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