(AMERICAS NEWS - JANUARY 23, 2010, 4:12 P.M. ET, CARREFOUR, Haiti) —In the minutes before the world collapsed around her, Sister Marie Claude busied herself with one of the ordinary chores she loved: Making the Daughters of Wisdom convent a welcoming sanctuary for guests.
The other nuns believe that Sister Marie Claude had just finished making up a guest bedroom—she usually put in a vase of roses, bougainvillea or other flowers from the garden—when the ground shifted and buckled, bringing the main convent building down on top of her.
"If you came into a bedroom she arranged, you'd be happy to lie down," said Sister Immaculée, another member of the Catholic order.
Marie Claude Jean, 31 years old, grew up in Jacmel, a town of 50,000 some 25 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. Jacmel, an up-and-coming tourist destination until last week, is known for its artists, and Marie Claude taught art before taking her vows three years ago.
Net covering her face, she tended the convent's bee hives and harvested the honey. Determined and hard-working, she organized events at the convent, including a pastoral retreat four days before the earthquake. She welcomed nearly 100 priests to the gathering, including the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, another of last week's casualties, who died at his residence next to the cathedral.
But Sister Marie Claude also had a whimsical side, according to her fellow nuns, who uniformly describe her as "dynamic," summoning images of Maria in "The Sound of Music." She was locally famous for the handmade Christmas, birthday, and New Year's cards she made of paper, leaves and other simple materials. She sold them to raise money for the Church. She taught impoverished local girls to draw and to make paper flowers they could sell to earn a little money.
"She makes beautiful things from nothing," said Sister Immaculée. "Everybody wants her cards."
The other nuns say they believe she was near the staircase when the quake hit, leaving the main convent building compressed like layers of a crooked cake, six floors crushed by gravity into one. The concrete crucifix listed, but remained upright on the remains of the roof.
Sixteen nuns managed to escape the wreckage, along with some convent employees. A male worker and six other nuns, including Sister Marie Claude, remained inside. One sister, a physician, could be heard yelling for help from the wreckage the day after the earthquake.
The sisters managed to free two bodies for burial.
On Monday, six days after the earthquake, a rescue team came up the hill to the convent, located in the Port-au-Prince suburbs. The searchers spotted but didn't recover four more bodies. They thought they heard "signs of life" when they tapped on the rubble, the nuns say.
The sisters let themselves believe those were signals from Sister Marie Claude.
On Wednesday, the Carrefour mayor enlisted the international coalition's help, and the U.S. dispatched a search and rescue squad from Fairfax County, Va.
When the team arrived, it found Haitian police officers arresting three suspected looters, as the nuns stood anxiously by. The officers fired a warning shot and briskly flattened the three men on the driveway. Apparently equipped with only one pair of handcuffs, the officers braceleted two of the men together, and tied the third man's shirt to his neighbor's. One security agent beat the back of one suspect's leg with the handle of a hammer.
The sisters watched as the Americans sent their dogs sniffing into gaps in the rubble. The rescuers used listening gear, trying to pick up a suggestion of life. "Hello," they yelled over and again. "Rescue! Tap three times."
A filter mask shielding her mouth and nose from the wafting scent of corpses, Sister Immaculée murmured a prayer to Jesus and a plea to Marie Claude. "Are you alive?" she asked.
As dark descended, the rescue crew climbed back into their vehicles. Sister Marie Chantal wiped away tears. "The dogs didn't smell anything," she said.