TEXTS FROM ENGLISH RELIGIOUS HISTORY
Nun Who Escaped: A True Story
There is a school for the instruction of young ladies connected with St. Joseph's, at which the most accomplished and reliable of the sisterhood are teachers. This school is managed with consummate dexterity, so that with few exceptions the scholars become ardently attached to their teachers and are warm advocates of the interests of the community. The pupils are taught well, according to the capacity of each, that their parents may be satisfied with their progress and attainments, and may speak in approving terms of the institution. This is no wonder, as they see only the bright side of the picture and have no conception of the privations, the intrigues and the horrors within. So fair is the light that many scholars return to the institution and enter the novitiate, discovering too late their mistake and the terrible life before them.
All pupils, or boarders as they are called, are required to attend mass once a day and go through all the genuflexions and other forms usual at that service. They do not, however, witness those other religious exercises of the community in which devotion is made a pretext for the infliction of torture. They hear nothing of the rigid penances. They are ignorant of the favoritism and partialities exercised by those in power. All is fairyland to them. And, should a charge to this effect be made in the presence of a graduate of the academy by a sufferer in these practices, she would be denounced, as I have been, as a fabricator of falsehoods and a calumniator of the holy sisterhood.
The extent to which the affections of the boarders are gained, both by the priests and by the teachers of the academy, including the Mother Superior, is scarcely credible. More than once I have seen, with the blood tingling in my veins and the flush of indignation on my cheek, a young girl of fifteen or sixteen reposing her head on the breast of a young priest as they walked together, his arm thrown over her shoulder. This, no doubt, was innocent on her part, at least. She regarded him in the light of a father, but what pernicious consequences might ensue from this familiarity! And was he performing the office of a holy guide?
Inquiries have often been addressed to me since, with reference to the opportunity of novices to send messages to their friends by means of the boarders. The directress has the perusal of all letters written by the boarders. Parents should understand that their children are not allowed to correspond with them in an unrestrained manner.
It is possible that not all boarders were treated so kindly. I may here mention the case of a child under my instruction at the academy - a case which I am confident is only one of many. Josephine Picuabia (I think that was her name) was placed at St. Joseph's by her parents who were from Cuba, at a very early age. She would frequently come to her lessons in tears and, resting her head on my bosom would give vent to her sorrow, after exclaiming, "Oh sister, you are the only one that is kind to me!" She complained of severe treatment, that she was whipped and beaten, and was in terror of her life, yet could not inform her parents as the directress would not let her write home.
The child first became attached to me more particularly because my name was the same as her own. I always treated her kindly and sympathized deeply with her distress. We were frequently left alone in our music-room and I had occasion to hear her grievances as I endeavored to soothe her into composure for her lessons.
Founders of the institution
The lives of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis de Sales were frequently given us to read, as well as that of Mother Seton, who originated the institution at Emmettsburg. Mrs. Seton had been a Protestant lady, daughter of an eminent physician in New York and wife of a merchant of high character, a member of the Episcopal Church. In 1803 she accompanied her husband to Italy for the benefit of his health. He expired shortly after reaching Naples and she was at once received into the family of an Italian gentleman who had long been in commercial correspondence with her husband. This gentleman, a Catholic, undertook the conversion of Mrs. Seton to his own faith. His influence continued after her return to America and in 1805 she joined the Church and was rebaptized in St. Peter's, New York.
Largely deserted by her relations and obliged to teach for support, Mrs. Seton moved to Baltimore shortly after her conversion, where she opened a school with the hope that, in time, it might grow into "a society whose members would be specially consecrated to God," - that is to say, into a convent. She was joined by her sister-in-law and by a Miss Conway of Philadelphia, and soon after this was invited by the priests of Baltimore to commence a "religious" establishment, for the foundation of which a legacy of eight thousand dollars had recently been left.
The vicinity of Emmettsburg was selected for the location and a piece of land south of the village was bought. The only tenement on the farm at that time was a small stone building, part of what is now used as the wash-house. It stands a short distance from the main edifice and is called the cradle of St. Joseph's.
Mrs. Seton assumed for herself and those who joined her the title of "Sisters of St. Joseph," placing themselves "under the protecting care of St. Joseph, the faithful guardian of the Son of God upon earth." In their new residence - a small house containing only one story and an attic with two rooms on each floor - sixteen persons soon crowded together. They were often reduced to the poorest fare, such as "carrot-coffee, salt pork and buttermilk...Consequent upon this style of living to persons mostly reared in luxury, the sisterhood was for several months an infirmary." Miss Harriet Seton was the first victim. She was followed shortly by her sister Cecelia. Mrs. Seton's eldest daughter, Anna, soon after sickened and died of consumption. Her death was probably induced by acts of violent mortification which the biographer characterizes as "heroic." "I half reproached her," said her mother, "for her little care of her health: rising at the first bell, ever being on the watch to ring it the moment the clock struck; washing at the pump in the severest weather; often eating in the refectory what sickened her stomach."
A Miss Murphy was the next who fell under this course of life: "On one occasion she was directed to put her feet in warm water, which the sister infirmarian brought. She put her feet into it and immediately withdrew them, observing that the water was too hot. Her attendant insisted that it was not too warm, so she returned her feet to the vessel and kept them there as long as was required, although it caused her intense pain and produced an inflammation from which she suffered for a long time after." By such "assiduous practices of the virtues of her state," we are told, "she soon became ripe for heaven."
The society was regularly organized in July 1813. Eighteen individuals took upon themselves the vows. Meantime, large additions were made and continued to be made to the buildings and conveniences of the establishment. The next building erected was the asylum in which, as near as I can judge, about fifty orphans are now kept. It was at first occupied by the community. A marble tablet in the wall of a room in this building marks the spot where the bed of Mother Seton stood, and where she died.
At this early period the natural fruits of the system were produced in the suffering, sickness and death of the inmates, carrying out the idea which, as I have observed, is still inculcated, that "consumption is part of the vocation." Yet it seems that the system failed then, as it does now, of producing that superior sanctity of life and character which are perpetually claimed as its result. So much may at least be inferred from the following extract of one of Mrs. Seton's addresses. "How is it," she asks, "that many of us keep the rule as to the letter, and also look pious enough? There is no want of good will, nor idleness indulged: in a house where it would seem easy to become saints, you will say, What is the matter? Why are we not saints? Why is there so little progress in perfection? Or rather, why are so many tepid, heavy, discouraged, going along more like slaves in a work-house than children in their own homes and the house of their Father?" The answer would seem easy for anyone at all acquainted with the spirit of Gospel obedience: Because the position and relations, the occupations pertaining to this unnatural mode of life are such as Heaven has not chosen to ordain and bless for the religious development and sanctification of human souls.
One morning when Mother Seton met a young sister who had been absent from mass, she looked her steadfastly in the face and asked, "Why did you not come to our Lord for a recompense this morning?" The sister answered, "Mother, I felt a little weak, and took a cup of coffee before mass." "Ah! My dear child!" said Mother Seton, "How could you sell your God for a miserable cup of coffee?" Nothing, it has been well said, weakens the moral sense more than hair-breadth distinctions and minute observances. Mother Seton's life for a series of years was full of these. She rivaled the Hindus in self-mortification. She would deny herself fine writing paper, and for pens she used the stumps of quills abandoned by her pupils.
Another death soon succeeded in the institution: the Mother Superior's second daughter, a lovely girl in her fourteenth year. In her last moments she cried to her confessor, "Father is there any harm in hoping that I shall go to heaven as soon as I am dead?" He replied, not if that hope was grounded in her own merits. "What merits," she cried, "can such a child as I have?" So little comfort can the contemplation of our own good works afford in the dying hour! Again she exclaimed, "I hope that my sufferings will be accepted as my penance without going to Purgatory. Oh! How I would like to go to heaven!"
Two more of the sisters died in 1816. One was only twenty-one, brought up in luxury in the West Indies, and whose delicate hands often bled from exposure during the winter in performing the work allotted to her. The following year four more of the sisters died, and three more the next year. The austerities which hastened the deaths of so many young persons also affected the health of Mrs. Seton herself. In a letter to the Rev. M Bruté she confesses the following: "Rules, prudence, subjection, opinions, etc. are dreadful walls to a burning soul as wild as mine. For me, I am like a fiery horse I had when a girl, whom they tried to break by making him drag a heavy cart. The poor beast was so humbled that he could never again be inspired by whips or caresses, and wasted to a skeleton until he died!"
Mrs. Seton's death occurred in 1820.
A second letter from home
A second letter was at length received at the institution in September 1854 from my relatives. Upon its receipt I was ordered to appear before the mistress of novices. Kneeling at her feet, I listened to the letter as she read it aloud. It was from my sister. She stated that she would come for me in a few days, and that I must return home with her.
This information greatly excited the displeasure of the mistress of novices. Having finished its perusal she seized me with a tight grasp by the arm, saying, "Do you think you will ever return home?" I answered that I did not know, and began to tremble violently, with agitation as well as dread. Such is the awe that an official inspires at the institution. This enraged her. She struck me upon the forehead and roughly thrust me from her, ordering me to go and repeat some prayers as a penance.
I obeyed mechanically, but no prayer, no tears came to relieve my feelings. Cold and almost stupefied, I remained motionless as the statue before which I was bent. Over an hour passed before I was roused from my stupor, but a stormy conflict was raging within my breast. The agonizing consciousness had a second time with terrible force come upon me that I was eternally severed from all that made life dear.
The bell rang for meditation. Had it been some other kind of punishment allotted to me, this would have given variation to my employment and relieved the fatigue, but the signal only called me to renew the exhausting effort of maintaining the same painful posture for a long time. I rose, took my place in rank and went to the chapel where another hour was spent on my knees in prayer and meditation as far as bodily constraint and mental distress would permit the exercise of thought.
A week elapsed. On Sunday I asked permission to reply to the letter received from my friends. I had some hope of obtaining my request as it was a day usually appropriated in part to the writing of letters, which however must be written after high mass and submitted to the inspection of the Mother Superior. But permission was denied, with the assurance that it would be but a loss of time and useless for me to do so. I was ordered to the refectory for the purpose of cleaning knives and forks. I had been at this only a short time when the "religieuse" who had charge of this department suddenly rushed toward me and, seizing the knife I was cleaning, drew it through my hand, commencing an angry rebuke against me for some pretended fault and threatening to report me. This unprovoked cruelty so startled me, already enfeebled as I was by severe labor and protracted fatigue, that I fell in a spasm on the floor, striking my head against a bench. A young novice who saw me fall dragged me into the passage, supported my head, and sent another to report my situation to an officer. I had revived before the officer came and was proceeding down the corridor, aided by two sisters when I met her. She conveyed me to the infirmary, asking me what was the matter. Fearing to tell her, I remained silent, but she insisted on an answer so I related to her what had occurred. She made no reply, and did not seem to entertain much sympathy for me. She left me in a bed in the infirmary but soon after this returned and made me get up and go back to my work in the refectory.
I have seen the mistress of novices engaged in reading and tearing to pieces letters which have been sent to the novitiate but were never destined to reach those who perhaps were anxiously awaiting their arrival at home. Many times I have seen sisters kneeling before the mistress of novices, tears streaming from their eyes as they listened to letters which they were not permitted to hold in their own hands nor look at, to trace the beloved characters of a mother's or a sister's writing.
Mortality and death at St. Joseph's
It is everywhere acknowledged that the life of monastic and conventual establishments is the most unfavorable to bodily health. I have already testified that in my ten months at St. Joseph's no fewer than fourteen deaths occurred to my personal knowledge. Nor did the Mother Superior in her remarkable letter written after my escape, controvert this point: she maintains only that this excessive mortality is the result of the pious and charitable exertions to which the sisters devote themselves in attending hospitals and ministering to the sick. I leave it for an impartial judgment to decide whether it may not much more rationally be ascribed to the exhausting and depressing effects of unremitting and laborious servile "duties" and devotional exercises, forms of torture rather than the employment of Christian meditation and worship.
I myself while a member of the community was often sick, worn down and utterly prostrated by the services daily and uninterruptedly required of me. Even while engaged in performing the duties, comparatively lighter, which were enjoyed upon me as a teacher in the academy, it would frequently happen that the lassitude of body and mind became almost unsupportable. I have often sat at the piano for hours, without a moment's intermission or rest, and after that have been occupied at work in the refectory or other departments.
If illness and a shattered constitution, the ordinary and necessary results of such a system, had been the only suffering brought upon me by the endurance of these inflictions, I might still be an inmate of St. Joseph's, an unwilling inmate, doubtless, since I had become thoroughly convinced of my own mistake in entering that institution. But this alone would not have proven sufficient to impel me to the desperate venture of an escape from its walls. But other apprehensions were combined with those of bodily suffering to impel me in this effort to flee from a place the atmosphere of which was dangerous and contaminating.
The old or "professed" sisters, whose physical constitution has enabled them to pass through the ordeal of years, are treated with much more leniency, and lead an easier life than the novices. Many of those who are rather advanced in age occupy their own rooms, where they are served by the younger sisters and are not compelled strictly to attend to all the services. In the community room they sometimes have "parties" with music and refreshments, to which the priests are invited. On such occasions some of the younger sisters are admitted, or allowed a share in the delicacies provided; it is their duty to prepare them. Of occurrences in the community room I can, however, give no minute particulars from personal observation as the "seminary sisters" are not allowed to enter that apartment unless summoned to the presence of the Superior or sent there with a message. Enough is known outside, however, to excite sorrow and disgust.
In the United States the assertion is made, exultingly, that the Bible is kept at all Catholic bookstores and all Catholics are at liberty to purchase and read it. Without entering upon a discussion of this statement, I will only appeal to Catholics themselves to answer truly whether their priests or confessors are in the habit of recommending the habitual study of the Scriptures to them individually. During the whole period of my connection with the Church of Rome, no such instruction was given me by my spiritual director. While a resident at St. Joseph's I never saw a Bible, and I had frequent access to the library.
The books permitted and recommended for reading at St. Joseph's are the "Lives of the Saints," extracts from the "Roman Martyrology" and the "Conferences." These last are a compilation of rules and regulations to be observed by the Order of Sisters of Charity as prepared by their founder, St. Vincent.
A dream of freedom
When almost overwhelmed with sensations of utter desolation, I was forced to veil my wretchedness by a powerful effect. I must be calm and collected in manner, and breathe no syllable that might express my misery. Often I gazed from my window at the picturesque grounds of my prison. How green and beautiful the trees, their slender branches bowing in the vesper breeze! My listless gaze would wander over the distant landscape: the mountains in all their majestic beauty, the western sun pouring a flood of golden light upon the dense foliage that covered their summits. I yearned, as a caged bird dashing against the bars of its prison-house with strong desire to gain it native wild wood, to escape from those walls that surrounded me. I longed to roam free and unfettered over those mountainsides, reveling in those sunbeams, or quietly resting in the shade of those towering trees.
Scenes of other days would now pass in rapid review before me, memory adding its pangs, recalling years that have forever fled, moments of thrilling rapture. And scenes of more recent date would come to agonize my heart: a mother's loss, never to be alleviated by the consolations of paternal and sisterly affection, expostulations and gentle warning disregarded under the infatuation of a deceived and misguided zeal.
But, I thought to myself, I must banish these thoughts. Let me return to the care and weariness of my bondage and forget the past. It is just as well that little time is allowed for such remembrances. For me the interest of natural life is irrevocably closed. Now, by devoting my existence to the service of God in the holy seclusion of the cloister, I shall purchase heaven! Yes, I will welcome those pains and miseries to save my soul, though they destroy my body.
But cannot heaven be gained without such a sacrifice?
Conscious of being a guarded prisoner at St. Joseph's I determined to escape, in secrecy if possible. But how could I hope to leave the institution undiscovered during the day? It was impossible. Considerable time elapsed after I formed the resolution. I could see no special facility to realize the scheme.
Finally I determined to delay no longer, but to make an attempt at once. The town of Emmettsburg was but a quarter of a mile distant and I could easily reach it, but I knew that a large proportion of the inhabitants were Catholic and that I ran the risk of being discovered and sent back to the community. The priest's "house" was also located there, between which and St. Joseph's there was constant communication. The probability of an encounter on the road with a member of the order occurred to my mind.
In view of these considerations I decided it would be more prudent to proceed to Frederick City. I resolved, accordingly, to seek egress from the building about two hours after midnight so I might catch the stage from Emmettsburg to Frederick City which passed at about four o'clock in the morning. I decided this plan on the evening before my departure, while sitting at the window of my cell for a few minutes before the bell for evening prayers was rung. I had been detained from supper until late, in consequence of having been appointed to take charge of the music-rooms (a duty ordinarily discharged by a vowed sister) while the sisterhood were at their meal. When I arrived at the refectory nearly everyone had left. I took advantage of the opportunity and secured a knife, which I concealed about my person, with the full determination to use it if my strength permitted, in self-defense should I be stopped or overtaken on the road. I was now desperate and the bare idea of failure filled me with terror.
While seated at the window revolving my plan, as my head rested against the casement and the chill night air blew in upon me (though this mattered little to me, being familiar with suffering and exposure to cold), I was startled by the bell. I hastily composed my features, effacing the traces of tears from my countenance, and rose to obey its summons, I fondly hoped for the last time. While crossing the corridor on my way to the novitiate I was accosted by an old sister who delivered to me an order to which she had been entrusted, requiring that I sweep out all the music-rooms at an early hour in the morning. I showed her my hand, which I carried in a sling, the thumb having been opened to the bone only a few days earlier to cure a whitlow, and told her I should hardly be able to perform the duty. She said the order was imperative and left me. I proceeded to the chapel, with no intent to sweep out the music-rooms the next morning. I hoped instead to be breathing the fresh air of heaven and exulting in the freedom and deliverance from the horrors of a living death.
About an hour passed after the conclusion of the evening devotions, and all the sisters had retired to their cells. Suffering exceedingly from thirst, I resolved, though it was contrary to the rules, to procure a drink of water and at the same time to see whether the key of a door leading from a passage across the porch to the infirmary was in the lock. I accomplished this without discovery, but the key had been removed. Returning to my cell I lay down to obtain some rest before the appointed hour. But I was too anxious to sleep and trembled and shivered on my bed until the cry of the watchman, who has charge of the establishment at night, announced that it was two o'clock.
A few minutes later I arose, put on my habit, placing the beads in my pocket lest they should rattle as I walked along, and then waited for the watchman's cry of "three o'clock." On hearing that signal I left my cell, doing so for the first time without making my bed. I groped my way through the darkness down the stairs and along the cloisters, all the while attentively listening to detect any noise. All was silent except the slight sound of my footsteps on the paved floor.
Descending a narrow flight of stairs I proceeded along a dark passage, at the end of which there were other steps leading to the chapel. I preferred to attempt my escape in this part of the building since there was no enclosure immediately outside of it. Having reached the chapel door, I was forced to pause and rest a few moments to gain composure, for I was trembling violently and almost suffocated by the impetuous and convulsive throbbings of my heart. There was no time to be lost, however. Taking courage, I ran across the chapel and, guided by a faint gleam of moonlight through the crevices, climbed up to a window, opened it, and leaped to the pavement below.
I looked around and listened. No living object was visible and no sound broke the stillness. The watchman at the building had gone in, but there was another stationed at the gate whose vigilance I would have to elude. I could not stop to reflect, however, but rapidly ran down the avenue. I heard a slight noise about halfway and, approaching nearer, perceived to my dismay that the watchman had raised the window of his room and was leaning from it as if suspicious of something wrong.
My heart sank within me and for a moment I was paralyzed with fear. I soon succeeded in concealing myself behind a tree and remained there some time, anxiously awaiting the withdrawal of the watchman from his post of observation. There was another way of egress from the grounds, by a path through the graveyard where from my station I could see the white crosses gleaming in the moonlight. But this would take me in a direction opposite the one I intended to follow and I feared I might become confused and lose my way. I resolved to wait where I was.
I was in for another grievous disappointment. The stage for Frederick City, in which I had hoped to obtain a seat, passed by while I was hiding. With it all my sanguine expectations vanished and for an instant despair took possession of my faculties. I was partly reassured, however, in joyfully observing that the watchmen, as if satisfied by the passing of the stage, had closed the window and retired. I quickly passed through the gate into the road, feeling that my object was at least half accomplished and the chief obstacle now surmounted.
After I had walked a short distance in the direction taken by the stage I approached a bridge which I would need to cross. Here I saw a figure of a man in the shadows. At this sight my courage again faltered, for I felt sure that if he were a Catholic and suspected who I was from my garb, he would attempt to carry me back by force. I drew my shawl closely around me to conceal my habit as much as possible. I pulled my dark bonnet further over my face. Grasping the knife as firmly as my wounded hand would allow, I walked boldly past without being accosted.
About a mile and a half further on, I heard the voices of a party of men coming toward me. I entered a gate that opened on the road and knelt behind the enclosure until they had gone by. I waited some moments to make sure the road was clear and was on the point of proceeding again on my way when sounds of fighting and cries of "murder!" from a nearby house caused me to shrink back to my hiding place in alarm. I remained there until I heard the angelus bell ringing at St. Joseph's. I knew then that it was six o'clock. Conscious that I had no time to loose, I re-entered the road and continued on my journey with as much speed as my tired limbs could effect.
I walked a considerable
distance and began to experience great fatigue when I saw a woman near
a house on the roadside. I addressed her, asking how far it was to Frederick
City. "Twenty-two miles," she answered. I inquired if I could
obtain a conveyance hither. Without answering my question, she asked me
where I came from. I said "From Emmettsburg," She advised me
in a peremptory tone to "Go back and start from there." Then
she turned to a young man who came out of the house and whispered to him
for a few moments. He then immediately started off in the direction of
After crossing a creek - I think it is called Owning's Creek - I arrived about nine o'clock at a small village which a signpost informed me was Creagerstown. I had walked ten miles. I inquired for the principal house of entertainment in the place and was directed to Stevens's Hotel. The proprietor at that time showed me a noble kindness and generous hospitality which acted like a soothing balm upon my wounded spirit. He accorded me the shelter of his house, for which I shall ever be grateful, and assured me of the protection of his arm until the arrival of my father, to whom I wrote instantly, informing him of the circumstances of my escape.
No one who has not
been deprived of all sympathy and protection, exposed to evil designs
and unscrupulous schemes against their peace and purity, who has been
suddenly rescued from their perilous condition and restored to safety,
can adequately appreciate the exultant joy which thrilled every nerve,
now that I was convinced I had gained shelter and defense among those
whose hearts beat in sympathy with my afflictions and my fears. I will
always recall with gratitude many noble-hearted citizens of Creagerstown
for their exertions on behalf of a friendless and, to them, unknown girl.
After the overseer left the Superior, being informed now where I was, dispatched two "officers" of the community to Creagerstown. When they arrived they tried to force their way to my room, but I refused to see them; the habit of obedience to their mandates had become so strong in me that I actually dreaded the influence their presence might have. I trembled at the thought of an interview with those of whom I had so long stood in awe and to whose wishes and commands submission had become second nature to me.
The landlord of the hotel took part in my anxiety to avoid this meeting. I was locked up in a room on the second floor of the house and the window shutters were closed and fastened the whole time of the sisters' stay. I was in a state of the most alarm lest they should reach me. I heard the altercation going on below and feared that I should be delivered up, after all. So much had my spirit become subject to the control of these sister-officers. Unable to gain access to me, they wrote notes which were thrust under the door and a receipt, which I signed, for the articles of my own property which had been brought to me. I sent them everything I had with me which they demanded: my capot, community book or formulary, etc. etc. I had not felt such alarm at any moment during my escape as during the time these sisters remained in the house.
After my escape
One of the boarders had left the academy a short time previous to my departure. She had always appeared much attached to me so, when I was on my way home from Creagerstown with my father we stopped at a hotel in Frederick City and she immediately came and embraced me with a cry of delight: "Oh, sister! I am so glad to see you away from that institution!" She did not leave me until we entered the cars for Baltimore. Her congratulations were abundant and she repeatedly assured me, while we were together in Frederick, that she would have put her own carriage at my disposal had she known of my desire to escape.
I received a letter from this young lady after I returned home. Its tenor satisfied me that her mind had already been biased against me. I did not answer it. So little dependence can be placed upon the candid judgment of anyone, even a postulant or boarder, who is under the influence of the Superior of St. Joseph's.
It is worthy of note,
however accounted for, that in every case of the flight of a young girl
from the walls of a convent or community which she may have been induced
to enter by plausible but deceitful representations, she is at once regarded
as an outcast and denounced as a disgrace to religion. Whenever the courage
of a poor recluse is summoned to so desperate an effort, the case is prejudged
by the entire community before she can utter a syllable in her own defense.
The assertions of those from whose thraldom she has escaped, whose interest
it is to conceal and misconstrue, these are the people who are implicitly
and blindly believed. There seems some malignant pleasure in holding her
up as an object for public scorn, blasting the character and prospects
of an innocent girl simply because she could not remain a willing or passive
victim to the fate to which she was doomed.
The Mother Superior's letter
Among these efforts there were many letters about me addressed to the newspapers. Most are unworthy of consideration. But the Mother Superior of St. Joseph's also published an epistle which is so ingeniously worded that it is well calculated to deceive:
"St. Joseph's, near Emmettsburg, December 1st, 1854
"To the Editor of "the Citizen":
"The statement put forth that letters written to Miss Bunkley by her father and others of her family were withheld from her, or returned to the writers, is altogether untrue; they were invariably delivered to her. Her letters to her family or friends were always sent as addressed. On only one occasion, when after her many professions of her desire to spend her life as a Sister of Charity, she spoke in a letter to her father of spending "six months" at St. Joseph's, I asked her meaning. She replied that she did not wish her father to know of her intent to become a sister, though he suspected it.' I then told her not to deceive her father; that God would not bless her undertaking if she did.' I advised her to write the letter over again. She did so and the letter was sent. I cannot now remember whether she took the first letter back or left it with me to be destroyed. This, I presume, is the incident which has been perverted into a charge against us that we destroyed her letters to her father, written to inform him of her unhappiness at St. Joseph's and desire to leave.
"Miss B.'s extraordinary mode of leaving our house was as unnecessary as it was surprising. She could have left at any hour of the day, and by the front door. There was no occasion to leave at night or through a window. Though the doors, as of every private dwelling, are kept locked to keep out intruders, the keys are never removed from them. She had no reason to hide behind a tree as no one observed her going and no one would have stopped her even if she had been noticed. I should think it is almost superfluous to add that she was not pursued after her departure became known. Miss B. left here on Thursday morning, the 9th ultimo, before day. On the morning after, I wrote by mail to her father, at Norfolk, informing him of her departure. On the following Saturday the overseer of our farm went to Creagerstown and brought back a note from her asking for her trunk, clothes, two watches, and the money which she had on deposit with our treasurer, amounting to $2.62½. No one, in the meantime, had gone after her. No one asked her to come back. It was only on the Monday of the next week that two of our sisters went to Creagerstown and, without seeing her, delivered the above-named articles and obtained her written acknowledgment of their receipt.
"There are two other inaccuracies, asserted or implied in the various statements, in this county and elsewhere, in regard to this affair, which I may as well now notice, once and for all.
"It is utterly untrue that Miss B was in any manner solicited or persuaded to enter our community. On the contrary, she was put off for a year when she applied, and was afterward admitted only on trial at her own earnest solicitation. It is equally untrue that her trunk, clothing, jewelry, etc. were demanded of her when she first entered the institution. They were subject to her order on any day she might choose to leave us. It is also untrue that she ever expressed to me the desire to return home. Neither have I heard at any time from any one of our sisters that she ever expressed such a desire to her. It is likewise untrue that she ever, without our knowledge, wrote or desired to write to that effect to her father or anyone else, and it is the purest fiction that she was every commanded to take her seat and write to her father or to any other person under our dictation. Every sister and novice, here or elsewhere, attached to our community, is not only free to leave us, but is urged by us to go whenever she may think it her duty to do so, and it is well known to the public that, even when the novice becomes a sister she takes her vows but for a single year, and at its close is free to renew them or not, as she may judge proper. Those who have chosen to avail themselves of this alternative have never been impeded or molested in the exercise of their free will, but on the contrary, pen, ink and paper to write to their friends, the public coach, and money to pay the fare, are always at the disposal of anyone inclined to withdraw. The members of our society are indeed told that, if they desire to be of our number, they must keep our rules, and in that sense give up their own will, but whoever wills to leave is as free as air.
"Miss B.'s clandestine departure may throw a romantic coloring around the matter, but it can in no way reflect discreditably upon this institution, nor make a case contrary to plain facts. I have been informed that Miss B., herself, during her stay in Creagerstown, bore testimony to the truth of more than I have said here respecting her kind treatment and freedom from duress or restriction while she resided at St. Joseph's.
"One word upon the general question. Our sisters have fathers and brothers. We invite them to come and examine if they find their sisters and daughters anxious to leave, or in the least degree unhappy on account of the state of life which they have adopted. Fathers and brothers, relations of every degree and friends do come, have always been in the habit of coming. They have free access to their friends who are members of our community. Is it not strange then, that such a system as has been charged against us could exist for a year or a month? A large number of our community are scattered over the whole United States, are constantly traveling from city to city in public conveyances, and are regularly doing duty as nurses and attendants in the public hospitals and asylums of the country. Can it be believed that they are unable to find means of escape, or of communicating with their friends at home? Moreover, in our school here we have numerous Protestant young ladies who are in daily intercourse with the sisters. These young ladies are constantly visited by their parents and friends, and go home to spend their vacations. They certainly could be made the medium of communication between any sister and her friends if there were such occasion for it as has been represented by our assailants. The fact that no such instance has ever occurred is sufficient proof that it has never been necessary.
has been stated that sisters have died here by inches - wasting
in slow despair.' This most charitable assertion is intended to create
in the public mind the suspicion or belief that they were the victims
of a cruel imprisonment. I have already disposed of this calumny, but
I will be excused for adding that it is indeed most true that several
sisters have died here during the last and preceding years, and it is
quite probable that others will follow them. Consumption, slow and rapid,
brought on by their arduous labors and nightly watchings at the deathbeds
of poor men and women of every clime and creed, in the hospitals of the
country, has indeed carried off many Sisters of Charity and will no doubt
continue to do its work of death. They go from this their homes in the
fullness of health, on their missions of mercy, and when they return it
is sometimes only to die. If this is matter of reproach, we have no reply
to make. If this provokes the taunt of the assailant and feeds the uncharitable,
we have only to submit in patience and humility as far as our weak nature
may enable us, in feeble imitation of the example of our divine Master,
the Lord Jesus.
Reply to the Mother Superior's letter
The foregoing letter makes a direct issue of veracity between the Mother Superior and myself. As to some of the discrepancies involved in our respective statements, the public must decide on the bare assertion of each. But on the principal question - the right of voluntary departure, a question to which all the rest are subordinate, I hope I have satisfied every unprejudiced mind that this right is a myth. Given the importance and power of this religious community, which embraced forty-one "missions" which have their center at Emmettsburg, it will be readily understood how momentous an object it becomes at all hazards to preserve its reputation. Remember that the doctrine of "mental reservation" is taught by many in the Catholic church. This is a doctrine which permits and recommends the utterances of a falsehood to promote the interests of "religion.
I would ask, in the name of charity and sound reason, can any plausible motive explain why I should escape from the institution at a risk of detection and punishment, and travel ten miles on an unknown road, exposed to danger and insult, if I enjoyed the privilege of departure by free choice? Until such a rational motive be adduced, is there not a fair presumption, at least, that I am telling the truth?
The Mother Superior, in her letter, endeavors to make it appear that no effort was made after my escape, to recapture me. I shall show how much truth there is in this statement.
On the supposition that the overseer was sent the next morning to the convent in Frederick to search for me - a distance of twenty-two miles - it is evident that he could not well have returned to St. Joseph's, stopping at Creagerstown, before Saturday. On his way through Creagerstown he stopped, insisting that I must be there and demanding to see me. The proprietor brought the message to me and I consented to an interview. This was, I think, on Saturday afternoon (and I should add that the man was intoxicated). It is clear, under these circumstances, that the two sisters who came on the following Monday could not possibly have done so earlier as they would not have come on Sunday and were not aware of my locality until the Saturday evening subsequent to my escape.
It is scarcely credible
that a single inmate, for the sake of mere notoriety, should confront
the danger and shame of a stealthy departure rather than make a peaceful
and permitted exit from the institution. But mine is not the only case.
In June 1853 a novice who had escaped from St. Joseph's was pursued and
caught on the farm of Mr. John Dorsey, four miles south of Emmettsburg,
on the main road leading to Frederick City. Her pursuers were two "sisters"
who traveled in a carriage. When the poor fugitive recognized them she
left the road and endeavored to escape through a field of wheat. But leaping
from the vehicle, the sisters overtook her and, seizing her by the arms,
led her to the carriage, placed her in it, and drove back to the institution.
This much, which can be proved in a court of justice, is all that is known
of the occurrence. The destiny of this unhappy girl is a mystery.
Emmettsburg, February 21, 1853
"Dear Sir: the
questions you ask with respect to the young lady who eloped from St. Joseph's
and came to my house I answer thus:
"She was accompanied
on her return to Albany by Mr. J., who resides in the State of Vermont,
and who kindly took charge of her. Dr. A. and Mr. D.G. advanced the necessary
funds, the amount of which was shortly returned. She never said she was
not a Catholic and she is at this time with her mother in Albany. Very
possibly, all these statements she may, under certain influences, say
The reader will note that Helen O'Here was averse to divulge the true reasons for her escape. The causes alleged by her are not sufficient to account for the strong and decided expressions of disgust and aversion she uttered in referring to the institution.
In addition to the letters which I have thus noticed, various allegations and insinuations of a baser kind have been made as well. Some of these are ridiculous, involving my mental sanity, etc. Others, more malignant, accuse me of willful falsehood and deception. Those who know me can decide on these charges. Vulgar and threatening letters from sources unknown have also reached me of a contemptible and disgusting nature. Several, indeed, likened me, for example, with a notorious Maria Monk who a few years previously published a work titled Awful Disclosures: Two Years in a Convent.' This individual was later confined in the New York City prison where she had been sent as a common vagabond, drunkard, thief, and open prostitute, and where she died in September 1839. Others were more reasonable, although just as biased against me. One correspondent with the newspaper I recognized by his initials as a Catholic priest, named Norman, who has an elderly sister at the institution and whose visits, of course, are eagerly welcomed. I remember perfectly the circumstances of a visit made by him during my stay at St. Joseph's, and the pains taken to render it agreeable.
If, by my simple narration of facts I shall succeed in communicating a salutary caution to enthusiastic and innocent girls who by devout and blissful pictures of a "religious" state artfully presented to their minds, may have been led to entertain the thought of becoming members of a convent, or institution of similar nature, I shall have reached my utmost aim. For such I entertain the warmest sympathy and the kindest appreciation of their motives and desires. But I would, with God's help, preserve them if it is possible from suffering, sorrow, and maybe moral death.
In conclusion, I will
relate one of the attempts made to bring me back. To do this I must refer
again to the period in which I entered convent life.
Some months after my entrance, his sister was placed there as a boarder. It was not long before her health began to fail. I frequently saw her in tears, and at times when passing her endeavored to learn the cause of her distress. I noticed that the community did not treat her with kindness. I often heard unkind remarks made respecting this young person by the directress and others of the academy.
On one occasion, when I met her in the passage to the infirmary, where she had been sent, she told me of her unhappiness and her desire to return and how she wished her brother might know how miserable she was. She burst into tears as she said this. A few weeks passed and I missed her from the academy entirely. I learned that she had again been sent to the infirmary.
One day, passing by the library, I saw someone sitting just behind the door and, conjecturing that it might be this young lady, I entered the room. I was struck by her pale and emaciated appearance. She, too, remarked how altered I was. She thought I must be unhappy and said I should have taken her brother's advice not to enter the institution. I did not dare, however, confide my real feelings to her.
II answered hastily, "Are you really glad to see me at home?"
"I am," he repeated.
I told him that I regretted he had thought it necessary to call, as my father would be much displeased to meet him or hear of his visit. He then stated his object, which was to induce me to go to the church to confession and to attend mass. I told him it was impossible, that I would never again enter that church, and that there was a report in circulation to the effect that if I should attempt to enter it I would be put out for scandalizing it. He begged me to fear nothing of the sort. He assured me that if any person should dare to touch me for such a purpose he would announce his displeasure from the altar. He left, urging me to come to church, insisting that he could not go without my promise, and assuring me that he would still continue to regard me as a member of his flock.
In the course of the conversation I told him of the treatment his sister had received at the institution, and that I thought it would be well to send for her at the Baltimore infirmary, as I knew she would be happier away from it.
On his second visit, two or three weeks after this interview, I was alone. He remained half an hour. He told me that he had come thinking I was in trouble in consequence of the Lady Superior's letter. He had read it that very day and considered it quite uncalled for. He was sorry it had been written. As I had made no charges against the institution publicly, there could be no occasion for writing and publishing that document. He again urged me to come to confession and to attend mass. I answered that I had no wish to do so and that, even if I desired it, my father would never permit me to enter his door again. He was aware, I said, how strong had been his opposition from the outset, and now it would be much stronger than ever. I expressed the fear that my father would be greatly displeased should he come home and find him there.
During these remarks, when I refused to attend mass, assigning my father's lack of consent among my other reasons, he exclaimed, "Come then - come with me now! I will protect you. I have a home for you. Come with me!" It was in the evening, just before twilight. I trembled with agitation. My former attachments and predilections for the Church rushed upon me with such force that I feared for my own steadfastness and my safety. I did not reply for some time. A conflict raged in my breast, but an earnest desire to do my duty toward God and my conscience prevailed. I hesitated and reflected a few moments, until my composure was regained and my former determination resumed.
"I can not," I said faintly. "I can not."
He rose from his seat, leaned against the mantle, and seemed overwhelmed with disappointment. He repeated, "I cannot leave without your promise to return to the Church." I told him that could never be, and desired that he would not come again. Then, laying his hand upon my arm he said, "Josephine, have I lost you? Josephine, have I lost you? Have I lost a lamb from my fold? Am I no more to be your confessor?" As I made no reply he continued, "I am at least your friend, as I have ever been; and when you are alone in the world I will be your friend, no matter what may happen. Josephine, mark these words: Don't utter a syllable of what I have said to you, either to a Catholic or to a Protestant." He finally made me promise that I would reflect upon all that he had said and write him a letter. He assured me that, should I request it, he would not come again. As he was going toward the door he turned to me, saying, "How can I leave you without your promise to come back to the Church?" Then, reluctantly bidding me good evening, he withdrew.
I went to my room in a state of excitement impossible to describe. That evening I penned a letter with a view to prevent another visit, being greatly intimidated by what had passed. Indeed I feared I should have been lost had he come again.
I cannot now accurately recall the details of the letter I wrote to him. I think I intimated to him that I retained yet some attachment for the Roman Catholic church and hoped, once more, at some future time, to kneel before the altar where I had passed so many hours in silent but ecstatic contemplation. This letter produced the desired effect. He did not call again.
The first visit of the priest soon became known in the neighborhood and a report was circulated, I believe by himself, that I had sent my sister for him. This was untrue. I had no wish to see him, nor to be urged to enter the Church again although there yet lingered in my mind something of these sentiments which had been assiduously cultivated for years and had not been completely dissipated even by those circumstances through which I had just passed.
Other attempts have been made to lure me back. Repeated threats have been made to take me back by force. I shall not speak more fully of these. In my own mind there remains no doubt of a deliberate purpose to injure me and to throw discredit upon my testimony