TEXTS FROM ENGLISH RELIGIOUS HISTORY
Nun Who Escaped: A True Story
Impressions of Childhood
The church bell chimed the hour of prayer; sweetly the sound floated on the evening wind as a little child lingered to listen near an old churchyard in the city of Norfolk, Virginia. She stood in the cool breeze, curiously watching the crowds who passed rapidly by and flocked into the sanctuary. Their countenances attracted the child, who besought her nurse to follow the throng and enter the sacred precincts. Her attendant - one of those faithful domestics of the South who are intrusted with the charge of young children - readily consented and they passed into the vestibule, pausing to gaze at those who performed the ceremony of sprinkling and crossing themselves with holy water at the door. The little girl seated herself near the entrance, alive to the wonders that presented themselves to her view. With delight she continued to gaze upon the scene before her: the altar with its rich decorations, the burning tapers, the ascending cloud of incense, the paintings, the gorgeous vestments of the priests - all this she beheld for the first time. It was as if some heavenly vision were opened to her and emotions newly awakened. When, the service over, she rose and took the hand of her nurse to return homeward, the child sighed deeply, as one aroused from happy dreams.
The impressions made by this incident were deep and abiding, destined to control the life of that child, upon whose sensitive being the allurements had, at the early age of six years, produced marked and permanent effects.
Reader, the little child of this slight episode narrates in the following pages her unvarnished story: what schemes, what arts, what arrogance and tyranny she beheld and suffered. These will constitute the burden of her narrative.
Early impressions deepened
I cannot recall the time when my heart was not imbued with a natural reverence for sacred things. The recollections of those brilliant and attractive rites which had been witnessed with delight and wonder in early childhood served as a continual contrast with the severe simplicity of the Protestant worship, and the rigid requirements of the Protestant faith. I saw beauty in the symbolic ritual and began to inquire into the doctrinal basis of this edifice so stately and fair, upon whose threshold already I stood.
My parents were worshipers in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and from childhood I was educated in the doctrines of that Church, attending its public ministrations, and receiving instruction in the Sabbath-school. At the age of fourteen I was solicited to present myself for Confirmation, but I steadily refused to do so, my attachment having been estranged already, if not entirely diverted to another system of worship. It was then that I came to the definite conclusion of investigating the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. I commenced the reading of books explanatory of those tenets. These works were willingly furnished me by Roman Catholic acquaintances, who without directly and openly interfering to bias my convictions, urged me to acquaint myself with "both sides" of the controversy.
Let me caution against this. One who has most painfully felt the possibility of self-deception, in the blind following out of hastily formed opinions, and concession to the impulsive prompting of a misguided enthusiasm, would fain warn others to heed the counsels of the wise and virtuous, the mature and experienced around them. God's word alone can furnish that safe and unerring guidance; God's spirit only can teach infallibly the soul. I was ill-prepared, at the age of sixteen, to weigh arguments and discriminate between conflicting statements.
Doubts and Hesitations
It is not to be supposed that this growing tendency was unobserved and unopposed by my Protestant friends, nor that their remonstrances failed entirely to infuse doubt and hesitation. Often I seemed to stand upon the brink of a fathomless abyss, looking off from the precipice for some ray of light that might show me a deliverance from the difficulties that encompassed me. As my purpose of entering the Church of Rome became confirmed, my friends sought to divert my thoughts from the subject. They urged me to abandon the seclusion to which I had devoted myself, and endeavored to revive my spirits in scenes of amusement and gaiety. Finding this ineffectual, my parents sent me to spend some time in the family of a friend, a Protestant clergyman at Baltimore, during which time I was not allowed an opportunity of attending the Roman Catholic service; but at the expiration of my visit, I returned to Norfolk unaltered in my desire to seek that peace of mind for which I was longing, where so many assured me that I would find it. I had no wish to become a votary of the world. The sole alternative that seemed to present itself was that refuge which, as I was ever reminded by sympathetic and attentive counselors, the true Church offered within her encircling arms to all that were harassed with doubt, and wearied with the cares of this evil world.
First visit to the sisters
It was a lovely June evening, shortly after my return from the visit just referred to, when I wended my way toward the house occupied by the Sisters of Charity at Norfolk. I had reached the decision of making known my spiritual state to them, and seeking advice and direction, but without the knowledge or consent of my parents, whose opposition to my change of religious connection continued as strong as ever. I ascended the steps and rang the bell. A little orphan child obeyed the summons. Having asked for the Superior Sister, I was ushered into the parlor. After a short interval I heard a light step; the door opened and SisterAloysia, then the Superior Sister there, advanced to receive me.
I introduced myself and informed her of the purpose of my visit. Smiling pleasantly, she led me to a window overlooking the grounds of the institution and, partly opening the shutters, she bade me seat myself near her, and begged me to open my heart to her without reserve. I did so. I told her of my wants, my aspirations, my uneasiness as to my eternal safety, and my hope that I might in the Catholic Church find peace and rest.
When I ceased she
clasped my hands in hers, and assured me how willingly she would endeavor
to assist me and satisfy my scruples and doubts. After a long and friendly
conversation, she invited me to see the chapel. As we entered she knelt
reverently before the altar and said a short prayer.
The priest was now informed that I desired an interview. A time was appointed for the purpose and as such a visit to me could not be agreeable to my family, it was arranged that I should call at his residence. I was accompanied by a young lady, a Roman Catholic friend, who was educated at St. Joseph's and made a convert there. She was received very kindly by the priest, who undertook to inform me fully as to the doctrines and practices of the Church. A few weeks elapsed, during which I repeated my visit to my spiritual adviser, and at length a day was fixed for my formal admission into the church of Rome.
My first confession and baptism
Preparatory to that formal reception into the Church, the candidate is required to make, in the sacrament of penance, a full and general confession of all the sins of past life. This office is conducted tenderly and adroitly with the young convert, who naturally shrinks at first from the disclosure of her inmost thoughts and feelings. For myself, in the fresh zeal and anxiety of a young proselyte, I was not disposed to evade any means prescribed for attaining the peace of mind for which I was longing. Convinced of the divine claims and authority of the Church, and feeling safe only in following out the advice of my constituted teachers, I thought myself too happy if permitted to hope that in the path they pointed out I could find the promised reward. I approached the "bar of conscience" as the requisite medium of preparation for worthily receiving the Holy Communion - the great channel for the conveyance of spiritual grace to the soul.
At the appointed hour of the day fixed for my first confession, I was anxiously awaiting in the parlor of the house of the Sisters of Charity the summons that should call me to the little chapel where I was to meet my spiritual instructor. It was already dusk when the message came; and following the sister who had brought it, I entered the door, drew aside the curtain that screened it, and knelt on a hassock before a small table, at which was seated the confessor. The chapel was dark, illumined only by the flickering light of a small lamp that burned before the altar, which was decorated with vases of beautiful flowers, while from the wall above it were suspended several exquisite paintings.
With bowed head and in trembling tones, from the depths of my soul I poured, without reserve, the feelings and thoughts of my whole life into the ear of one whom I considered my earthly guide, whose duty it was to reprove, instruct, console the subjects of his care with unremitting diligence until he should deliver up his trust to that God who had commissioned him for the solemn task. My confession made, he breathed over my head a prayer so touching and sublime that my faith seemed strengthened and my spirit calmed by its holy influence. Relief from all those anxieties and perplexities which had long wearied me seemed at length within my reach; I felt myself raised above the atmosphere of earth, and entering upon a sanctuary of repose whence I had no desire to retrace my steps into the world.
I was directed to return within a few days for a second confession, and upon that occasion I received absolution. Arrangements were now to be made for my public reception into the Church: and, accordingly, it was decided that upon "Holy Saturday" or the day after Good Friday, I should be "conditionally" baptized.
Individuals entering the Roman Catholic Church, if they have been baptized in infancy by Protestant Episcopal clergymen, are not absolutely required to receive the ordinance a second time. But, lest there may have been some omission in its performance which would render the rite invalid according to the Roman conception of it, the sacrament of baptism is then administered by the priest in a hypothetical or conditional manner.
On the morning of Holy Saturday, without the knowledge of my parents, I left my house for the purpose of visiting a Roman Catholic family who resided near the church, and at whose house I was to prepare for the sacred ordinance. A simple white dress had been provided for the occasion, with a long white veil of muslin, falling over the shoulders and reaching to the floor. No ornament was to be worn save a gold cross suspended from the neck.
The ceremony had been widely made known, and the church was filled to overflowing with curious spectators long before the service began. The moment having arrived, I passed through the sacristy into the church, and took my seat in a pew in front of the altar. The priest soon entered, and we proceeded down the aisle to the door of the church, where stood the marble font filled with water, which he now consecrated for use in the sacred ordinance. The usual ceremonies were performed: a lighted candle was put into my hand; I was anointed with oil; salt was placed upon my tongue; I responded to the questions asked of me, and returned to my pew a baptized member of that Church whose fellowship I had so earnestly craved. The following morning was Easter, the festival of the Resurrection, and upon that holy day I made my first communion.
Did I enjoy the complete
tranquility promised by the Church to all who, in the proper reception
of those sacraments which are the channels of Divine grace to the souls
of her children, repose upon her bosom, forsaking all other trust? I was
indeed most happy. Morning after morning found me low bending in prayer
before the altar of the chapel attached to the church where I had taken
my solemn vows. Evening after evening was spent in pious conversation
with the Sisters of Charity, and in rapt meditation at that shrine where
I had made my first confession. My only happiness was now centered in
these blissful moments, and again and again did I bless that Church who
had thus conquered my affections and taken captive my will.
Attractions of the cloister
Those made proselytes by these teachings learn to regard all the concerns of earth as contradictory to his spiritual frame of life - as conflicting with that ascetic estrangement from all the engagements of mortality; that mystical elevation above human affection and emotion, which is the highest grade of meritorious attainment. Thus, either in the first ardor of conversion, or when the false comforts of her system have been tried and found wanting, the disciple longs for the perfect holiness and absolute repose of the convent. To be truly religious signifies, not to illustrate the principles of the Gospel in all those humble but sanctified employments that belong to the lot where God has placed us, but to fly from the scene of trial, and to waste, in a condition of passivity and mental vacuity, the precious moments of probation.
My religious advisers were not slow to suggest such longings to my mind, and I was well prepared to entertain them. Home and society had already lost their charms, and the details of domestic life had become a painful burden. I found delight only in the contemplative retirement of the sanctuary to which I daily resorted, and in the performance of religious practices. I was now led to dwell much upon the happiness of those favored ones who are enabled to abstract themselves entirely from the temptations and anxieties of the world, and dedicate their time without reserve to the service of God. The cloister, I was assured, affords a safe retreat to all who would soar above the atmosphere of earthly love, and gaze upon the pure light of holiness and heaven. There I might find, in the perfect love of God, a depth of peace, a complete repose, such as the blessed on high are enjoying. There are natures, I was told - and to these I felt mine belonged - so exalted in their aspirations that human affections can never supply the void of their hearts. Often did I hear described in glowing words the condition of holy men and women who had turned all their thoughts away from earth, consecrated all their powers to God, and spent their lives in ceaseless contemplation and adoring love. I aspired to this perfection. I earnestly besought Almighty God to make known his will concerning me. I desired to devote my life to his service.
Yet reason could not but revolt from the supposition that God, who had given me affections and talents capable of use, would be more honored by crushing them within the walls of a cloister, by burying the heart in a living sepulcher. If such were his designs, then he had created but to blight the energies of his creatures; and every object of beauty that his hand had formed on earth was made without profit for man, thus to be shut out from the enjoyment of the natural world.
All such ideas I was told to regard as the suggestions of evil; as temptations of the adversary, who would fain cheat me of my blessed calling to a perfect and entire devotion to the religious life. I was brought to feel that in the service of God the sacrifice of all these earthly considerations was but lightly to be esteemed. Yes, I thought, if this be God's will, I will renounce the world; I will break off every natural tie and yield myself up a willing offering upon the altar of self-consecration.
While I was in Richmond, Virginia, an unmarried Protestant clergyman accompanied me to the Roman Catholic church. The next time I saw my confessor, he said he had learned I intended marrying that gentleman. I replied I had never thought of doing so. Then he told me I must never be seen with him again, because it brought scandal on the holy Church. He said he had noticed me from the altar, and then, in a threatening attitude, he farther said, "Just let me see you with him again." He continued for some time in this angry manner to scold and threaten me. His violence terrified me. I burst into tears, and assured him that I did not intend marrying, and I should never think of a union with one out of the Church. After a while he became calm, and permitted me to depart, saying in the usual manner, "Go in peace, my child."
When I returned to my residence, my eyes were so much swollen with weeping that my sister asked the cause. This I dared not communicate to anyone because it occurred in the confessional.
Visit to the convents
Influenced by these
counsels and suggestions, I inclined strongly, before many weeks elapsed
after my entrance into the Church, toward the vocation of a recluse. In
the summer of 1852 I left Norfolk to visit the Carmelite Nunnery, the
Visitation Convent, and the "Mother House" of St. Joseph's.
Shortly after my visit to the Carmelite nunnery I called at the Convent of the Visitation in the same city. A nun appeared at the grating, when I handed her a note for the Superior. I heard the withdrawal of several bolts, and the door was opened by some invisible hand, then closed behind me, and the bolts were pushed over the door from an adjoining apartment, separated from that where I now stood by iron bars extending from the floor to the ceiling. This was the convent parlor, and through this iron grating persons are sometimes allowed to converse with the nuns. Soon a nun approached the bars, which formed a partition across the entire width of the apartment, and told me that she would open the door to admit me to the rooms beyond. The bolts were withdrawn as before. I returned into the vestibule and stood at the door where the nun had first appeared. After the removal of several bars and bolts again, this door opened and closed violently behind me; it was fastened as before, and I could just discern, through the almost total darkness, two nuns, one of whom bade me to follow her. I was taken through several passages to the library, or large room, well supplied with books, where several nuns were seated and engaged in reading, while others, also with books before them, kept their eyes fixed immovably upon the floor, not even turning to notice the stranger who had entered.
After visiting the chapel, the dormitory, the music-room and other apartments occupied by the pupils of the academy attached to the convent - for I was not allowed to visit the cloisters - I left, promising to return soon for the purpose of an interview with the Superior who, at the time of this first visit, was engaged and could not conveniently receive me.
The sunny side of convent life
I had received from the Superior of the institution of St. Joseph's at Emmettsburg, an invitation to visit that establishment. I accordingly proceeded thither from Baltimore, and reached the gate of the institution at about nine o'clock in the evening. A portress opened the door and conducted me to the strangers' apartment; as the hour was late, I could not see the Lady Superior until the next morning, and after taking some refreshment I retired.
At an early hour I was awakened by the sound of music from the chapel nearby. I listened in a trance of delight while the anthem would be caught up by some single voice, whose thrilling tones seemed to come from heaven's gate, pleading for admission. It were impossible to describe the impressions made by these heavenly sounds rising upon the stillness of the early morning, heard by one already in favor of the religious life. It seemed the joy and tranquility I long thirsted, the source of the holy life and blessed employments.
The few days now spent in this establishment were appropriated to a "religious retreat," consisting of prayer, meditation and devotional reading. During this time every attention was paid to me, and every effort made to influence me in favor of the convent life. The very atmosphere of the place seemed redolent with piety. I was surrounded by comforts and luxuries such as I had not supposed were granted to the members of a conventual establishment; the table, furnished with silver, was always well provided with choice viands and fruits; the furniture was even luxurious.
In my interview with the Father Superior of the institution, a priest from Spain, I explained my reasons for visiting these establishments and asked his advice. He encouraged me and desired me to make a full confession. I did so, and was told that I had a true call from God - a vocation.
But it had not formed my intention to enter at once upon this vocation, and accordingly I left, after a short and delightful stay, to return home. It was my purpose to revisit the place and enter my novitiate in six months; but circumstances most painful prolonged that interval. When I left home my mother was in excellent health. Before I left St. Joseph's a telegraph dispatch announced that my dear mother had been attacked by the yellow fever, and was at the point of death. I hastened home but too late, the message having been delayed at Baltimore. My feelings on reaching my desolate home I shall not attempt to describe; those only who have experienced such a loss can represent its anguish. My mother left a babe of twelve months who has ever since been inexpressibly dear to me. I once approached her grave, and was carried away in an unconscious state. But this is a theme upon which I cannot dwell.
When six months expired,
I received a letter from the Superior inquiring whether I had relinquished
the idea of consecrating myself to the service of God. That letter I left
unanswered. A year elapsed. I frequently visited the Sisters of Charity
at their mission house near my home. They and my spiritual advisor encouraged
me to go forward, assuring me that even on earth I should arrive at a
nobler and worthier life than the world could afford.
Entrance at St. Joseph's
In December 1853, notwithstanding the continued opposition of my friends and family, and entirely without their knowledge, I left Norfolk for Baltimore with the secret purpose of embracing the life of a "Sister of Charity." I arrived at St. Joseph's at about half past eight on an evening in the early part of January, 1854. Rain was pouring in torrents when the stage stopped at the gate of the yard through which postulants or candidates for admission enter. I waited at the entrance for one of the sisters, who admitted me and led me through a porch and along a dark corridor into the novitiate, a room occupied by the novices, or "seminary sisters" as they are styled. At the door of this room I was asked in a harsh tone for the key of my trunk. On presenting it to the sister appointed to receive it, I was told, in a firm and decided manner, "With this key you renounce your will forever." The words fell like a doom on my heart, contrast with my treatment upon my former visit. I was then conducted into the refectory where a small piece of bread and some coffee in a tin cup were given me. I scarcely tasted this food, and soon left the refectory with a sister who conducted me to my sleeping apartment. We ascended a flight of stairs, entered a room at the end of the passage containing seven or eight small curtained bedsteads. The sister pointed to one of these, which was numbered, and placing a dim lamp in a recess near the door, left the room. It was with mingled emotions of surprise and fear that I gazed upon this novel and unexpected scene, scarcely lighted by the faint rays of the lamp.
I now presumed that the introductory ordeal was finished, but my trials for the night were not yet ended. Presently an aged sister, dressed in the habit, came in and approached me, holding in her hand a large cup filled with a dark mixture, which she commanded me to drink. I attempted compliance, but, finding the taste intensely bitter and nauseous, after swallowing about half, I begged to be excused from taking the remainder. Placing it again to my lips, she sternly ordered me to drink the whole. I obeyed in silence. The sister then informed me that she was the "mistress of novices" and had charge over their conduct and employment, adding that I must not rise from my bed until she called. She then withdrew. I had scarcely strength to draw the curtain round my bed when I fell into a deep slumber. I was awakened about four o'clock by the deep toll of the morning bell calling to prayers in the chapel.
Some time after the first bell had sounded a sister entered the room, approached my bed, and said in a low tone that I might now rise and go to mass, as the bell would ring in a few minutes. I rose and dressed in haste, and then waited for the sister, who conducted me to the chapel, where the community had already assembled. I was directed to a seat among the "postulants," near the sanctuary.
The altar of this chapel is white marble. Above it is a large statue of the Virgin Mary, bearing in her arms the infant Jesus. At the foot of this statue there is usually placed a vase of beautiful flowers. There are two confessionals in the chapel on one side of the sanctuary, and another below, in a chapel on the ground floor, besides a chapel in the infirmary in which confessions are made. Those who are too ill to leave their beds are attended by a priest, who seats himself beside them. At the time of a jubilee, or a religious or annual retreat - which lasts from eight to ten days - all these confessionals are supplied with priests.
The institution at Emmettsburg
The institution of St. Joseph is situated in a beautiful vale about a quarter mile from the town. The church or chapel fronts on the avenue leading to the main road, forming one side of a square enclosing a large yard, on the other side the infirmary. In the rear of the yard is the building occupied by the community. Beyond it another quadrangle, the academy, a separate edifice, is connected with the "Mother House" by porticos and a balcony over which the sisters pass when going to their duties in the academy. On the first day after my arrival, during my interview with the Lady Superior, I was directed to consider myself as henceforth entering upon a new life, so that I must not recognize nor address as an acquaintance any individual in the academy whom I had previously known "in the world."
After an interview with the Father Superior of the institution, I was shown over a part of the house occupied by the community. On one side of a corridor paved with brick on the first floor are the community room, the novitiate, the Lady Superior's room and the priest's room. The community room is used by those sisters who have been members of the sisterhood for eight to ten years. Prior to that time they occupy the novitiate. The Superior seldom leaves her own apartment. On the second floor are the cells, the retreat room, an apartment occupied by the mistress of novices, and a number of other apartments, two or three of which were often kept entirely closed, though I had reason to think they were inhabited at the time. The walls of the cells occupied by the sisters do not reach to the ceiling. An open space of several feet above them not only affords ventilation but permits every sound to communicate from cell to cell, and to the cloisters.
No sister enters the room of the Superior without permission. Should a priest enter while she is there, it would be her duty to withdraw at once, unless told to remain. The male and female Superiors always see each other alone, except in council - that is, in a secret meeting of the Superiors and their officers. When a sister commits an offense, she is brought before the council, and all affairs of importance are settled by these inquisitors at such meetings. I was frequently threatened with arraignment before this tribunal, but fortunately was not brought up for trial.
A few weeks after
my admission I observed that on every Wednesday, between the hours of
two and three in the afternoon, the windows of the novitiate and community
room were closed, and the doors carefully locked. All the "postulants"
were then sent to the kitchen, myself among them, to work until the sound
of the three o'clock bell. This period of the day is designated the "silence
hour." It is a season of strict silence; not one word may be uttered.
The eyes are kept fixed on the work or on the floor. It was some time
before I learned the object of this rule, not until I had made my "retreat."
During this retreat the rules and regulations are for the first time made
known or read to the "postulants" by the mistress of novices.
The rule requires that particular friendships should be guarded against. One sister is not suffered to converse with another respecting her own private feelings, nor to ask or answer a question unless in the performance of a task, and that only when absolutely necessary. A sister is not allowed to speak with or recognize another in the corridor, or in any part of the house. Should one having authority meet a sister, the latter must answer in a low tone of voice, in as few words as possible, and with downcast eyes. No one is permitted to look through a window, or to gaze around her. She must walk with a measured step, her hands clasped on her breast, and her eyes fixed upon the ground. Sisters are forbidden to look each other in the face; to do so is a breach of the rules. They may not ask for any object whatever, and must receive every duty imposed without murmuring. Not a word is to be spoken after the "silence bell" which rings about eight in the evening. No sister is permitted to take a drink of water after that time; it is a breach of the rule and will be reported by those who watch, who are placed around the house as spies. When suffering from thirst, it is deemed acceptable to God, and the suffering is offered to the Virgin Mary as an atonement for some past sin.
Routine of a day
The daily occupations of the inmates of a religious house consist wholly of devotional exercises and domestic tasks. A brief account of a single day while give an idea of the routine of novitiate life at St. Joseph's.
At the first stroke of the bell, at four o'clock in the morning, every novice or seminary sister rises hastily from her bed, falls prostrate, and kisses the floor. At the same time one who has been appointed utters, in a loud, shrill voice that echoes through the dormitory, "In the name of God, my sisters, let us rise." As the words resound the response is made at once: "May the holy name of God be blessed!" Should a sister fail to rise at the first summons of the bell or omit saying the aspiration, she is reported and required to do penance for a great offense. One sister reports another and is commended for doing so. All dress rapidly and in perfect silence, and make their beds, then proceed down two pairs of stairs to the washroom where the ablutions are performed without a word spoken. Here some have to wait for others and often all this has to be done in the dark. While in the washroom a bell is heard in a distant part of the building; this is called the warning bell. After a few minutes another bell is rung near the door of the room. Should a sister leave the room after the ringing of this second bell she is marked and reported.
Each proceeds next
to a dimly lit room under the chapel and takes from a numbered drawer
her prayer book, which she keeps there perhaps with one or two other religious
books. The books which a sister may bring with her on entering the institution
are generally taken from her to replenish the library. A small volume,
the "Community Book" or "Formulary," is always kept
in the pocket; it contains the prayers used by the sisterhood.
When the bell is heard
again a prayer is said, then the Litany of the holy name of Jesus is repeated
in Latin, and several more prayers follow.
The first mass being over, the sisterhood proceed in rank, two by two, in perfect silence, to the novitiate and the community room. After entering the novitiate every sister kisses the floor. Those wearing the cornet, however, kneel and kiss their crucifix, bending nearly to the floor as their headdress, extending to a point that projects over the face, prevents touching the floor in this ceremony. Then the Ave maria are said three times and the Gloria Patria are said seven times.
Prayers over, the sisters fall on their knees, kiss the floor again, and proceed in rank to the refectory. Here all turn toward a crucifix that hangs upon the wall, kneel, and kiss the floor. Then each says the Benedicite, kissing the floor.
Seating themselves, they eat their morning meal in perfect silence. This meal consists of a morsel of bread, often without butter, and coffee and tea served in tin cups. Coffee is the beverage of the community and no one can take tea without obtaining permission to do so. No spoons are used. The tea and coffee are prepared in the kitchen and poured into each cup as the portion allotted.
Breakfast concluded, each kisses the floor again, repeats the Benedicite, and again kisses the floor, returns to the noviciate or community room, and taking her prayer book, places it in the drawer appropriated to her. Each then proceeds to her particular occupation - some to the dormitories, cells, kitchen, refectories, sacristy, cellars, clothes-room, washroom, and other parts of the building, and those who teach in the academy to their classes when the bell rings. Silence and "recollection" are required to be strictly observed.
In addition to the religious observances and duties, there are prayers and aspirations said at every hour of the day. Whenever the clock strikes an hour a sister rises, crosses herself, and says in a loud tone, "Live, Jesus," and bows her head. Every sister responds, "Forever in our hearts." Then the mistress of novices repeats the "mysteries," of which there is a different one for every hour of the twenty-four. These are the mysteries of our Lord's Passion. When this is said, the sister who is standing commences a long prayer, "O sacred heart of Jesus," etc., after which the mistress of novices makes an "aspiration" for the month, and the sisters respond. The sister then resumes her place. Every hour of the day or night the sisters thus "make the hour" as it is called, either orally or mentally, if they are awake.
The performance of floor kissing, in token of humility, takes place, I venture, at least twenty times in the course of the twenty-four hours. One might suppose that some peculiar and magical property resides even in the senseless boards of this institution.
Should a sister finish her work before the eleven o'clock bell, which rings for prayer, she goes to the novitiate and takes some work from a sister having charge of the plain sewing. But this seldom occurs. At the first sound of the bell each must leave her employment and come to the novitiate, kiss the floor, and take her place in rank to proceed to the chapel. Should a sister fail to be in time, she goes to the side of the mistress of novices, kisses the floor, and is assigned a penance for her offense. This penance consists of a number of prayers.
All being assembled
in chapel, each sister kisses the back of the seat before her. The bell
rings and at the sound of it the Superior or her assistant says the prayer.
Then the "examination of consciences" is gone through, all kneeling
with the hands clasped before the heart. This ended, the sister appointed
to read prayers does so. Before leaving the chapel the Superior or her
assistant raps loudly, when every sister kisses the back of the seat before
her, and takes her place in the rank. Then with beads in hand and eyes
cast down, saying another "ten" of the rosary, they go to the
Each sister has a napkin at the side of her plate, knife, fork, and spoon (which are of iron or pewter), and a tin cup. After the ceremony of turning to the crucifix, clasping the hands upon the breast, and saying the Benedicite, the meal is partaken in silence, while a chapter is read from the Lives of the Saints or from a book entitled Christian Perfection, and another from the Roman Martyrology. This reading is performed by one sister who takes her own dinner when all have withdrawn from the refectory. Another waits on the tables, and when all have finished, gives intimation of the fact to the Superior or her assistant by a bow. Then, at a loud rap on the table, all rise, clasp their hands as before, and again repeat the Benedicite. The rank is again formed and they proceed to the chapel, bowing as they pass the statue of St. Vincent, founder of the order, which stands in a corner of the corridor.
As soon as all are seated in the chapel the bell rings and each, as usual, kisses the back of the seat before her. Several prayers are now said in Latin, after which the sisters retire to the community room and novitiate.
Should any of these formalities be neglected, the mistress of novices advances to the sister and reprimands her severely.
The "class sisters," or those engaged in teaching in the academy, sometimes come in late, just after the ringing of the bell, being detained by their duties. In such cases the rules are more particularly enforced, and penance is enjoined; as also in cases of walking too fast, holding up the head, raising the eyelids, etc. This penance consists in kissing the floor, kneeling before the altar, saying prayers, etc.
In one instance I was late at the silence hour and came in with a handkerchief in my hand, as it was a very warm day. The mistress of novices called me to her, rebuked me sharply, and made me kiss the floor, saying that it looked too worldly to have a handkerchief in my hand instead of keeping it in my apron pocket! She threatened me with severe penance if found guilty of such an offense again.
In the community room during silence hour, the sisters have spiritual readings for about a quarter of an hour. The remainder of the time they spend in any kind of fancy work that they may select
After the three o'clock bell every sister goes at once to her usual duties, in silence and recollection as usual. The utterance of a single unnecessary word is reported, every part of the building having its spy for that purpose.
Before five o'clock
those who finish their task resort to the novitiate and take sewing from
the sister who has charge of the work. When the clock strikes five all
range themselves on one side of the room and one takes a chair apart from
the rest to "say beads." Then are repeated the Lord's Prayer,
the Creed, the Litany of the Virgin Mary, and at the close of the prayers
the bell rings for the evening meditation. The sisters proceed to the
chapel where half an hour is spent in meditation and prayer. After prayers
the bell rings and the sisters walk in order to the refectory for supper.
After this all retire to her duties. A number of the sisters go to the refectories where the tables are prepared for the morning meal. Should the work be finished before the bell for prayers, all go to the novitiate and community room. This is also called the hour of "recreation," when such of the sisters are allowed, as after dinner, to converse upon permitted topics. Each of the sisters is required to take her knitting; no one sits idle for a moment, even during the so-called "recreation." The meditation for the following morning is read by a sister, to occupy their wakeful moments during the night. At eight the silence bell is rung.
At the ringing of the second bell, at eight-thirty, the sisters form rank and proceed to the chapel where night prayers are said till about nine o'clock. These prayers are similar to those of the morning.
Before the close of prayers every light is extinguished in the chandelier which hangs from the center of the chapel. One only is left lit, and this one burns night and day before the tabernacle in the sanctuary. The sisters leave the chapel in the usual order and retire to their cells. From nine o'clock till breakfast is over on the following morning absolute silence is maintained. No sister is permitted to see another after she goes to her cell; it would be a breach of the rule for one sister to see the head of another uncovered.
If this narrative of a day at St. Joseph's should appear interminable to the reader at one perusal, I beg him to estimate the weariness of body and soul that must be endured by those suffering this infliction from day to day, week to week, with scarcely a variation in the monotony.
"Duties" of the sisters
The reader must take into consideration, besides these "spiritual" exercises, those manual and menial employments in which the community members are daily engaged, technically called their "duties." These consist chiefly of labors generally performed by servants in a private family but which, in so large an establishment, are far more numerous and burdensome.
The kitchen, laundry, infirmary, refectory, meat-house, clothes room, dormitories, scullery, etc. etc. each has its overseer appointed to perform the appropriate duties. Besides these there are teachers in the academy, "angels" as they are styled, who watch over the boarders and sleep in their dormitories. There is also a sister to wait on the Superior, and who is, in fact, her servant. There is one to keep the priest's room in order and another - a young and handsome sister always being selected - to carry his meals to him. All the work of the academy and institution is performed by members of the community and not a minute is lost, from four o'clock in the morning till nine at night.
For the first three
weeks I was employed in the refectory. At the end of three weeks I was
transferred to the academy, where I taught music and French, and worked
in the refectory at night. My occupations then were varied. Sometimes
I cooked and washed; at other times I was employed in the infirmary, waiting
on the sick and making their beds, administering their medicines and assisting
in cupping, blistering, and other hospital duties.
One night during that illness, hearing a strange noise in a neighboring passage, I arose and went to the door of the infirmary. It was dark. I walked on a few steps, when I fainted and fell to the floor. I don't know how long I remained unconscious. On my recovery it was some time before I could find the door. When I did, I ascertained that the lamp, which burns through the night, hanging from the center of the room, had gone out. I remained ill for many days, and much of the time unconscious of all that passed around me.
The observance of these duties and devotions calls for an endurance and suffering such as will speedily exhaust the strength and destroy the tone of the most sturdy constitution. What a mockery of religion, as well as of mere humanity, to summon these poor creatures so often for acts of worship, when their limbs are writhing with pain and their frames are worn out with excessive weariness. This is especially so when so many of these exercises are performed in postures more fatiguing than even the servile duties by which they have been preceded! How can the mind and heart be profitably engaged in circumstances such as these?