sell her baby. Mother Gertrude accepted the baby and the mother.

The nuns’ mission kept expanding and in 1892 the Nagpur bishop requested them manage a Marathi medium school meant for local poor children.

The sisters also visited families to understand the social and religious situations around them. It was the time of child marriages and Mother Gertrude encouraged families to send child widows to the school. She trained them in life skills. She also arranged remarriage of widows going against the then social trend.

She opened dispensaries for women as women were not permitted to visit male doctors. These dispensaries became healing centers for people irrespective of caste and creed. Thus the nuns built up a rapport with people that made their village visits easy.

The Railways gave the nuns concession for travelling. They were also invited to open new communities in different places.

In 1905 she went to Dacca (now Dhaka) to visit an ailing nun where she died.

Her mortal remains were brought to Nagpur and buried in the chapel of the Other House of Mary Immaculate.

The marble stone on her tomb bears the cry of her heart: “Lord, you know well that I love you.”

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