The Dominican Sisters are celebrating 150 years in Trinidad and Tobago. There will be a celebratory Mass 11 a.m. on April 29 at St Finbar’s RC, Diego Martin. Sr Marie Thérèse Rétout OP provides an overview of their history.
Trinidad, in the 19th century was plagued by men, women and children, sick with leprosy, who freely roamed the country begging for their livelihood and, at the same time, were spreading the terrible disease. The situation became so serious, it forced the British Colonial Government to take the decision of building a hospital for them. Their selected choice was Cocorite, a swampy coastal area of the western peninsula, dotted with many palm trees and a jetty used by fishermen.
In 1845, the ‘Colonial Leper Asylum’ was inaugurated. It was staffed by untrained ‘nurses’ who were more interested in a monthly salary than by giving primitive medical care to the lepers. Force had to be used to get lepers into this asylum which they regarded as a prison and a place of terror and death.
In the 1860s, after a visit to the Colonial Leper Asylum, the then British Governor of Trinidad, Sir Arthur Gordon, horrified by what he had seen there, made a plea to the Roman Catholic Archbishop Louis Joachim Gonin in these words: “I have always thought that to cure such ills, of soul as well as body, something more is needed than paid-for devotion; to my mind it seemed that it required Christian charity, the charity which sees about all in the sick and the poor, the living members of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This noble appeal received an excellent response from the archbishop who contacted the Master of the Friars Preachers (the Dominicans as they are widely called) Fr Vincent Jande in Rome. He in his turn got in touch, in France, with the foundress of a religious congregation, the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena, Mother Dominique Gand in Bonnay, France, to transmit the Trinidad plea made by the British Governor. This plea was nothing else but a request to send religious Sisters to Trinidad to do the work of Christian charity at the Colonial Leper Asylum. Though this Congregation was only 13 years old, some Sisters offered themselves to go to Trinidad (with no idea where Trinidad could be in the world!). Mother Dominique accepted the five who offered themselves and sent them to Lyon, a city with a large hospital dealing with tropical diseases. It was there that they received a crash course for the leprosy disease, and then embarked in the port of St Nazaire for this unknown destination. After 18 rough days of voyage they arrived in Trinidad on March 26, 1868. It was the Lenten Season—Holy Week. After a short rest, the five Sisters began their work of Christian charity on the Good Friday of that year at the Colonial Leper Asylum of Cocorite.
(Read the full story in the revised third edition of the book, Called to Serve to be published in the course of this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the Trinidad Foundation of the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St Catherine of Siena (1868–2018).
Not only did five French Dominican Sisters come to Trinidad to look after the leper patients in Cocorite but more Dominican Sisters followed to do this Christian charity and many other works which were very much appreciated in the country.
In 1946, they opened a Novitiate—house of formation for the Dominican religious life, for local vocations. These young Trinidadian women, responding to the call of Jesus Christ, have courageously done what the British Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, had wished for, namely, “the Christian charity which sees about all in the sick and the poor, the living members of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Here is a list of such works done by the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena during those 150 years.
1868–1950: Caring for hundreds of patients at the Leper Asylum of Cocorite and of the Hansenian Settlement on the island of Chacachacare: 82 years
1876 to the present: Caring for hundreds of orphaned and unwanted children at the St Dominic’s Children’s Home in Belmont, Port of Spain: 142 years
1890 to the present: Educating hundreds of children at the Holy Name Convent Primary and Secondary Schools and at the Residential Training Centre for young girls: 128 years
Offshoots of the Holy Name Convent Secondary School: St Dominic’s Private Secondary School in Malick, Barataria (1958–2007): 49 years
Holy Name Secondary School (Assisted), Point Fortin (2000 to the present): 18 years
1972 to the present: RC Chaplaincy of the St Augustine Campus, University of the West Indies: 45 years
1979 to the present: Pastoral work at Our Lady of Good Counsel, a Caribbean/Canadian Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada: 38 years
1992 to the present: Educating young children at the St Catherine’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Centre, in Gran Couva: 26 years
1997 to 2017: Education at the St Patrick’s RC Primary School and Diocesan Pastoral Work in Bridgetown, Barbados, West Indies: 20 years