Mary Bernadette Muller and Elizabeth Harper Neeld
Something was about to happen here in New Orleans which would change my life every bit as drastically as had the experience that led me to come to the cloistered monastery, something which would change the total structure of my days and nights and alter my very life’s direction—the arrival in 1961 of the Cuban sisters.
For weeks Mother Margaret Mary had been acting secretively. Perhaps we’d be at supper and she’d be summoned to the telephone; we could tell from the way she jumped up from the bench and rushed toward the office that this was an emergency. Yet when she returned to finish eating, she would never even allude to the conversation. …Then one day Mother Margaret Mary summoned us to hear the news….”I know you are all aware that a revolution is taking place in Cuba, for we have been prying daily for our Cuban sisters. But what you do not know is that the Poor Clares in Havana are in great danger. The fighting in the streets has spread. Revolutionary soldiers have entered and taken over the grounds and buildings of the monastery. Historical records, business accounts, prayer book, archival materials—all have been heaped in the middle of the courtyard and burned in a massive bonfire. Sacred relics and precious religious statues are no longer safe. Huge numbers of soldiers bivouac in the monastery every night, some of them even sleeping in the sanctuary of the chapel. And I have just been informed by a friend of the Cuban sisters who was able to slip onto the grounds and then slip out again that two nights ago the monastery gardener was murdered….The sisters themselves now fear for their own lives, knowing that any hour they also may be attacked.” ”
So I have concocted a plan,” Reverend Mother continued. “I have phoned the sisters in Havana summoning them to a special meeting which requires their presence in North America. This is the cover-up we are using in order to find a way to get them out of the country and here to New Orleans. The sisters are now making secret plans to leave, but they do not know yet how they will be able to accomplish this. The soldiers may not allow them to leave the grounds for any purpose….all we can do is pray for their safety and for their speedy arrival here at our monastery.”
Sister Rosa [one of the sisters from Cuba] was addressing Christmas cards. “Look over…” she asked me, holding out the envelopes she had already completed. “See if right…want to thank them for helping us.”
I took the envelopes and began to check them. Sister Rosa had copied the addresses from the envelopes the monastery bills had come in. There was a card for the light company, a card for the Corpus Christi water system, a card for the garbage service, each address painstakingly reproduced in Sister Rosa’ awkward printing.
“These are all fine,” I told Sister Rosa, “you’ve done a good job.” But then I saw it—the card for the Corpus Christi Produce Company. On the envelope Sister Rosa had carefully copied: Corpus Christi Produce Co. Potatoes, Tomatoes, Onions, Apples, Oranges 238 N. Port Corpus Christi, Texas
“I think,” I said to Sister Rosa, with as straight a face as possible, “that we will have to do this one over.”
One night we heard a noise out front. The four of us went running into the guest room. I peeked through the blinds. Two men were standing there. “What do you want?” I called out. “We’re officers, and we’ve come to see if we can be of any help,” they replied. I could see that they had on ordinary clothes so I aid, “If you’re officers, how come you don’t have on your uniforms?” “Oh, we’re okay,” they answered. “We’re just helping out off time here….” Suddenly I had an inspiration. “Sirs, since you are officers, maybe you could answer something that I’ve been wondering about for a long time.” “Oh, sure,” they responded. “What is it?” “Well, I know that if I should shoot intruders in my house I would not be responsible but what about if they are outdoors?” Then I added, “Oh, well, I guess it really wouldn’t matter because I’d do it if I had to anyway…and I’m a crack shot.” “She surely is a crack shot,” one of the sisters piped in. “Why not long ago she shot and killed two rabbits in the dark just by seeing their white tails.” “Well, it you need anything, just take your flashlight and make big circles like this,” one of the men said, making a motion with his flashlight. “We’ll come and help you….So long.” Then they scurried off.
Later on when we found out that there had been many looters in the area after the hurricane, we had no doubt that these men had planned to break into the monastery and instead had been surprised by finding us here. We began to plant. Earlier we had purchased several fifty-pound bags of different seeds in order to provide our parakeets a variety of food. The adventure was flop, for the birds would not touch the varieties we had bought. “We can’t waste all these seeds,” I said to the sisters. I had read somewhere that rape seed would produce edible leaves that were really a delicacy, so I planted the seeds in long rows. The plants bore luxuriant leaves which, when cut, produced more and more. We had to eat rape leaves for a long, long time.
The hemp seed were a different story. Since the label on the bag said it was sterile seed, I merely scattered the seeds around, hoping the wild birds would profit by it. Then one day a visitor gasped, “Sister Bernadette, what are you growing over there?” She pointed to where I had scattered helter-skelter the hemp seed. “Oh, that was supposed to be sterile seed,” I explained, “but some of it has produced those plants with beautiful leaves. Aren’t they attractive?” “Attractive indeed,” she replied. “That crop will soon be attracting the cops! Don’t you know what it is?” “Must be hemp plants,” I responded. “What’s so terrible about that?” “That,” she replied with great emphasis, “is none other than marijuana!” I immediately began to clear out the garden.
It has been this sense of family that I have attempted to foster in the years I have been in the monastery. The talents of each sister are God-given. It is our duty to develop these. Not only is it our duty, but it is fun—fun to be shared….In the monastery we develop a certain awareness of God’s presence without actually defining it as such. I learned early: “Where is God? God is everywhere.” We believe this and actually act as if we do. Grace sharpens our awareness and thus the conscience becomes more sensitive….All the little golden opportunities to gain wisdom come through ordinary daily occurrences in the monastery and on the grounds. It is a way of life, this growing in grace. Will we one day discover, perhaps, that saints are just ordinary people who do ordinary things extraordinarily well?