Enjoy reading Part I of Our Catholic Icons series.
This month we got the opportunity to interview veteran journalist (now retired) Sister Marie-Thérèse Rétout. She quotes The Catholic News as “A tremendous potential for bringing about a new society”
By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Sister Marie-Thérèse Rétout OP first embraced her vocation as a religious August 1, 1949 when she made her first vows of Religious Profession. As a member of the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena of Etrépagny, she left her native France to embark on a journey that would eventually bring her to Trinidad March 9, 1952. She was 30 years.
Sr Marie-Thérèse served faithfully taking on responsibilities as they came. In 1972, she embraced another vocation—writer for The Catholic News; she was 50 years.
The Catholic News interviewed Sr Marie-Thérèse October 20 at Holy Name Convent, Port of Spain, about this period in her life. Her memory may not be as it used to be, but she was able to share impactful moments and her love of the paper and people of Trinidad and Tobago.
A new calling
The Black Power revolution of 1970 was a watershed moment for Trinidad and Tobago which led to social changes in the coming years. Catholic News’ Editor Fr Paschal Tiernan OP felt it was time for a change at the paper and succession planning.
“It was in the 1970s. Trinidad and Tobago entered into this terrific turmoil that started throughout the world and that affected the Catholic Church, and it affected the Catholic News. At the time, Fr Paschal Tiernan was the Dominican Editor of the Catholic News, and he was a man who understood that something had to be done because there was a new order, and everything had changed.”
Fr Tiernan would have discussed a successor with Archbishop Anthony Pantin CSSp. Owen Baptiste was approached to take over the paper. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the Trinidad Express newspaper.
Sr Marie-Thérèse said Baptiste was told that he was “mad” to consider working with a “pious paper”, but he took on the job. “He became the Editor because he was known as a ……kind of forceful writer with a clear insight of what was taking place. One day, he told me, ‘I see in the Catholic News there is a tremendous potential for bringing about a new society’”.
Sr Marie-Thérèse commented that she first met Baptiste when he came to visit the St Dominic’s Children’s Home, Belmont.
Baptiste was welcomed by Archbishop Pantin and when he started, he expected to receive articles from priests. One day she visited him [she was still working at St Dominic’s] and found him in a state of annoyance because there was no clergy input. All he had received in response to his query about articles was one priest asking for publication of a change in Mass time.
“He [Baptiste] was furious and he looked at me and asked me ‘Can’t you write for The Catholic News? You know about religious things…” Sr Marie-Thérèse was surprised and responded that French was her first language, and she did not know how to write for a newspaper.
Baptiste chided her, “so you are like the others!” She clarified, “when he said, ‘the others’, he had gone to attend Mass to hear if the priest would give a homily they had not given in writing and all that he heard the priest spoke to the parishioners about [was] the harvest that was coming and they needed money…!”
Baptiste asked if she had nothing to pass on to others and told her “Shame! Shame on you!”. His words agitated something inside of her. “Then I went to pray to the Lord. I say to the Lord, ‘What are You asking me?’ And He said ‘yes, you are going to write about Me, and I will help you’, then I said if the Lord said so, I figure I will try.”
Baptiste offered to give her training. Sr Marie-Thérèse anticipated it would be the next year. “He said it will be next week! I nearly passed through the floor…”
During her two decades with the paper, she wrote on a range of issues and topics.
There were series from her attendance at events such as the World Council of Churches (November 1974); history pieces e.g. historical accounts of religious orders (1977); articles to edify e.g., the administration of the Holy See in the Vatican (1978); about places: a series on Grenada (1978) and Venezuela (1979); social issues: on the ageing world with a focus on T&T, the life of a vagrant, state of the nation’s housing.
She was a roving reporter visiting parishes across the country, telling the history and stories of churches and the people.
She began as a freelance writer and Baptiste was candid about her first effort at a story. In an interview with the Catholic News on the paper’s 125th anniversary
in 2017 she had recounted, “He said, ‘so you wrote for your priest and nuns, go back, and write it again’.”
She had to do three re-writes. On the second occasion he commented to her, “Sister, you must write in a way that galvanises your readers.” True to her commitment to the Lord she prepared a series about Jesus. “I started writing, I don’t know how many pages, I could write and write.” She had a column titled ‘The Sister Marie-Thérèse Column’.
Catholic News had a small staff comprising the editor, layout artist, secretary, and writer.
In 1974, Sr Marie-Thérèse became a full-time writer. According to a report in the Catholic News, July 7, 1974 Arthur Mc Shine, Managing Director of Printing Services Ltd, which printed the paper, offered her a job.
By this time, Baptiste had moved on, but she acknowledged his “vision, perspicuity and courage” as she launched into “the adventure with God’s help”.
She knew going into journalism did not fit the perception people had of nuns –prayerful, working for the Church and with educating children. She had spent 25 years serving underprivileged children and believed “the time has come to work with and for adults”.
Permission was granted by Vicaress Sr Rose de Verteuil OP who said, “Sister, we trust you; go ahead.”
Sr Marie-Thérèse’s first article was on the change in clothing worn by the Dominican Sisters. That page 3 story was headlined ‘Nuns Model 100 years of fashion’.
As Prioress of the St Dominic’s Children’s Home, she wrote a story close to her heart, ‘The Child Nobody Wants’ about the reality of the child abandoned by family.
Sr Marie-Thérèse saw her role in fulfilling the call heeded by her Order coming out of Vatican II to announce the Good News of salvation to the present generation using the world’s mass communications.
She was also following in the path of those early Dominican Sisters in Trinidad who were involved along with senior boys and girls of the children’s Home, in printing The Catholic News from 1892. The first printery was established at the site of the St Dominic’s Home in Belmont.
Sr Marie-Thérèse said of continuity in 1974, “I will only continue in a new capacity the link of the Dominican Sisters with the printed word.” Eight Dominican Fathers served as Editors of the paper between 1897 and 1972.
TO BE CONTINUED