Photo taken during the vivit of Cardinal Filoni to the Mothetrhouse in Septeber 2015
from the right Archb. Salvatore Pennacchio Nunzio Apostolica of India and Nepal, Sr. M. Gertude, MC and Cardinal Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation PGF
On this second Sunday of Advent, St. Paul writes to the Philippians in the 2nd reading, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
On this day of the Lord, 6th December 2015, God brought His good work in Sr. Gertrude to completion.
Sr. Gertrude, Magdalen Polton Gomes, was born to Joseph and Romona Gomes on March 8, 1929 and baptized at St. Francis Xavier Church in Golla, Bangladesh two days later on March 10th. Her parents had two sons and four daughters of which two were called to religious life - Magdalen and her youngest sister, Sr. Gerard.
Magdalen studied in Golla, Bangladesh and then came to Calcutta to continue her studies at Loreto as a boarding student. On January 10, 1946, at the age of 17, she met Mother for the first time at St. Mary’s School at 14, Convent Road where Mother was Head Mistress, the In-charge for School Boarders and the Teacher. It was at the painful time of Post-World War II.
In the month of May, 1946, while most of the girl boarders went home on holiday, Magdalen remained with Mother. In this time, Mother came to know her more and could see the desire in Magdalen to give her life to God. It was Magdalen who with another companion took Mother to Sealdah Railway Station on 9th September 1946 for her retreat in Darjeeling. Upon Mother’s return from there, the girls of St. Mary’s had a retreat themselves during which Mother gave a talk on the Gospel of Samaritan woman where Jesus asks something to drink from this sinful woman ‑“GIVE ME A DRINK”. This remained with Magdalen!
Once, Mother pointed out to Magdalen the Beliaghata slums, saying, “Look! How poor these children are. They have no joy, but poverty makes them do this work [slum children picking up coal] to earn their living. Who will bring them joy? They do not know Jesus. They have no knowledge of eternal happiness? Who will go and give them the Good News that God loves them, that God created them and that they are His children, so that they will begin to change their life of misery into a life of joy? Will you come with me? But if we go now, they will come to me with their hand stretched out, begging for money because I am dressed like a Mem Shaheb. So we cannot speak to them about God or Jesus. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dress in simple, poor dress and live among them, talk to them, talk about Jesus? He also was poor. He came for them. Will you come? Will you come with me? Wouldn’t it be nice? We could succeed in making these people happy in making them know Jesus.” Magdalen already had a desire to become a Sister, and it seemed that God was speaking to her through Mother.
Mother left Loreto to begin the Missionaries of Charity in August 1948. Once she returned from her medical course in Patna and settled in the first convent at 14, Creek Lane, Fr. Van Exem sent a note to Magdalen informing her where Mother was and that she started the work. In a leap of faith, Magdalen went to Creek Lane to join Mother on April 26, 1949. It was the first time she saw Mother in blue par sari. Her school mate and friend from St. Mary’s, Subhashini Das (Sr. Agnes), was there to receive Magdalen happily and dress her in white sari and pin it with a cross. The very day Magdalen received her new name Sr. Gertrude and prayed the Act of Consecration to Mary in the Church of Our Lady of Dolorous in front of the statue of Mother of Mercy. Mother recorded in her diary: “Magdalen Polton joined the little Society. She is a fine strong soul – she will just do well with the poor.”
Mother straight away began forming them into a religious family. Just two days after Sr. Gertrude’s entry, Mother records, “In our convent we are so very happy. Silence is beautifully observed. The young postulants are so fervent that I am forced to follow them. The poverty which seemed so clear in the plan is actually taking form.”
Mother was also teaching them the charism by love in action. Sr. Gertrude remembered clearly the day she was out with Mother and they found a sick man on the roadside. Mother hailed a rickshaw to take him to a hospital, told Sr. Gertrude to get in and to hold the man on her lap. Though fearful, she obeyed, and the man vomited on her. Sister said she felt such a repugnance and also felt shame at the public display of having a man on her lap. Mother looked at her and told her, “He is Jesus!” She looked at the face of the man. At that moment the veil was lifted from her eyes and Sr. Gertrude profoundly and mystically saw the Face of Jesus in the sick man!
As the members grew, Sr. Gertrude was Mother’s right hand in the missions and in the formation of sisters. She was elected Councillors at the first General Chapter in 1961. At Mother’s request Sr. Gertrude studied medicine at Medical College and became a doctor. She had the privilege of accompanying Mother to refugee camps, to places of civil disorder, to places of natural disaster, places where Mother began relief work and then left her to continue serving the needy with the Sisters.
Sister was appointed to be the Superior of our first house in Europe in her beloved Rome. She also opened houses with Mother in the Middle East and North Africa amidst dangerous situations. She worked side by side with Mother in treating the sick.
Sr. Gertrude then cared for Mother in her serious heart illnesses and because of Mother’s helplessness and personal need during the years 1989-1997, she stated that “We became truly Mother and daughter, more than a sister or a doctor.” Sr. Gertrude was at the death bed when Mother breathed her last on September 5, 1997.
Sr. Gertrude’s’ last years in Motherhouse were spent as a missionary confined to her chair. She showed great love for the sisters and novices and was especially concerned for their spiritual growth. She loved to give rosaries, medals and holy pictures to sisters coming from different missions and was always ready to encourage them spiritually.
Sister had a love for all priests and would greet them and ask for their blessing. They felt at ease in her presence as did pilgrims, visitors and volunteers – she drew all, in her Mary-like way to Jesus.
Sister had such a hunger for the Holy Eucharist and from her place on the first floor verandah she participated in every Mass, whatever language, being offered at Mother’s tomb. She was faithful to her daily prayers and prayed many rosaries. She had a great love for the Immaculate Heart of Mary and renewed her consecration yearly.
After Mother’s death she spent much time helping and guiding the M.C. Sisters, instructing them and sharing all that she acquired from Mother. She was a key witness in the Cause of Mother’s Canonization, giving ample testimonies about Mother’s life, spirit and holiness. She remained available to the writers and researchers, through interviews, with the vast knowledge she had about Mother.
When our strong-willed Sr. Gertrude fell sick after her feast day on November 16th, Sister’s nature took on a child-like quality. She surrendered herself to whatever treatment and services the sisters gave her.
On the first Saturday of the month on December 5th, Bengali Mass, as usual, was offered in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Mother’s tomb. Sister heard the singing and told the sisters caring for her to go and tell that Holy Communion be brought for her. She received Jesus with so much joy. Early this morning seeing that her condition changed gravely, sisters began to surround her bed in prayer. Fr. Julius MC anointed sister, gave her Holy Communion, and then offered Mass at the foot of her bed. Just as the offertory prayer was completed Sister breathed her last - her heartbeat went on for a few seconds into the Eucharistic prayer – her participation went from time to eternity. She went home to Jesus on the December 6th at 5.30 a.m.
As the Church ends the Year of Consecrated life we give thanks for the life and God given mission to Sr. Gertrude. May she be welcomed by Jesus with the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”