The foundation and growth of the Congregation of the Poor Sisters of Our Lady continues to be a journey in faith. From the beginning, each step has been taken with total trust in God, believing in His Word and He has not failed us.
In the 1930s, the requirements of the Archdiocese of Bombay were peculiarly its own and these could best be met by the skill and devotion of women religious, drawn from and based within the Archdiocese. Conscious of these needs, some members of the Diocesan Clergy along with a few prominent lay persons approached the Archbishop of Bombay to start a new Diocesan Congregation of Nuns.
The actual groundwork for the commencement of this congregation was spearheaded and undertaken by our Founder, Msgr. George Fernandes. His indefatigable efforts saw the congregation of the Poor Sisters of Our Lady come into being on September 15, 1939, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows by the decree of the Most Rev. Thomas D. Roberts, S.J., the then Archbishop of Bombay, and a band of seven eager postulants.
This was a landmark event in the life of the Archdiocese – a coming of age in the religious development of her people; and palpable proof of the practical mind that Archbishop Roberts brought to bear on the social problems of the parishes.
The formation of the first seven members was entrusted to the Sacred Heart Nuns at Sophia College, Mumbai. The pioneer group took their First Vows in 1942 and their first residence at Stephen Hall , next to Archbishop’s House, Fort. This residence has been, since then, the Generalate of the Poor Sisters of Our Lady.
The first works undertaken were the instruction of poor children in Gloria and Sacred Heart Schools, Sankli Street, belonging to the Parish of Gloria Church, Byculla; supervision of the Sacristy of the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Name, Fort; rescue and preventive social work; and the Employment Bureau of the then Catholic Women’s Welfare Society which operated out of Stephen Hall.
The 1940s were war years and stress was laid more on social work because of the problems of extreme poverty, unemployment and the influx of refugees and migrants to the city. To equip the Sisters for this apostolate, they were lovingly trained by the Congregation of the Franciscan Missionaries of Christ the King from Karachi, who had wide experience in this field.
By 1945, the fledgling group was ready to take their final vows which they did on March 27 of that year. They also announced the election of the first Mother General – Mother Patricia Frank – which had taken place on March 19, 1946. The congregation was well on its way to fulfilling the purpose of its foundation.
The Constitution was approved and the Rule of Life was presented to the congregation by Cardinal Valerian Gracias on June 29, 1956. The first General Chapter was held in 1957 when Mother Patricia Frank was formally elected Superior General – a post which she had held in trust from 1945. It was her determination that saw the Poor Sisters of Our Lady grow and spread, from her final vows till her death on February 2, 1999. This vision and mission has been ably discharged by her successors – Mother Antoinette D’Souza, Mother Cecilia D’Souza and our present Mother General, Teresa Pinto.
As years passed, the Congregation grew under the patronage of His Eminence Cardinal Valerian Gracias, who took a very personal interest in its life and growth . He encouraged the Sisters to start convents not just in other parts of Bombay, but also in other dioceses in India. The then Archbishop of Vienna, Franz Cardinal Koenig, while visiting Bombay in 1960 was so impressed by the Sisters’ work that it moved him to request Cardinal Gracias to send a group of Sisters to Vienna, Austria to take charge of different works such as nursing, kindergarten, care of the aged, etc. This was our first footprint abroad, soon to be followed by households in Italy, Austria and now in Africa and the Netherlands.
The 38th International Eucharistic Congress which Cardinal Gracias was instrumental in hosting in Bombay in 1964 was also a milestone for us. Stephen Hall was the headquarters for many of the activities which were integral to the Congress. Visiting prelates and dignitaries, indeed Pope Paul VI himself, were able to see firsthand, the work, capability and prayer life of our congregation.
At the General Chapter held in December 1996 a decision to seek Pontifical recognition was taken. The decision was approved by Cardinal Simon Pimenta, Archbishop of Bombay, and we were granted the status of a Religious Institute of Pontifical Right on December 8, 1999. We see this as a crowning moment in our apostolate and also as an indicator that we must dedicate ourselves more fervently to our mission.
We are now known as the Institute of the Poor Sisters of Our Lady. The strength of the Institute today is 180 professed Sisters, 8 Novices, 3 Postulants and 7 Candidates.