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A Bangladeshi nun's life in service of sick and needy

With her ready smile, Sister Nibedita has served others for 52 years as a teacher, catechist, nurse and nurse trainer

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A Bangladeshi nun's life in service of sick and needy

Sister Mary Nibedita has spent about four decades of her life as a nurse and nurse trainer. (Photo: Rock Ronald Rozario/UCA News)

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Sister Mary Nibedita is a small and soft-spoken nun with a smiling face for everyone she meets.

“If you smile at people, you can easily win their hearts,” says the 74-year-old nun who belongs to the Associates of Mary Queen of Apostles (Santa Maria Regina Apostolum or SMRA), Bangladesh’s largest local Catholic women’s religious order.

Speaking in the small, neat parlor of Mary House, the SMRA headquarters in Tejgaon in central Dhaka, Sister Nibedita tells the amazing story of her 52 years as a nun, serving as a teacher, a catechist and, most significantly, as a registered nurse and nurse trainer for nearly four decades.  

“In my life I have done and become what I never imagined, but I accepted everything as God’s plan for me. I tried to love and serve people sincerely and in return I have received God’s blessings and the enormous love of people,” she told UCA News.

Since her tricky entry to religious formation in 1966, she has experienced challenging situations but overcame them with a smiling face and a dedicated heart.

Originally named Fulkumari (flower girl) Rebecca Rebeiro, she was born as the sixth of seven children of her parents on April 2, 1946, in Chorakhola village under St. John the Baptist Church of Gazipur in East Bengal (now Bangladesh).

Her father, Minu Rebeiro, was a cook at a hotel in Kolkata, capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, and took his wife and three children including Fulkumari to stay with him.

Fulkumari studied at a kindergarten in Kolkata before returning to her village home with her family for a holiday in 1953, when her mother died unexpectedly. She was seven and her brother Henry, who later became an Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) priest, was only two.

Following her mother’s death, she started primary education at a school run by SMRA nuns.

As her two elder sisters were married off early, her brothers told her that after she completed matriculation exams (after 10th grade), they would marry her off in a good family in Dhaka.

“The family was culturally minded and we had all kinds of musical instruments at home. We acted in dramas and musical plays regularly. We knew how to play various musical instruments. With my brothers, I have watched many films,” she said.

While growing up in joy and fun, she remained unaware of worldly affairs and never imagined becoming a nun.

Fulkumari was a gentle girl, scored good grades in school exams and earned stipends. She became a favorite of the nuns in the school — Sister Mary Agnes and Sister Mary Ruth.

Two months before her matriculation exams in 1966, the nuns summoned her with a letter. She went to the SMRA Mother House but was not allowed to go back home. Her uncles and father came to pick her up but failed and left after a heated argument with the nuns.

“As I was nice-looking, there were many marriage proposals. The nuns heard my marriage had been fixed and it would be done shortly. Later I realized they had set their eyes on me for years and picked me up tactfully,” she recounted with a smile.

She was indifferent to religious life but obeyed the nuns’ orders and decided to stay put. Her decision angered her family and they kept away from the nuns and her for many years.

On July 6, 1966, she entered the SMRA novitiate and pronounced her first and final vows in 1968 and 1974. As per the rules of the congregation, her name was changed to Nibedita (dedicated).  

Teacher and freedom fighter

In 1968, she got her first assignment as a teacher at St. Michael Junior School at Most Holy Redeemer Church in Baniarchor of Gopalganj. Later she became the headmistress of the school.

Besides teaching, the nun also assisted senior SMRA nun Sister Imelda in the dispensary and supported Italian Xaverian priest-doctor Anton Alberton in the clinic.

“We also made pastoral visits to villages to see the lives of people who were mostly fishermen and extremely poor. They lived in thatched, dilapidated huts and ate boiled wheat mixed with salt,” she recalled.

During Bangladesh’s War of Independence in 1971, she joined parish priest Italian Xaverian Father Marino Rigon in providing shelter and food to hundreds of refugees. She also helped Father Alberton and Sister Imelda to provide food and treatment to wounded villagers and Bengali freedom fighters by traveling by boat to many places.

The pain and suffering of people moved her and she learned basic medical skills. “For the first time, I felt that if I was a nurse I could help people even better.”

She had two close escapes from Pakistan’s army during the war. 

“Father Rigon came to know from a Christian army colonel that I had been targeted, so I was shifted to a hospital in Jessore district by an ambulance. I returned after one month and a day later I came to know the military had raided and shot dead Italian Father Mario Veronisi there,” she said.

Father Rigon, who died in 2017, was one of four Catholic priests awarded Liberation War honors for their outstanding wartime contributions by Bangladesh’s government in 2012.

Healing head, hands and heart

Following short stints in three more schools in central and northern Bangladesh, Sister Nibedita graduated in a four-year nursing course at Mymensingh Medical College Hospital in 1980 and served there as a staff nurse until 1983.

“Besides the medical knowledge, we were told that as nurses it was our duty to properly use our heads, hands and hearts for complete healing of people in distress. Whenever possible, we need to smile at patients so that they can find hope. I have always followed this remarkable lesson,” she said.

From 1983 to 2004, she was a matron nurse at Dhaka Children’s Hospital. From 2004 to 2014, she was the nursing principal of the Child Health Foundation, which was set up by Dr. M.R. Khan, an acclaimed child health specialist. From 2014 to 2020, she worked in Universal Hospital in Dhaka as a matron.

Sister Nibedita has encouraged hundreds of Christian girls and boys to become nurses and helped many poor people to get low-cost or even free treatment at hospitals.

“Hospitals consider Christian nurses as dedicated, so there is always a high demand for them. Soon after they complete training, they can find a good job and improve their family conditions,” she said.

For 27 years until the death of Dhaka Archbishop Michael Rozario in 2005, she was a personal health caregiver for him.

In 1990, she received the Best Nurse Award from President H.M. Ershad. In 2003, she was called to tend the sick grandson of then president A.Q.M. Bodruddoza Chowdhury.

The nun has been blessed with enormous love, respect and trust from people.

In one incident, while she was visiting a museum in New York in 2011, a Bengali Muslim woman came rushing and crying to her after she recognized her as the nurse who had treated her seriously ailing son back in Dhaka years earlier.

“I never feel tired as I continue to get requests from people seeking help and institutes seeking service. I cannot say no to people when they need my help no matter if it is day or night,” Sister Nibedita said. 

She recently agreed to become a trainer at Dynamic Nursing College in Dhaka.

“Even during Covid-19, I went to work regularly. I continued to serve patients and encouraged doctors and nurses not to be afraid but to use protective gear. As medical professionals, we need to do everything to save the lives of people,” she said.

Sister Nibedita warns today’s nurses to denounce the “commercial mindset” that leads them to work for certificates and money. They should consider the profession “a service to humanity,” she said.

The smiling nun says she has been happy and blessed in her life of service and vows to serve people as long as she is alive.

“Jesus has been my model. Even though major decisions in my life came surprisingly and unexpectedly, I accepted all to serve God and his people. I will keep serving until I die,” she said.

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