TEXTS FROM ENGLISH RELIGIOUS HISTORY
Nun Who Escaped: A True Story
Consumption at St. Joseph's
It is scarcely a matter for surprise that, with so much labor and so little rest, the most robust health should be shattered. Still less wonder that young girls of weak and delicate frames speedily prove martyrs to a system so exacting. Often I was awakened in the depth of night by shrieks and screams that made my blood run cold. Often I heard groans and exclamations of distress and then the warbling of some poor, heartbroken sister who, perhaps in dreams, revisited her childhood home but for whom the interests of real life were buried in darkness forever. Again often the silence was disturbed by the slow and measured footfall of a priest, summoned, perhaps, to administer the holy viaticum to some dying sister in the infirmary.
One night I was unusually alarmed by a loud and prolonged shriek, proceeding from a neighboring part of the dormitory, and a heavy fall as of a body striking the ground. Immediately afterwards I heard a person running past my cell. The sounds frightened me so I was unable to close my eyes the remainder of the night. The following evening, during "recreation," a young sister seated next to me asked if she could speak without being reported. I looked at her with surprise. Seeing that she was pale and agitated I told her, although against the rules, that she might speak without reserve, promising that I would not divulge it but would serve her if I could. She then asked if I heard a strange noise and loud shriek the night before. On my assent she said that about midnight she was awakened by a heavy step around the bed and was so frightened that she could scarcely breathe. As soon as the sound ceased, she felt something heavy at the foot of her bed. When she uttered a scream the person, or fiend for she knew not which, rolled heavily to the floor and uttering a wild, demoniacal yell, fled rapidly down the cloister. These occurrences so terrified her that she dreaded retiring to her cell and was in constant agitation and fear.
The very next night I heard a shriek, louder if possible, than the previous one. The following day I learned from a young sister that someone, at midnight, walked round her bed several times, after which she felt a pair of hands seize her by the throat, whereupon she uttered the scream I had heard.
But more distressing than these frightful sounds was one far more common: the painful coughing of the consumptive, from which more than one cell would be heard, announcing the presence of the fearful disease, elsewhere so dreaded, but here invited. I was told, and it was generally taught, that consumption is part of the vocation. Sometimes I found it out of the question to obtain an hour's rest because of this continual coughing of some poor sister.
One evening, while ascending the steps to my cell, I noticed a sister leaning against the wall as if for support, and breathing heavily. I imagined her unable to reach her cell, but could not speak since it was silence hour. Unwilling to pass her, I offered my arm, which she accepted, and I assisted her to her cell. The following day she was sent to the infirmary, and died soon after.
Numbers die at the
institution every year. I know of fourteen who died during the ten months
of my stay in the community, and I saw at least twenty recent graves before
I left. They are buried in regular rows. The large infirmary connected
with the house is filled with the sick and the dying.
One evening, having been sent to the infirmary to watch by the bedside of a sister who was very ill, I noticed nearby a young sister apparently dying of consumption. She was beautiful. Her large, dark eyes shone with unearthly brilliance. Her face was very pale, except for one bright spot on each cheek, which spoke plainly of her approaching doom. Once or twice I noticed that she sighed heavily. Watching her more closely, I discovered tears trickling down her cheeks. My sympathy was roused.
Crossing to her bedside I inquired how long she had been in the infirmary and whether she was improving. She had been there, she said, all winter and was no better. Raising her hand, which was covered with a handkerchief, she told me she was in great suffering. I saw that the hand had been opened, as by a surgical operation. She did not know why it had been done, and felt sure that she would lose it. A few days later she was sent away from the institution, nor did I learn for some months where she was. Although my heart ached for that lovely and suffering sister, and my curiosity was aroused to the utmost, yet I dared not prolong the interview for fear of the infirmarian.
A short time after
my admission to the sisterhood I entered the novitiate one morning earlier
than usual and saw a sister at a table with her head on her hands, violently
weeping. No one was present, so I went up to her and kneeling at her side,
asked affectionately why she wept so bitterly. She answered that the cause
of her sorrow could not be revealed. She would like to speak to me without
reserve but could not. She added, "Sister, I was a boarder for many
years here, and received my education from the sisterhood, but I did not
dream of what a religious life is. I cannot tell you how I have been deceived.
I do not care to live." Hearing steps in the corridor we separated
for fear of being seen. At her request I left by a side door.
On arriving at St. Joseph's she spent much time in the company of those who, no doubt, had persuaded her to embrace this resolution. It was announced to her father for the first time on the eve of his departure. He became greatly displeased and demanded that she should be called to speak with him. He was told he could not see her, as she had gone over to the house occupied by the sisterhood.
A few weeks elapsed. Her health began to fail and soon after becoming a novice she was so unwell that she was frequently sent to the infirmary. Often, when coming with her from our duties in the academy, I saw her cling to the railing of the porches for support, while tears streamed from her eyes.
I was unable at first to draw from her the cause of her distress. But one evening I urged her to confide in me, and she took from her pocket a tiny stocking. She said with much emotion, "This is the only relic I have of my little baby brother." She had brought him with her to the institution, as she could not bear the thought of parting with him at home. "It was a bitter trial, sister," she continued, "when my mother died a year before I entered the community. But it is harder yet for me to give up all hopes of ever seeing my little brother again."
A few days after this conversation I missed her and learned she had been sent to the infirmary. I asked, and to my surprise received, permission to visit her for a short interview. I found her in bed, supported by pillows, her face flushed with fever, and evidently in deep distress. I took her hand, thin almost to transparency, and asked if she were better. "No, my dear sister," she replied. "I am worse. I am dying." She inquired whether I too were sick and had come for medicine. "Do not take a cold, sister, for it is always fatal here."
I could only stay
a short time. When I left I promised to seek an opportunity to visit her
again soon. A week or two passed. I made many inquiries of her health,
but learned nothing. When I was again allowed to see her I was alarmed
at the change. She was a shadow of her former self and could scarcely
speak above a whisper. Since her first illness she had refused to take
any nourishment or anything that was thought calculated to afford relief.
She would wipe the blood from her lips and, smiling, sadly say to me,
"I shall soon be gone, and my poor father will not know of my death."
She was ill two months, during which time she did not rise from her bed. The evening of her death she had several convulsions. After recovering she asked where she had been. She said to one of the officers at her bedside that she had seen her mother who had come for her, and she could not stay any longer. The officer, supposing she alluded to the Mother Superior, was about to send for her. "No," exclaimed my poor sister. "I mean my own dear mother." The words scarcely passed her lips when she expired, without receiving the last sacrament or making her vows.
She was laid out in her novice's dress. Her beads and crucifix were laid upon her breast. As usual a sister watched by the corpse until morning, when mass was said for the repose of her soul. She was placed in a plain, dark wooden coffin, and this unfortunate girl was beautiful in death. A white rose had been laid on her bosom by some member of the community. Perhaps it was by the sister who murmured, gazing upon the fair remains, "She came to us a bud; now she has gone, a rose in perfect bloom." This remark showed that she, at least, was not utterly devoid of feeling.
During her illness her sisters, who were in the academy, were permitted to see her only once, a few moments before her death, when she asked to see them. They were not permitted to even write to their father of her illness. He knew nothing of it until subsequent to her decease. Soon after this he sent for his two daughters to be removed from the academy.
First indications of disfavor
I had been in the community about two months when a letter from my family was received by the Superior. It was handed or sent by her to the mistress of novices for perusal in the novitiate. When the mistress of novices finished reading it, she called for me. I instantly obeyed, fell on my knees before her, and kissed the floor. She then told me that she had a letter from my family, and would not give it to me, but would read a few sentences of it aloud. She did so, and I was unable to control my emotion, or to restrain the tears. Seeing me so agitated she became very angry - for it is esteemed a step toward perfection to suppress all demonstration of feeling - and seizing me by the shoulders while I was kneeling before her, she threw me violently backward. My head struck the floor. I became insensible and was taken, I learned afterwards, to the infirmary where I was reported by the mistress of novices as detained by "ill health."
After leaving the infirmary I was looked on with an inquiring glance by many, who would have asked me about my health but neither they nor I dared to utter a word on the subject. It is positively forbidden to say anything relative to one's feelings or to make inquiries about anyone who has been sent to the infirmary. Should anything occur there, it is not to be spoken of in the novitiate or community room. Nor is anything that happens in those rooms to be repeated.
It was not long before other occurrences made me aware that I had incurred the displeasure of my superiors. Unintentional errors, such as in others were overlooked, were surely visited upon me. Every word I uttered was reported. One evening, exhausted by the labors I had undergone during the day, I was carrying a tub of water from the kitchen to the refectory and remarked to a sister, "How very hard we have to work!" This was reported to the Superior, of course. At breakfast the next morning I was sent for to come to her room. I found her much displeased. She threatened me with condign punishment if I spoke another word of complaint about the labor. She said that if I should ever complain, I would get myself into trouble. I left her room determined to be silent in future. At this period I did not know the rules, having not yet made my retreat. I was often rebuked and more than once threatened with arraignment before the "council."
One night, having been sent to the infirmary on account of an indisposition during the day, I asked the "infirmarian" that I might retire before night prayers, being unfit for the fatigue of kneeling during such a length of time. She answered, "No; you came hither to suffer and do penance," and said I might return to the infirmary after prayers. I did so, but was told I must rise from my bed at four o'clock in the morning and attend morning prayers and the first mass. This infirmarian was, however, soon succeeded by a new one, to the young novice's great satisfaction as she did not enforce the rules with the same strictness as her predecessor.
The Lady Superior, even in her rebukes, would usually close by some mild and persuasive remark which went far to alleviate my wounded pride and lacerated feelings. I had no reason to believe she had any hostile feelings towards me except on account of my evident and still strong attachment to my family.
The treatment I received,
however, produced a great change in my outward conduct. Fear, a sense
of duty, and the cherished hope of obtaining permission to depart, all
combined to induce me, at least apparently, to submit with perfect patience
and resignation to the will and wishes of my superiors.
Having made my retreat as a postulant, I learned for the first time the nature of the sacrifice demanded of me. I saw that the chief requirement was an abject submission to the will and commands of the superiors in every respect, their dictates regarded as the voice of God himself. Every affection of the heart must be stifled, every earthly tie broken, and an eternal farewell to home, friends and country.
I became terrified at this prospect. I determined to write home and declare that my resolution was altered and that I no longer desired to follow the life of a Sister of Charity.
It did not occur to me for a moment that any obstacle would be interposed to prevent my withdrawal from the community. I had been told that this was not a "close" convent, and even from such it is publically declared that a novice is at liberty to depart at any time before assuming the black veil. I was still attached to the Roman Catholic faith, but found it impossible to reconcile myself to the idea of subjecting my will and affections to the slavery enforced by the vows of the society. I was now convinced that my "vocation" was a figment of the imagination and that my spiritual welfare would not be promoted by a forced obedience to rules abhorrent to my nature.
Thus, a few days before the time appointed for my reception into the sisterhood, I wrote to my father announcing my intention to withdraw from the institution and return home. This letter, as is customary, was read by the mistress of novices and afterwards submitted to the Mother Superior. I was soon summoned to her presence where, on my knees, I was asked, sternly, why I had perpetrated such a piece of folly. I told her, in brief and respectful terms, of the changes in my views, and of my desire to return home.
She offered no sympathizing reply, nor even a mild dissuasion. Instead, to my astonishment, the Mother Superior tore the letter to pieces and threw the fragments into a nearby stove. She answered me harshly, saying that having renounced my will in this matter I must persevere to the end for the good of my soul, and God would bless my determination. No remonstrance on my part was heeded. I was compelled to write another letter, at her dictation, declaring my happiness in my present condition and my entire contentment with it and adding that I would accordingly remain and make my vows at the institution.
I was completely cowed. I obeyed in fear and trembling, certain that even if I should resist I should be finally constrained by punishment to obey. What more painful and revolting to the feelings of a daughter than thus to be compelled to write a lie to her parent, when her heart is torn with anguish, and when the first symptoms of despair, like a gathering cloud, shut out those bright anticipations she had been forming of a speedy reunion with the family. I retired from the interview with sensations no language can express, and such as I trust never to experience again. That night was spent in silent tears and bitter thoughts.
After this rebuff a settled feeling of despondency took possession of my mind, though I was constrained, through fear of punishment, to avoid betraying my sentiments. My highly wrought expectations had vanished. My prospects of happiness were scattered to the winds. If I have suffered - and God only knows how poignantly - from the injustice and malevolence of my oppressors, still am I deeply grateful that these sorrows should have been the means of awakening me to my error, and of disclosing the truth in its purity to my perception.
This did not, however, take place at once. Though a thick cloud spread over my spirit, there came as yet no thought of rebellion against the control of my superiors. I resolved to perform the duties allotted me, and submit patiently to the consequences of my own rashness until, as I vainly hoped, I should be permitted to depart in peace. I did not then cherish the remotest hope of escape. It was not until circumstances occurred, the recollection of which even now causes an involuntary shudder, that I was rendered desperate, and only then determined to brave every consequence, even death itself, sooner than remain incarcerated in a prison such as this.
Grades in the sisterhood
The grades in the
sisterhood are those of Postulant, Novice or Seminary Sister, and Professed
The rules and regulations are not fully made known until the retreat. The purpose of the retreat is to acquaint the postulant with the nature of the three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. The obligation is expressed somewhat as follows: "You do now bind yourself to keep forever these vows," etc. No response is required. This retreat lasts from five to eight days. At its close the "habit" is received and the postulant becomes a novice, or seminary sister. She continues in this grade for five years, before she "takes the vows." She then becomes a professed sister.
The habit, worn by
the professed sisters, is given to the novice whenever the Superior wishes
to grant it. I had been measured for mine shortly before my escape, probably
because of my employment in the academy, and my subordinate charge of
the novices at "adoration" and in the refectory.
The three to five years constitute, doubtless, a sort of probation to ascertain whether the sister is qualified by natural capacities or education for the duties of a "Sister of Charity," or whether she is sufficiently reliable to be entrusted with the secrets of this higher grade before she can be sent into the world on a mission.
Such a probation is not required, however, of sisters who are unattractive or ignorant. These are often sent out at an earlier period to fill subordinate places, as servants in mission houses, and for other stations.
I am aware that after the first five years the sisters are required to renew their vows yearly, on a certain fixed day, and in words they do make the vows from year to year, but in heart they bind themselves forever. The rule declares that they cannot leave the institution during this interval of renewal, nor during the course of the year. And the vows must be thus renewed yearly, on the day set apart for this purpose.
Before entering St. Joseph's I was told that I could leave at any moment, at my pleasure. I was assured that, not only before the expiration of the five years of novitiate, but even after that period, I should only be bound to remain for a year at a time, being free to renew my vows at the end of each period or not, as I might choose. I found this to be all fraud and deception.
Costume of the sisters
The dress of the novice consists of a black gown, a dark blue apron, with a bodice covering part of a small white shawl, falling gracefully over the head and not concealing the form. She wears a close-fitting, white muslin cap on her head. It covers the ears and conceals the hair, which has been cut short.
The habit worn by the older sisters consists of a gray cloth gown, an apron of the same material, loose hanging sleeves, and beneath it a white linen sleeve that fastens around the wrist. Over this a close worsted sleeve is drawn in winter. Around the neck is worn a broad linen collar, falling nearly to the waist in front, where the ends overlap each other slightly. The head is shaved close and is covered with a closely fitting cap. Over this the "cornet" is worn, a formed bonnet which projects out about six inches. The sides, or "wings" of this droop to the shoulders but do not touch them. The sisters often say, "These are the wings that will carry us to heaven."
Large heavy beads with a crucifix attached are worn at the left side. Chaplet, or rosary beads are worn on the right. Some sisters also possess a small crucifix said to be made of the wood of the tree under which st. Vincent was in the habit of sitting.
The shoes are of the coarsest kind, and are one of the petty annoyances practiced on younger sisters, no doubt for their spiritual advantage. Shortly after my entrance as a postulant, Sister J.P- met me in the corridor. She looked down at my gaiter boots and said, "You must not wear such shoes as those; come with me." I followed her to a room used for bathing and also as a shoe depository. Seating me on a bench she said, "Put your foot here," and looked for a long time for a pair of shoes to fit me. They were all too large. When I expressed my dissatisfaction she said, "It's no matter. You don't want your feet to look small. You are not in the world' now." Saying this, she took the smallest pair she could find and put them on my feet. Like all the rest, these shoes were made of leather with a strap on each side of the instep and tied with a leather string. The soles were about half an inch thick. Once a week we black our own shoes in this room.
A few days later this same sister met me limping and asked me what was the matter. I told her my feet were chafed by the way the shoes slipped up and down when I walked, and by the binding cord around the top. She then went with me into the refectory and cut the binding, which somewhat relieved me. It was a long time before I could accustom myself to the use of these shoes.
A few weeks before I left I had a new pair given me, since I had worn the other pair through on one side. That pair was then given, in my presence, to a postulant. Whether they were mended or not afterwards, I don't know. The Lady Superior wears morocco buskins.
The vow of poverty
The first vow taken in the institution is the vow of poverty. A sister breaks the vow of poverty should she see upon the floor a pin or a needle, a piece of thread or cotton, or any other trifle, and fail to take care of it. Economy is carried even to parsimoniousness for the advancement of the order. Under this vow a sister cannot wish for any object, even though it be a new habit. Even if the one she wears has been worn threadbare or is torn or patched, she must wait and be content until another is given to her.
When speaking of the habit, shoes, or any other article of apparel, a sister must not say "my habit, my shoes, my pencil." She is not permitted to consider herself the owner of anything, not even of her own person. The mistress of novices once told me that my body was not my own, but belonged to the community.
Some of the sisters have constant hemorrhages from the lungs. They are required to carry a small square bottle, kept corked, and wrapped in a pocket handkerchief. This is used by all who raise blood even occasionally. The reason is this: Should they use their handkerchiefs to wipe the blood from their mouths, it would be an infraction of the vow of poverty, as it would tend to wear the handkerchiefs out, and cause a waste of soap and a loss of time in washing them.
It is not allowable to desire to eat anything but the most common food, and that only when given. A sister breaks the vow of poverty when she gets hungry and desires to eat between meals. At the table she must eat what is set before her or go without eating, and she is taught to take food only with a view to strengthen the body for the performance of duties, and to take no pleasure in it.
It is a mortal sin for a sister to use perfume, and the use of looking-glass is entirely prohibited. Not even the boarders are permitted to use them. They would sometimes keep a small piece concealed, and I have known some of them to bury their perfume-bottles in the playground because it was a forbidden article. To touch or notice any person, even a boarder, in the way of a pleasing attention or for any other purpose than the performances of the "duties" assigned, is a mortal sin.
As a young novice,
looking so sanctimonious, so sad and dejected, I was often regarded by
the mischievous girls of the academy with doubt and incredulity as to
my fitness for the life of the convent. Frequently they would say to me,
"Sister, what did you come here for? Sister, you ought to be in the
world; you cannot be happy here. You will certainly die if you stay here.
I believe you are dying with the consumption. You look like a saint, sister,
but you are too young to be here. This is not the place for you."
Though such well-meant remarks might be made, it was never safe for me
to communicate with them or to corroborate their surmises, lest it should
reach the ear of the Superior.
To stop in the corridor for the purpose of looking at or smelling a flower, this would be a loss of time and amount to a breach of the vow of poverty. Not an instant must be wasted in any sort of pleasurable occupation. Secular music is never allowed in the community. It is work or worship - "duties" of some kind or other, and that continually.
Even during sickness
a sister is not permitted to have or desire any article, such as ice,
that might be grateful to the taste and add to her comfort while the fever
is upon her. I will relate a single instance, that of the sick sister
in the infirmary whose appearance had so struck me, and who was subsequently
sent away from the institution. I now saw her again. She had been to Baltimore
for the amputation of her arm, and while absent, prayers were said that
she might survive the occupation. She now returned, the arm taken off
below the elbow. I saw her in the infirmary when I was also ill and after
my recovery was put there on duty. Among others I attended her, dressing
her arm, changing her clothes, and administering her medicine.
In assisting one day to change her clothes, I was surprised to observe a large swelling on her right side. I asked her the cause. She told me that when she had been in the institution about eight months, she was sent from the refectory one evening for some plates. She was bringing an armful from the kitchen, crossing the porch, which was covered at that time with ice and snow, when she stumbled and fell. Her side struck a tub which was in the way, and this caused the swelling. She was sent to the infirmary, but nothing was done for her side. No application was made to it. Her health had been bad ever since. I touched the lump, and it appeared like a projecting portion of bone.
I continued to attend her for some weeks. She died about a fortnight after I left the infirmary. She was not allowed a light at night, though she pleaded for it more than once. She asked for ice to put in the water she drank, and was refused. I made the same request for her, without success. She wished some little delicacies, such as a lemon and an apple, but they were denied her. No sick person is permitted to ask for anything. I never dared to when I was ill. The very things desired were generally the last to be granted.
This sister had a cough and was, I suppose, in the consumption. Her arm was never entirely healed. She was a native of Switzerland, and spoke broken English. She told me she had come to this country with her sister and her sister's husband from France. They placed her at St. Joseph's and left her there. She had never seen or heard from them since. I inferred at that time that she had probably been wealthy, or had been brought there for some wrong motive, instead of being left at the Mother House in Paris. She often expressed the wish that she had been so left, instead of being brought to this country. Some mystery was connected to her case. I frequently saw her weeping. She would refuse medicine and say she did not wish to live. I helped to lay her body in the coffin; I watched by it and assisted in carrying it to the chapel. Under the weight of the burden I was almost bent to the ground and thought I would faint with the effort.
This sister's name was Neomesia. Her age, I should judge, was about twenty to twenty-three years.
Vows of chastity
Sometimes I would venture to answer the voice of some gentle girl who would speak to me in passing and whose sunny smile would cheer my sad and lonely heart. However, I was forced to recoil from the clasp of her hand as from a serpent's touch. I was narrowly watched and frequently reported as guilty of "impropriety." I received many reprimands for speaking on such occasions, or for suffering my hand to be taken, or my waist encircled by the arm of a pupil. This offense would be reported by the spies of the community, ever on the alert. Indeed the rule requires that any such transgression be avowed in confession and penance solicited in expiation.
It must be borne in mind, however, that should the Superior at any time command the contrary, the sister must OBEY. Should a priest, and particularly a priest of the Order of St. Lazare take her hand, regardless of his intentions, she may not withdraw it. The vow of obedience here has supremacy over the vow of chastity.
When reading the books of the "Conferences," which are occasionally read to the community, translated from the French, I have frequently blushed at what I was reading. In one of these books the sisters are told not to fall in love with a priest; should they do it, however, they must tell him and obtain his advice. Should a sister on a mission chance to entertain such feelings toward a priest, she is instructed at once to inform the Superior and ask for a change of place. Sometimes the request is granted.
Here I solicit the earnest and candid attention of the reader. The priest thus informed, in this case, can either take advantage of this confession or not, as he may feel inclined. Sometimes policy will induce him to express a holy horror at the offense, with a view to the exalting of his own superior sanctity, especially if he entertains an aversion for the penitent or deems her an unsuitable subject for his purposes. On the other hand, should his own heart suggest to him the moral destruction of his sister, how great the advantage he possesses for its accomplishment, in view of this doctrine of passive and meritorious obedience.
Morals at St. Joseph's
As the result of these doctrines, a lamentable state of things, I grieve to say, existed among a portion of the community at St. Joseph's. It was some time before I understood and appreciated the symptoms of the evil that raged around me. When at length the light dawned upon my mind it was accompanied by a shock as of electricity, that paralyzed me for the moment. I almost doubted the evidence of my senses. With the reaction came the strong resolution to leave at all hazards the precincts of such an establishment, a resolution only hastened in its accomplishment by subsequent events.
Let me add that I have no intention to include the whole sisterhood in one sweeping charge of immorality. Far from it. Many are unquestionably pure in their feelings and sincere in their desires to serve God. Many would be glad to be freed from their bonds and, like a liberated bird, sing rejoicingly at their release. Others are infatuated with their lot.
The father's power over the rite of confession affords them great facilities to accomplish their purposes. Seated at the confessional, the priest is empowered, by virtue of his position, to propound queries which, from the lips of others, would be deemed flagrant insults. Kneeling there, the young maiden answers questions calculated to eradicate every feeling of modesty, while the confessor occupies the place of the Almighty in reference to her spiritual wants and requirements, and must be regarded as such if she wishes to avoid purgatorial fires and secure future felicity. Is it then any wonder that those brought up in this way might yield themselves entirely to his control and even see no danger in their submissiveness?
If "in the world" the confessional may be such a source of perilous and demoralizing influence to the youthful mind, so much more so in a religious community whose members are secluded from public observation, given over, body and soul, to the charge of priests. Shut up and deprived of communication, even by letter, with parents, relations and friends, the inmates of these institutions submit implicitly to the guidance of their confessor and regard his injunctions and admonitions as "oracles divine."
During a retreat which happened while I was in the institution I was, of course, obliged to resort with the rest to confession. I went into a little chapel on one side of the sanctuary, entered the confessional and knelt down before the lattice-work. The priest drew the curtain that covered it on the opposite side, then walking to the window raised the curtain so that the light shone directly in my face. Seating himself at the confessional with his head resting on his hand and close to the bars, he said, "Sister, draw aside your veil that I may see whether your countenance betokens sorrow for your sins." I complied, reluctantly, and commenced the Confiteor - "I confess," etc.
When I had repeated
this, he asked me how old I was, how long I had been in the institution,
why I entered it, if I was in love with anyone when I entered, if I loved
anyone then, and whether it was a person in the world or one consecrated
to God. Of course I was unprepared for questions of this nature. Instead
of answering them, I said, "Father, I am ready for confession."
He then remarked, "When I entered the community I thought I had done
much for God, but now I find that I have done nothing." He proceeded
to counsel me to imitate the example of St. Theresa. "You must persevere,"
he added, "in the service of God. It is a blessed thing for a young
person early to devote herself to the service of god and enter such an
institution." He bade me open my heart to him and tell him every
thought and feeling. I should state that this priest was about twenty-three
or four years of age.
I saw this priest only once again as he was passing through the institution. One evening, shortly after this incident, I met a "vowed sister" walking in the corridor. She inquired of me, "Have you been to confession? And to whom?" I told her. She asked, "Did he put many questions to you?" I replied that he did. The next day I observed that she went to confession to this priest, and no doubt she was pleased, for she remained in the confessional three hours. Probably she wished to go to a person who would address to her such questions as she would take satisfaction in answering. This sister was a French person, and one whom I had often noticed in the corridor conversing with the priests. She also frequented their apartment. I have many times seen her and others walking in the passage on the ground floor as the priests passed to and from their room. Repeatedly I have observed the vowed sisters with the priests, walking up and down this passage, talking and laughing with them, and retiring with them to their room. Sometimes, when the door chanced to open, I have seen one of them in a kneeling posture before the priest, and talking to him.
Sometimes one or two priests and several sisters take supper together in the community room. I have overheard them talking and laughing in a very loud tone. On one occasion I was asked by a professed sister to visit with her the house for the Lazarists in Emmettsburg, but I was not permitted to go near that place.
In the books of the "Conferences," mentioned above, the founder directs that a priest shall not be permitted to enter the apartments of the community unless accompanied by a sister. In fact, however, the priests often enter the sisters' rooms and remain there for a considerable time. Nor is anyone permitted to open the door (for the rooms of the vowed sisters have doors) or enter the room during their stay.
Sisters are also advised in the "Conferences," not to attend persons of their own sex when solicited to do so in certain cases of sickness while on their missions "in the world," lest they might have bad thoughts.
When I first visited the institution, before entering the community, I had in my possession a letter which I had been told to deliver at once upon my arrival into the hands of the priest. Accordingly, it being about nine o'clock in the evening, I asked to see him. The sister who was present, raising her hands and eyes to heaven in holy horror, exclaimed, "A priest does not remain here at this hour of night - never!"
After my entrance into the community, as I was walking in the corridor one day, I saw a room adjoining the priest's room, through a window which looked out upon the corridor. In that room I saw a bed. And I know that a priest once slept there, for I heard it said that it was too cold for him to come so early in the morning to say first mass. I have also heard priests walking through the institution at night. I am convinced, from these and other considerations, that priests do sleep there.
One day, while on duty in the room of a professed sister, I heard groans proceeding from an apartment nearly opposite, and noticed the infirmarian passing up and down before the room. I was then commanded to close the door opening into the passage, in order to prevent the sound from reaching a neighboring corridor which led to the building occupied by the community. Having done so, I returned to the duty in which I was engaged.
After a few minutes I was called by the infirmarian to the medicine-room. She said to me, "Be quick, and pour out ten drops from that vial," pointing to one in the medicine-case. In my agitation and alarm, instead of measuring the liquid in drops I poured it out with a trembling hand. I don't know how much I poured: perhaps a teaspoonful. With this I was sent to the sister's room and administered it as directed.
The sister was propped up with pillows, extending from the shoulders downward. She was deadly pale, with dark circles around the eyes, as I have seen persons appear after convulsions. Her feet were resting against the foot of the bed, as if for support. The infirmarian soon followed me into the room, and I saw no other person there. I retired at once, and resumed my duty with the sick sister in the opposite room. A short time after, I heard a priest's voice in the apartment in question, but did not hear the conversation. The groans increased until they became shrieks, at intervals of about ten minutes, and then more frequent, until almost continuous, when they ceased altogether.
This happened in the course of an afternoon, including a period of about four hours. I left the sister's room opposite about three hours and a half subsequent to my hearing the first groan. I could plainly hear the shrieks from the infirmary below.
I had only seen this sister two or three times before, and this was in the month previous to the occurrence, when I had accidentally noticed her in the same room as I passed the door. On those occasions she was sitting in a rocking chair, dressed in a loose wrapper. Afterwards I saw her occasionally, at first in bed, and later in a chair. Shortly afterwards my duties in the infirmary ceased, having continued only some seven weeks, and I saw no more of her. This took place about three months before I left the institution. After the incident I visited the infirmary only occasionally, when sent on transient duties.
Shrinking as I do most painfully from the statement of anything that seems to throw a shade upon the perfect sanctity of those retreats, where I myself long imagined the very embodiment of excellence to dwell, the task I have conscientiously undertaken compels me to withhold nothing that shall acquaint my countrymen with the reality of those dangers to which their daughters may be exposed within these guarded precincts. It has been my duty to declare, for their warning and determent, some part at least of that which I have seen and heard as a personal witness. Yet I cannot bring myself to recount in detail the instances of undue familiarity which have fallen under my own notice and the evidences of it that have forced themselves upon my own conviction. I hasten to close what it has been necessary to say on this subject.
My recollection of my novitiate at St. Joseph's will ever be associated with a feeling of contempt and abhorrence for these men who use their advantage of rank and position to the basest ends, and with deep thankfulness for my own escape from their insidious snares. It was a contemplation of the peril to which I was exposed that first suggested the idea of escape, at any risk, from the institution. I could have borne toil, privation, and bodily maltreatment as the consequence of my own rashness and ill-advised impetuosity, but the future wore too dark and terrible an aspect, that I should resign myself with quietness to its horrors. Although the acts of individual members of the community, the secret mysteries of the confessional, and other circumstances besides, were ample evidence to my own judgment of the alarming position I occupied, yet it may be contended by those interested in concealing the truth that my mental vision was distorted. Thus I feel most reluctantly compelled to state an incident concerning which there can be no misconception.
A priest who had been engaged in exercising his pastoral functions at St. Joseph's was about to leave. As is customary, the sisters were directed to enter the room where he was stationed and ask a blessing at his hand prior to his departure. When my turn came I went in, with downcast eyes and clasped hands, as required, and knelt to receive the expected benediction. But instead of the pressure of his hand on my head, I felt the impression of a kiss upon my forehead. Startled and confused by a salutation so unexpected and inappropriate, I staggered to my feet and exclaimed, almost unconsciously, "Oh! Father!" But before I could recover my composure, he seized my wrist with his left hand, encircled my waist with his right arm, and drew me toward him, imprinting several kisses on my face before I was able to break from his revolting embrace. Yet I was compelled, from prudential fears of the consequences, to be silent respecting this insulting treatment. What could I do? To whom should I apply for redress? If I had complained to the mistress of novices or to the Mother Superior the outrage to which I had been subjected, I should have been denounced as a base calumniator of the "holy father," and punished for the offense. There was nothing but to wait in silence for some means of redress.
"I must quit this place!" These words were now continually in my mind. But how? I could not communicate with my family through the authorities of the institution. This privilege had been denied me before, and I had suffered for expressing desire to do so. I feared a second attempt would lead to a stricter surveillance over me. I could not procure the transmission of a letter by means of the boarders, even had I been able to write one without detection. All the letters they send home are examined and read. Others had attempted this, but the plans were discovered and the offending sister punished. A secret escape was the sole alternative. This I resolved to accomplish, if possible. I was fully aware of the difficulties in the way and the fearful issue of a failure, but this thought only nerved me for the trial and led me to use all secrecy and caution I could. Having formed my determination, my first endeavor was to banish all traces of nervousness and anxiety from my features and compose them into an expression of calmness and resignation. Thus no mistrust of my intention might be entertained. This effected, I patiently awaited a favorable opportunity to execute my design.
Shortly after the annual retreat, a letter arrived for the Mother Superior from a young lady whose parents reside in Virginia. As she had been a particular acquaintance of mine, I was summoned to the Superior and the letter was handed to me. It had already been opened and read, doubtless, by the Superior. The contents were addressed to me, asking how I liked the life of the sisterhood, if I was happy, what were the duties, whether I thought the writer competent to perform them, and expressing a desire to enter a religious house. The Superior questioned me respecting this young lady. She asked me if her father and mother were living, how many children they had, if they were wealthy, if she was accomplished and pretty, etc. These questions answered to her satisfaction, she directed me to sit down and write in reply, "Come and see." "Tell her," she added, "that I invite her to visit the institution. Say that you are happy and contented." In short, she dictated a letter which I wrote and handed her on the spot.
Three or four weeks elapsed. I was again sent for. In the Superior's room I observed there was a lady present. Not being allowed to raise my eyes, I could not distinguish her particularly. The Superior said to me as I advanced, "Sister, do you know this young lady?" I raised my eyes and behold it was my friend. Very coldly and calmly I replied, "Yes, mother." Upon this my friend sprang toward me with outstretched arms. I drew back, my hands clasped upon my breast, according to the rules. The Superior watched me closely, so I did not allow my friend to touch me but looked at her calmly as if it were no surprise or delight to behold her again. In all this concealment and repression of feeling we were trained. They perform their part best who exhibit least emotion. They are highly commended, while those unable to govern the natural outbursts of affection are required to do penance.
My friend, evidently grieved and wounded at this cold reception, after a short pause, asked me how I liked the religious life, and whether I was happy. The Superior, too, put similar questions, to which I dared make no reply except to say I was delighted with this mode of life, and that the duties were easy and such as she could readily perform. The Superior then told me to leave and I retired to my duties.
The next day at recreation hour I was permitted to go see my friend, accompanied by an elder sister. I then learned the state of her mind. She was in raptures with the place. After some conversation with her the Superior sent for me to report these expressions of her feelings. I saw her again after supper and we had another conversation in company with an elder sister. As I had been instructed, I endeavored to increase her interest in the institution.
She went into a religious retreat the next day. Two days later, while on my way with the community to chapel, the Lady Superior sent for me. Alarmed, I hurried to her room. I was ordered to have the dinner of the young lady taken to her apartment. I was told to give directions for a "nice dinner," as for some reason, which I did not learn, the young lady had not dined. I waited on her at table and though she pressed me to partake, I did not dare since it is against the rules to eat with a person of "the world." There was, also, an officer sitting in the adjoining apartment with the door partly open. This door had a glass sash and the officer was undoubtedly put there for the purpose of watching me. The dinner was not such as we ordinarily partake of, but of a tempting character, such as we never saw.
Dinner over, I reported to the Superior what had been said at table. Among other remarks, my friend said she "had come prepared to enter the community," which seemed greatly to gratify the Superior. She said that "the only tie that now bound her to the world was her affection for her parents, and particularly for her father, but this difficulty she intended to settle by ascertaining from the priest her true vocation." The news greatly pleased the Lady Superior. It was arranged that my friend should visit the priest - the Father Superior - that same afternoon. I was appointed to accompany her to the presence of the father, who was duly informed of this conversation. When she made her appearance in his room, he seemed delighted to see her. Her took her hand as I passed, and said, pointing to me, "You see, we never shake hands with a sister."
I stayed in the room a few minutes until, at a signal from the priest, I left, first obtaining his blessing. I went to the novitiate and there watched the door leading to the priest's room to see my friend come out. I did so, not by order of the Superior, but from my own anxiety to know whether, after this interview she would still remain determined to enter the house. I had only a faint hope that she might not be prevailed upon to do so. From that interview, however, she went directly to her room.
On the next evening I was again called to the Lady Superior's room. My friend was there, clothed in a black dress, with the officers of the institution standing around her. The Superior commanded me to lead her to the novitiate and introduce her to the mistress of novices, whom she had not yet seen. It is usually the duty of an officer to take a postulant into the novitiate, but an exception was made in this instance. My friend was much agitated. I left her with the mistress of novices, to whom I communicated my errand.
Her first duties were in the refectory. Often I saw her carrying plates and other crockery on a large "round," a circular piece of wood with a handle, to and from the basement room below. Once I saw her crying with the great exertion required in this duty, and the pain it caused her.
After this I frequently saw her in tears, and sometimes going in that condition to the Father Superior's room. I noticed that she looked delicate, and wonderfully changed in appearance. She used to be called upon to read aloud on successive days, for a week at a time, during dinner and supper, out of the Lives of the Saints, the Roman Martyrology, and other books - a duty which the mistress of novices, who never entertained any special regard for me, desired me to perform, but the Superior would not indulge her in this wish. At other times, and in addition to this duty, she was obliged to wait upon the table. Once she was sent to the infirmary in consequence of a cold taken from sleeping in the dormitory without sufficient covering in winter. When I left she was again in the infirmary.
Tokens of sisterly regard
It will be readily imagined that this system promotes rather than prevents petty jealousies and dislikes. Without the strong ties of kindred or friendship, it is not likely that the prisoners of a convent will spend these tedious hours and years of their compulsory seclusion in perfect harmony.
Having been sent one evening to work in the boarder's refectory, I took up a basket and carried it to the scullery for bread. Scarcely had I entered the room and handed the basket to the sister in charge, when I felt myself seized by the arm and, looking around, saw the angry countenance of the sister who presided at the boarder's table. She asked me, passionately, by whose authority I had taken that basket for bread and whether I had been appointed waiter by the Superior. I answered no, and that I would not have taken the basket had she not ordered me to, the night before, when she said bread was wanting on the table.
The sister told me
I had no authority of the kind and that she would report me. I replied
that I was not conscious of having done wrong. She dreaded the "council"
and went to the novitiate and told the mistress of novices what had just
occurred. She answered me that I had "many a cross to bear."
Wearied and exhausted with my duties in the academy, besides my evening work, an irresistible oppression of soul weighing down my powers of mind and body, I tried in vain to sleep. I thought of my ill health, caused by the laborious exercises I had to perform, and the sufferings and sorrows I had undergone since my reception in the community. I looked out upon the future. It appeared to stretch before me, to eternity, a drear path on which no beam of sunlight would fall to cheer, and in which no voice of kindred love would breathe its music of consolation to my heart. I signed for my home. In desolation of spirit, I mourned for its remembered love. But the fearful consciousness came to me that I was severed eternally from all that made life dear.
At length I arose, dressed and groped my way along the cloister leading to the choir and from thence down the narrow flight of stairs into the chapel. It was dark except for the few rays that streamed from the solitary light which burned dimly in the sanctuary. Kneeling before the altar, I fastened my eyes upon the crucifix above it. Long and earnestly I gazed, but the feelings that filled my soul were too deep to find repose in the contemplation of any material object. I bowed my head upon the railing and wept. Before long the image of Him who had suffered arose to my view: the pure and holy Savior of the world whose mild, benignant eyes, in their pitying tenderness, penetrated to the depths of my wretched heart, and shed a blessed hope on its gloom. I prayed - prayed earnestly, and from the heart; my desires flowed from its inmost depths. With streaming eyes and unutterable groans, I asked Him, the Savior of the world, to deliver me from this prison, this den of cruelty and hypocrisy. I believe it to be the only time I prayed from my heart while in the institution.
With this outburst of emotion, this pouring forth of my grief to God in spirit and in truth, I found relief, and became composed and calm.
So far as my own observation it is a mistaken notion, which many hold, that the religious life of the nun delivers her from passions such as envy, malice, hatred, jealousy, anger, passionate love, etc. Justice is not more rigorously carried out there than among men in general and numerous instances might be recounted - acts so oppressive and severe that I believe they were performed with the deliberate purpose of destroying health, as well as cowing the spirit. If I am wrong God, who alone reads the heart and knows what my sufferings have been, will I trust forgive me.
A system of favoritism extensively prevails within the walls. Jealousy also exerts a potent sway throughout the sisterhood. It is no rare thing to witness the features of a beautiful girl convulsed and distorted with passion when she passes a rival who exults for a season in her triumph but is soon brought to experience anger and thirst for revenge upon her own desertion for more attractive objects of priestly favor and desire. The intensity of these passions is only augmented by the need to keep them pent up and disguised from discovery, or by their uncontrolled violence among those whose rank elevates them above the need for disguise.
I was regarded from the outset as "the pet Josephine" and visited with every annoyance that could be devised by certain individuals in the community. I found myself watched and persecuted without intermission by a sister who had charge of the sewing. She would consequently assign me the worst and most difficult work she could find, telling me to perform it in a certain way. When I was done she would say it was wrong, and order me to pick it out and do it over in some other way. When this was accomplished she would finally report me for doing it improperly, and tell falsehoods to substantiate the accusation.
Going upstairs one evening to my cell I discovered something like a heap of clothes lying on the broad steps. I also heard moans and lamentations. There was only one lamp burning very dimly in the cloister so I put out my foot to ascertain what the object before me was. I discovered it to be Sister P--- of shoe memory. Giving her no very gentle kick by way of retaliation, I passed on to my cell. I learned afterwards that she was indeed ill and needed commiseration, but the feeling was not one which had been much cultivated in my breast since entering the institution, where it was very seldom exercised by others.
One very cold evening, about quarter after nine, the mistress of novices came to me in a state of unusual excitement and said, "I want you to go to the chapel and see if all the doors are closed and if everything is right there and if nothing is missing around the altar." To do this I would have to grope my way through a dark passage in the basement to the stairs leading up to the chapel. I obeyed nevertheless. I looked into the church, where I heard a noise like the sullen growl of a dog and a rattling of a chain and by the dim light of the lamp before the altar I saw a dark form. I found it was one of the members of the community: I did not then know nor have I learned since who she was, but I saw her at other times. She was old and decrepit, and nearly blind, and used to go about that hour of the night to pray in the chapel and say her rosary. She always carried her books with her, wrapped in a yellow pocket handkerchief, though she could not see to read.
Seeing nothing else
unusual, I groped my way back. By a light in the novitiate I could see
the mistress of novices coming out of that room and approaching the spot
where I stood. Though I saw her she could not see me. I determined to
frighten her in retaliation for her sending me on that errand. She was
walking very lightly, as though in fear of something. I stationed myself
on one side of the statue of St. Vincent and, as she drew near me, I rushed
out against her and crowded her against the stone wall on the outer side.
She uttered a cry of terror, and I fled rapidly to my cell.
Several times the
Lady Superior sent for me to accompany her on her drives. On those occasions
she had an attendant in the carriage and a colored driver on the box.
Once or twice we passed through the town of Emmettsburg, but I was not
privileged to look out of the carriage, which was a close one, and was
directed to keep my eyes cast down. The impossibility of an escape at
such times will be apparent. The town of Emmettsburg is chiefly Roman
Catholic and many of its inhabitants are dependent on the institution
for support. The Lady Superior is a great favorite among them. She did
not stop anywhere to make visits on these occasions. An attempt to leave
the carriage would not only have proved useless at the time, but would
have subjected me to severe punishment and exposed me to closer confinement.
On these drives we wore the habit worn by the community and my place was
at the Superior's side on the back seat, the front seat being occupied
by the other sister or attendant accompanying us. We entered the carriage
from the Superior's room, near which it had been driven up to an inner
gate in the wall between two buildings. Through this gate we passed into
the carriage, and it was at the same spot where we left the carriage on
our return. I was never permitted to leave the Superior's side during
When I could speak I begged her to spare my life and asked what I had done to merit such treatment. She did not answer a word but dragged me across the novitiate to the passage beyond, alternately loosening and drawing the ends of my capot. As soon as she released her grasp I arose but was forced to cling to the railing of the stairs for support.
She then said to me, "I did not think you would take it so well."
I begged her again to tell me what I had done, but she did not reply. I told her that I would go to the priest's room and see the Superior about it. At this she rushed toward me again, and, taking me by the arm shook me violently. "Go if you dare, and I will follow you," she said. She then ordered me to the chapel where all the community had by this time assembled for prayers.
Trembling and weeping I obeyed, and after service I spoke to the Mother Superior but could obtain no satisfaction from her. Shortly after, I saw the Superior and told him my trouble. He patted me on the head and said I must not mind it. It was only "a trial of my vocation - I trial sent from God: I should like the life after a while." Thus he justified the act while endeavoring to soothe my wounded feelings.
I may remark here that the mistress of novices was of foreign birth, very astute in her perceptions, keen, shrewd, and penetrating. She doubtless discerned, or thought she discerned a firmness amounting to obstinacy in my character, which would develop itself whenever I was convinced of the duplicity practiced in that institution and therefore that I would never be a reliable Sister of Charity.
Sister John Patientia, as she was called, was a person considerably past the period of youth and somewhat faded in aspect but still retaining the traces of extraordinary beauty. She would often break the rules of the institution but not receive any punishment for the offense. She would sometimes speak in times of silence and try to make the novices laugh. Entering the novitiate with a mischievous glance around her, she would utter some humorous remark, provoking almost irresistible mirth.
If, as the wise man says, there is "a time to laugh," it is surely not during a novice's life. The rules forbid any approach to merriment. A serious face is to be worn continually and anything like levity would be severely punished. This alone would impair the health of an individual endowed by nature with a lively and cheerful disposition, though I leave the physiologists to determine this.
Sister Patientia was very talented and highly educated. She spoke several languages fluently and had formerly been a teacher in the academy. Her duties at present were to attend to the corridor or outer gallery, sweeping the brick floor, brushing the windows, and removing the dust from the leaves of the plants, scrubbing the platform and steps and washing the windows. It was also her duty to ring the great bell of the cloisters for the devotions of the community. This is the sister who had charge of the shoe-room.
Sometimes as the sisters were passing her in corridor, she would rest her chin on her broom, look facetiously at them, making faces, and stationing herself in their way to obstruct their progress. She did not take her meals with the community but breakfasted about ten and dined at four. Her portion would be placed upon the corner of the table, near the door. She would remove the plate that covered it, and then perform her devotions before the crucifix in a manner calculated to excite merriment, making the sign of the cross with a rapid jerk. Then, looking significantly on her food, she would go away and leave it untouched, or perhaps, taking a mouthful, make a grimace, mutter to herself, and walk hastily away through the corridor. I seized an opportunity one day to ask her why she did not take her meals more regularly. She replied, "One should take more care of the soul than of the body," and her tone and manner were so ludicrous that I could not help laughing.
Sometimes, on meeting the Superior in the corridor, she would kneel down and kiss the hem of her habit with an air of the most devout worship. One day she took me with her to her cell, and commenced to give me a short history of her early life: of the wealth of her family, how she entered the institution, leaving home without her parent's knowledge or consent, how she came to this country, etc. Fearing lest I should overstay my time I attempted to leave. "Wait a little," she said, "Till I tell you how much I have suffered and am suffering now." Pointing to her bed she said, "I have not rested on that bed for years, but am forced to remain in a sitting position all night, on account of a large ulcer on my side and a difficulty breathing that will not suffer me to lie down."
There was another sister in the house who was also said to be insane, yet was allowed to go about the house and attend mass and confession. I remember meeting her once on the corridor. She came rushing at me and, shaking her clenched fist, shrieked, "Novice! Get out of my way!" I jumped over an oleander box to avoid her, in great alarm.
The reader will not be surprised to hear that there are insane inmates of these institutions. There is an apartment for the insane which I have never entered. I have occasionally seen insane persons come rushing out of a door at the foot of a stairway leading to that apartment, muttering and talking wildly. The unnatural life they lead is perhaps the life most calculated to produce such effects. I consider infirmity of body and insanity of mind the natural results of convent life.