"No Lord, not me" when asked to come to T&T
She came and never went back.
“What I saw in 1952 and what I see today is day and night. Things have changed so much. When I came to the city, everybody is on wheels, they don’t have any time.”
In three months, Sister Marie Thèrés Rétout of the Dominican Order would mark 68 years since she has been living in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an astonishing accomplishment considering the 97-year-old French nun’s first words after receiving the letter of call over seven decades ago were, “No Lord, not me.”
Hailing from Burgundy, a city rich in French history and most famous for its wine, Sr Rétout was being called away to a place on the map she could hardly find. “I said Trinidad, where could this be in the world? I looked at the map and I saw Trinidad across the ocean, and I said, ‘No Lord, not me’ and the Lord told me, ‘yes, offer yourself’.”
Sr Rétout recently launched the third edition of her book Called to Serve, which dives deep into the history of the Dominican Sisters in this country. Perhaps no other congregation has been more interwoven in Trinidad’s history quite like the Dominicans. She laughs as she says “I am not computer literate so every word of this book was handwritten.” And she has the evidence to back it up. Deep in one corner of Holy Name Convent are stacks of boxes on a shelf labelled with a marker “Called to Serve.” Sr Rétout’s latest book chronicles how the congregation of women helped T&T at its most vulnerable moment, expanded the education system and was the guiding light to generations of orphans for the past 150 years.
As the leprosy disease gripped the globe in the 1860s, Trinidad too was engulfed with the crisis. In the book, Sr Rétout recalls how lepers were free to move around the country spreading the disease wherever they went. Faced with its rampant spread, the book tells how the British authorities built a leprosy home for those suffering with it in Cocorite.
“To force them to come there was not easy,” Sr Rétout said. As it became uncontrollable, Governor Sir Arthur Charles Hamilton-Gordon concluded only religious sisters would be able to help the victims. Dominican Sisters flew in from France to assist, but the mystery of this storied chapter in T&T's history only deepened. Sr Rétout recalls in her book how an international medical conference in Norway in 1915 changed the fight against leprosy for the world. The findings were that leprosy was contagious and all patients needed to be isolated from the public. When the news reached Trinidad, Chacachacare was born. All the patients were to be moved to the island in 1926. “Where our patients have gone, we will go too,” Sr Rétout said as the Dominican Sisters followed the lepers at the risk of their own lives. It wouldn’t be until 1950, 82 years after the Dominican Sisters came to T&T to join the battle, that the disease would come under control. “I would like Trinidadians to know about their history because it is very important to see what has changed in the country,” Sr Rétout said.
The third edition of her book provides a stark portrait of how far Trinidad and Tobago has come as a nation. Reflecting on the 67 years she has spent in this country, the Dominican nun said, “What I saw in 1952 and what I see today is day and night. Things have changed so much. When I came to the city, everybody is on wheels, they don’t have any time.”
The first edition of Called to Serve was published in 1988 and provided history on the Dominicans’ 120 years in the country. However, she would be forced to publish a second edition 13 years later. “In 1986, a young sister came to me and she said, ‘sister, your book is out of date’,” Sr Rétout remembered. To her surprise, the young nun was right. Most of the information in the book had not withstood the test of time, and so she set about her second edition.
The pattern is similar in the launch of her third edition. The work of the Dominicans has spread far and wide across the country. The order’s service in the spheres of education and humanities has helped thousands of children go to school and live a better life. In fact, her hardened heart towards coming to T&T was softened by the orphans she met here. “It was a shock. I had not seen coloured people before,” Sr Rétout said as she reflected on her arrival in 1952. “When I saw all these little children coming and touching my skin, I not only adapted but began to love these children.”
Having spent close to seven decades in this country, Sr Rétout has seen the country through many eras. Now, as crime wreaks havoc on all that has been built, the Dominican nun wants the country to become more spiritually strong. She said, “It needs a spiritual revival,” she said.
That, she believes, could start by people knowing their history.