By the time we arrived at the Carmelite Sisters’ Monastery of St. Joseph in Trujillo Alto, our one-day visit to the Archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was nearly complete. Even before arriving, we knew that the monastery and its grounds had sustained damage in the storm. The piles of branches, metal and other debris collected by the sides of nearby streets were greater than other places we visited Oct. 30, 40 days after Hurricane Maria struck.
As we passed the front gate and made our way up a short road leading to the monastery, we could see that their property had taken a hit during the Category 5 storm, as the sisters would recount during the visit.
Several sisters and a lone friar met us with a friendly greeting at the monastery door and ushered us into the chapel where they were about to sing the “Salve Regina.” It was an intimate moment, as Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Father Eric Cruz, Father James Cruz, Wanda Vasquez and I joined the sisters, who were standing at their prayer stalls, singing the familiar Latin Marian hymn.
We then walked up a flight of stairs to join the sisters in their community room, where they had prepared a special greeting in song for the prelates and the rest of us New Yorkers. We could see a set of narrow side windows blown out by the storm as well as drains and wires hanging from one of the building’s inner facings.
As the sisters served refreshments, we gathered in small groups to talk with them. The conversations were lively, as the sisters openly shared their experiences with the visitors. Sister Inés Maria Carmona, a former prioress of the monastery, has lived there for 33 years. I asked her what it was like when Hurricane Maria struck the monastery. The details spilled forth from the diminutive Carmelite in a rapid four-minute burst, which I know because I recorded her and posted the audio on CNY’s Facebook page last week.
As Hurricane Maria approached, the sisters were in their cells, or rooms. At about 3 a.m., Sister Inés said she started to feel water in her bed. She turned on a small, battery-powered light and saw that a piece of cement had been dislodged due to the wind and rain. She pressed towels, sheets and pillows against the opening, and spent the next few hours holding the window in place.
At the same time, she also prayed for protection to “God, the Virgin Mary, all the saints and Padre Pio.”
At one point the next afternoon, she attempted to go outside, but her veil and scapular went flying, she said with a laugh, and she had to chase them down and return inside.
When the storm finally subsided, she surveyed the monastery and found two inches of water in the chapel. The sisters’ seats were covered with gritty black sand and leaves. The debris came in through the gap where large windows at the front of the chapel had blown out. Sister Inés said she was surprised and saddened to discover the damage.
“I couldn’t hear when the windows came down. The noise of the storm was so great,” she said. “When I saw the destruction, I was sad, I was crying.”
The final thing she showed me on my way out was where chain-link fencing had been installed to secure the monastery, which the sisters worked very hard to clean and restore after the storm.