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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chapter Nineteen: Retreats and Discoveries

The summer retreat brought anxious faces, and loud squealing. If someone started giggling, the whole group lost composure.Stories about transgressions were whispered between classes:  the time when the chapel was hair sprayed; or when the seats were sprinkled with talcum powder and flowers were perfumed  with bug spray.

At the last retreat, seven girls were expelled after they were found in the choir section of the chapel with candles and roses,  in pajamas and sheets, flat on the floor, waiting for the morning service to start. Their plan was to surprise the sisters at morning services. Early giggles gave the hiding place away.  

During meal times, someone’s brazen courage would be encouraged even further. One year was the appearance of bobby pins mobiles in the biology lab, and an unexplained rock and roll music during chorus practice. No class had surpassed the donut deliveries during Friday’s fasting. Each class was trying to outdo the previous one.

Talking was discouraged except at meal times and if they weren't concocting something, they engaged the novitiates or the lay teachers assigned to supervise them in some random conversation meant to embarrass them somehow.

“Sister, do you ever leave the convent for vacation?”

“Sister, how is your retreat different from ours?”

“You already pray day every hour, day and night. Don’t you do anything else?”

The adults smiled and encouraged girls to search their hearts for answers. They offered a few explanations: “We study different issues that affect the world. We explore how we can make a difference as teachers, nurses, missionaries. The problems of the world do not go away because we left the world. In our prayers, we ask for guidance.”

Girls talked about parties, alliances, cliques.They fired their questions at each other the minute they were allowed to talk, without waiting for answers:

“What did you do after school closed?”

“We went back East.”

“Did you go to Hawaii?

“No, we went to Europe, instead”.

“What did you see?”

“Wait, wait. I met this dream boy at our summer place.”

“Who? Is he cute?”

“Where does he go to school?”

“What music does he like?”

“Did you hear Elvis “Are you lonesome tonight?”

“I heard it at Nicolette’s party?”

“I did not know Nicolette had a party.”

Halls buzzed with joyful whispers countered by the ‘shush’ chorus of nuns. When doors shut, silence prevailed in the halls until the next change of classes. Sometimes  questions came up for no reason at all, at inconvenient times.

“Miss, do you like Bob Dylan?”

“Who, who is he?”

When someone asked me a question, everyone shushed, listening for the answer. At times, I was flustered and confused and tried to avoid answering at all.

“Are Sisters really married to Jesus? How can they marry a spirit? What good is it to love someone if that someone can never hug you and squeeze you and make you forget the world? Miss, do you have a boyfriend? Do you go steady?"

I heard  standard answers come out of my mouth, the ones I had heard growing up in Catholic schools. I too was scared of anything that sounded mysterious and came under the title of sinful.
Among adult lay teachers we talked more openly. None of us knew much about reproduction and sex
“How come sex doesn't appear to be painful in the movies?” we asked.

“Don't tell me you saw an R rated movie?”

“What about love?”

“Love is spiritual."

“What about birth control? I heard there is a special pill.”

“That’s for protestants. Catholics practice the rhythm."
"What's that?"
"I have no idea. I guess will find out when we marry."

“How do you know when you meet your True Love?”
“You will know. It will be like the warmth of the sun."
“Holy s…, I must be in Love; I am all suntanned! "

All our mothers had avoided the subject of sex and reproduction with pat phrases,you will fall in love when the right boy shows up.

Girls were always asking the sisters if they fell in love before they entered the convent. Their answer was to pray to the Virgin Mary for guidance.We all wavered between wanting to be like them, and wanting to expose them as hypocrites. How could they possibly know what they never experienced?

Most of us felt sorry for sisters who joined a convent so far from their homes,  no friends, no pretty clothes, no chance of ever falling in love. We got the novitiates to share, to tell us how they knew.

“It was a calling”, one would say, and we interpreted to mean that her family pushed her.

“I knew it from the time I was a little girl”, some one was scared of the world.

“There has been a nun in our family forever”, her family had insisted.

“Sister, when did you know? Is there a time when you had no doubts?”

“Do you think of the children you could have had?”

We, students and lay teachers alike, knew and understood the bond of friendship, to support and defend each other’s name and reputation. School taught us all many things. But school didn't teach  what you wanted to learn, especially  at this age.


  1. This is an interesting insight of a world that took place behind school doors that most of us never attended. I like your photo.

  2. Sounds a bit like having to wear mental blinkers; not that a grammar school in the 1950's was much different, when I think back to it!

  3. I loved reading this. I had catechism classes weekly with the nuns, although I went to public school. What
    i remember was that most everything was a sin and we were sure to burn in hell!

  4. From what would be 8 to 13th grade in your system, I was an altar boy for the private masses our priest teachers said every morning. There were about 12 of us serving two priests every morning. Once, the afternoon before, we had been told that Father Séguin was sick and should he be sick still tomorrow morning classes for his gtroup would be called off.
    When he did not show up for his mass, we got on phones and told the guys to stay home. We did not know that the school had decided to stage mock exams in lieu of his courses.
    Of course very few showed up...but the authorities never learned who had called the classes off.

  5. Reminds me of an Australian series that was on the BBC years ago called Brides of Christ...I loved it :)

  6. I enjoyed this. My wife teaches at a Catholic school and my boys attend. I am in the process of converting over after being raised a Baptist.

  7. Dear Readers:
    These are memoir pieces, representing times and places in my youth.
    In no way you should assume that at my ripe old age of 68 I have the same beliefs and attitudes. Time and experience have done their work on my bones and my imagination.

    I'm glad you've dropped by. Each of these chapters can stand alone; together though, they tell my story, one strand at a time. For those of you who have the time and inclination, I'd love a critique. You may want to email it to me if it is lenghty.

    Thank you in advance. Critiquing somebody's work is not for the faint-hearted. Point out whatis unclear, sentimental, not sentimental enough, whenever the writing falters.

  8. I'm 20 years your junior and my experience of many years in a Catholic institution a long way from yours has similarities.

    I find your writing easy to read and it transports me to the moments that you speak of.

    love it :)

    You would enjoy the tv series that Braja mentions 'brides of christ'

    PS... word verification on this comment - priest!