The world can change much over a century, and Sister Paulita Hoffmann had a front row seat in her 85 years as a Maryknoll Sister. She spent over 60 years of that time on mission to China and Taiwan where she could interact with and befriend the native peoples. She loved the work and was always willing to help the people in her care, no matter the crisis. This includes the moment on September 21, 1999 when she found herself at the epicenter of Taiwan’s second deadliest earthquake in history, at the tender age of 85.
Despite the destruction, Sr. Paulita stayed for several weeks sleeping on the floor of the parish church and providing aid to her community. Below are some excerpts from her account of the Earthquake, written October 19, 1999 in a letter to the Mission Office of her home diocese, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
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About 2:00 A.M. a terrific jolt followed by several others shook the house and I held onto the bed, praying. Furniture, book cases, desk, etc. all fell about. After it settled down I heard a voice calling: “Sister, are you all right?” It was Fr. Peter Wu, my pastor and he said he could not get into the convent as the doors were locked. I moved to the end of the bed as the desk was partly over the bed, and I put my feet down into glass; brushed them off and felt for my slipper, also full of glass, emptied them and was able to stand up and felt for my eye glasses, which thank God were under the bed and intact.
The city and army set up tent cities on school grounds and public property areas and down by the river. Volunteers came to cook hot meals which the people lined up for and temporary water depots were set up at various places. Our big problem was water for use. We carried it from the water depots in plastic containers and used it sparingly. Bottled spring water was brought in by the case from organizations which helped to keep sickness and health problems down.
When sending her account to the Mission office, she attached a handwritten cover letter that expanded on the needs of her community. It reads in part:
We have many living in our hall as the church was strongly built. We are an official Relief Center so day & night people are coming for rice, salt, bedding, clothing and bottled water. It’s going to be a long time before things get normal. Our people need homes and food – If you have any way to help we really need it. The people lost everything.
This disaster seemed to draw the people, regardless of area, name or age, and all pulled together. I did not hear one group complain of loss of property, etc. They only said, “I have my life.” Now that reality begins to sink in I think there will be many problems of adjustment, reorganizing lives and trying to cope with their personal situations.”
My own reaction is: “You are going to have to live with a mess, a different life.” We just got electricity yesterday but they say it will be a month before water is restored. Some of the catechumens are phoning and I can arrange their night classes here or in the homes where possible, so this week I am resuming classes.
After reading her account, the Mission Office replied in November facilitating a monetary donation to assist those in dire need. Its letter read in part:
“Dear Paulita, Our thoughts and prayers have been with you as you struggle with the miseries of such a catastrophe which surrounds you on all sides. […] As you find yourself homeless with so many of your people, the message and spirit of Christmas has become a reality in your lives. May you continue to be consoled by your faith and love and hope in one another.”