When Simon Baptiste, creative director of the Play Whe Soca Monarch competition, spoke in a Carnival interview about who impressed him the most in life, I expected him to name an entertainer.
Instead, with no hesitation, he said, “My mother and my godmother, Sr Marie Therese. They’re both incredibly strong women who are still writing books.”
As fate would have it, Baptiste’s mother, Rhona Baptiste, wife of legendary newspaper editor Owen Baptiste and a journalist and social worker in her own right, wrote Sr Marie Therese’s biography.
Baptiste’s book, Sister Marie Therese Rétout OP – Her Story from France to Trinidad and Tobago, presents the life of the French nun posted to TT to work at an orphanage in Port of Spain. The book combines the best features of biography and autobiography. Baptiste’s simple structure which juxtaposes Sr Marie Therese’s own words and memories with Baptiste’s analysis, based on interviews and decades of personal recollections, provides a moving story.
Most remarkable is how Sr Marie Therese’s story transcends memoir and becomes a compelling story of determination, migration and reinvention. Her accomplishments are stunning. Besides her religious work, she has contributed to TT as a reporter, journalist, author and archivist in her second language, English.
Baptiste captures these achievements with a journalist’s eye. This must have been challenging, considering her close bond with her subject. Even with her personal links, Baptiste says she experienced new revelations.
“What surprised me in writing this book is that Sr Marie Therese dared to break from the constraints or restrictions of a religious order that to me very often is designed to stunt one’s growth. She was able to break those bonds while remaining in those constraints.”
While it might have been tempting to mainly paint a religious picture of Sr Marie Therese, Baptiste keeps that aspect of her subject’s life in perspective. A fierce sense of individuality emerges from the book. How Sr Marie Therese reconciles that with her faith makes interesting reading.
“She was daring, The intrepidness of going after what she wanted to do to fulfil herself as an individual was remarkable,” says Baptiste, “and she succeeded, in my thinking.”
Sr Marie Therese arrived in Trinidad on February 9, 1952. Born in 1922, she lived through World War II, which she recounts in vivid detail in Baptiste’s biography. Her recollections are grounded in family, images of flowers and children – the goodness one would expect to find among the memories of a nun surrounded by the horrors of war.
But she also recounts personal pain: the death of her mother, the family’s financial struggles and her life in a boarding school. There is a refreshing truthfulness to her story. She admits her fears and her depression during the war, and her doubt in God.
“My deepest regret was to leave Chalon, my hometown and birthplace,” she says.
At the orphanage run by the Dominican Sisters, she becomes a teacher and religious instructor. After meeting Owen Baptiste, she becomes a journalist for the Catholic News. Her conversations with death-row prisoners in the Royal Gaol (Port of Spain Prison) reveal just how she combined those two jobs of nun and journalist. Her stories of journalism provide interesting details about Owen Baptiste as a journalist and reveal the effect he had on all the journalists he mentored.
Sr Marie Therese’s travel stories reveal yet another level of her observations about people and culture.
Rhona Baptiste has included many pictures that capture Sr Marie Therese’s life. In the end, Baptiste creates a finely nuanced, complete picture of an ambitious individual who served as a Catholic nun. It is an inspirational story that captures and yet transcends religion and faith. Best of all, the story serves as a testimony to reinvention, which is the key to survival. At 98, Sr Marie Therese is still writing. Her work, featured in this book, teaches us how to face life and aging graciously and gratefully.
“Sr Marie Therese remains an icon especially today when young people and young women cannot see the meaning of life,” says Rhona Baptiste.
If you can’t wait to buy the book until bookstores reopen, you can find it as a Kindle book or order it in print from amazon.com. It is an enjoyable and inspirational read.