Sister Gemma Pires was born in Mumbai, India. At baptism she was given six names: Gemma, Joan, Mary, Cleophas, Grace, Philomena. She explains, “Gemma for St. Gemma Galgani who was canonized in 1940, the year I was born. (Upon entering religious life, since there was no sister with that name, I kept it even though the custom was to get a new name!) Joan, since I was the first born of five children, after my paternal grandfather, John Pires, who passed away five months before I was born. (Had I been a boy, I would have been called John. This was close enough!) Mary was my mother’s name—in those days, most girls received Mary as a name. Cleophas after my paternal grandmother; Grace, after my godmother and only paternal aunt; Philomena my maternal grandmother’s name.” Then se added, with a twinkle in her eye, “Personally I feel that they thought that I might be an only child so I got all these six names!”
Until the age of eight she and her family moved from Peshawar, to Nagpur and then to Mumbai. She lived the longest in Delhi where she studied at Presentation High School.
In 1958 she decided to join the Presentation sisters and became the first Indian to join the Northern Province. At the time all the other sisters were Irish. Gemma completed her novitiate in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. She had two Pakistani sisters as her companions. A year later, her sister, Lisa, decided to also become a Presentation Sister. Gemma was a trained teacher and she enjoyed teaching and music (piano).
It was not possible to have her jubilee celebration as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that has been a different experience for her. In response to the question on how her faith helps her during troubled times she responds, “In the midst of challenges, I feel called to pray for an increase of faith and especially for patience and humility. During times of uncertainty, I simply surrender to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, asking to go deeper into a way of being in oneness and living the present moment to the full.” She goes on to say, “My humble advice in facing challenges is to value the time for prayer and reflection, realizing God will hold you close always and give you a peace that surpasses all understanding. The world is messy and there are ambiguities found, especially in our country which is divided.”
Out of her experience working at Skid Row, Los Angeles, Calif., for a number of years, she witnessed the peacemakers operate with passion despite risks. In alignment with what she believes is happening today, “I would advocate to do, what one can, to make a common cause as a group for equality, justice and freedom. And also, to develop resilience in spite of struggle; with courage and confidence, to make a difference, even if it is just a drop in the ocean.”
At present Sister Gemma is a member of the Cypress community in California and volunteers at HOPE (Helping Other People Everyday).
-Sister Gemma Pires ; close up photo by Selma Pires Sequeira