In front of the altar during a holy hour.
I shut the door on my intellectual and social life, as well as many of my interests, curiosities and certainly doubts when I was twenty-one. I entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Mary's. Perhaps I felt I had already had more than my share of what life had to offer of joy and richness and couldn't ever hope to be as happy again as I had been. Perhaps I was hoarding, not using my best self, sealing myself off at twenty one, at my peak, to preserve the flavor. I believe I thought I was going to a better life. I thought that I was going to spend my life acquiring the best knowledge the world had to offer. I was buying into a program of self-development that would make me a better person, a holy person, and at the same time allow me to develop my intellectual interests. I thought the education I received at St. Mary's would continue; I thought the convent was a continuation of the college, only on a higher, spiritual plane. I had loved the life we had at St. Mary's-beginning and ending the day with prayer, and in between hours of study, social times, meals, all lived in a beautiful setting. I imagined that the full life that I had begun at St. Mary's would carry over into the convent life, where I would be able to continue to study and eventually to teach. I would find more inspiring teachers whose learning was infused from the Holy Spirit.
What a surprise I had upon entering the convent
My first shock was
the wardrobe of things I was to bring with me, including "birdseye"
instead of kotex. (Actually we had kotex; the "birdseye" was
used for cleaning rags.) Things like black serge, all the homely nightdresses
and old fashioned undergarments were a shock to my family, but mother
dutifully outfitted me in the clothes of a nineteenth century peasant
girl--long black stockings, sturdy black oxfords, undershirts, black
serge clothes. In the convent we made blue aprons and petticoats, black
serge skirt, waist and cape out of the materials we had brought.
In front of the Novitiate
treasure of my past life that I brought along was a farewell letter from
my high school boyfriend Jim Hense. I missed him, and kept wondering why
I was doing this, when I really wanted to be in love, with him or with
someone else. Later, he left to join the Jesuits in France, and oddly
ended up in LeMans France, teaching at a school run by Holy Cross Priests.
He sent me a card with the coffin of Basil Moreau, the founder of Holy
Cross. He later told me he wrote me a letter, but this card was the only
correspondence of his to reach me, perhaps because of Basil Moreau. Another
souvenir of my past confronted me when I opened my trunk in the basement
and found buried some cigarettes that Kathleen had stuck in for a joke.
I resolved to put up with everything when I arrived on August 5, 1952 to begin my new life. I remember how stark, austere it was as we went to the basement where our trunks had been delivered, and took off our worldly clothes, which were whisked away never to be seen again, and put on a temporary habit of black wool, which seemed so heavy in the August heat. We then proceeded upstairs in the old Augusta Hall to the dormitories where we had been assigned a bed and bedstand which the 8 of us were the only occupants at present. (In September the rest of our band of 64 new postulants would arrive, by which time we would all be pros and could teach the others the ropes.) Each of our cubicles was surrounded by white curtains, which we pulled at night when we went up after Grand Silence. In the mornings we rose early at 5:30 a.m., dressed in silence, opened our curtains, then went down to chapel for prayer (matins and lauds), followed by Mass, then breakfast, all in silence.
Through the day in the life of the postulant
At breakfast we all sat at assigned tables where our napkins and napkins rings and cutlery remained all week. One sign of my life remained with me throughout the postulate. We were to bring our own cutlery, so instead of just bringing something from our kitchen as others had, I had picked out a knife, fork, teaspoon and soupspoon of contemporary Scandinavian design, which was very big then. Sr. Marianna looked at it, smiled indulgently and commented that she had never seen anything like it and showed it to others as something very strange indeed. I felt out of place, like I was having an art show, whenever I unrolled my napkin and laid out my cutlery. Eventually as we all grew more and more alike in everything, my cutlery embarrassed me by reminding me of how "arty" I had been. As we listened to words from the Imitation of Christ, which directed the longings of my heart and gave me the theme of renunciation. "There is no greater way below nor higher way above than the way of the Holy Cross, my cutlery looked decidedly out of place. I was glad to give it up when I became a novice.
After breakfast, still in silence, we might stand in line to ask permission from Sister Marianna (mistress of postulants) or Mother Regina (novice mistress).for something -to go somewhere out of our normal route-any deviation from the normal needed permission. Or we might go off to attend to our "obedience" du jour-usually a cleaning job in my case. I cleaned the refectory, the community room, the chapel, the dormitory, the bathrooms, the sewing room, the hall, the stairs-basically our whole realm. I got good at cleaning but have relapsed considerably since then. On Tuesdays after obedience, we went to the laundry, where, using old irons heated over gas fires, we ironed the community's linen. In the winter, this was a place to get warm, but in the summer, it was a "2-band" place (meaning we wilted two bands in the heat). After our obediences we went to our rooms, to tidy up before class. Classes covered the order's rules and constitutions, which we had to memorize. Midmornings we had a break for "collation." On Tuesday afternoons, we received clean napkins, bands and occasionally new flutes. We had marked our things with our assigned numbers. Mine was 1602, reflecting the size of the congregation at the time. On Wednesdays, we went to choir class, where Sr. Cecile Marie directed us in singing Gregorian Chant or preparing motets for some upcoming community affair or major feast such as the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows or any of the big Marian feasts. I loved the music, feeling in tune with the ancient spiritual life of the Church that I had expected to join when I entered.
A Regulated Life
As I had liked the regular life we led at the college, I could hardly complain about how regulated our lives suddenly became. At 11:30 a.m., we had to stop everything and get our office books and rush to the chapel in time to chant the hours of the Divine Office: Prime, Terce, Sext and None. Eleanor O'Kane used to resent this, as did others, for interrupting their work. I felt that the work we were doing was mostly busy work anyway, and that our real work was the Office. I didn't get "attached" to or proprietary about my tasks until I got on mission and began working on my own projects. In the novitiate and scholasticate, except for reading and intellectual tasks, I always thought what we were doing was pretty trivial compared to serving God in prayer. A lot of propaganda was propounded to make us think that every trivial thing we did in the convent was the same as the greatest task. In fact, the more trivial, the better. Planting cabbages upside down because the superior ordered it was considered the right spirit. We were never to contest the superior's orders, no matter how trivial or misguided they might appear.
Lunch was again spent in silence, listening to some light spiritual reading. Mother Regina liked a little mirth, but not too much. After lunch, we had "recreation," either in the community room or walking around outside in good weather. In the community room, we darned our socks religiously. I remember Miss Lutz, the greatest and holiest darner we had. She had the right spirit. I thought she was very holy because she took trivial assignments very seriously, even a bit self-righteously. I could never compete with her. I was the intellectual who wandered about in a fog, while Sr. Anne Frederick and Ms. Lutz settled right down to domestic service, which I now realize was what we were there for. We were the downstairs domestics for a great house, only it was no longer priests but the General Council, Provincial Council, or College sisters who were the upstairs.
|During recreation we got to know each other better, and released our frustrations by laughing at what we were doing. Eleanor O'Kane, who had a PhD and had taught Spanish at the college and was at least 16 years older than we, set the intellectual tone for our group. She had a skeptical perspective on what we were being told. Margaret Crotty from Boston also questioned things and was a humorous skeptic. The community was a sort of second parent to me. I was used to being ordered about by my mother, and the superiors took over from my mother in demanding obedience and submission from me. Where I had rebelled against submission to my mother, I granted it to the community. I felt myself to be too eccentric anyway and didn't want to appear any more odd by questioning, but I was enlightened by the criticism of Margaret and Eleanor O'Kane.|
Afternoons were spent studying or working on whatever assignments we had. We college graduates took advanced classes in theology, which I loved, as I had taken theology classes in college. I felt a certain freedom then to pursue my own interests, and I began to look in the library for books that would fulfill my expectations when I had entered the community. Sister Marianna would talk to us, mostly about deportment. She was trying to turn high-spirited high school graduates into demure nun-like ladies, with eyes modestly cast down. I remember Mother Regina used to say she could always hear us coming "on horseback."
About four in
the afternoon, we could come in for a break and have afternoon "collation,"
which was usually peanut butter cookies and milk. When someone had a
birthday, as I did when I was 22, our parents might send us a "treat." During this time we could talk, quietly. I was in a quandry. On the
one hand, birthdays seemed to me too trivial to be remembered, on the
other, when I returned too late from an errand, only to find all the
cones gone! My heart was crushed. It was praline, my favorite, and no
one had even noticed I was not there or saved any for me--on my birthday!
I consoled myself by thinking of the Little Flower who delighted when
she was not noticed.
When the other
postulants were silly, I was not. I was serious about religious life
and thought we should be solemn and not frivolous. Had I not forsaken
everything for this path? How could I be cast down by the loss of an
ice cream treat? If I weren't in the convent, I could have all the ice
cream I could eat. Hadn't I lost my perspective on this, to be so excited
about a very minor pleasure, when I had given up the great pleasures
Around 5 or 5:30 p.m., we again stopped what we were doing and assembled in the chapel for a half hour of spiritual reading and a half hour of meditation. The novice mistress advised us to stick to simple writers and not to imagine ourselves too advanced. Often I became lost in space, feeling my heart burning within me. What was this wound in my heart? Was it all my suppressed feelings of anger and hurt, which I was cherishing? Later in my life, when I have felt very hurt and wounded emotionally, this feeling returns. I think I cultivated it in the novitiate. I thought, My heart is burning with love of Jesus.At dinner we usually ate in silence, while listening to some life of a saint (or maybe that was our luncheon fare) read to us. Occasionallly, Mother Regina would ring the bell, say "Praised be to Jesus Christ, " and we would all burst out talking--on a feast day or for some superior's birthday, or on big community feastdays (Sept. 14, the Exaltation of the Cross or the feast of Our Lady of Seven Dolors). This gave a feeling of festivity to our drab lives. All this seemed artificial to me--an artificial joy. Imagine, getting excited about being able to talk! I lived in the seriousness that had fallen upon me, and found it hard to cast it off for a feastday, which seemed too light a way to take so solemn a feast.
After meals we had the opportunity to "ask permission" or to "give an account" to the superior. Lines of postulants formed before Sister Marianna and novices before Mother Regina. If we had talked during times of silence, broken something, lost something (e.g., "our watch") we reported it, no matter how trivial. I believed that these were trivial matters, yet I had been taught that "he who is faithful in the smallest things will be faithful in the greater," so I was scrupulous about asking permissions and giving accounts. After giving our account, we kissed the floor and left. There were many opportunities to kiss the floor, for example, if we came late to office or Mass. Some people kissed the floor when they were late for dinner. Kissing the floor could become a competitive sport.
After recreation, the bell rang again and we assembled in the chapel at our places,where our office books were, and we chanted wespers and compline. Sister Regina intoned: "The Lord be in my heart and on my lips while I sing his holy office." After office, we went to bed, in a state of meditation. I tried to have God upon my heart and in my mind when I fell asleep, and the first thing in the morning, when the bell was rung, and we all answered "Praise be to God."
As I am writing this 50 years later, I no longer have in my heart the simple devotion I had then. I may have been 21 when I entered, but I was still like the simple girl at Clyde who wanted to stay with the sisters and devote her life to God.
Taking the Veil
After six months
as postulants we were going to be allowed to "take the veil"
-the white veil of the novice. For months before that event happened
in February of 1953, we made "bridal books" anticipating our
espousals to the King of Kings. That was the kind of language we used.
We vied with each other to adorn our bridal books with extra good deeds,
aspirations and rosaries, so that our hope chest would be full on the
day we wed our Spouse. We were totally into this, as surely as if we
were marrying an earthly spouse.
|Anticipation was high. The big question was what names would
we be known by as religious? We were allowed to make suggestions, but
they weren't guaranteed. I wanted to be known as Thomas More. Ever since
I had studied him and read his biography by R. W. Chambers, he was my
As the day approached, we memorized the words we would answer when the Bishop asked us if we would renounce the world and seek to become spouses of Christ in the Congregation of Holy Cross. The presiding Bishop was to be an uncle of Dorothy Murnane, Edward Hoban bishop of Cleveland. All our parents came. My mother had made me a white satin "wedding gown" to wear and we had wreaths of flowers in our hair as we processed up to the altar in the convent chapel. "My daughter, what do you desire?" "Your excellency, we desire to take the habit of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross." I am not sure of the exact words. The climax of the ceremony, after the Bishop accepted us as candidates for the Order, was our removal to a separate room, where we had our hair cut off and donned our new habits and white veils. Then we processed back into the Chapel for all to see. We were then given our names. Dorothy was given the name "Miriam Edward" in deference to her uncle the bishop; I was given the name "Joseph Frances"- -the names of both my parents; Florence O'Brien, who had entered from the college staff, was given MY name, Thomas More! From then on, my secular identity was gone. I was a nun.
How I Spent a Year as a Novice
|The only views one got of the white-veiled novices were in the long processions that we were in, with our veils pulled, our hands tucked in our sleeves, on the way to the Big Church.|
During our year
as a novice we continued the same daily regimen as we had as postulants,
only we did not go to classes or engage in anything "secular,"
or speak to anyone; we couldn't even speak to the professed sisters
except when they were allowed to visit us. We were set aside for something
more important, a purely spiritual year. It is true that we studied
meditation and took Choir along with the spiritual reading and rules
and constitutions that we devoted much time to. Yet it was uncannily
like a year of domestic service of a peasant girl in the nineteenth
century. Embalmed in the congregations' formation process was the approach
used with the pious country girls who entered in France in the early
days. They were rough ignorant country girls used to punishing work
in laundries and barns. They needed to be reformed first in their manners.
Hence Sr. Marianna's obsession with manners, and her belief that "first
the exterior, then the interior" mattered. Patricia Geraghty who
was named in religion for St. Benedict Labre, the saint who lived on
a rubbish pile, found that highly amusing, "His inner life should
be a rubbish heap, according to Sr. Marianna's theories."
One day at our regular constitution class Mother Regina asked what our expectations had been on coming to the community, and whether they were being met. Probably most of us, including Mother, expected a pious remark, but one young sister, Geraldine, from the West, answered guilelessly that she had been told to expect to work like a plow horse. I was truly amazed that our expectations could be so different. I had thought we would be like race horses, but she was right; we were indeed plow horses.
Our life have had its calls to Mass and prayers, but more important always was the call to the kitchen or the laundry. While we were kneeling in prayer or meditation, the rattle of beads in a pew behind would tell us that the important details of heating the stove, making coffee, cereal, etc. had begun. The servers were allowed to leave office or meditation early. All of us took our turns as servers and dishwashers, as laundresses and cooks. Raised as I had been in an upper middle class family--where I thought first of what books I would read that day or where I would travel on my hikes or (in college) what designs or papers I would do that day--this was like being sent to the countryside to be re-educated . Here I learned that the most important value was cleanliness. I was on my knees every day more often to scrub and polish than to pray.
In the midst of this, I did as I had done at St. Mary's, where there was nothing available outwardly to distract me, I turned inside. In the silence and emptiness, I could sense God. I remember one snowy day when we 64 white veils were standing in complete silence outside the Church of Loreto in one of our endless lines, I felt utterly detached. The snow, the silence, the emptiness, the pointlessness of our linings up to get somewhere early then waiting--there was nothing that held me here, nothing I wanted to hang onto, only God. I savored such moments and they kept me there.
Our spiritual practices during the Novitiate were also those prescribed for pious country girls. Time for spiritual reading was provided at 5 p.m., followed by meditation. Mother Regina did not approve of our reading anything that might excite our fancies and lead us to covet or think we were having visions. This excluded Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross and the other mystics. The Imitation of Christ was the chief fare in the refectory. Other suggested writers were St. Francis de Sales, Fenelon, Bossuet. Sr. Mary Immaculate, who was my "black veil," the nun who had sponsored me, came over regularly during times that the professed sisters were allowed to visit. She suggested books for me. One of those was a newly-published book I Want to See God, translated from the French by Sr. Verda Clare, based on St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. I wrote to my parents asking for it. They ordered me a copy-for which I asked permission. (It was understood that things we got during the Novitiate year could be kept for our "use" but that they belonged to the congregation.) In this book and its companion piece I Am a Daughter of the Church, I found a priceless guidebook to the classic stages of spiritual progress. In a sense it was better than reading Teresa herself, for it provided a schematic analysis and gave me an understanding of many concepts that I never heard from our novice mistress or anyone else in that year devoted exclusively toward the formation of our interior life.
Examination of conscience was also important. We continued to "give accounts," for example, if we had spoken to someone. Walking around the convent enclosure we sometimes encoutered workers who might speak to us and we couldn't very well not answer. This lapse we would report. Each week there was a "chapter" in which we would each be expected to kneel down and publicly accuse ourselves of some failing and ask forgiveness from the community.
Meditation as it was taught to us was based on the directed meditations in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. We were given mimeographed pages, containing a scripture passage, a commentary, suggested applications to our lives, suggested resolutions we might make. Thus occupied for the time of meditation, we could not go astray. They daren't turn high school graduates loose with "empty your minds" but recommended that we fill our minds with pious reflections. We could spend the whole time praying the rosary or saying aspirations, as far as they were concerned. Looking back on this period many years later, after having gone to India and found meditation there, I feel that this time as a novice failed to fulfill its main purpose for us, which was to give us a basic prayer life and a spiritual foundation to carry us through the rest of our lives. Of course, time spent in any sort of prayer is fruitful.
How we filled our days with spiritual practices
was another practice we had, but since Mother Regina was our director,
it tended toward the practical. She was not so obsessed as Sister Marianna
with external details of our behavior or habits or walk-as one would
be with smoothing down peasant girls' rough edges. "Exterior leads
to interior," i.e., a good external demeanor mirrors and leads
to a good interior state, was a saying Sr. Marianna believed in. Mother
Regina by contrast had more insight into human nature. When I told her
that I was discouraged because I was nowhere near as perfect as Sr.
Grace Anne, who never had a gather out of place, never leaned back in
chapel, always kept her hands folded and sat up straight, Mother told
me that I had much more than that and not to compare myself to others.
But I wish now that she had alerted me against magnifying faults. We
were warned against many things, but not against scrupulosity. I was
glad that in spiritual reading I found magnanimous souls who weren't
concerned with every jot and tittle.
Certain obediences were only given to those of us who were deemed sufficiently poised and well- groomed, with never a caved band or speck of dust-I refer to the sacristan job and anything associated with the altar; one must look one's best before a priest. Sr. Roseanne and Sr. Christopher Marie (Eleanor Fails) were among the few who met the challenge and were sacristans. I was by contrast unkempt; I sweated profusely and in summer usually had a caved band streaked with yellow sweat.
The virtues I struggled
for were within-modesty and humility, meekness, simplicity, self-abnegation.
While I did not need reform from rough worldly ways like the 19th century
peasant girl, I did need to be humble and meek. In the pictures of us
in our lines, you will see me with eyes cast down, humble and modest.
Actually I could have used a little more encouragement and self-confidence,
a little less self-abnegation. I have had to talk myself into confidence
since that time.
A Year in the Scholasticate
Finally, our year as novices was coming to an end. I don't
remember any special burst of joy or feeling of excitement about it.
We had been bent way over and now, in February of 1954 we would be allowed
to spring back a little toward a normal position. I didn't swing back
nearly enough. I was still bent over and still preferred to keep silence
rather than talk; you might say I was still a white veil in my heart.
It was only gradually that I straightened up.
|We moved out of the big dorm rooms in Augusta Hall and into smaller dorm rooms in Bertrand Hall, the "scholasticate." We were entirely separate from the postulants and novices and had our own dining room, our own chapel. We could go all over campus, talk to anyone when necessary. I felt independent again. We didn't go everywhere in groups but had our own classes and schedules. Sr. Frances Leo was in charge of us, and she treated us like adults, who had things to do. I liked her. Her assistant was Sr. John Michael, a workaholic. She usually had her habit pinned up and her blue apron on as she went to work. When I noticed that in our spare time, we weren't employed in any communal project, I helped organize work crews. That year as a scholastic went by quickly and didn't make much of an impression on me but I became more myself there.|
|Finally in February 1955 our small original band made our first profession. We memorized the vows that we would recite before the priest-"I promise to observe poverty, chastity, and obedience in the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross." The big question now was WHERE WOULD WE BE SENT ON MISSION?
Those of us who were nurses would of course go to hospitals. Those of us who were from the Western or Eastern provinces would go back to work in the missions of those provinces. Those of us in the Midwest would probably be assigned to teach in grade schools and high schools. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't even know where the community taught. We were told that it was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. I was ready for anything.