Quakes severely damage historic Puerto Rico convent of Fatima sisters

January 28, 2020

As debris fell, sisters from the Sisters of Fatima congregation in Puerto Rico rushed the ill and bedridden sisters out of the convent as a massive 6.4 earthquake hit the island in the early morning of Jan. 7. (Photos by Sister Lizandra Rosa)

PUERTO RICO — Since the evening of Dec. 28, 2019, Puerto Rico has been rocked by repeated tremors, earthquakes and aftershocks centered in the south and southwest parts of the island. Nearly 5,000 people were sleeping outside their homes because they felt unsafe staying indoors, afraid the houses would collapse on them. 

The towns of Yauco and Guanica has suffered immense damage to its buildings and roadways. Many houses that had carports on the first floor and the house on the second floor collapsed, crushing the cars below. The houses and buildings are made of cement to withstand hurricanes, including the most recent hurricanes hitting the island, Maria and Irma in 2017, which were both Category 5.

To an island still recovering from the devastation Hurricane Maria left behind, the earthquakes add another level of stress to its citizens, as well as its power plants and water plants.

In between the towns of Yauco and Guanica, there’s a small area called Santa Rita where the Sisters of Fatima live in their convent, Convento Hermanas de Fátima. The sisters live there, caring for elder sisters who are sick or bedridden.

Sister Ana Chévres said there had been so many small earthquakes and tremors that the sisters were prepared with bags by the door just in case they had to leave their building in a hurry.

At 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, a 6.4 earthquake hit the area, damaging nearly 600 buildings and killing at least one person in Ponce when a wall collapsed on him. 

“It was super strong,” Sister Chévres said.

She said the cement cracking, glass exploding and dust flying everywhere made it hard to see.

“Water pipes broke, so we were slipping trying to get out,” she said.

Getting the elder sisters and those who are bedridden out was of the highest priority. They got them out of the building, setting up tents and beds in the patio area of the convent to accommodate the sick away from the buildings. Doctors arrived at the convent to help the sick and get them stable. The next day, the sisters who are gravely ill and their caretakers were transported to a hospital in Ponce or other convents around the island. Only 12 sisters remained on campus sleeping in tents and cots supplied by the National Guard to receive the supplies, help and donations that arrive and distribute them to nearby towns like Sabana Grande and Peñuelas. 

An engineer and an architect arrived to assess the damage in all the buildings. The car garage had collapsed on one side. All three buildings, two on the main campus — one of which is 130 years old — and one across the street sustained considerable damage. Fortunately, the architect said all three houses can be repaired.

“He said the foundation is strong,” Sister Chévres said. 

The convent and the congregation are an important part of Catholic history in Puerto Rico. The congregation was founded by Madre Dominga Guzmán Florit, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1897, and by the age of 11, had lost both of her parents. Studying in the United States, she felt God calling her, and at 15, she became a sister. After serving in different convents as a teacher, she felt the Holy Spirit calling her to help families and the poor in Puerto Rico.

With permission from her superiors, she began the first Puertorican congregation of sisters Nov. 3, 1949, with the mission “To bring Christ to the family and the family to Christ.” Starting with only a small chapel in Yauco, Madre Dominga was able to acquire their current campus in Santa Rita in 1952.

“She fell in love with Santa Rita,” Sister Chévres said.

Her life and service to Puerto Rico were well-known around the world. In 1984, she met then-Pope John Paul II, who asked her to “pray for him.” That same year, Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta who had met Madre Dominga in Rome during a meeting of Mother Superiors, visited her at the convent in Santa Rita after hearing Madre Dominga, then 87, was ill. She died Jan. 16, 1993 at 95 years old. Currently, there is a cause for sainthood for Madre Dominga.

Today, the congregation has around 120 sisters who continue their mission. They run Casa Belen for women with addictions, founded the vocational school Institute for Services to the Individual, Family and Community, and help with social work at other convents in the island.

Because of their service and the need their community has for aid, there are many on the island who immediately offered to donate to the sisters to help with anything the sisters needed, including rebuilding their homes.
“The help we need is to get our house back up so we can all be together,” Sister Chévres said.

To donate to the Dominican Sisters of Fatima in Puerto Rico, PayPal to economafat@yahoo.com or call 787-315-6686 or 787-458-8426 for more information. †