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Bangladeshi nun on mission to heal hearts

Sister Gloria plugs welfare gap for slum dwellers who need counseling as director of OLS-run Healing Heart unit

Bangladeshi nun on mission to heal hearts

Sister Lipy Gloria Rozario Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows is seen with some of her fellow counselors in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this year. (Supplied by the Healing Heart Counseling Center)

Lipy Gloria Rozario was born to a Catholic family of refugees on Nov. 30, 1971, just weeks before Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan on Dec. 16. Fast-forward 47 years and Gloria, the sixth of nine children, has dedicated her life to serving God and healing the hearts of people suffering various forms of psychological distress in this Muslim-majority South Asian nation.

Since 2010, Sister Gloria has served as director of the Healing Heart Counseling Unit in Dhaka, funded by the Our Lady of Sorrows (OLS) religious order.

She is one of a number of Catholic nuns including Salesian Sister Zita Rema who provide spiritual aid and other services to the destitute in Bangladesh. Other nuns in the country help patients struck by leprosy, tuberculosis and related social stigmas, or focus on helping children born with disabilities rebuild their lives.

In addition to offering counseling services to individuals, couples and families, Sister Gloria hones the skills of students, academics and professionals by arranging seminars and workshops both inside and outside the center.

When she's not at the center, or teaching at a local university, the nun finds time to visit Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in eastern Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, where she offers counseling services through BRAC, one of the country's leading development organizations.

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"We are a charity, so most people come to us though word of mouth because we are not allowed to advertise. Sometimes people mistake us for a profit-making organization as we have many foreigners on staff who are volunteers," she added.

"Many people struggle to grasp how a charity can offer professional services without making money. Our mission is to prove them wrong." 

The Healing Heart Center now has two full-time and four part-time counselors treating around 30 people a week on average, mostly Muslims.

The center charges 1,200-2,500 Bangladeshi taka (US$14-30) per session but people living on the breadline need only pay a token fee of US$2.40.

This covers staff salaries, maintenance costs and donations to charities run by the religious order.

The center has one school and a day care center for 40 slum children. It also funds for two more day care centers in Dhaka serving 62 kids from greatly impoverished families who attend free of charge.

"We never have any money left at the end of each month," the nun said. 

Sister Gloria leads a training session at the Healing Heart Counseling Center in Dhaka. (Photo supplied)


Humble beginnings

In 1971, Pius Rozario and his wife Magdalene witnessed the birth of their sixth child, Gloria, at a classroom that was being used as a shelter for refugees during Bangladesh's war of independence with Pakistan.

The couple had fled their village home in Rangamatia in central Bangladesh to escape the fighting and bloodshed by relocating to the faraway village of Moani.

For nine distressing months they shared a crowded space with hundreds of war refugees including Muslims, Hindus and Christians.

After the war ended, the couple returned home to resume a more normal life, with Pius working as a schoolteacher and Magdalene a housewife.

"Financially, we weren't solvent as all of us studied and my father wasn't very well paid," she said. "But despite this we had a very enjoyable childhood even though we grew up in a very disciplined household where life was divided into prayer time, study time and play time." 

She moved to St. Mary's School in neighboring St. John the Baptist parish at an early age and completed high school with the Sisters of Associates of Mary Queen of Apostles (SMRA). All of her teachers and some of her cousins were nuns.

"From an early age, their lives became an inspiration for me, so I started cherishing the dream of one day becoming a nun myself," she said. "I wasn't into boys at that age, so I just wanted to live a simple life."

She joined the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows (OLS) congregation on Dec. 31, 1990, after completing her undergraduate degree. The next few years saw her collect a graduate degree in Dhaka and spend two years in Italy for her novitiate training.

On returning to Bangladesh in 1995, she spent a year at a convent in the capital run by OLS, after which she landed a secretarial role at the Vatican embassy in the capital, a role she held for five years.

"At first I felt uncomfortable with a job that kept me inside all day," she recalled. "So that first year wasn't much fun. But I stuck with it because I'd taken my vows."

During her time at the Vatican embassy, Sister Gloria began visiting nearby slums and Christian families, who slowly shared their problems with her.

"Their stories stuck in my mind. I began thinking that, as people were so willing to share so many personal experiences with me, maybe I should study psychology to offer them a better service," she said.

Sister Gloria said she found her true calling after studying counseling psychology in Italy and the U.S.

Her superior granted her request to study psychology and off she went to Rome, where she also studied spirituality. This was followed by a move to California to gain a master's degree at Santa Clara University. 

This year, she set a new milestone by becoming the first person in Bangladesh to earn a PhD in education-counseling psychology.


Our Lady of Sorrows

Maria Elisabetta Renzi, an aspiring Catholic nun, founded the congregation in Italy in 1839. She was beatified 150 years later in 1989.

The order arrived in Bangladesh in 1988 and its first mission was to serve the Vatican embassy in Dhaka.

Now the order has 16 Bangladeshi confreres including one who serves as a missionary outside the country.

The congregation prioritizes serving the poor and the needy by running schools and day care centers for underprivileged children and offering them sponsorship to continue their education. Its two main ministries are catechism and education.

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