22 February 1966

Tuesday before Ash Wednesday at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos

You have the same problem that I do, I know. After a long period of time, one sits down to write and can't recall what has happened. I have thought many times in the past weekend, as I did things or saw things, or more likely, as things just happened, "This is crazy, crazy! I'll have to remember to tell this." So, for what it is worth, I'll try to recall some of the events of this past weekend. I wish I had pictures so that I could show you all of these things.

The events of the weekend started, I guess, on Friday when Miguel, the director of the Secundaria, mentioned casually that he'd send extra boys to the kitchen to help make the tortas, or sandwiches, for the pilgrimage. I learned by probing that the pilgrimage was a 60 kilometer walk to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Chalma. As I questioned, the boys asked if I wouldn't come along. If the 120 kilometers wasn't enough to discourage me, the answer to where will we sleep -- "Al aire libre, Madre" -- put an end to any speculations. I told them that I'd stay home and have dinner ready for them when they returned.

Miguel had said that he'd send the extra help in the evening. However, school lasts until 7, and supper is at 7:15. I went to the kitchen immediately after eating and found no unusual activity. I did find out that Tito, who does the purchasing, was going to bring the things that we were to prepare. What will it be, I asked innocently. The answer, "Just tortas, Madre." Oh, how many tortas? "Fourteen hundred, Madre." Fourteen hundred!? "Sí, Madre." I sat down. (On our only chair, by the way.)

By this time it was 8:30 and all the boys were in the courtyard watching their Friday night favorite on their precious little television. It is a program which is a Mexican version of American Bandstand, Mexican Beatles and all. The food still hadn't arrived so we cleaned up after supper. It was about 9:30 when the program ended and the groceries arrived. The boys may have stalled the truck until the program was over, but at any rate, we were in business. The preparations began. All of the boys seemed to know what they were doing, so I just walked around and inspected. One group was preparing 300 mashed potato and egg sandwiches. It seems that the mashed potatoes make the eggs stretch farther. Another was making 300 bean sandwiches.

I wanted to be useful, so I was relegated to the 400 marmalade sandwiches. I guess they thought that they were the most delicate. They don't like for me to work, and when I do after an hour they'll come and ask me if I don't want coffee. And I've saved the best for last: the most interesting process was the making of 400 noodle sandwiches. Have you ever tried a cold noodle sandwich? They showed them to me saying, "¿Muy cómico, no, Madre?"

I finished first and left at midnight. They promised they'd hurry and finish as fast as they could. The next day I found out that turned out to be at 4 a.m.

Mass was late on Saturday morning -- at 7:30. Breakfast wasn't ready on time because the cocineros were all sleep-walking. The pilgrimage was to leave at 9 o'clock.

(This is an interruption, but the boys are singing compline in their courtyard and I can hear it in my house. It is a beautiful night and it is very quiet and the stars are very bright.)

By 9:15 on Saturday morning, the pilgrims were still finishing their after-breakfast chores. I seemed to be the only one concerned about the time and was trying to get things moving when Miguel asked me to come to the front hall. He quickly introduced me to a Canadian woman, and then left more quickly still. I was trapped. The lady was traveling alone in a truck -- that is, alone with two Siamese cats. She was distributing Canadian text-books to needy Mexicans. Without stopping to take a breath, she told me about the Communists in Canada, about the poor discipline in the Canadian public schools, asked me if I were interested in amino acids, told me how her husband died, enumerated all the Catholics she knew in spite of the fact that she is a Protestant . . . and all of this while the last-minute preparations were being made. The boys passing by all grinned at me, sensing the situation. Finally, I was provoked. She asked me to come out to her truck because she had a bag of powdered vitamins that were so bitter that her cats wouldn't eat them, and I was supposed to feed them to the boys. By that time, almost rudely, I excused myself, or tried to. She asked the directions to her next stop. Poor Father John appeared at that time, and I referred her to him. It's a good thing that he's good-natured. He's still speaking to me.

Finally, at about 11, the pilgrims left -- each with his bag of tortas and his blanket. I had coffee before I went back to the kitchen to survey the wreckage. It was a good thing that I was fortified. In addition to the breakfast dishes, we had crusty bean pots, mashed-potato pots, etc.

Two boys had remained behind and I was lucky enough to find them in the kitchen. We scrubbed and cleaned for a few hours, and the place was beautiful. In fact, it was so well-cleaned out that I discovered to my dismay at about 1 o'clock that there was nothing left to feed the 8 or 10 people who would be home for dinner. There would be secretaries, priests, maestros, etc. At that time the boy from the office came to tell me that I had a phone call from Mexico. Bob Conte from Acolman was bringing his fiancee to Cuernavaca and asked if she could spend the night with me. I was glad to have her. But I hung up the phone wondering where I'd get any sheets and blankets for her. Sheets, it seems, are an unheard of luxury at the Pequeños. I have two that the Sisters at the Pequeñas gave to me. At any rate, that problem had to wait. I sent one of the boys to the corner to buy vegetables and rice and bread. There was just enough to stretch around for the people who showed up. We were just finishing when Carlos came from the front door to tell me that two Madres had just arrived from Mexico. They are friends of Sister Mary Jean's and she wasn't in town at the time. I collected my wits and decided that the easiest thing would be to take them out to eat. Fortunately, they had just had lunch. I entertained them and showed them around and then hurried back to the kitchen as fast as I could see about supper.

The boys had saved enough rice for supper and we cooked it with powdered milk. We bought a little sugar for it and some fruit. This time we were prepared for the 10 who should have been around for supper at 7. By 7:30 no one had come and I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. At that point Bob and Michelle came in. They were on their way to the Carnival where it seems that everyone else had gone. They had coffee with me. At quarter to eight I told the boys in the kitchen to eat up what we had. Five minutes later, Father John arrived, smiling and looking for supper. I was lucky enough to rescue the last bit before the boys devoured it.

By 10, the boys had finished the kitchen dishes, and I had finished the table dishes. I was ready for bed. I was in my house though, before I remembered that I had no bed. The sheets and blankets that I had asked to borrow hadn't come. I decided to air the sheets and blankets that were on my bed and hung them on the patio by moon light while I cleaned the room. By midnight the room was ready, the door ajar, the little lamp left on for Michelle; and I was dead-to-the-world on the couch in the hall.

On Sunday morning we had no Mass at the Pequeños and I wasn't sure what time people would show up for breakfast. We had some oatmeal in the house, thank goodness. Bob and Michelle were going to 9:30 Mass at the Cathedral and stopped for me. However, by the time we were ready, there were 12 of us in the camioneta. When we got to the steep street that leads to the Cathedral, the poor camioneta tried the hill three times and couldn't make it. We had an audience at the side of the road wishing us well and offering suggestions. Finally we circled a few blocks and found a more gradual approach to the church.

At Mass that morning it seemed that for the first time in my life I really prayed, "Give us this day our daily bread." There were 100 hungry boys walking 60 kilometers home. Miguel had told me though that someone had given us chickens and that we might have them for Sunday dinner. My problem at that moment was how to feed 100 boys with 6 chickens, I tried to think what the Sisters in the kitchen at home would do, and remembered chicken a la king. All of this was in my head during Mass, and afterwards I bypassed the ride home and went to the super market. I knew that chicken a la king meant flour and milk. Powdered milk is cheapest, but makes heavy bundles with flour. It was Sunday morning and the band was playing in the park. People were everywhere because there was to be a parade for the Carnival. I walked the four blocks to the bus and waited for 20 minutes. Finally, I had enough sense to ask about the buses and found that they had been re-routed for the parade. I had to walk three more blocks. By that time I would have taken a cab if I had seen one, but there was none to be had. By then it was almost noon, and I was worrying about getting the chickens cooked. The bus finally came. Not knowing its route, however, I didn't get off on time. Before I could get the driver to stop I was half a kilometer on the way to Mexico. I finally arrived at the Pequeños, ready to collapse, and met Sister Mary Jean at the front door. I told her that I was going around to the kitchen with the bundles, and that I'd have coffee ready in 10 minutes. I wanted to start the chickens first.

When I arrived at the kitchen, it was not the chickens who started, it was me. I opened the door and they flew at me. I was terrified. I didn't know the Spanish words to tell the kids to capture them, even. When they saw my reaction, however, they got the idea. After ten minutes of squawking and feather flying, they were corralled in the bake-room. The boys then told me that although they had never killed chickens, they would help me. I told them that they would not help ME, but that they would kill them. "But how, Madre? Shall we wring their necks or chop their heads off?" I don't care how you kill them, but kill them, y muy rápido, por favor . . . . I had completely forgotten Sister Mary Jean waiting patiently for coffee.

Meanwhile, a few boys who had started for home early had come to the kitchen famished and looking for something to eat. I sent one out to buy some bread. It was almost time to feed the priests and maestros who eat at two. There was a great commotion in the chicken-coop-bake-room, another group arrived from Chalma, I went to get my purse to send for more bread and turned around to find four little boys from Acolman, about 5 years old, watching the chickens and me and looking hungry.

I sent for more bread and for cream of chicken soup to put on the rice for the 2 o'clock meal. By this time the chicken-killers had used Sister Mary Jean's hot water to douse the first headless chicken in, to remove his feathers. She finally gave up.

At 2, I had the two cans of chicken soup ready to disguise the rice, and instead of the four that I expected for dinner, 13 showed up. I added powdered milk which lumped up in the soup, and some water, and didn't have time to worry about how they made out. More boys were arriving, and of course, heading straight for the kitchen, and the chickens were still squawking. They were wringing their necks and chopping their heads off in the courtyard, and then running with them and trailing blood from the kitchen door to the sink. One boy, to add a little entertainment to the gruesome business, had tied one of the chicken heads on the end of a rope and was entertaining the four little boys.

I'll spare you any more. Things calmed down. The boys took showers and collapsed in their beds. Those who have sisters at the Pequeñas visited them and told them about the pilgrimage. Dinner was ready at six. The boys ate the chicken with pleasure and went right to bed. I found a picture of the shrine at Chalma propped carefully on my purse. I don't know which of the boys brought it back, but whoever did, did it with great care. It had survived the trip without a wrinkle and in its original splendor. Miguel, too, brought gifts. Sister Mary Jean and I each received a little gold shrine from Chalma. The boys talked about the beauty of the shrine and of sleeping outside at night. They slept in the plaza in front of the Church. They told me about the beauty of the mountains, and about a little river they passed. All in all, it was a good pilgrimage, and it was a good week.

Today, Monday, we had an evening Mass, and we all slept late in the morning. Everyone seems to be limping a little today. The pace is a little slower, and the noise a little less. I'm sure that by tomorrow we'll be a normal household again.

My love to each of you, I hope that as you read this you are able to share some of the enjoyment of these things.

Lovingly,

Sister Thomas of God

Editor's note: Sister Thomas of God was born Constance Patricia Roberts. She finished high school in 1950 and became a Benedictine nun. She wrote this letter when she was 33. Miguel Ruiz had completed his seminary studies and was a deacon when this letter was written. Later in 1966, he was ordained a priest. Father John McFadden, ordained in Los Angeles in 1963, was a parish priest in Cuernavaca from 1965 until 1967. In September 1965 he introduced Father Terrence Halloran, another young priest from Los Angeles, to Sister Thomas. In July 1967 she requested and received a dispensation from her religious vows and returned to Illinois. A few months later, Father Terrence resigned from his parish ministry in Cuernavaca and followed her. They were married on December 28, 1967. They have two sons, both married, and five grandchildren.