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Nun by profession, journalist by occupation

Sr Marie Thérèse Rètout OP whose name is synonymous with ‘Parish Beat’ was a reporter with the Catholic News for about 19 years. During this time her feature articles told the story of parishes in Trinidad and Tobago, University of the West Indies, Dominican sisters in Trinidad, and assignments took her to islands in the Caribbean and beyond.

Joining Catholic media was not part of her plan but it became another way to serve. There were challenges and fulfilment for the Dominican sister whose first language is not English. Ninety-five-year-old Sr Marie Thérèse was interviewed in March about her experiences as a writer with the Catholic News.

In 1971 she first met Owen Baptiste while he was still Editor of the Trinidad Express. On June 11 of the following year Baptiste became the Editor of the Catholic News and Sunday Review based in Belmont.

One day Sr Marie Thérèse stopped by to see him. At the time he was looking for articles to fill the paper and had only received a notice about a change in Mass time from a priest. Out of the blue he looked at Sr Marie Thérèse and asked, “Can you write?” Her first language was French and she did not think she could write for the paper.

“He looked at me hard and said ‘Sister, you got training in religious education which most of us have not got, so you have nothing to pass on to others? Shame on you!’”

Taken aback by the request she asked for time to think about it. She prayed for three days. The response she received was “Write for the Catholic News….You are going to write about me…I will help you.” She said, “I went back to Owen Baptiste and I told him I can write about Jesus Christ. He looked at me very sceptical. He said ‘Jesus Christ? Give me a synopsis’.”

She returned to the Holy Name Convent and for three days prayed and reflected on the task. Divine guidance came, instructing her to write articles based around the Liturgical seasons.

Not her first language

Sr Marie Thérèse informed Baptiste she could begin writing for the paper in 1973 but got her first deadline– “next week”. She presented her first story and related, “He said ‘so you wrote for your priest and nuns, go back write it again’. Three times he did me that. The second time he said ‘but Sister you must write in a way that galvanizes your readers’.” It was daunting thinking about how to write in English for the readers.

Her first column was headlined ‘Jesus, who are you?’  Other articles were: ‘Jesus Christ, Cut to the heart’, January 21, 1973; and ‘Jesus Christ a Model of Spirituality’, February 25, 1973.

Sr Marie Thérèse continued producing articles weekly and said “it was the same problem I had: to write over and over”. She described her start as being thrown out to sea “without being able to swim”.

She said Baptiste took over at a “crucial time” in the country, the aftermath of the Black Power Revolution. “A new era in our society was being born…So what we were writing he felt…there was tremendous potential in the Church to bring about a new society,” she said.

During Baptiste’s tenure new columns and content were introduced. Sr Marie Thérèse said before Baptiste took over the paper carried articles on novenas and the happenings in Rome and London; it had a “very foreign” look.

As a freelance writer, Sr Marie Thérèse continued teaching catechism to 500 children at the St Dominic’s Orphanage. In 1974 she was invited to become a full-time feature writer but felt, this decision has to be taken by the higher authorities” of her community.

In presenting her case before her superior Sr Rose de Verteuil, Vicaress of the convents in Trinidad, Sr Marie Thérèse tried to explain the impact which the Catholic News could have. “A lot of things had changed – the Church had become aware of the Good News of salvation had to be announced but in a different way,” she said.

There were reservations about the role Sr Marie Thérèse was taking on because she would expose herself to misunderstanding and criticism. Her reply was that with the grace of God she could be a reporter.

Sr Rose told her, “Sister, we trust you; go ahead” and these words were “like a springboard” for her to move on. There was sadness in 1975 when she resigned from the St Dominic’s orphanage, but she felt the job she was taking on would enable her to work for “the whole Church”.

Fr Peter Nicholson CSSp appointed editor in 1974 after Baptiste left, said of her involvement, “a nun stepping into a career in journalism – but in the eyes of members of her Order (Dominican) it is in line with their recognition that the religious have a role in modern communication. We are confident that all courtesies will be extended to her. It must be stressed that Sr Marie Thérèse remains a nun by profession – even though her new occupation is that of journalist.” TO BE CONTINUED.