“No man is an island entire unto itself. Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the Main.
Therefore seek not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
These powerful words from John Donne’s poem jumped out at me as I read the inspiring life story of Sister Marie Therese Retout OP. Her life speaks to how inextricably linked all our lives are, how intertwined we are, each with the other. The book is beautifully written with clarity and love by the brilliant Rhona Simone Baptiste. Sister’s continuing life story transports us from the boulevards of Paris to the streets of Port of Spain. She was born in 1922, in the aftermath of World War 1 but it was the sounds and fury of World War 11 that provided the background to her girlhood in France.
Her childhood was spent in Chalon in Burgundy where she grew up with her parents and siblings. Her family was not wealthy but they were rich in happiness. Sadly, she lost her little brother to pneumonia. His death so devastated her mother that her health deteriorated and not long after she passed away. The pain was too much for the little girl to bear. One of her memories was of her beloved mother preparing her for her first Holy Communion. She recalls that it was at this time that she felt Jesus telling her that he wanted her fully for his own.
She recounts living with her father Victor and later adjusting to becoming a step-daughter.
She was 21 years old when she was exposed to the atrocities of war. It was during the hopelessness of this time – World War 11- that she questioned God. She was without a sense of purpose and even considered suicide. As she sat before a statue representing Mary in a Carmelite convent she heard these words,”I love you Maries. I want you to do something beautiful with your life.”
Struggles and fears
The war years brought many changes in her life and God opened many unexpected doors. She recounts living with a loving Jewish family and her horror when the dreaded Gestapo broke into their home at dead of night. They took the family away and they were never seen again. She developed a fear and dislike of the German soldiers which remains with her to this day.
As the story unfolds Sister struggles with ill health and feelings of unworthiness. She did not want to be a nun and was in the chapel receiving Holy Communion when she heard a voice saying, “I want you to be my spouse. I love you.”
It was at this time of self doubt that an unexpected opportunity came for her to go to Trinidad and Tobago to join the Dominican Sisters. She left her beloved France and travelled from London to Canada and on March 9th, 1952 she arrived at Piarco International Airport. She was shocked by the intense heat and by how quickly day turned into night in this strange new land.
She had been working non-stop for three years and while up to 1950 the Sisters would rest in Chacachacare, they now relaxed and recuperated at the Toco Mission. Despite seeing two tarantulas and a scorpion and hearing strange noises at night she found Toco beautiful. “The effect of the moonlight on the sea intrigued her as it cast its light between the coconut trees. Spectacular sunsets painted new canvasses for her very new and different life here in Trinidad and Tobago.” When she entered the convent she still had feelings of doubt and was tempted on a number of occasions to leave. All the while deep in her heart she hoped that Jesus would choose someone else.
St Dominic’s Orphanage would be forever transformed by Sister Marie Therese Retout. Her training in the management of children’s homes before her arrival in Trinidad and Tobago enabled her to assist in converting the large Institution into family units. The Montessori Method which she had learned in England prior to her arrival enabled her to introduce creative and innovative learning skills. In 1971 St Dominic’s celebrated its centenary. What new adventures did God have in store for her?
Sister’s feisty, inquisitive spirit forced her to push the envelope and catapulted her into the world of journalism.
The writer shares the intriguing story of Sister’s refusing to be interviewed by the Trinidad Express of which Owen Baptiste was the Editor. She was disturbed by articles that had been written about the St Dominic’s Childrens Home which she felt were harmful to the already vulnerable children. This led to a long and challenging working relationship with the Express editor, who became a lifelong friend. Her interaction with him led her into the new world of journalism. The writer describes Sister’s visits to the Boys Industrial School in Diego Martin where she was invited to teach Religion to 200 boys, ages 12-14 and 17-19. She was dubbed ‘the flying nun’ as she arrived at the Orphanage in Owen Baptiste’s MG Model Sports car with open back.
The magnet that attracted adventure, she describes how God led her to visit the prisoners at the Royal Jail. A letter arrived from one of the boys who had attended the Orphanage. Now on Death Row, he asked to be visited by one of the Sisters. This began a new chain of experiences in her life. It was during the time of the Black Power demonstrations in Port of Spain. Though at first a bit frightened, Sister became a regular visitor to the prisoners in the Infirmary and on Death Row. Through her intervention, she was instrumental in ensuring that all condemned men were given beds and slippers. Her interaction with these condemned men brought many of them into a personal relationship with God. Among her most touching life stories is that of Bobby, who Sister had taught at the orphanage. On Death Row, she interacted closely with him. When she arrived after his execution she heard a distinct voice saying, “I am saved. I am saved.” She believed Bobby was telling her that God had saved the soul of a repentant sinner.
She resigned as an educator at St Dominic’s Children’s Home and the feisty Sister-turned-journalist was given ‘Parish Beat’ to create an awareness of life in the Archdiocese. Driving herself or being driven across Trinidad every weekend, she loved the kind and beautiful people in the rural countryside. Those were precious experiences and the writer unearthed the details of life in the Parishes. It was an awesome time. The writer also shares Sister’s visits to Venezuela and her subsequent writing of articles in Spanish, which she was able to learn.
Through the years the Holy Spirit was always leading her, through her work at The University of the West Indies, to building grottos in Tobago, through becoming an archivist to helping the poor in Malick with the aid of the business community.
Truly ahead of her time, perhaps it was her enthusiasm that always allowed her to push the envelope. Celebrating Mass for the first time on the Beauport a ship docked outside of Tobago, assisting in the Restoration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Assumption in the sister isle, there never was a dull moment for the intrepid Dominican Sister. Her curiosity led her to initiate the renovation of the Sisters cemetery in Chacachacare where nine of her dear Sisters were buried. In 2003 the altar was re-consecrated and is now in the chapel at Holy Name Convent.
At the close of this book the writer includes a powerful poem by Samuel Ullman called ‘Youth’. It is indeed a reflection of Sister’s life. “As long as your heart receives messages of beauty, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the Infinite, so long, you are young.”
Sister reminds us of the transforming power of love. She asks the writer. ”Did you remember to include how hate enters the heart and destroys love?” She returns at times to that period in her youth when life had brought its own trials and tribulations to test her faith. Gratefully she has since found a comforting redemption.
“France, my motherland, gave me a rich seed which for many years was buried in the soil of tribulation, not only in France but in England and Canada as well. However, it was in Trinidad and Tobago that God brought this seed to the stage of maturity and made it bloom. I have been very happy in this country where I have my dear Dominican Sisters with whom I have spent 52 years of the 56 of my religious life and where I also have many dear friends.”
We look forward to the next amazing event in Sister’s awesome journey.
BA English Honours/ Spanish
Speech and Drama - Carnegie Hall. New York
CIAR Cert Coopers Institute of Aerobic Research Texas
TV Host/ Producer/Script Writer