Remembrance of the Life of Sister Mary Peter Bruce SL
Mary Peter Bruce was the eldest daughter of James H. Bruce and Dolores Novoa, known as Lola. They named her Dolores Patricia and called her Patsy. She had three siblings, Lillian, Jimmy and Johnny, many cousins in Mexico and in the United States, plus Celia, a young girl whose mother had died, Mary Peter said, and who “my parents received into our home. Celia became like my big sister and helped take care of Jimmy and Lillian who were still small.” Patsy treasured her family; she had many, many stories of visits with her Mexican and her American relatives. Family meant both loving relationships and cultural home for Patsy.
Patsy’s father had come to Mexico from Denver to work as an accountant with a construction company; he later worked for Price Waterhouse as an auditor, and served in WWII as a government auditor. In Mexico he met and married Patsy’s mother, Lola, who insisted he promise they would always live in Mexico. Lola was very beautiful. She was secretary to the president of Mier y Pesado , an important charitable foundation serving the poor. Lola’s parents and grandparents were from Spain and France; in Mexico she had a large extended family and others in Spain and France. Mary Peter’s richly detailed stories of her childhood describe visits to aunts and uncles and travels with her parents on working vacations to colorful places in Mexico. There also were extended visits to the Bruce relatives in Denver and to Lola’s brother in San Antonio, Texas.
A friend once told Mary Peter, “I love to be with your mother. She will talk of anything you want and she knows so much. If I want to speak in English, she will speak English; if I want to speak in Spanish, your mother will talk Spanish. She will talk in French or Italian. She will talk about art and music and so many more things. I just love your mother.” Lola’s daughter Patsy grew to be very like herself; Patsy spoke Spanish as her native language and English, French, and Italian in the family as well; later she would master Portuguese and the Aymara language of indigenous Bolivians.
Much later Lola wrote, “I was proud of my mother and father. … Everyone thought I shouldn’t but I was glad I married Jim Bruce, because being of different nationalities brought about a wonderful family. I used to feel strongly that being a Mexican of our aristocratic class was a good thing, also about being of a French background. I’ve changed my mind, and now I think I am very lucky to have been an American.”
With relatives of several nationalities and cultures, Patsy regularly traveled internationally, developing great skill in crossing borders and cultures. The Bruces moved to San Jose, Costa Rica, for a year when Patsy was about 12; and to San Antonio, when her father was called to the U.S. Army a year later. In San Antonio she finished grade school and started high school. The family moved to Denver at the end of the war and Jim took over the family business, the Centennial School Supply Co. Patsy enrolled for her sophomore year at Holy Family High School and got to know the Sisters of Loretto. April of her senior year, Patsy wrote to Reverend Mother Edwarda, “Ever since the time I made my First Holy Communion I have had the desire to dedicate my life to God alone. I will graduate from Holy Family in June, and I would like very much to enter the novitiate soon after that. I came to Holy Family from San Antonio three years ago. At that time I wanted to become a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart. Now however, I am convinced that if you will in your kindness accept me, I will do everything in my power and with the aid of our Lord to be a worthy member of your community. … I had a hard time convincing my father but I finally succeeded.”
Patsy Bruce arrived at Loretto Motherhouse on Oct. 25, 1950, with a crop of 16, including Evelyn Houlihan, Imelda Therese Marquez, Claudette LoPorto and Magdalena McCloskey. They were received on April 25, 1951, Patsy receiving the name Sister Mary Peter, by which she was known the rest of her life. She made her first vows two years later and was missioned, a year at Mary Queen of Peace, three years at Immaculate Conception, and one year at Mount Carmel, all in various parts of suburban St. Louis, allowing her to work on her undergraduate degree at Webster College at the same time. She completed a bachelor’s in education in 1958 and was sent to Bishop Toolen High School for a year. Then back to St. Louis to study full time at St. Louis University where she completed a master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies in one year.
It was 1960 and both Loretto and the Catholic Church were looking at South America as a new mission. Early in the summer, Mother Mary Luke Tobin invited Mary Peter to accompany her to select a mission site, and in October of 1960 three Loretto sisters set out for Bolivia by boat, taking with them the furniture, books, household supplies and all that was needed to create a school from scratch in La Paz. The founding educators were Carol Dunphy, Eva Salas and Mary Peter. They began with just the primary classes and over the next dozen years established a solid grade and high school program in a handsome building. Mary Peter contributed in many ways to the first three years, becoming acquainted as well with the indigenous Aymara and other Indians in the altiplano outside La Paz. The little ones of those first classes have remained staunchly attached to her and are among the many from whom we have heard in the week since Peter’s death.
November 1963 saw Mary Peter again in the States, visiting family and then enrolling for the spring semester at Marquette University to study the new approaches to adult evangelization. In the fall, she went to France to the University of Strasbourg, again studying the evangelizing of adults. The year in France gave her a chance to get acquainted with her French relatives in Biarritz. Mary Peter completed the advanced program in Religious Studies in June 1965 and returned to La Paz, Bolivia, to work for the Diocesan Commission of Catechetics. Soon she was overseeing the formation of deacons among the Aymara Indians and developing lifelong friendships with these people of the altiplano. Mary Peter insisted that the deacons’ wives be part of the training. To improve communications among the widely scattered Aymara, Mary Peter created Radio San Gabriel and trained young native women to produce the radio programs.
After 10 years in La Paz, Mary Peter returned permanently to the United States and to a very difficult re-entry. From 1978 to 1981 she moved from place to place, task to task and job to job while she struggled to reconcile the tumult of cultures, languages and experiences within her that threatened to cut her off from her community in the United States. She spent nine months with Clergy and Laity Concerned in Washington D.C., living in a communal setting at Tabor House with advocates and former missionaries from South America. She accepted first one and then another position in catechetics with the dioceses of El Paso, Texas. In the fall of 1981, Mary Peter was able to settle into the kind of companionable, informal teaching that was her strongest, surest contribution: in El Paso, she mentored individual Mexican and immigrant women whose children attended Liceo Sylvan School. When the school closed (because she had succeeded in having the children admitted to the public schools), Mary Peter and those she mentored created a variety of opportunities for immigrant women, including a sewing cooperative, other entrepreneurial enterprises, and a language school in which the immigrants taught Spanish to English-speaking clergy and religious. Mary Peter and the women honed their language training into a book, “Tu Y Yo,” which they later published. It is a workbook for partners, one of whom knows Spanish and the other who wants to learn Spanish.
In 1989, Mary Peter moved to Denver. She worked in the same companionable, informal way with various Loretto groups, sometimes on the administrative staff, always sharing her language skills, her deep capacity for empathy with the poor and marginalized, her wide knowledge and firm understanding of international issues — immigration, global conditions of women, racial discrimination. Mary Peter went out of her way to experience, study and bring back to Loretto and others the interconnections among many social problems. She traveled widely, to the International Conference on Women in Beijing, back to Bolivia to introduce Vicki Quatmann to the Aymara; she traveled to seminars, study groups, action groups; and, of course to join other Loretto members at the SOA and various national demonstrations and marches.
In the mid-1990s she participated with others in developing the Sister Community relationship with the Holy Family Sisters in Guatamala. In 1999 she and Eva Salas created Casa Loretto, the house for Loretto Volunteers. For four years, 2004-2008, Mary Peter served at the U.N. headquarters in New York City as Loretto’s NGO. Her language skills and her wide knowledge opened for Loretto many ways of engaging women across the globe. Completing her term, she returned to El Paso and to the mentoring and companionable kinds of teaching that were her gifts. One-on-one ESL teaching, translating for individuals and group meetings, introducing Loretto and other visitors to the immigrant problems on the border. And of course she continued to travel. When she retired to Loretto Motherhouse in 2015, she kept up her activity, her thinking and reading, her steady conversation that was both companionable and instructive. She was present to the world.
As we in Loretto committed ourselves to grapple with our own racial and cultural biases, Mary Peter graciously revealed ourselves to us, saying: ‘I know you don’t recognize your bias. Let me share with you how I have experienced your unconscious bias in my life with you.’ A natural teacher, Mary Peter was willing to use her experiences and understanding to help us overcome our unconscious racism, even to the point of showing us the hurts, the wounds she had received. For example, she spoke of her student days, when, having written the best essay in her class, she was told that another student would read it for the parents, because she had a Mexican accent. She was aware that her accent and her dual culture were stumbling blocks for some in the community. Yet ever gracious and compassionate, Mary Peter also said she could understand how it was so, because she could find similar bias in herself.
Mary Peter Bruce died in the 70th year of her life as a Sister of Loretto, in her 89th year as a child of God and sister to all the world. Her ambition was ever to work for a “friendly peace” among peoples. On Tuesday of Holy Week, she wrote in a spiral notebook the names of her Aymara sisters and brothers, the names of her aunts and uncles, the names of friends, coworkers, colleagues, the names of students young and old. She wrote, “In the separation of the Corona Virus, as we are hearing of so many suffering and dying … the majority of us at the Infirmary are only receiving, all that we need to stay healthy. …We do what we can not to bother the active helpers. …Those of us who are patients in the Infirmary have the fortune to be cared for, allowed to be thinkers, and see the world and our societies from the perspective of our privileged age. … I remember my mother, … my father … the staff in the Infirmary, … my Loretto family. Thanks to all for all you did for me! Thank you, God.”