Episodes from Convent Years
I entered a matriarchy. Women in charge; women did everything but say Mass. We built schools, hospitals, went to missions. Men tried to run things but we paid them little attention.
During the first three months, Jane, my roommate, had evenings meetings with the others with lots of goodies and fun. They definitely broke silence. I was not called because Sr. X with her door open, could see right into my bed. Jane was sent home. Six others leave.
Nuns would not allow girls to wear patent leather shoes. Several years later they told me it was because the shoes reflected up under your dress and it was impure.
Novices had so much sugar for recreation! Christmas chocolates, Easter chocolate bunnies, an entire classroom metal cabinet was filled with sugar treats! In the Fall, Sister Mistress cooked all the leftover chocolates in a huge pot, adding milk and water, and stirring until she sweated. She was making us all a special hot drink. When it was filled into cups and handed out, Jackie and I began an unending laugh when the yellow and black bunny “eyes” started popping up to the top from the bottom of our cups.
My skin feels itchy so often! I believe it is from all the childhood allergies to sugar that I suffered. I never got the pink sugar that my brother and sisters got at the circus and the fair. My treat was a bag of popcorn! I cheated and ate sugar whenever I could, and Mom and Dad were too busy to stop me. In the convent it became a problem as we all had to eat the same food, meat and sugar; no exceptions. Due to persistent rashes, I was put in new wing and tied to my bed. Sister Adele smeared me in lanolin on my legs and arms and wrapped me in old wool. The black stockings stuck to my legs and bled when I undressed. Hospital!
I was back working with Sr. Miriam. I was assigned to help her with sacristy work, an assistant sacristan without title. I learned how to iron the altar cloths and priests vestments, how to lay them out in order for the priest to get dressed for mass and other ceremonies, how to fill the thurible with charcoal, light it until it was red-hot coals, and how to add the incense to cause billowing clouds of gorgeous scent. I learned to take the yellow stamens out of lilies, so they would last longer not being able to pollinate, how to take the leaves off rose stems and cut the stems on the angle under water, how to fill vases properly, how to clean old wax out of the candle holders, how to shine the brass, the marble, the wood, the gold. I watched Sister climbing up 20 feet above the altar to pull out stamens at Easter time as the lilies opened, and then getting down to the floor next to the altar and wipe up a piece of dust she missed earlier. I loved this work more than anything I had previously done and by God’s grace, and a tired Mistress of Novices when she was assigning work, I was given the job for six months.
As a postulant we went to ready the new hospital. There was not enough money to hire professional cleaners, so all the nuns from every parish was called to assist. The postulants were given the worst work. We had to clean the tiles on the walls, the sinks, the operating room floors to remove spills of hardened concrete, glue, plaster. We were given an extremely powerful chemical cleaner to do this with. The nuns did not think of getting us rubber gloves, or possibly they could not afford them, and so we put our hands right into the buckets of chemicals. The pain was great, but we tried hard to show how much we loved God, as we were told, and how much we would work for the community. And all the young women, full of ideals of the spiritual life, plunged hands into the acid, our eyes tearing with pain, and wrung out the cloths like of fire. I lost all the top skin on my hands and could not bend my fingers without pain for about a week. They continually felt like they were burning. Even holding the missal in chapel was a painful job.
I learned Latin, the Divine office, and how to be a nun. When I was allowed to go to the novitiate, we had a 10-day silence retreat. It was the first of many in my life. After retreat we were each asked to give something we really loved. I gave the cross from Sr. Florentine and Sister Benedicta took it away. For my 16th Birthday, mom sent me a sugar-cube corsage. Sister was annoyed that it was sent. “Doesn’t your mother know you are in the convent? This is absolutely the wrong gift!” But I loved it and wore it to bed that night pinned to my nightgown.
With Rome’s council in audience, I give a lecture on poverty. The community should give money to the poor people living on the highway outside. Our habit is too expensive; money could be better used.
I had many jobs that prepared me for the publishing world such as working in the print shop.
I also was an assistant to the librarian using the electric stylus categorizing spines of books.
Editor's note: Here is a YouTube video showing show an electric stylus worked.