By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
“Since Maria …”
It’s a phrase one hears often when talking to people on Puerto Rico, much like “before Katrina” when speaking to New Orleanians. Life on Puerto Rico is marked as “before Maria” and “since Maria,” referring to the Category 4 hurricane that struck the island on Sept. 20, 2017.
Hurricane Maria was a catastrophe for the people of Puerto Rico. Winds gusted to nearly 100 mph, taking down trees, homes and other buildings. People went months without power, running water and dependable phone service.
Nearly 3,000 people died.
However, Puerto Ricans are strong and tenacious. Five years after Maria, they continue to rebuild, teach, learn, worship, give thanks, serve and thrive. Those who have remained are creating Puerto Rico’s future.
Fr. Flavio Bravo, SJ: Finding Hope in the People
Father Flavio Bravo, SJ, was superior of the Jesuit Community of Puerto Rico and serving as interim president of Colegio San Ignacio in San Juan when Hurricane Maria hit.
“We were all in shock,” Fr. Bravo recalls. “I remember walking the campus after the storm – and remember, this is a beautiful, urban forest within the city – and we’re seeing all the fallen trees, all the windows gone in the buildings, water damage … just so much damage. My first question was, ‘How do we take care of each other?’”
Putting people first – caring for each member of the community – was Fr. Bravo’s first instinct, and it would be his touchstone during the challenging months that followed.
In the storm’s aftermath, San Juan had no power, no phone lines, spotty cellular service. But the Jesuit community had a generator and running water, so they were able to provide water and ice to others.
The Jesuits in Puerto Rico, including Jesuit Fathers Andrés Vall-Serra and José Ruiz Andujo, were joined by faculty and staff to begin cleaning up the campus. Soon, neighbors pitched in. It was community building in the truest sense.
“Even though some of the staff had lost their homes or had issues in their own neighborhood, they came and helped us,” Fr. Bravo says. “They were managing their own struggles, but at the same time they were helping. It was really a powerful experience for me as a Jesuit.”
Within days, help began to pour in from outside the island, from Jesuits and donors, families and friends and Jesuit schools across the United States.
Then came the miracle of the water filters. Vicki Brentin and Elizabeth Jamerlan, connections from Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston, reached out to Fr. Bravo to ask how the Jesuits were handling problems with water. That is how Fr. Bravo learned that while the Jesuit campus in San Juan – which includes the Jesuit community, Colegio San Ignacio, San Ignacio Parish and Academia San Ignacio (the parish school) – had access to water, thousands more did not.
Ms. Brentin contacted the nonprofit One ATTA Time, which distributes water filtration kits around the world. Then she and a crew of volunteers traveled to Puerto Rico to deliver the first 1,500 kits to the Jesuit community. The water filters would be central to the community’s recovery.
School Becomes a Place to Recover
On Oct. 4, 2017, Fr. Bravo invited students back to Colegio San Ignacio. There was still no power – that wouldn’t be restored until the following January – or Internet, or even classrooms. But the teachers and staff were committed.
“I told the students, don’t worry about uniforms, don’t worry about books,” Fr. Bravo says. “We’re going to teach you in the hallways and in tents. It’s not going to be the same, but we need to provide students a place where they can rest, where they can see their friends, where they can feel safe.”
School resumed with shortened days Monday through Thursday, with Friday a day of service. The school principal, Mildred Calvesbert, was key in designing a schedule that would fit the needs of families at a time when meeting academic deadlines was crucial, especially for the graduating class that year.
Students, teachers, and volunteers learned how to assemble water filters, then traveled to rural areas to distribute them. “The stories we shared with one another are probably the most enriching experiences that I still treasure and cherish,” Fr. Bravo says. “We filled up vans and buses with food and clothing, water buckets and filters and brought it all to the people who needed it. The first 1,500 kits turned into 12,000. It gave our students a sense of pride and confidence that they could help others.”
Churches and other organizations contributed as they were able.
“People just came together,” Fr. Bravo says. “We prayed together. We worked together. It was beautiful to talk to and meet people who, amid their suffering, in the midst of so much chaos and scarcity, were willing to work for the greater good.”
Father Bravo said that the experience of Hurricane Maria and the subsequent recovery have marked his life as a Jesuit.
“It gave me an opportunity to be a shepherd,” he says. “It gave me an opportunity to cry with them because I also needed to cry. It gave me an opportunity to hope with them and provide some hope. And it gave us the opportunity to care for one another and to see that we are not on our own. It brought us together, and it reinforced that we need to work together.”
Many Puerto Ricans have chosen to leave the island, but those who have stayed have retained their sense of joy and hope.
“Puerto Ricans are passionate,” Fr. Bravo says. “They are always going to find a way to move up and around the obstacles. And that gives me hope, because it’s not that they are blinding themselves to the real pain. Instead, they find a way to celebrate even amidst their pain.
“So where do I find hope? I find hope in the people.”
Jacynthe Riviere: Meeting Needs Creatively and Doggedly
When Hurricane Maria struck, Jacynthe Riviere was the administrator for Parroquia San Ignacio (St. Ignatius Parish) in San Juan. The parish and Academia San Ignacio (the parish school) both suffered significant damage, including downed trees, damage to the buildings and flooding.
“I remember standing in the church, surrounded by all this destruction, and I cried,” Ms. Riviere said. “How are we going to fix this? We had no power, no communication. It was very lonely. But then, something happened.”
Ms. Riviere described the help the parish received from a surprising source: a group of about three dozen young Mormon women. They swept in at the direction of their pastor and helped with the heavy lifting of the cleanup. Ms. Riviere thinks of them as “dandelions” because they wore bright yellow jackets and “sprang up” after the rain.
The parish was able to hold Masses the weekend after the storm.
“It was beautiful and consoling to know we were not alone,” she said. “God was there.”
And God provided. Generous donors showered the parish with more than $200,000 to help those in need, and parishioners stocked a food pantry. Ms. Riviere, with the help of the parish’s health ministry members, supervised the distribution of both.
“With the help of social workers and a group of parishioners, we were guided to people on the island with real needs,” Ms. Riviere said. “We traveled around the island and visited people who had lost most or everything they owned.”
Ms. Riviere ensured that there would be transparency in the use of donated funds. Payments were made only to lumberyards and furniture and appliance stores. She continued this itinerant work for six months, distributing water, food and clothing and paying for building supplies and household appliances. She estimates that about 100 households benefitted from the donations.
In 2019, Ms. Riviere became the deputy director of the Academia. Life was returning to normal. Then in January 2020, a series of earthquakes hit Puerto Rico. While most of the damage was confined to the southwest part of the island, San Juan experienced small aftershocks, causing fear and anxiety.
“It took a few weeks to resume classes as normal,” Ms. Riviere said. “Then came the pandemic!”
After two weeks of lockdown in March 2020, Ms. Riviere realized that the pandemic was going to be a long-term situation. She and her team at the Academia worked long hours to restructure the school according to required safety protocols. The school renovated the classrooms and invested in high-definition equipment to provide hybrid education. Academia San Ignacio was one of the first elementary schools on the island to be prepared for in-person classes. The school continues to offer a virtual option, though most students attend in person.
“I am proud of everything our faculty and staff did to continue to offer the best education we can for our students,” Ms. Riviere said. “It has been a difficult path, but we’ve kept our head above water. I am hopeful about the future.”
Fr. Rafael Rodriguez, SJ: Working with God to Create Beauty
Father Rafael Francisco Rodríguez Peña, SJ, taught theology at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart University) in San Juan. Unfortunately, one of the impacts of the exodus of young people from the island, compounded by the pandemic, is dramatically reduced enrollment at the university, so Fr. Rodriguez is not teaching now. Instead, he spends his time tending the large grounds surrounding the Jesuit community; it is a labor of love.
Father Rodriguez, 73, is a quiet, even reserved, man – until you ask him about his plants. Then he lights up and happily introduces you to his leafy friends. He knows each by name and needs and gives each just the care it requires.
One side of the Jesuit community grounds is for the “edibles.” There you will find tropical fruits of all kinds: several varieties of bananas, avocados, mangos, plantains, guava and pana (breadfruit). The members of the community enjoy the produce, as long as they claim it before the birds.
The rest of the grounds are devoted to Fr. Rodriguez’s gardens, including a collection of Bonsai plants, some of which he’s been tending for more than 40 years. His collection includes tropical plants native to Puerto Rico, like the beautiful Flamboyan, but also others from the Bahamas, Brazil and other tropical locales.
Father Rodriguez’s passion for plants comes from his DNA. His father was an agronomist, and his mother tended home gardens. His sister has a farm in the mountains in the center of the island, where she devotes several acres to the tiny, honey-sweet Nino bananas.
Touring Fr. Rodriguez’s gardens, one sees scars from Maria, but mostly, it is a haven of beauty and growth – and hope.