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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1087

A beautiful young girl, daughter of a prominent family, Gracia had decided to renounce the world in order to enter the benevolent order of St. Vincent de Paul. Her first assignment was in a home for poverty-stricken old men. Among these aged pensioners, her favorite was Gabriel, formerly valet to her own grandfather; but she gave freely of her love and energy to them all. Gradually she became well acquainted with Trajano, a super-annuated anarchist, and with Liborio, a half-witted Cuban, whose only escape from melancholy was accomplished by Gracia’s gifts of cigars and the personal attention she gave him.

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She found true happiness in this unselfish service, but her family felt other wise about her choice of a career. They thought that Gracia was wasting herself on old men who were dull and repulsive—her mother and sister did not see how she could bear to go near them. Visiting Gracia at the institution, they begged her to return home. Her father, whom Gracia dearly loved and respected, added his pleas; but the girl, though shaken by this emotional tug of war, still firmly declared that she must dedicate her life and happiness to help atone for the world’s misery.

Ten years passed. Gracia was no longer at the asylum for old men. Halfway through this period of time, she had been transferred to another institution, this one a maternity home for unwed mothers. Here her fidelity to her vows met a stern test, for Gracia found herself sorely tried by the confusion and heartbreak which she saw all about her. The outcasts of society to whom she tried to minister were all different—even though it was the same kind of misstep which had brought them to the home—and they reacted to her advances in ways which were painfully unpredictable. Some of the girls were incorrigible; Quica, for example, was a perennial visitor, shedding the reproaches of the good sisters as casually as a duck sheds water. Others were girls whose characters were fundamentally good, like the fiercely independent Candelas. Neither Quica nor Candelas, however, presented such a problem as the aristocratic and embittered Margarita, whose wall of resentment could no longer be pierced by any gesture of compassion or sympathy. In trying to cope with the hysteria of Margarita, Sister Gracia underwent such strain that she herself soon reached the verge of emotional collapse.

At that point young Dr. Enrique, the physician at the home, decided that it was time to intervene. He had long loved Gracia in silence, respecting her vow, but now he urged her to marry him and leave an atmosphere which was proving so harmful to her. In becoming his wife, he pointed out, Gracia could take up another life as selfless and charitable as the one she now led, but it would be in a domestic framework much more wholesome and natural.

Gracia could not help recoiling at the doctor’s suggestion. Still unnerved by her ordeal with Margarita, she did not think it possible or seemly to speak of love amid such surroundings, and she repeated to the doctor those views on life and service that she had expressed to her parents ten years before. As Dr. Enrique regretfully withdrew, she heard Candelas singing a ballad of love. Gracia could endure no more; frantically she rushed to Sister Cristina, her Mother Superior, and asked for a transfer, offering the reason that it was a matter of conscience.

The years crept up on Sister Gracia, but never again was she tempted to turn her back on the life which she had adopted. At seventy she was still battling the problems found in an imperfect world. By now she herself was a Mother Superior, in charge of an orphanage which was sadly neglected by its indifferent directors. Unperturbed, the old woman made the best of the situation. Aided only by the rather earthy Sister Dionisia, Sister Gracia steered the institution through one small crisis after another. Indignantly, she protected a small orphan from the mistreatment of his brutal employer, a drunken tailor. Another situation involved two orphans, an older boy and a girl who had become sweethearts and were on the point of eloping. This affair of the heart was handled with an amused tolerance which softened—without completely disguising—the firmness of Sister Gracia’s decision that marriage must wait.

Once in a while a colorful interlude would lighten the orphanage routine. One day, to the great delight of the children, a former inmate of the orphanage came back to pay his respects. Now an aspiring bullfighter, Juan de Dios brought with him the ears of his first bull; these, with a flourish, he presented to Sister Gracia. The latter managed a suitable response to this rather unexpected offering, though she could not resist adding to her expression of gratitude a few gentle admonitions to the ebullient young man; then she was swept to the outside gate in triumph. It was a great occasion and the sister was moved by Juan’s open pride in having been one of her foundlings, even if the bull’s ears seemed a gift of rather dubious value. More to the purpose, she considered ruefully, was the young bullfighter’s promise to buy a good dinner for the whole orphanage after his next victory.

But Sister Gracia was soon brought back to everyday reality by a sudden revolt of the older boys. Touched off by their meager fare and led by the fiery Felipe, the mutiny threatened to flare into real trouble as the rebels set off to steal good food and to break any heads or doors which they found in their way. Undaunted, though hard pressed, Sister Gracia rallied all her resources of authority and faith. She commanded the boys to return to their unpalatable soup and to be thankful for what they had. To Felipe she gave earnest assurances—God did not condone injustice, she told him, but the way to overcome injustice was through love. Finally she led the orphans in an inspired prayer, pledging them all to God’s love. When they became adults, later, they must not allow children to be forsaken or mothers to be wronged, and they must help build on this earth the Kingdom of God. As the chastened children left the table, Sister Gracia offered additional counsel to the despondent Felipe. Men do not cry or complain, she told him. Even though they suffer, they must always work and hope.

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