25 Years Ago, Earthquake Remembered

This article was written shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 by an un-named Sister living in the Watsonville (CA) convent. Maybe your experience of this earthquake was similar! Please do share your comments at the end.

Most days of the year Watsonville’s early mornings are foggy and damp. But such was not the case on Tuesday, October 17, 1989. The sun shone gloriously, and as the day progressed, the weather became increasingly beautiful. Teachers and children alike [at Moreland Notre Dame School] responded to the warmth and the brightness.  As the day wore on, the normal silence of the school day was punctuated periodically by the joy, the laughter of the children at play. At 2:45 most of the children turned their steps toward home.

By 5:00, as Sisters’ thoughts turned to a soon-to-be Vespers, and as last preparations were made for the morrow, IT STRUCK! Fifteen seconds of absolute hell, as the ground beneath us roared and twisted and shook like some rag doll in the mouth of a maniac! One, maybe two Sisters made it to door sills. The rest just dropped where they were or hung on for dear life to anything that was still standing.

When it was over, those of us who were upstairs ran to the first floor to check on our older Sisters. Finding them unharmed, we rushed to the chapel to check the sanctuary lamp. Pandemonium!  Sr. Virginia Marie [Wagner] was standing at the back quivering…and rightly so. It looked as it an atomic bomb had hit. The wooden statues of Mary and Joseph had gone flying, but were no broken. The tabernacle had flown from its perch, and Sr. Elisabeth, unmindful of the upheaval around her, was frantically trying to retrieve the hosts which had blown out. (God was only trying to tell us that He was with us in the earthquake.) Eight of the Stations of the Cross lay strewn all over the chapel floor, but were not even chipped!

Our next task was to gather all the Sisters and get them to the safety of the school yard. We literally shuffled through the ruins. Thank God Sr. Mary St. John had not been in the kitchen! It was a shambles. Every cupboard had opened and disgorged its contents. Broken dishes and broken glass mingled with flour, sugar, rice and mustard. The cereal and bread had been entwined as one. The walk-in was a mass of seething liquid. As I passed the pantry door on my way outside, I stopped in amazement. A bottle of Wisk had fallen into the broken bottle of honey and magnificent honey-Wisk bubbles floated aimlessly about only to burst in utter frustration as thy hit piled-up cans and broken boxes. What a lesson! The futility of those whose only treasures are material things. Pretty bubbles…shattered!

Within 10 minutes after the shake, we had all the Sisters safely ensconced on chairs in the middle of the school yard, or so we thought. But not all was well. Fires had broken out all around us. Particularly ominous was the thick black smoke pouring from a home across the school. It was not long before firemen asked us to move the Sisters to the front lawn. They expected the house to explode and we could be injured! While on the lawn, we served soup (our dinner) which somehow stayed in place on the stove and was still hot.

Around 7:00, the firemen asked us to move into the convent.  St. Patrick’s Church across the street had been hit hard, and if it crumbled further and the steeple crashed down, we would not be safe on the front lawn.  So in we went. Fortunately, although trashed, the Convent was structurally sound. We had no power and wouldn’t have for several days, but we did have water. What a God-send!

The night of the earthquake was horrendous. The older Sisters spent the night on easy chairs in the community room – joined by an elderly neighbor of ours whose house had buckled. The rest of us sat in the small television room in the front of the house, and intermittently roamed the corridors with flashlights as aftershock after aftershock hit! A couple of small radios kept us informed of the destruction surrounding us. It was as if we were an oasis in a desert. And that is the way it has been since that fateful fifteen seconds of October 17.

St. Patricks Church, Watsonville, 1989

Little did St. Julie’s daughters know in 1899 when the convent was founded, that in 1989, Moreland Notre Dame would be a bastion of strength for clergy, laity, for parishioners, for non-parishioners—for all in need of help. Within 12 hours or so after the quake, our gym became and still is a food center. (Never will our more able-bodied Sisters forget unloading a huge Safeway truck in the late hours of the night by the light of a few flashlights!) Monday through Friday the gym is a distribution center; Saturday evening and all day Sunday, it is St. Patrick’s Church. Our convent is both rectory and church office, as anyone knows who has telephoned us and has been startled by the greeting, “St. Patrick’s-Notre Dame.” Our chapel has become the parish church on weekdays. Parish masses at 7:00 and 8:00 a.m.; a bi-lingual Penance service on Friday night; Saturday afternoon confessions with Baptism going on concurrently – even if the baptismal font is only a pretty green vase taken out of the sacristy! What does it matter? The Church – the people of God – are alive and well.  It is only the building that has been destroyed.

Indeed, our Foundress must be looking down on all of this and loving it. Her smile must have broadened as her glance took in the sight of the open casket of a little old gentleman lying peacefully at the foot of our altar. Yes, Julie’s daughters welcome all – alive or dead!

And the school? Thriving! Parents tell us that their children are happy to be here and much less afraid then when at home. The school building is structurally sound, but a gas pipe erupted and a new one has been installed. A new heating system is a must for the old music room, and some of the rooms are in need of cosmetic surgery. Aside from that, we spent days picking up the pieces, especially in the primary grades and the library, but by October 23 classes resumed.

Editor’s Note: While the Sisters dealt with damage to their property and goods, they also reached out to the community and became a resource and haven during those unsure days following the Loma Prieta earthquake. Letters of thanks and donations came in the mail, including this very touching one from middle-school students across the country:

Catholic Community School of South Baltimore, MD, 11/9/89

Dear Sisters,

The students of our 6th to 8th grades were saddened to read about and to see the destruction of so much property at the time of the recent earthquake. We wanted to do something to help you, and so we decided to place in each of our four rooms a box in which children could deposit any money they could contribute. Some gave lunch money, some gave spending money, and two girls went around the neighborhood one Saturday morning and collected whatever people wanted to give. So this is our little bit [$245]  which we are sending you to help your people.  We only wish it could be lots more!

Our prayers and thoughts continue with you.


  1. Wow! That brings back memories. I was teaching 5th grade, and for months after the earthquake every time there was an aftershock or even a desk slammed shut by accident, we all looked like frightened deer. The sisters were stalwart, and it was years before life in the parish returned to “normal.” I remember the movie marquee downtown which said, “Watsonville, you are one tough town.”

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