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Bangladesh Congregation of Nurses and Teachers Cofounded by Holy Cross Sister

SMRA Bangladesh; main image 1

Preparing to leave for Bengal in 1927 are (from left) Holy Cross Sisters M. Olga (Hughes), Marie Estelle (O’Brien), M. Rose Monica (Weber) and M. Rose Bernard (Gehring).

It might seem unusual that a congregation of women religious would create another congregation separate from itself. But when Sister M. Rose Bernard (Gehring), CSC, traveled to Bengal, India (present-day Bangladesh) in 1927, the pope who sent them charged the missionaries with establishing new congregations of women and men from the local population. By virtue of speaking the language and their knowledge of customs and traditions, local women and men would be better able to serve the people of their towns and villages.

Today, that congregation, along with others, is credited with playing a key role in bringing young women into the field a nursing, an occupation which for decades in Bangladesh had been considered inappropriate for women.

A new congregation

A Holy Cross priest, Bishop Timothy Crowley, CSC, who first came to Bengal in 1907, was the spark of the new congregation. He was named bishop of Dhaka in 1929, two years after Sister Rose Bernard arrived. Consulting with Sister on the possibility of establishing a new congregation dedicated to nursing and teaching, he entrusted her with this great work.

Historical records tell us that Sister Rose Bernard committed wholeheartedly to Bishop Crowley’s request, “being filled with the gifts of Holy Spirit, divine courage and sincerity.” The new congregation began with eight girls from the school where the sisters taught. Formed under the protection of Mary, the fledgling group was given the name the Associates of Mary, Queen of the Apostles (abbreviated as SMRA in alignment with the congregation's name in Latin).

As cofounder and mistress of novices for the SMRA, Sister Rose Bernard was known for her business acumen and spiritual insight. She drafted the first constitution for the SMRA, writing the rules and regulations in Bengali. She also prepared the liturgical prayers and had a mother’s affection for the novices. In fact, it is said that the foundation of the SMRA congregation was the fruit of her deep spirituality.

SMRA Bangladesh; main image 4

A nurse, SMRA Sister Onisha checks the IV in a patient.

SMRA Bangladesh; main image 3

SMRA Sister Dr. Arpa monitors the taking of a patient’s blood pressure.

SMRA Bangladesh; main image 2

SMRA sisters prepare to travel to a village by boat.

Growing the nursing profession

The road wasn’t easy, however. At that time in Bangladesh, nursing was frowned upon as a suitable occupation for women. In this Muslim-majority society, it was feared that close working conditions between female nurses and male doctors would lead to improprieties.

But as Catholic sisters served in nursing roles over the years, people began to see the value and possibilities in pursuing this profession.

Sisters of the Holy Cross continued to oversee the young congregation until 1952 when it was handed over to a local authority. Today, Sisters of the Holy Cross still minister in Bangladesh and the nearby Indian state of Tripura. Their ministries encompass education, faith formation, hostels for schoolchildren, health education, and efforts to help victims of human trafficking.

 Sister Rose Bernard left a legacy behind her, one whose good works will carry on for many a decade.