Pages of Providence
To Puerto Rico
Journal Entry: Sister Theodoret Bretzel (1894 - 1993)
Sister Theodoret was one of the Sisters who volunteered to start a mission in Puerto Rico in 1932. She was a colorful personality with a joy for living and a keen wit. An excellent cook and housekeeper, she worked tirelessly under difficult conditions, to serve the Sisters with whom she lived.
May 21, 1947
Finally, after ten years we have the convent to ourselves! Today, the last family moved from the San Luis house and we truly have a real convent -- even if the roof is so leaky that the Sisters must sit under umbrellas to grade their papers! On such a grand occasion, I praise our Provident God for bringing us so far since that first year.
It was the fall of 1931 when Mother Josephine (Schmitt) and her council answered the Gospel summons to begin a mission in Puerto Rico. When I heard they were asking for volunteers, I couldn't wait to sign up. Much to everyone's surprise, more than 100 Sisters volunteered. It was a happy day for me to be chosen, with five of my Sisters, to come here.
I felt a bit like the pioneer Sisters as we set out on August 7, 1932 for this unknown land. Sisters Callista (Strauss), DeChantal (Huber), Innocent (Miller), Macaria (Gaertner), Bertranda (Leininger), and I boarded a train for Washington, D.C., and then sailed on the Barbara from the harbor at Baltimore. It was a cargo ship, and none too comfortable. But it was a journey of just one week, and we soon docked in beautiful San Juan.
Our final destination was the coastal town of Arecibo. Getting there was immensely interesting to us, as we had never seen such delightful tropical flowers or swaying palm trees. The beautiful landscape did much to keep our minds off the drive as we bumped over the narrow, winding, dusty road that connected the towns. Our first convent was tiny, but spotlessly clean. We unpacked, and immediately -- dictionary in hand -- set upon our mission to open a school.
For the school Sisters, the days were long, with class work, Spanish lessons, and home visits. The classrooms were small and crowded. I still laugh when I think of one of the Sisters teaching a prayer class of 35 students with a chicken hatching in one corner and a cow mooing in the other! After school, we taught religion three days a week and again on Saturday mornings. The first two years we knew the deprivations that missionaries are called upon to bear; inadequate housing space, no good drinking water, different food, and the difficulty of learning a new culture and language. But great was the spirit of community among us - the spirit of sharing - be it clothing, housing, joys or sorrows. Our hard work was rewarded with success and school enrollment tripled by 1934. We moved to a small house on San Felipe Street and for a brief time enjoyed expanded living quarters.
Everything just kept growing - school enrollment, catechism classes, high school programs - and with the growth, more Sisters came to the missions. We were also blessed to welcome Puerto Rican women into the Community. By 1935, we had two native vocations with more expected, and we needed a larger convent in Arecibo. We found a recently remodeled building across from the police station and moved in. The high school we were opening occupied the first floor, we lived on the second, and the laundry was on the roof.
I will never forget that building. Before the laundry equipment was installed on the roof, I washed on the first floor and lifted basket after basket of heavy wash with a pulley to the roof for drying. That roof was almost the site of my demise! One day, after a light rain, the roof was dotted with puddles of water. I was standing in the water and reached up to unscrew a hanging light bulb when electricity shot down my arm and through my body, rooting me to the spot. It took every ounce of strength I had to pull my hand free; I don't remember anything after that. They tell me that I was unconscious and the barking of our dog alerted help.
In 1946, we moved again. This time, it was a house about 20 minutes from town. There was a family living in the home, but Father Boyd, who purchased the house for us, assured us that they were building a new house and would move soon. However, the family was in no hurry to leave, and given no other option, we moved in with them. They lived on the first floor and I had to do the laundry by hand in their bathroom. This was quite an unpleasant task, as I had to wash several white habits - veil to shoestrings - for each Sister each week. But that wasn't the worst of it - there was no kitchen and so I cooked in the hallway. We made one of the bedrooms into a dining room, and once we were all squeezed into it and seated, we were unable to move until the meal was over. Our bedrooms were in the attic and we had to traipse through the family dining room to go to bed! Living in this house was, by far, our greatest challenge! With the help of Providence and a good sense of humor, we survived. Indeed, we thrived.
Today we celebrate! The family downstairs has moved to their own house. I will cook something extra special, the Sisters will gather to eat and tell stories. We are all amazed at what we have accomplished here. Things have moved very quickly for the past ten years. From our first school in the Casino of Arecibo to grade schools and high schools in both Arecibo and neighboring Utuado, we continue to expand. We have had the loving support of the provinces, and many of our Sisters now serve in this mission. There have been difficult times, but the people here are warm and generous, and the children are so beautiful. Providence has taken root in Puerto Rico and I am certain it will continue to bless the land and the people.
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