Veteran journalist Andy Johnson read Sister Marie Thérèse Rétout OP – Her story from France to Trinidad and Tobago as told to Rhona Simone Baptiste.
In a review of the Netflix production of Becoming, the documentary produced from the book tour conducted by the former US First Lady, the reviewer describes it as a piece of work which “covers a lot of ground for a fairly short film”.
Similar sentiments are apt for the description of the biography of Sr Marie Thérèse Rétout OP.
This is the story of a French woman, born in the era of wartime Europe in 1922, ending up in Trinidad at age 30 in 1952, and deciding, ultimately, that this was going to be her home.
It is the story of how she was “called to serve” after actively resisting such voices from above, and how she overcame suicidal impulses as she faced what she thought was the unfairness of life.
Subtitled ‘From France to Trinidad and Tobago, as told to Rhona Simone Baptiste’, the author worked essentially from the subject’s meticulously kept diaries over a lifetime of divine richness of experiences.
She has retired now and, until recently, was still welcoming visitors to her home at the Holy Name Convent, Port of Spain, still marvelling at the wonders of having been “chosen”.
Her story, the biographer says in her own back-cover notes, is one that “would bring hope to many who crossed her path, especially to those where her ministry begins as a Dominican Sister, to homeless children and orphans. But it would lead to other trails that she would blaze, such as her venture into journalism, archiving and book-publishing. Her outreach of Hope was growing. Lessons of Courage, Determination always with hard work and cheerfulness of Spirit,” are written in the lines of her story.
Having been born four years after the end of the First World War, she says in her diary she was 17 when the Second World War broke out. “I was so distraught that I started hating Germans. Hate is like a cancer that grows in the human heart. I wanted revenge for all those horrible things they were doing to us. Even when I reached Trinidad, the hate for Germans continued, until something positive happened.”
That something involved a meeting with the German ambassador in Port of Spain, as a reporter with the Catholic News. On the basis of a deeply confessional conversation, concerning her enduring resentment, she said “we exchanged a meaningful handshake. A burden was lifted from deep inside of me.”
It is one of multiple vignettes in this little book, of how apparent chance encounters were power-packed with meaning and life-enhancing developments.
She had already lost her mother to illness; her father had married a second time; and then the Germans invaded France. She hid in a dark alleyway one night and didn’t get caught by a group of Schutzstaffel (SS) men marauding through the streets.
She questioned God. She openly challenged Jesus Christ. Something in her Catechism stopped her from jumping into the Saône river in the dead of night as planned. It is the statement that says if you commit suicide you would go to hell for eternity. She questioned: wasn’t she already living in hell?
In fulfilment of her Calling
Somehow, she began to be attracted to a Carmelite Convent in the area where she lived. She would sit before a statue of the Blessed Virgin one day, asking her to “be my mother since her son had taken away my own”.
One day she heard a voice within saying “I want you to do something beautiful with your life. I love you Marie Thérèse.” That voice, she concluded instantly, was that of “the son Jesus”. But she questioned still: “How could this be when I was so miserable?”
Nevertheless, she persevered, and in quick order, got baptised, made her First Communion and then she got a second Call.
She was in the chapel of a church in the town where she lived in 1944. The voice said, “I want you to be my spouse.”
“It’s not possible. I’m not worthy,” she replies. “I love you,” the voice says. “I don’t know what Jesus wants me to do,” she blurts out. “In the chapel He said it was to do something beautiful with my life.” The abbot who was present at the time couldn’t see her as a nun. “He too was baffled,” her diary says. Nevertheless, she continued to follow those urgings and the rest is history.
That history then led to another series of events in which she would pursue the religious life and then sometime in 1950, she got notice that the Church authorities in Trinidad were looking to supplement the numbers of Dominican Sisters in this country. There was a request for her to be one of them. First, she had to go to England to learn English, and then to Canada, finally to the St Dominic’s Orphanage in Tacarigua via Miami.
The Trinidad journey
You have to read the stories of how she immediately set about changing the order of things at the orphanage, working first on changing the name and the image of the place, from an orphanage to a children’s home. She would replicate such work at children’s homes in Belmont and elsewhere.
She would also be called to work for the apostolic nunciature in Port of Spain, the Vatican Embassy, and stumble into becoming a journalist under the acerbic, demanding guidance of Owen Baptiste.
It was in the period in the early 1970s when the Catholic News under his leadership was at its most daring and controversial. She would, in that process become the ‘Parish Beat’ reporter, covering as never before or since, the goings-on in the parishes across Tobago, and Trinidad, with assigned photographers, traversing the country in not always reliable transport.
In one of those assignments, she successfully challenged historian Michael Anthony’s arguments that there were no three hills in the Moruga district which led Columbus to come up with the name ‘La Trinity’, from which came Trinidad.
She makes it a source of fun, for example, of the car running off the edge of the road and persons coming to render assistance, reluctant to touch her, because she is a nun.
In the relationship which blossomed between herself and the Baptistes, she became the god-mother of the second of their two sons, Simon Peter, the cultural entrepreneur who was Creative Director of the 2020 National Soca Monarch competition.
There have since been three editions of the book from the ‘Parish Beat’ series of articles looking in on the activities of the Church in the local Archdiocese.
But Sr Marie Thérèse also played a significant role, in the early 1970s, of opening up the country’s prison system to visits by interested counsellors and caregivers, and the entrenchment of “programmes” for inmates. She visited men on death row. She talks about having caused other prisoners to be allowed slippers and mattresses to sleep on when she noticed that “celebrity prisoner” Abdul Malik was being afforded such privileges.
She was also instrumental in the revival of interest in the work of the Dominican Sisters who had come here and worked with citizens consigned to the ‘leper colony’ on Chacachacare island. Sr Marie Thérèse was able to direct the construction and design of grottoes at churches in Malick, Barataria, San Juan, Scarborough and other parishes.
In 2007, France awarded her what’s described as the country’s highest distinction- the Legion d’Honneur, “for her remarkable contributions and charitable works in Trinidad and Tobago”.
You have to read on to see how she has entrusted the rest of her days to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “I ask her to finally lead me to her son Jesus, particularly at the hour of my death,” she writes in joyful expectation.
The book is still available. Contact Rhona Baptiste 621-0602 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, order online from Amazon US$12.99/Kindle (KDP) US$5.99.