The Good Sisters: An Appreciation

They’re a vanishing breed, the sisters. Of course some are still around, but precious few, if the statistics I read are correct. And almost none of them teach school, wear long dresses and rosary beads that clack when they walk, and have names like Sister Humiliata and Sister Chrysostom.

If your only knowledge of nuns was based on what you saw in the media, you’d conclude that they were all either silly, saccharine, or sadistic. (I know that nun is technically not the correct term. Strictly speaking, nuns are cloistered; those who teach school and work in the world are sisters. Nevertheless, laypeople always have spoken of those who taught them as nuns. Therefore, I use the familiar term.) The comic antics in Sister Act, Nunsense, and Late Night Catechism are amusing but bear no resemblance to the women I remember. And the sadistic nun in the recent popular novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood seems more like a candidate for a mental hospital than a vowed religious. In earlier days, there were the idealized and romanticized versions: Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story.

Most older Catholics who had pre-Vatican II Catholic educations remember nuns as overly strict and mean. But memory can be very selective. Although we may have been taught by eight different nuns in grade school—seven of whom were benevolent, competent, and fair—the one we most vividly remember is the one who inspired terror in us, looked like the Wicked Witch of the West, and made us stay in from recess to copy pages from the dictionary.

Beginning with James Joyce’s malicious Jesuit teacher in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, writers educated in Catholic schools declared open season on the nuns, priests, and brothers whose steely stare could turn their knees to jelly, who hit them on the knuckles with rulers, and who burdened their tender consciences with sexual guilt. Although there were plenty of male clerics who fit this description, nuns, by far, came in for the biggest share of the criticism.

There were witches, I know. I had some for teachers. Is there any graduate of Catholic school who did not? My candidates are Sister Margaret Irene and Sister St. Daniel. They were not so much mean as repulsive. Both were Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, BVMs for short. We students said the letters stood for “big, vicious monsters.” They wore what must have been the worst of the pre-Vatican II habits: Their heads were literally encased in white boxes (actually more the shapes of trapezoids—am I imagining that we were told it was to remind them of their coffins?) and their faces framed by a curved coif that gave them the shape of an upside-down pear. Sister Margaret Irene, a tall, gangly, homely nun who taught Latin, used to sit in her chair rubbing her bony knee while expounding on the virtues of Aeneas. She humiliated me in front of all my classmates when, in my role as secretary of the Sodality, I forgot my all-important responsibility of bringing the minutes to the meeting.

Sister St. Daniel taught senior religion and would sit in her chair with her eyes half-closed, swaying back and forth, the gold around her teeth glinting, and would chant, as if a mantra, “Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell!”

But these memories must be balanced by those of the good nuns who were such a positive part of my 16-year Catholic education. One of the things I appreciate in Richard Rodriguez’s beautiful autobiographical book Hunger of Memory is his tribute to the Irish nuns who taught him in grade school. Not only did they treat him and his immigrant parents with respect and kindness, taking a personal interest in him, but their old-fashioned teaching methods were effective. “The nuns trusted the role of memorization in learning,” Rodriguez explains. “Not coincidentally, they were excellent teachers of basics…. They believed that learning is a social activity; learning is a rite of passage into the group.” They also gave him personal attention. “My earliest teachers, the nuns, made my success their ambition.”

My first-grade teacher was Sister Margarita. All I remember is that she was young, pretty, kind, and gave me piano lessons after school. My other grade-school teachers I remember as competent and unruffled in the face of classes of 40 or 50 children (before the parish built an addition to the school, there were two grades in a classroom). They had odd names like Sister Leander and Sister Clementia.

My seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, Sister Chrysostom, remains most vivid in my memory. Looking back now, I think she was very young, probably in her late 20s. She had a round, ruddy, pretty face but was quite overweight. She loved singing and had a beautiful soprano voice. Our eighth-grade class contained some hellions, and the boys were prone to wisecracks. One day a white bird flew in the open window, and one of the boys stood up and shouted, “It’s the Holy Ghost, men!” We all convulsed with laughter—even Sister Chrysostom cracked a smile. When she died tragically of cancer four years later, some of us wondered if the stress of teaching had played a part in her early death.

At Mater Dei High School, most of the English classes were taught by Irish nuns, Sisters of St. Louis. They had a habit second in its oddity only to that of the BVMs. Indeed, they looked as if they were wearing a front porch on their heads, with two white posts on the sides of their faces and an awning over their foreheads. They couldn’t have been too long off the boat, for they all still had a strong Irish brogue.

In my sophomore year under Sister Wilfred’s tutelage, I fell in love with English literature. I remember the day it happened. She was reading aloud from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village,” a long, sentimental poem about how people were leaving the English villages to go and work in the crowded cities during the Industrial Revolution. I sat there listening to the sad tale narrated in her slightly nasal, singsong brogue, and although I’d never cared much for poetry before, I was mesmerized. I loved it. Apparently dissatisfied with the literary education provided by our American textbooks, Sister Wilfred lectured to us about the great English novelists. She’d cover the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy; and I, tantalized, would go home and read them.

From that point, I knew I wanted to become an English teacher. And I did.

In my senior year, I had Sister Paul, another Sister of St. Louis. She was small, pretty, refined—an excellent teacher. My best friend and I idolized her. Under her guidance we read Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the other greats of English literature. I was enraptured by the Romantic poets and would read them alone in my room, pausing to look out at the night sky. Sister Paul imparted to us not only a love of English literature but admiration for the English people who had managed to create a constitutional democracy without a bloody revolution and who had been so brave through the bombardment and privations of the Second World War. Quite remarkable praise coming from an Irish Catholic.

During the Christmas season of my senior year, some of my girlfriends and I went caroling to the convent where the Sisters of St. Louis lived. Our singing brought them to the door, and they invited us in. Younger Catholics used to fraternizing with priests and religious will not understand how extraordinary this was in the late 1950s when convents were off-limits to regular folks. In their warm and homey parlor, they served us Irish Christmas cake—the source of the wonderful aroma in the room. Later when I read James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” in which a sophisticated Irish intellectual pays tribute to the old-fashioned hospitality of his two aunts at their annual Christmas party, I remembered that evening.

From high school I went to Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, a lovely campus of Spanish Renaissance buildings nestled in the Santa Monica mountains. It was an all-women’s college of about 500 students. In those days (1959-1963) about three-fourths of the faculty were nuns of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

As college students, we had graduated to a new relationship with the sisters. Although there was certainly still a hierarchy in place, we students had definitely moved up a notch. We could joke with the nuns, confide in them, and tell them about our problems, hopes, and fears. When it came to kidding, my favorite was Sister Catherine Anita, the librarian. My roommate and I both worked for a while in the library, and we loved to threaten that if she didn’t treat us right, we would someday sneak into the room with the locked cabinet containing books on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books and read some Voltaire! She would always end up giggling. When those of us in Young Christian Students had a picnic on the hill behind the college, she joined us in folk dancing.

Sister Laurentia taught English. I had her for one semester of Freshman Composition, the Bible as Literature, and Theory and Criticism. Probaby in her early 50s then, she had a lovely, finely chiseled face. It was in her Bible as Literature class that I first really read the Bible— other than the bits and snatches that were in my missal. The way she yoked together her twin loves of Scripture and literature made for an exciting class in the days before Bible as Literature classes became so routine. From her I learned that the Bible was full of finely crafted stories with engaging characters and stirring plots, and that the psalms were really poems.

One of her favorite books was Couples of the Bible by Marcian Strange, which brought biblical figures to life. In her class I came to see Saul as an Aristotelian tragic hero—a basically good man with a fatal flaw. I even wrote a prizewinning poem on this theme. In her Theory and Criticism class, Sister Laurentia would read our papers aloud to the class with an intensity and focus that made us feel we had written something worthy of the Sewanee Review. She read T. S. Eliot with vigor and a sonority that made us appreciate the greatness of this Christian poet, even when we couldn’t begin to understand what he meant. We would often meet her out for a walk in the hills behind our campus. She would crinkle up her eyes in the California sunshine and say, “Hello, friend!” This celibate woman also gave us what I think was probably the best advice I ever had about marriage: “Don’t be a boring wife!” she admonished us. “More divorces are caused by boredom than by anything else!”

Then there was Sister Mary Patricia—”Sister Pat” as she was known to those of us who loved her. She was small and frail with delicate features but a strong spirit. Sister Pat demanded excellence of us. In our creative writing class, she would return our first (and second and third) drafts to us with the comment, “Re-think. Re-feel.” Next to a particularly bad passage, she would write her worst comment—”Gug!” She pushed us because she knew we could do better—and we did because we loved her. In my senior year, she offered a full-semester course in Dante’s Divine Comedy. For the last class, we all dressed up as characters from the Comedy, and she opened the door of the classroom to be greeted by Dante and Virgil, Paolo and Francesca (my roommate and I), Beatrice, with a crown of Christmas garland on her head, Count Ugolino dining on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri, and other famous and infamous inhabitants of hell, purgatory, and heaven. I’ll never forget the shocked look on her face or the peals of laughter that succeeded it. She had us keep journals, which she read and returned to us with comments. I continued the practice as I came to confide in her more and more about problems I was having, especially with regard to my conflicted relationship with my mother.

Every year on one Sunday in May, our mothers were invited to campus for a special Mass and breakfast. On this day in my senior year, Sister Pat approached me when I went to refill my coffee cup. “I want you to know,” she said, “that I understand why your mother needed to say what she did, and it’s OK. I understand.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought maybe my mother had called her Sister Pat, a nickname we used when talking about her but not to her. But that wasn’t it. She finally revealed what my mother had said: “So you’re Sister Mary Patricia. I’d like to sue you for alienation of affections.”

I was humiliated by my mother’s behavior, but consoled and gratified that Sister Pat cared so much for me that she sought me out to make sure I knew that she was not offended. Indeed, she had filled—and continued for many years to fill— a void in my life that my own mother, for all her good intentions, could not. After I graduated and went to teach high school as an extension volunteer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the journal pages still went back and forth in the mail. And when I got married, she had a friend drive her to the church, and they parked across the street so she could see us as we processed out. When we did, she crossed the street and gave me a hug. She was forced to wait outside, because in 1965, most nuns were not allowed to attend weddings.

And maybe that’s part of the reason we lost the nuns. For too long they were treated as children, and their individual talents were overlooked. Because they were almost all herded into teaching—whether or not they had any aptitude or inclination for it—when things were liberalized after Vatican II, most of them chose to do anything but teach.

Most of the nuns who still exist no longer wear distinctive dress or have traditional religious names. Gone are the Sister Chrysostoms and Sister Laurentias. Gone are those ladies with a whiff of mystery about them, living signs of another dimension of human life, brides of a heavenly Groom. Strong, capable, competent, kind, generous women—we remember you, we honor you.


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