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 what is the biography of Sister Marie Therese Retout-OP. This is the story of a French woman born in the era of wartime Europein 1922, ending up in Trinidad in 1952 at age 30, 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, how she overcame suicidal impulses as she faced what she thought was the unfairness of life, early in a journey that would ultimately reveal the magnificence of having answered “the call”.
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 abundance of divine richness of experiences and exposures. She has retired now and until recently, still welcoming visitors to her home at the Holy Name Convent in Port of Spain, still marvelling at the wonders of having been “chosen”. Still not yet having come to terms with the sense of unworthiness she had harboured.
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. “And (I) shudder at the thought of what happened when God wants you. He makes you cross fire in whatever form. 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 of, 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 what appeared to be chance encounters, power-packed with meaning and with 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 SS men marauding on the streets. She questioned God. She openly challenged Jesus Christ. Something in her catechism book stopped her from jumping into the River Saone in the dead of night, as planned. It is the statement that says if you commit suicide you would go to hell for eternity. But yet she questioned. Wasn’t she already living in hell?
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 Therese.” 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, she got baptised, made First Communication and then she got a second call. She was in the chapel of a church in the town where she lived. This is 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 says he didn’t see her as a nun. “He too was baffled,” her diary says. Nevertheless, she would continue 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 complement of the Dominican Sisters in this country and there was a request for her to be one of them. But first she had to go to England, there to learn English, and from there, to Canada, then to the St Dominic’s Orphanage in Tacarigua via Miami. But with a two week vacation in Tobago before taking up the position.
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. How she would replicate such work at children’s homes in Belmont and elsewhere, how she would be called to work for the Apostolic Nunciature in Port of Spain, the Vatican Embassy in this country, and how she would 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 Best” 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 Archdioscese.
But sister Marie There also played a significant role in the early 1970s of opening up the country’s prisons systems to visits by interested counsellors and care-givers, and the entrenchment of “programmes” for inmates. She visited men on death row. She talks in the book about one instance, in which she heard the voice of a condemned man who had been executed days prior, telling her that, eventually, he had been “saved”. She talks also 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. And through the network of friends she drew around her from the local business, cultural, artistic and creative elite, she was able to direct the construction and design of grottoes at churches in Malick, Barataria, San Juan, Scarborough and other parishes.
“France my motherland gave me a rich seed which form many years was buried in the soil of tribulation not only in France but in England and Canada,” she writes in a close-out statement, on Page 126. It is dated April 26, 2004. “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 out of the 56 of my religious life, and where I also have many dear friends.” But 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.