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Sister Mary Emily


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IT was 1957 and we had returned to college after a restful summer vacation. We had braced ourselves for the discipline that was the hallmark of the St Joseph’s College for Women (SJC) under the watchful eye of Sister Mary Bernadette, who was the principal.

As I entered the college premises, I saw a petite figure in the nun’s white habit walk briskly before me. It wasn’t the principal, who moved slowly with a stoop that comes with age. We didn’t have to wonder for long. At assembly we were introduced to our new vice-principal, Sister Mary Emily. She sailed into our lives like a breath of fresh air and departed equally quietly last Sunday.

Sister Emily revitalised us. But more than that she infused dynamism into this premier institution that she was to head four years later. For me it was the beginning of an association that lasted 60 years, during which she guided not just me but also several generations of Karachi’s young women through stormy times giving us a sense of security and stability. A recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Sister’s wisdom, her scholarship, her tact in handling students, her administrative skills and above all her humanism, made her an institution in Karachi’s academia.

She may not be there anymore but she lives on in her students’ hearts.

Born in Mangalore (India) in 1919, Sister Emily joined the congregation in 1944. Her teaching career had begun four years earlier in a school in Byculla. She went on to do a double MA in English and Economics. She was teaching in a college in Calcutta before she was transferred to Pakistan in 1957. Thereafter, this land became her home.

For years her life and activities revolved around the educational institutions of the Catholic Board of Education (CBE) but mainly the SJC which she nurtured with love and care. As a result it grew to be the most prestigious women’s college in Karachi producing some of the finest women from all walks of life in Pakistan.

In her life dedicated to education the first shock came in 1972 when the SJC was nationalised under the education policy of the Z.A. Bhutto government. Dubbing it as an “experiment in egalitarianism” Sister would describe to me how the college survived. Since she was widely respected, Sister Emily was reappointed as the principal of the college, which passed into government hands. That allowed her to look for solutions within the parameters of nationalisation.

From 1,100 the enrolment jumped to 1,400 overnight because the government wanted more students to be admitted. In that period I would often visit her and she spoke of the pressure she was under from the education department and how the resources for the college provided in the budget had fallen sharply forcing her to cut down on expenses. But she resisted the pressure in order to safeguard her principles. Her integrity and confidence gave her strength and even the most powerful of policymakers and bureaucrats had to think twice before challenging her. Thus Ghulam Mustafa Shah, the minister of education overseeing nationalisation, is known to have once exclaimed, “Na baba na mein us Sister say takkar naheen loonga.”

Although the college couldn’t maintain its standards it could maintain its reputation. But after three extensions Sister retired in 1985, students’ vociferous demands notwithstanding. She returned to the Convent where she was given charge of the Marie Therese Institute of Arts and Sciences. She threw herself wholeheartedly into creating another institution that she could be proud of. 

It was therefore a red-letter day for Sister when in July 2005 the SJC was handed back to the CBE. Sister Emily was appointed its new principal. Now there were more problems to be addressed: balancing budgets, upgrading teachers and restoring the discipline of the pre-nationalisation days. To set things right after a slide of 33 years under bureaucratic control was not easy. Sister was the only one who could lead SJC to its former glory. And she did.

But time and tide wait for no one. When the college was restored to its rightful owners, Sister Emily was 86. Over the years I had seen her knees giving her trouble. In college her living quarters were on the top floor and her office was a floor below. Climbing stairs was increasingly becoming painful for her. On bad days, she would stay upstairs and the office went up to her. The pain wouldn’t abate yet there was no slackening of work. But how long can one resist nature? In 2010 she retired again.

Sister may not be there anymore but she lives on in our — her students’ — hearts and memory. In an interview she had told me, “It is a wonderful thing to work with young people. What thrills me most is the awareness I have that I am helping to build the builders of tomorrow.”

Rest in peace dear Sister, those you steered through life will miss you!

Published in Dawn January 11th, 2017

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (14) Closed

observation Jan 11, 2017 07:21am

Thank you for giving a brief biography of Sister Mary Emily Gonsalves FC and an account of her association with St. Joseph's College for Women.

Khaled Jan 11, 2017 09:11am

A good writeup, wish we had more of her kind.

Dr.Safia Jan 11, 2017 09:29am

It reminds me of my good old days st St.Joseph.wish we had more like her

Talal Khan Jan 11, 2017 10:14am

Such a remarkable women - an institution in herself.

wellwisher Jan 11, 2017 10:51am

there are many like her in teaching institutions building future leaders.

Adil Mulki Jan 11, 2017 11:05am

Dear Ms. Zubeida Mustafa, It is indeed a sad day that Karachi, nay Pakistan, says farewell to Sister Mary Emily. The realization that we have no one to take over the baton from the likes of Sister Mary, Miss Mistry (BVS) and Hakeem Muhammad Saeed, is even more depressing. May be there are a few rays of hope and some new institutions like TCF rising to the challenge - but their success will only be proven with passage of a few more decades. Regards, Muhammad Adil Mulki

Jalal Jan 11, 2017 11:32am

Who says we do not respect our teachers?

Thank you Ms Zubeida for sharing your story with us.

sADAF MALIK Jan 11, 2017 01:53pm

This reminded me of the days at saint joseph college which started very sadly with the long cherished memories of school that I left as home and enter into a huge gala of SJC.But enchantting reminesences from canteen,lecture halls,library,madam libraian,friends and respected teachers in campus with house keeping staff is unforgetable.And the death of the pioneer institution making personality is a big loss but reaper with its sickle keeper is inevitable may her soul rest in peace

JS Jan 11, 2017 04:06pm

Thanks for writing about such selfless and devoted individuals as Sister Mary. It's an honor to belong to institutions run by authentic and compassionate educators. Your write up resonates with my Convent of Jesus and Mary Lahore run by the exemplary Sister Andrew. Discipline, vigilance, love of learning and values, nobility of character and spirituality are few of invaluable gifts received at the convent and reinforced by parents at home. We love you dear Sisters. Rest In Peace. Live in honor and our hearts forever.

Shigri Jan 11, 2017 07:24pm

Inspiring figure who lingered on to nourish and empowering women.real dillema is,not reconizing her efforts and not to taken her up in limelight what she really deserved.

dabangg Jan 11, 2017 08:41pm

Mangalore!! My home town.

Pakistani Jan 11, 2017 08:52pm

Thank you Sister Mary Emily for your contribution.

Tahmeena Malik Jan 12, 2017 06:25am

"ICONS come rare". Proud to be a Josephine..........Thank you Sister Emily.

TechScribe Jan 13, 2017 12:34pm

Wow. What a lovely tribute to a teacher. It's teachers who mould us into what we become. I can relate to this piece having had some wonderful teachers in school and college.