Book Excerpts


Convento Cristo Rey, Ponce, Puerto Rico

Published by: RoseDog Books

A letter dated October 19, 1963, from Reverend Higinio Madrazo, CM., pastor of the new Christ the King Parish in Ponce, Puerto Rico, solicited at least three sisters needed by May 1964 to staff a K-5 school in the parish of Cristo Rey. He described Ponce as the second largest city on the island, having a Catholic University and 150,000 people in the parish. "The new convent is the best in the Island of Puerto Rico," he added. (72)

Mother Beata replied on November 9, 1963, posing many questions. (73) Thus began a monthly correspondence between the pastor of the Parish of Cristo Rey, Reverend Angel Echeverria, CM, and Mother Beata from November 1963 to April 1964. The interest engendered by this correspondence led to the decision-making visit of Mother Beata and Sister John Francis Marley, first assistant, to Ponce on April 13, 1964. The warm welcome they received from the priests, people of the parish of Cristo Rey, and other religious communities of sisters in the area was moving and impressive.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood provided hospitality for the travelers. Their superior in Ponce was Sister Ursula Marie, SSJ, who, as it happened, was a niece of IHM Sister Terence McGirr. Sister Ursula Marie was an experienced guide, as Mother Beata and Sister John Francis were introduced to Puerto Rican culture and beauty. The decision to send IHM Sisters to serve in the parish of Cristo Rey was undoubtedly crystallized during this visit. (74)

Two months later, on June 22, 1964, Sisters Mary Gordon (Jeanne) Tubach, Aquinas Shilling and Teresa Mary Gilhool were saying their farewells as they left Marywood in Scranton to travel to New York to join their fourth traveler, Sister Theodore (Maria) Voorneveld, who was then stationed at St. Alphonsus in New York. The little band stayed overnight at St. Alphonsus. Early on the morning of June 23, 1964, they flew from New York to San Juan, then on to Ponce, a bumpy twenty-five minute ride by small plane.

What a welcome awaited the four IHM Sisters, as throngs of children, parents, priests and sisters serving at other parishes on the island greeted their arrival! Speeches, music, flowers and food were part of this sincere and warm welcome. (75)

Eight days later, stern reality set in as the sisters began Spanish classes at the University of Puerto Rico, aware that school would be starting on August 16, just six weeks away.

The patron of languages was surely on their side as they successfully negotiated the challenge of teaching in the Spanish language, and the sisters endeared themselves to the students who politely corrected any small grammatical errors made by their teachers.

The first year of the IHMs in Ponce, Puerto Rico had its share of recreational experiences as the sisters were gradually introduced to cultural events, people, and places to be remembered on the island. There was an excellent rapport developed with other religious communities, especially the IHMs from Monroe and the Brentwood Sisters of St. Joseph. The first visitor from the States was Mrs. Gilhool, mother of Sister Teresa Mary, who arrived on December 29 for a visit. On January 12, Sister Brendan and Sister Aquina came from Marywood for a two-week visit. In February, Betty Braun, sister of Sister Karen Braun, stopped by. All of these visits brought a touch of home to the sisters and provided an opportunity for them to be the new tourist guides. (76)

Throughout the year the sisters were becoming more and more aware of the poverty of some of their near neighbors, and the distinctions being made even by the Church between academy children and barrio children. Separate classes were given, for example, in preparation for First Communion, and separate ceremonies held for such occasions. Mother Beata had been made aware during her visit of the needs of the barrio children, but her advice to the sisters was that they not undertake the extended work for a few years until the school was firmly established. However, some of the priests of the mountain parishes who were dedicated to the work in the barrios pressured the sisters for assistance. By October of the second year in Ponce, the Sisters were deeply involved in catechetical instructions in the barrios. (77)

The second year of IHM presence in Ponce, Puerto Rico saw the addition of Sister LaSallette Connell to the faculty at Cristo Rey, which now numbered five sisters, including the principal, Sister Mary Gordon (Jeanne), and four lay teachers. There were 244 pupils enrolled. The pastor, Father Echeverria, CM, always full of gratitude for the Sisters, wrote to Mother Beata, "Thanks for the new Sister. We have now five angels in the Parish. We are very happy with their work in the past school year." (78)

It was an exciting fall as construction of the new wing on the school proceeded. The first floor included a Salon Iglesia, and three large classrooms made up the second floor. A completely new lavatory section was built for the older children. The highlight of the fall semester was the visit of Mother Beata and Sister St. Mary Orr from December 9 to December 18, 1965. With the sisters already experienced tour guides, the visitors enjoyed seeing Puerto Rico through their eyes. During this visit, plans were made for the building of a chapel in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Barrio Layuca to be sponsored by the IHM Congregation. Mrs. C. Bruce of Long Island, New York gave $2,000 toward this project.

At this time the Congregation at large was studying possible modifications or changes to the habit and veil worn by the sisters. The sisters in Puerto Rico volunteered to experiment with some of the suggested variations, since there was a need for them to change the blue serge habit to white because of the intense heat in Puerto Rico. Their suggestions for Puerto Rico included lighter weight materials and a change from the bonnet to a light band and veil. Mother Beata and Sister St. Mary approved these. The sisters would wear their new habits for the first time on December 26, 1965.

72. Reverend Higinio Madrazo, CM. Letter to Mother Beata Wertz. October 19, 1963. Annals of Convento Cristo Rey, Ponce, Puerto Rico
73. Mother Beata Wertz, IHM. Letter to Rev. Higinio Madrazo, CM. November 9, 1963. Annals of Convento Cristo Rey, Ponce, PR
74. Annals of Convento Cristo Rey, Puerto Rico, 1963-1964
75. Ibid.
76. Ibid.
77. Sister Jeanne Tubach, IHM. Notes of June 11, 1995. Archives
78. Reverend Angel Echeverria. Letter to Mother Beata Wertz, IHM. July 7,1965