On this day, 29 November, in 1921, Australian born and educated Servant of God Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ made her Temporary Vows as a religious Sister at St Agnes Church in the town of Guntur, in south-eastern India. Just two years earlier, Mary Glowrey had been an established doctor and eye specialist in inner Melbourne, and a well-known member of the Victorian Catholic community.

In India, and as a member of the Society of Jesus Mary Joseph, Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart JMJ, as Mary was known, became the world’s first Sister doctor. She devoted the rest of her life to medical missionary service in her adopted homeland, based at Guntur.

For more than three decades Mary Glowrey provided and oversaw medical care, particularly for marginalised women, and she worked collaboratively with others to establish healthcare systems and facilities that benefit millions today. She died in 1957. Her cause for canonisation opened in 2010, supported by the Society of Jesus Mary Joseph in Guntur. The diocesan phase of the enquiry was completed in January 2017. The Congregation for the Causes for Saints is now continuing the Roman phase of the canonical investigations, following the submission of the positio about Mary’s life and virtues to the Congregation in May this year.

In the last year of her life, in obedience to a request from her Superior, Mary wrote her autobiography. Then confined to bed with a debilitating illness, she was unable to complete her account beyond twelve chapters. In these chapters she recounts her childhood in the Western District and Mallee areas of Victoria, her education, training and medical work in New Zealand (for one year) and Melbourne, her vocational calling and the beginning of her mission in India. After Mary’s death, members of her congregation, as well as family, friends and supporters in Australia, India and beyond, wanted others to know about her life and legacy. Australian born Sister pharmacist Sr Peter Julian (Margaret) Barrett JMJ continued and completed Mary’s story. The Sisters and family hoped to publish Mary’s autobiography and other documents, but this did not eventuate.

Autobiography published a century later

This month, a century after Mary completed her novitiate and made her Temporary Vows, the Mary Glowrey Museum has published her autobiography, with the support of ACU. This is the first time this account has been published in its entirety. The new publication, The Autobiography of Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ: ‘God’s Good for Nothing’, also includes Sr Peter Julian’s continuation of Mary’s story, a contemporaneous preface written by another Sister and beautiful photos from the Mary Glowrey Collection. Archbishop Peter A Comensoli has written the Foreword. To provide historical and cultural context for the accounts, researched commentaries and additional information have also been included in this 200-page publication.

Mary G Lowrey Book Cover
The Autobiography of Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ: ‘God’s Good for Nothing’ Published by the Mary Glowrey Museum

Mary Glowrey was born in Birregurra in 1887. She was educated in Watchem, and then in Melbourne through scholarships. She earned her medical qualification, an MBBS, from the University of Melbourne in 1910 and then a higher degree, an MD, in 1919. In 1915 Mary experienced her vocational calling to medical missionary work with women in India. She did not leave Australia until 1920. Her time of preparation included war-time years, during which she worked in Melbourne hospitals and her private practice in Collins Street and completed her MD. She was active in voluntary community work, including serving as the first General President of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga from 1916 until 1919. She overcame many obstacles during these years, including a bout of influenza in early 1919.

Mary Glowrey’s life was characterised by humility, as well as considerable academic, professional and missionary achievements. In February 1920, a report of her departure for mission in the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocesan paper, the Advocate, noted that Mary had ‘toiled so quietly and perseveringly among us’ and that she ‘set not only a noble example as a professional woman in the medical world, but as a zealous and consistent worker in all philanthropical causes’. After a decade serving beside her in India, Sr Assumptia van Ray JMJ praised Mary in a letter to her Australian parents, comparing her to a lighthouse. Mary, she wrote, kept in the background, while spreading ‘the light of her good deeds over a very great distance’. From a young age, Mary’s actions, including her decision to study Medicine and to go to India as a missionary, were inspired by a deep faith. She gave credit for all her achievements throughout her life to God. Mary’s title for her autobiography was ‘God’s Good for Nothing’.

In 1922, Catholic community leader, Advocate staff member and author Marion Miller Knowles MBE wrote an article entitled ‘Australian Women of Note’. In her survey of ‘the fine work accomplished in the departments of art, music, science and literature by famous Australian women’, Ms Miller Knowles included Mary among the early female medical pioneers. She noted Mary’s youth at graduation and that she had subsequently ‘studied assiduously to gain the final honour of MD under difficulties which have frequently sent male students to Edinburgh and other centres abroad to realise their ambitions, and during this period her name became almost a household word in the Catholic Victorian world for skill in women’s diseases’. Ms Miller Knowles observed that Mary had prepared herself for mission while undertaking all the responsibilities of a professional, and that her aim was ‘that of a greater and more unworldly success’.

Feature image: Dr Mary Glowrey, Ballarat 1918. Credit: Mary Glowrey Collection

To order copies of the Autobiography of Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ: ‘God’s Good for Nothing’ (Cost $49.95 + $10 p & h, Australia only) see details at the Mary Glowrey Museum website.