Sister Francis Xavier Urich
Articles by Angela Pidduck
Sister Francis Xavier Urich, the first Trinidadian Principal of St Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain, describes her school life at the Convent, from age five, as "challenging and fulfilling."
When one hears the story of the life of this nun who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee of Religious Profession in 1995, after sixty years of religious life, at which time she was awarded the highest honour bestowed on women by the church in recognition of signal contribution to the church - the "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" - you realise that her entire life has been "challenging and fulfilling."
To-day, at eighty-plus, Sister Francis Xavier Urich still deals with daily challenges at the Papal Nuncio's residence on Mary Street, where with Sisters Emeria Grace and Anne O'Reilly, she helps with secretarial work and "kindred duties."
Jocelyn Eleanore Uric's challenges started at age five when after the sudden death of her father, John Otto Urich, with her mother Marie (nee Rostant) and four siblings, Monica, Doreen, Marjorie and Esther, she moved to Port of Spain from the coconut estate in Cedros where the family had lived. Six months later, her mother was the victim of a freak accident.
"She was ill in bed and had been sponged, got up to switch on the overhead light which was hanging by its cord, must have been standing in a puddle of water, and was electrocuted."
Jocelyn and three siblings went to live at 158 Charlotte Street with their paternal grandmother and two aunts, one a cripple and the other a war-widow with three children. "My other sister lived apart from us."
After getting a Grade One Senior Cambridge School Certificate, Jocelyn Urich and two other students, Ortiz Batson (now Mrs Alcantara) and Marjorie Fuller (now Mrs O"Brien) broke educational barriers and studied for the Higher School Certificate in 1932, a time when girls were not permited to sit the examination. They were prepared by their female teachers for the exam but because the Convent was not registered to present candidates, permission was sought for them to register and enter for the exam as students of St Mary's College. "We sat the H.C. exam as students of C.I.C. at the Royal Victoria Institute and nearly beat the boys in their sacrosanct field."
Having by that time decided to become a nun, at age 18 she entered the novitiate of the St Joseph Sisters of Cluny at the Convent in Abercromby Street and began training to be a religious sister, while teaching at the Convent. Three years later she was professed as a Religious Sister of the Congregation of St Joseph of Cluny and took the name Sister Francis Xavier, after a Jesuit Saint "whom I admired for his zealous mission to the people of India and who spent his life and met his death in their service and spiritual enlightment - a task to undertake and a mission to accomplish."
The following year 1936, an Irish sister who was the Superior of the Convent, sent Sister Francis Xavier to England to study at the University of Oxford, and in 1939 she obtained the Bachelor of Arts Degree in English. By September of the same year World War II had broken out and the Oxford graduate listened to British Prime Minister Chamberlain broadcasting to the English nation "we are now at war with Germany". Undeterred, she travelled through a darkened countryside to Glasgow, Scotland, to study for a Diploma in Education at Downanhill Training College.
"I lived through the anxieties and deprivation of the war for one year, night and day gas masks, darkened homes and windows, air-raids, scarcity of food, frenzied manufacture of airplanes, guns, ammunition, enlistment for training in the army, navy, airforce, nursing and ministering to the wounded soldiers of the Armed Forces. How I admired the courage and determination of the English and Scots as they learned to endure adversity and suffering and face overwhelming odds."
In June 1940, she returned to Trinidad, travelling across the Atlantic in slow convoy. "We sailed in pitch darkness in fear and trepidation- the last convoy to leave England- for German U-Boats were prowling the ocean waters- no lights by night, and terror of attack by day. What a joy it was, a fortnight later, to see the lights of Barbados reflected in the Bridgetown harbour."
Sister Francis Xavier took up the post of Mistress of Studies, and Religious Education, English and Latin teacher at her alma mater, and also taught English at the Roman Catholic Women's Training College on Abercromby Street.
At 2 a.m. on May 23, 1944, the tolling of the chapel bell woke the nuns. Flames and smoke were pouring out of the Convent Chapel Sacristy, above which was the infirmary for the old and infirm sisters. Four sisters died in this fire which destroyed the Training College, sisters' buildings and kindergarten. Two nuns overcome by smoke and flames died in their beds; another, says Sister Francis, could be seen standing in the window of the third floor overlooking the street with flames at her back. "She was given absolution from across the street by Father Maebin, and fell back into the flames." The fourth, Assistant to the Community who had awakened the Superior and told her the house was on fire, was led by Sister Francis Xavier with a bundle of clothes in her hands to a safe seat: "I left her with the clothes beside her. The next morning the clothes remained in the community room but the charred remains of this sister who wandered off in a confused state down the corridor to where the fire was, were found between the burnt building and that which was saved."
In 1950, Sister Francis Xavier represented the congregation of sisters at St Peter's Basilica in Rome, at the beatification of the Congregation's foundress, Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, and received the Pope's blessing.
She was the first Trinidadian appointed Principal of St Joseph's Convent, in 1956, "a post previously held by the Irish Superior of the Convent, while a Trinidadian sister, appointed as Mistress of Studies, guided and directed the Convent School." But by 1957 was transferred to St Joseph's Convent, San Fernando, as Principal of that Secondary School.
Francis Xavier, as she was fondly called by her students, was appointed the first Trinidadian Provincial Superior of the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, in 1965, with responsibility for these sisters in Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St Vincent and St Lucia, until her retirement in 1980. During this period, however, she returned as principal of St Joseph's Convent in Port of Spain, and was chairperson of the Board of Management of the Schools of the Sisters of Cluny, with powers to dictate, debate and direct the administration of these schools.
When Sister Francis Xavier resigned in 1974 as principal, she was awarded the Chaconia Gold Medal for services to education in this country.
Life's challenges were not yet over for this woman who with her majestic bearing, commanded the respect of thousands of students who passed through the Convents' hallowed halls. For in 1981 she was sent to Grenada as Superior of the Cluny Sisters in St George's, where she clashed many times with the Gairy Government over the schools, and came face to face with civil war, this time, at the end of the revolutionary era under Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard. "My name was on the list of suspects as I was secretary to the Catholic Bishop of Grenada - the Very Reverend Sydney Charles. I also served as secretary of Major Superiors of the Antilles and so held an influential position."
Sister Francis Xavier watched with consternation in 1984, "the inflitration of the Grenadian society by communistic forces: Russians - with technology; Cubans to build the airport in Point Salines; Libyans to train terrorists and supply finances. The youth was particularly indoctrinated and supplied with arms, until dissension arose in the ranks of the revolutionaries - Bishop faction versus Coard faction. Coard and his sycophants prevailed and Bishop was imprisoned, but later rescued by jubilant adherents and all marched to Fort Rupert."
"With the other nuns, I stood up at the Convent window and watched across the valley as hundreds jumped to their deaths over the cliff. We were not in danger as they were on the sea side and the United States and Caribbean peace-keeping forces bombed the revolutionaries who were further down. We ministered to these forces as they moved around the city and countryside until peace and order were restored and the revolutionaries jailed for life."
In January 1985, Sister Xavier rejoiced with all Trinidad at the visit of Pope John-Paul II "it was an electrifying moment for me when he laid his hand on my head, blessed me and thanked me for my work for the Church and Catholic Education in the Caribbean. Later the same year, she received the Papal Medal "BENE MERENTI" for outstanding service to the church and Catholic Education in the Caribbean, and celebrated her Golden Jubilee - 50 years as a Religious of St Joseph of Cluny. There was still work for this untiring and dedicated Religious, who in 1989 served as Superior of the Community of Providence in Trinidad, before moving in 1993 to the Apostolic Nunciature at Mary Street, where she still lives.
In April 1996, at the request of Archbishop Paul Tabet, Papal Nuncio to Nigeria, Sister Francis Xavier went there "with the possibility of sending Cluny Sisters to Nigeria to minister to the poor in Lagos."
But regretfully informed Monsignor Tabet, who had previously served as Papal Nuncio in Trinidad, that they could not accede to his request. Sister Francis Xavier expressed deep grief and sorrow at the sudden passing of Archbishop Anthony Pantin, and gives her God the Glory for the great things he has done. "Mighty His Mercy and Goodness to me throughout a long life and enduring service for the extension of His Kingdom and the welfare of His children in these far-flung islands of the West Indies" says this well-spoken, poetic woman.
"May his Loving mercy be ever upon our peoples as they seek His blessing, guidance and support in all their ways and days."