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The Sister and the Submarine

On a late summer evening, the Kiowa Maru, a Japanese fishing boat, was underway in the Pacific off the coast of Peru. In the lowering twilight, the crew of the fishing trawler suddenly felt the jolt of an impact. Nothing was immediately apparent in the darkness around the brightly lit ship, but they radioed to report a possible impact, and continued on their way.


In December of 1892 a girl, Marija, was born on the island of Korčula, the sixth child of Marija and Antun Petković. Precociously devoted to God and acts of charity, by 1906 the young girl had taken a vow of chastity and actively worked with the Daughters of Mary, rising quickly to take on the presidency of the group, as well as taking the lead in other group in the years that followed. In 1919, Marija entered the convent of the Servants of Charity.


The USS Atule (like other American submarines of the era, named for a species of fish) was launched in March of 1944. By October, she had completed her shakedown and reached Pearl Harbor; shortly thereafter she put to sea in combat against the naval forces of Japan. She participated in the search for enemy ships fleeing the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and then headed for the South China Sea. On November 1, the Atule was credited with her first sinking, of the Asama Maru. She continued in service throughout the end of the war and beyond.


Shortly after Marija Petković had joined, the Mother Superior of her convent died, and the remaining sisters returned to their home in Italy. Marija remained behind in Croatia, and in 1920, she established a new religious order, the Congregation of the Daughters of Mercy. Marija was chosen as the first Mother Superior. In the subsequent years, the order’s charitable works began to spread, first throughout Croatia and the surrounding regions – and then into South America, where Marija herself lived for twelve years, and where the order and its founder obtained wide recognition for their service to the poor.


In 1970, the aging submarine Atule was decommissioned. The boat was sold to Peru four years later, and commissioned anew as the BAP Pacocha, in honor of a historic clash between Peruvian rebels and the British Navy.


Marija Petković returned to Rome from South America in 1952. In 1954, a stroke left her paralyzed, but she continued to work as superior of her order. A full seven years later, she dedicated herself to finish her life in quiet prayer and resigned her office. Marija Petković died on July 10, 1966, at the age of 74.

Blessed Marija Petković


On August 26, 1988, the BAP Pacocha was cruising on the surface while headed into port, with 49 souls onboard. In the lowering darkness, the Pacocha was struck by the Japanese fishing trawler Kiowa Maru. The submarine’s outer hatches were open, and as the damaged ship began to sink, water rushed onboard. The boat’s commanding officer, Capitán Daniel Neva Rodriguez, died as he secured the hatch on the bridge in the submarine’s sail. Three more sailors died in the initial impact. Twenty-three others managed to abandon the sinking ship on the surface. Three of these died in the cold water. The rest were trapped below.

In the forward torpedo room, Teniente Roger Cotrina Alvarado was securing the watertight doors and hatches. As he tried to shut the torpedo room’s hatch, water poured in with an irresistible force, wedging the door against a trapped sailor’s leg. The seawater rushed in. Cotrina was not strong enough to move the hatch against the force of the water to allow the sailor to escape and get the hatch closed.

So the lieutenant began to pray – to Marija Petković, for intercession.

A 1989 U.S. Navy report on the incident explained what happened next: “As the Pacocha began her slide to the bottom, water rushed in the forward hatch, washing Lieutenant Cotrina down the ladder, but fortunately, shortly afterwards, forcing the hatch closed.”

The report adds: “Lieutenant Cotrina considered this a miracle.”


In five minutes, the crippled Pacocha settled on the bottom in 140 feet of water. With the crucial hatches now closed to prevent further flooding, twenty-two men were still trapped. Lieutenant Cotrina was the senior officer onboard. When the Pacocha failed to arrive in port, and the Kiowa Maru reporting a possible collision, a rescue effort was quickly launched. Flares launched by the trapped crew revealed the Pacocha’s location, and divers were dispatched. Communication with the survivors inside the sunken boat was established, and in the morning the crew of the Pacocha split into groups and began, in turns, to use the boat’s escape trunk and hoods to evacuate.

Because they had been trapped at depth for so long, some of the escaped crew began displaying signs of decompression sickness, or “the bends”, upon arriving on the surface. A pressure chamber was used to treat them, although one evacuee died despite these efforts. Still, of the Pacocha’s 49 crewmembers, 41 survived the collision and sinking.


Peruvian Navy and Vatican investigations concluded that the crucial closing of the torpedo room hatch against the water pressure was humanly inexplicable. In Rome, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints attributed the event to the intervention of Marija Petković. On June 6, 2003, Pope John Paul II celebrated her beatification Mass in Dubrovnik. Teniente Cotrina was present amongst the attendees.

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of CatholicScience.com, which offers online science curriculum resources for Catholic students.