Australian pioneering nun’s legacy in India celebrated

Fitzroy, February 27, 2019: Two Indian religious doctors were the guests of honor at an event in Australia to celebrate the legacy of a Catholic nun who spent 37 years in India setting up healthcare facilities, services and systems in the first half of 20th century.

The Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga (the League) on February 25 organized the program to fete Redemptorist Father Mathew Abraham and Ursuline Sister Beena Madhavath at the Mary Glowrey Museum in Fitzroy, an inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Victoria.

Father Abraham is the director general of Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI), which Dr Sr Mary Glowrey started 75 years ago. Sister Madhavath is the president of the Sister Doctors Forum of India.

Mary Glowrey (1887-1957), an Australian born and educated doctor and a member of the Jesus, Mary and Joseph congregation, is reportedly the first Catholic nun to practice as a doctor.

The Catholic Church is investigating her Cause for Canonization and declared her a Servant of God in 2013.

Father Abraham acknowledged Mary Glowrey’s ongoing legacy in India and said she continues to enjoy great love and respect among the medical profession in his country.

She founded CHAI in 1943 along with 16 other daring women in Guntur, a town in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Today, CHAI is the largest not-for-profit provider of healthcare in India, with its members looking after 21 million people annually, Father Abraham claimed.

“CHAI is a story of women,’ said the priest who was earlier the executive secretary of the office of healthcare under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

“Today, 90 percent of our members are women. We have 3,570 member institutions, 80 percent of our members are located in remote areas, which are mostly small health centers managed by Sister nurses – there are 51,000 Sisters with qualifications in healthcare.’

CHAI also includes 500 hospitals across the country and just over 1,000 sister doctors.

Sister Madhavath, a gynecologist, came to Melbourne two weeks ago as part of the Mary Glowrey Scholars Program. Established in 2016, the scholars program is a joint initiative between CHAI, the University of Melbourne and St Vincent’s Health. Each year five CHAI healthcare workers are selected to attend short courses at the University of Melbourne to up-skill and enhance their medical knowledge in their particular fields.

While in Melbourne, Sister Madhavath has undertaken a short course in Health Program, Design and Implementation and has spent time in the palliative care unit of St Vincent’s Hospital. She has also visited the Royal Children’s Hospital and Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute.

“It is very important that we have these opportunities to learn new skills and to gain further knowledge in our field so that we can enhance our own work, and also to share it with other members of CHAI,” she said.

Father Abraham said the vision for CHAI moving forward is to continue its work in providing compassionate, quality and affordable care. This is particularly important given the commercialization of healthcare in India, he added.

“Unfortunately in India, there is a tendency to exploit those who are sick and suffering; even those who are dying,” he said.

The Indian priest also said 70 percent of the expenses in India are out of pocket expenses and the second most common reason for people going into debt is medical expenses.

“If someone gets sick, they have to sell their buffalo, or sell their land, or borrow money from others in order to pay the medical expenses. This places people in debt when they are most vulnerable.

“That’s why CHAI is so important. We are helping the poorest of the poor, those on the margins who would otherwise not be able to obtain medical assistance when sick. Fortunately the hospitals make a sustainable income, which mean a subsidy can be provided for those who can’t afford health care.”

He said their aim to increase the quality and quantity of medical services to the people of India and to continue the legacy of Sr Dr Mary Glowrey. “We are proud of her and what she has achieved for our country,” he added.

The Mary Glowrey Museum was established in 2017 by MGHL to promote Mary Glowrey’s life and legacy.

Mary Glowrey was the first general president of the League when she worked as a doctor in Melbourne in 1916.

she was born in the Victorian town of Birregurra on June 23, 1887. Her father, Edward Glowrey, operated the general store at Birregurra, then hotels at Garvoc and Watchem.

In 1900 Mary Glowrey came third of 800 entrants in a Victorian State Education secondary scholarship exam. She graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in 1910. Mary later went to the University of Melbourne to undertake higher medical studies, graduating with a Doctor of Medicine in 1919 in obstetrics, gynecology and ophthalmology.

Mary Glowrey was reported to be the first woman appointed as a residential doctor in New Zealand 1911, and completed her residential year at Christchurch Hospital.

In 1916, the Catholic Women’s Social Guild was formed and Mary became its inaugural president.

In 1915, she read a pamphlet about the life of Dr Agnes McLaren, a pioneering Scottish missionary doctor, and the need for women doctors in India, and felt called to serve as a medical missionary doctor there.

Mary discreetly discerned this religious vocation over subsequent years with her spiritual director, Jesuit Father William Lockington.

Mary left Melbourne in 1920, never to return. She arrived in Guntur and joined Congregation of the Society of Jesus Mary Joseph. She became known as Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart JMJ. In 1922, after the completion of her religious training, Mary began practicing as a doctor-Sister.

The basic dispensary where Mary began her medical mission work in Guntur grew into St Joseph’s Hospital. She provided direct medical care for hundreds of thousands of patients, most of them poor women. She trained local women to be compounders (dispensers), midwives and nurses.

Mary died in Bangalore from cancer on May 5, 1957, at 69 years of age.

(Source:, February 26, 2019)

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