Sister Mary Bowes, MM

Born: September 29, 1913
Entered: September 6, 1945
Died: August 5, 2001

We began our celebration of the life and death of Sister Mary Bowes with the gathering song:
“Table of Plenty.” The words beautifully exemplify Sister Mary’s life – a woman steeped in faith and trust. She lived a long and rich life throughout which she generously shared her gift of faith, gracing every person she met with uncommon attentiveness. After suffering for several years, Sister Mary was confined to our Residential Care Unit where she died at dawn on August 5th. The Entrance Antiphon for the liturgy that morning seemed tailored to her yearning to see the face of God: God, come to my help…you are the one who helps me and sets me free…do not be long in coming.

Mary Catherine Bowes was born September 29, 1913 in Jordan, New York, one of four children – two daughters and two sons – to Edward and Sarah Kelly Bowes. Today, we are pleased to have with us her brother, who visited Sister faithfully throughout her illness. Her sister and brother preceded her in death.

Mary Catherine received her early education in Jordan, New York and after graduating from Jordan High School, studied Nursing at Syracuse Memorial Hospital where she obtained her Certificate as a Registered Nurse and then went on to specialize in Public Health Nursing. Later, she pursued a Bachelor of Science Degree in Supervision in Public Health Nursing from Columbia University.

As a student at Columbia, she seemed not to have thought about religious life. However, in her last semester, a close friend at Columbia asked Mary to write to Maryknoll for vocation literature on her behalf. Mary also read it over and realized that religious missionary life corresponded with the way she most wanted to spend her own life. After graduation in 1945, she applied to Maryknoll, admitting candidly, “Being thirty-one years old, I appreciate that I am older than your usual candidates, but I am in good health and think I appreciate the adjustments that will be required of me.”

On September 6, 1945 Mary entered at Maryknoll, New York from St. Patrick’s Parish in the Diocese of Syracuse. At Reception, she received the religious name of Sister Catherine Maureen. She made her First Profession March 7, 1948 and that same year was among the first group of four Sisters, Margaret Rose Winkelmann, Joan Kirsch, and Margaret Mary Cannon, to be assigned to East Africa. Sister Mary made her Final Profession on March 7, 1951 in Tanganyika, now Tanzania.

Upon her arrival in East Africa, Sister opened a clinic and for five years ministered to the sick and needy in the Kowak area where 15,000 patients were treated annually. It was during this time that Msgr. Gerald Grondin, M.M., established a Diocesan Community of Women Religious in Nyegina, the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa. Sister Rose Miriam Dagg came from Hawaii specifically to be novice mistress while Sister Mary opened a new clinic in the same village. Within two years, Sister Rose Miriam became terminally ill. Sister Mary was appointed to step in, both as novice mistress and superior of the fledgling community. She guided and accompanied the Sisters as they moved to maturity, until 1970 when the first Tanzanian Mother General, Sister Consolata, was elected.

Throughout her life Sister Mary considered these eighteen years with the Immaculate Heart Sisters as the highlight of her missionary life. She dearly loved them. If anything could rouse her in her last days, it was mention of that community which, to her joy and satisfaction, continues to grow and to serve the needs of the people in Tanzania. We are happy that two members of the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa are here with us today to represent their Congregation.

In 1971, after completing a refresher course in nursing, Sister applied and was accepted for the position of Public Health Supervisor with the Catholic Relief Services in Kenya. She described her ministry as follows:

With others, I am trying to develop a pre-school health and nutrition education program. This is done through individual and group teaching of those responsible for conducting the clinics. The aim is to improve and make more effective the teaching they offer to the mothers, thus bringing them to appreciate the importance of adequate growth in relation to health and how they can achieve it by growing and using their own foods. The work is meaningful to me because it is needed and is the work for which I am professionally prepared. It provides opportunities to build relationships with many different kinds of people throughout the country. It is a work of service in another culture.

Sister returned to the Center in 1979 and contributed her skills in the Nursing Home for two years. Upon her return to Kenya in 1981, she served as regional bookkeeper and part-time pastoral minister for four years. In July 1985, she returned to the States to care for her sister until her death in 1987. Sister Mary then worked full-time in Treasury for two years before assuming part-time duties in Mail Desk where she continued for eight years until her health failed.

In 1995, at the time of her Golden Jubilee, Sister reflected on her long years of service in mission: “Since Vatican II we have appreciated that mission is a mutual giving and receiving. Looking back, one sees that God has been faithful and steadfast in love. One realizes that prayer and living the Gospel message are basic, that which makes it all worthwhile.”

In 1996, not unlike her first departure to East Africa, excitement prevailed at the Center with bells and noise makers as she, Sisters Margaret Rose Winkelmann, Joan Kirsch and Dolores Marie Jansen departed for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Maryknoll Society in Africa. For the Sisters, it was a great gift to see their adopted homeland once again. For those who welcomed them, an incomparable blessing for their witness of faithfulness and joy.

It is daunting to try to express the essence of a person’s life in words and it is never satisfactory. The Sisters who knew and who lived with Sister Mary in East Africa speak of her as a wise and holy woman. She was their friend and mentor, the one who did not necessarily have an answer, but always an encouraging word. In her gentle unassuming way, endowed with gracious good humor, she helped them distinguish between the things that mattered and those that didn’t. Sister Mary knew the difference.

We extend our deepest sympathy Sisters family and friends.  We thank you for your presence with us today. We welcome our Maryknoll brother, Father Thomas Keefe, co-missioner in East Africa, who will preside at this Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial for Sister Mary, a great human being.