Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sister Mary Paschal – what a life!

Jamaica Observer column published 6 March 2017 
by Jean Lowrie-Chin

Sister Mary Paschal Figueroa, addressing the Congregation at the celebration of her 80th Anniversary as a Sister of Mercy last August.
In this week celebrating International Women’s Day, we visit the legendary Sr. Mary Paschal Figueroa, a Religious Sister of Mercy, whose life started with the end of World War I in 1918.  When we arrive at the Claver Home for retired nuns at Mount Mercy, in the cool hills of Widcombe, St. Andrew, she pushes her wheeled walker to meet me and says with a twinkle, “Do you like my BMW?” 
Archbishop Kenneth Richards
 - photo from Loop Jamaica 
Yes, the 98-year-old Sister Paschal’s wit and memory are quite intact, as she recounts her early life in Panama, and her zigzag throughout Jamaica as teacher, principal and hospital administrator.  The intrepid nun was St. Catherine High principal from 1972 to 1990, responsible for its growth into one of the largest high schools in the Caribbean, with an enrolment of over 3,000 students.
It is remarkable that out of her resolve to make the once all-girls school co-educational, despite many protests, two of the outstanding male graduates that emerged are Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kingston Most Rev. Kenneth Richards.
Sister Paschal chuckles as she relates that one day, a teacher sent four boys to her office to be disciplined but when she saw that one of them was the well-behaved Kenneth Richards, she said to him, “You are a good boy, you can go back to the classroom,” and then lectured the other three. The beloved educator is grateful that it was at St. Catherine High that Prime Minister Holness and his wife, Member of Parliament Mrs. Juliet Holness met, and said that he had called her recently.
Last year as Sr. Paschal planned her 80th Anniversary Mass, she requested that Archbishop Richards be the chief celebrant.  When the Archbishop explained that he had to attend a Conference in Martinique, Sr. Paschal would have none of it.  So the Archbishop respectfully acquiesced, travelling for an entire day to return on time. She speaks glowingly of Archbishop Ken and his wonderful family whom she regards as her good friends.

Statue of Christopher Columbus in
Colon, Panama
Born Maria Elise Figueroa, Sister Paschal had lived in Panama with her Jamaican parents, as her father had been appointed as a Manager of the United Fruit Company in Panama.  She recalls living in a building opposite to the statue of Christopher Columbus which still stands, with her five brothers. She enjoyed school: she said her teacher praised and rewarded her with the princely sum of 50 cents who had her stand on the desk to recite her timetables to motivate her classmates.  All of her primary education was therefore in Spanish.

When Elise, as she was called, was 13, her mother, a Convent of Mercy ‘Alpha’ Academy graduate, decided that her daughter should attend this excellent school in Jamaica also. After a tearful embrace with her mother in 1931, she became a boarder at the Academy and was inspired by the dedicated Sisters of Mercy who taught and cared for their students.

Elise Figueroa enjoyed those Alpha days, and activities with St. George’s College students. The lovely, witty Elise attracted the attention of several young men, one in particular was very good at sports and would give her all his prizes.  He was quite disappointed when she told him of her life-changing decision.

After sitting the Senior Cambridge examinations in 1935, Elise felt drawn to the convent.  She was encouraged in her vocation by Sr. Marie Therese Watson of the famous Watson family.  (Sister Marie Therese’s nephew is Merrick Needham) and Jesuit priest Fr. Fred Berrigan. She wrote her parents in Panama to say that she would have something very important to tell them when she returned home at Christmas.

When she told them, her father said “If God wants my one girl, I am happy to give her to God,” and her mother was in full agreement.

St Peter Claver
She took a ship back to Jamaica stopping in Cartagena where she visited the place where St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest who reached out slaves, had lived and worked. She said this priest would attend to the sad and hurt Africans as they came off the slave ships in Cartagena, comforting and washing their wounds. It was that Saint’s name which was taken by the founder of Alpha, Jessie Ripoll, when she became a Sister of Mercy.

When Mrs. Figueroa handed over 18-year-old daughter to Mother Superior Vianney of the Sisters of Mercy, the nun did not encourage a long farewell.  “It is time to say goodbye,” she said after a few short minutes. The mother and daughter held each other and cried. 

“I knew that I would not be able to see my family for a very long time  because we were not even allowed early visits although we were allowed to write to each other so it was very sad,” said Sr. Paschal.  “I had an aunt who lived at Emerald Road who I was able to visit from time to time in the company of another nun. When I went to visit my brother in California, again accompanied by a Sister of Mercy, I was instructed that I could eat there but not at the same table as the family.” 

A few years ago, her St Catherine High Alumni hosted her and Sister Mimi on a trip to the US where they honoured her for the life-changing improvements she made at the school, including a machine shop for metal work, an agricultural programme, and the formation of football, basketball, cricket and netball teams. 

Sister harked back to her earlier days as an educator, first at her alma mater, and then at a school in Seaforth Town in St. Elizabeth, where a very strict priest, Fr. Kemple controlled the electric lights.  When she arrived there for the first time, he switched off the lights before she could ascend the convent steps. Luckily the resident nun emerged to guide her by candlelight.

She said that her trip to St. Elizabeth was eventful.  Father Louis Genier had given her a lift, and on the way, their two suitcases fell out of the car. By the time they were alerted, only Fr. Grenier’s suitcase was found.  To this day, she wonders what the thieves did with her two long black gowns and veils.

She said that her next assignment was at Mt. St. Joseph Academy in Mandeville where they had boarders from Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti.  However they was only one radio so they had a strict time-table so that each set of boarders could listen to the news from their respective countries.  She said that the parents of the girls considered their graduation very significant and brought beautiful gowns.

It was between assignments that Sr. Paschal attended Our Lady of Cincinnati College where she gained an Education Degree majoring in Science and Spanish. 

Retirement from education was no time for rest, as then Archbishop Lawrence Burke had noted Sister Paschal’s administrative skills, and assigned her to run the deteriorating St. Joseph’s Hospital.  In that first year 1988, hurricane Gilbert hit.  She remembers seeing the rooftop fly from the Consie Walters Hospice and settle on the Operating Theatre.  She arranged a quick rescue of the patients.   

To her surprise, she saw coming up the hospital driveway a grocer, Al Brady, pushing a deep freeze.  He said he had bought a lot of fresh meat recently, had no electricity and was begging her to allow him to use her generator to save.  She allowed him to keep his products there for two weeks and says “to this day, he has never forgotten.  Every Christmas he brings me a valuable gift.”  Sister believes in preserving relationships and when I was with her, her cell phone rang several times with friends checking on her.

Because of her failing eyesight, one of her long time Alpha students has sent her a ‘talking watch’ and she showed me how you press a button to hear the time and another for the date.  Sr. Paschal is up there with technology. “I am going for the hundred you know my dear,” she says and we believe she is well on her way there. 

I asked this inspiring 98-year-old what advice could she give us to face life’s many challenges. Her response: “For me, I saw every change and every request as God’s will.  Don’t ever be afraid because God is always believing in you, encouraging you and supporting you.”

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