How I Left the Convent

St. Joseph's High School, South Bend, Indiana, 1965-66
Another year, another transfer--to South Bend this time, where Sr. Robertina was the principal at St. Joseph's Convent there. She was an efficiency expert, a mathematician. Her narrowness made me feel limited. Certain people are expanders, others are contractors. I was an expander caught in the trap of a contractor.
I was assigned to the English department at St. Joseph's High School, and since there were Holy Cross Brothers teaching there as well, we had some mixed company at department meetings for a change. I remember little about that year except turning students on to J. D. Salinger, keeping a journal, continuing the language group at Loyola, talking with Fr. Tranel afterward, and going to the University of Chicago library on Saturdays to do research. I felt enclosed, cut off. I was into psychology which turned me inward, not art which turned me outward. There was no milieu of creative students at St. Joseph's as there had been at Noll, Schlarman and Woodstock. I began to read Eric Fromm and whatever I could about growth in extremely difficult conditions such as concentration camps. I gradually discovered that I wanted to be my own person, and not be subject to superiors and principals' whims. I wanted to be free. I wanted to be able to grow as I had been reading about in the psychology books. I felt like a prisoner in a concentration camp, like a desert plant which has to go very deep to reach a taproot, like a distorted being.

The Summer of my discontent: 1966

The summer of 1966 weas the worst of my life. After that year with Sr. Robertina, I was struggling to hang on to my frayed vocation. This was the mid 60's; my inner turmoil was reflected in social turmoil. Change was everywhere. Old values were being overturned. Everyone was caught up in experimentation, searching for self-understanding, freedom, honesty about our feelings. Catcher in the Rye embodied that time. I was part of that movement. None of us wanted to be phony. But nuns were not encouraged to examine their feelings; self-understanding was not something we sought during particular examen each night. Wearing a habit was essentially hiding behind a defensive mask, but we didn't see that then. However, under Fr. Curran's breaking through my defenses, Carl Rogers' teaching, Fr. Tranel's listening, I had begun endlessly rending my clothing, searching my state of mind, revealing my anxieties, my fears, my limitations.

How I saw myself confined, in prison, in a drought.

We were all reading psychology books then. I was distraught over what I saw in myself when I turned to these books for an explanation of what was wrong with me--books about people suffering total deprivation in concentration camps, books about what total loss of freedom does to individuals, books about animals traumatized by confinement and repetitive prodding. I wanted to know how to stay alive in a dessicated world. I studied the plants. I read Luther Burbank's Harvest of the Years, about plants' adaptation to harsh environments, about their managing to find an underground source of water to survive a drought. Wasn't he describing me? I had been in a drought off and on since St. Mary's, and especially during that semester at Schlarman when Fr. Kelley tied me down and forbid me to have any after school contact with the students. My journals from this time show me struggling to feel like an adult, to feel independent. Could I even stand on my own two feet without a superior, since I hadn't done it for 14 years? My old rebellion against my mother returned, transferred now to the superiors (first Marie Jeanne and now Robertina!) I felt narrowed, confined, blocked, perpetually adolescent. I wanted to break out, to expand, to see whether I could make it in the adult world. I wanted to respect myself, to be appreciated, to have some meaning and purpose in life. I wanted some work that was worthy of me, some project I could invest myself in that would give me an adult role.

I always expand when I love, but I was also having trouble finding someone or something to love, since my delight in the students and in my projects had been thwarted. Whom was I to love? What was I to love? My feelings were all turning out to be negative-- sorrow, fear, anger, loss. Psychology, my new enthusiasm, instead of expanding me as art did, contracted and turned me inward. How could I identify with negativity? "The normal exercise of any human power results in felt gratification, whereas excessive activity or excessive restraint results in unpleasant experience," I copied from one of my books. I definitely suffered not from excessive activity but from excessive restraint. I tried to learn about emotions from books. "Anger-- a negative emotion which stems from blocked or inadequate participation." That sounded like me-inadequate participation in the full life. Was I angry? "I feel anger when a distasteful burden is put upon me or when I am slighted or insulted," I wrote. Still, anger produced energy. I had a lot of negative energy. Why was I angry? Because I was frustrated?

Enough about negative emotions. I read about the expanding emotions --enthusiasm, joy, hope, love, pleasure, laughter. Enthusiasm appealed to me, but I needed a cause. Where was it to be found? Joy--"Heightened contentment at the attainment of some desired object." But I had lost all my desired objects. I sought the consolations of philosophy. I reread Aristotle's Ethics, looking for the positive emotions, copying passages that applied to me: "In order for a man to be delighted, there is no need to realize all that he desires; for he delights in the realization of each object of his concupiscence." If I had only one object in which I delighted! Was I crippled emotionally? Had I chosen to live with other emotional cripples because I was crippled? Was I so emotionally insecure that I would only feel comfortable in the convent? I was torturing myself, supposing myself inadequate: "Maybe I chose a place where I wouldn't suffer too much ego damage because here they're all cripples too. In the world I often feel rejected where here I can feel superior. If people are nice to me sometimes, I think they feel sorry for me. I feel like I've horned in and intruded, and they're just being nice to me."

How I began stripping off the layers of my personality

The Sixties were concerned with stripping off the masks and hypocrisies to reveal who we really are. "Who am I?" I was stripping off whatever I was hiding behind. I noticed what kind of a person I was becoming--a mothering person, someone who wanted to take over another person, make him dependent on me, make his decisions for him, tell him what was wrong with him. (My usual diagnosis was that he didn't know how or wasn't able to let himself go and enjoy himself, that he was too duty bound. I might have been describing my own problem.) I had been crippled myself by these mothering women and now I was turning into a smothering/controlling woman myself in my relationships with students. My need for independence had been warped and frustrated into helplessness; I needed someone more needy, dependent and helpless than myself to feel independent. Instead of seeing others as independent; I saw them as needing me and dependent on me. Was I projecting my own dependence onto them, I wondered. It gave me a sense that I was an independent adult when I had some students dependent on me or when I found a psychological problem that I could identify. Were we all frustrated mothers in the convent, needing someone more dependent and helpless to rule over? Thoughts like these tired and worried me. I was always analyzing and revising my way of relating with people, always wary that I was too domineering, too possessive, too controlling. I didn't want to come across as a bossy mother. I was trying a new role --counsellor-helper. I wrote a lot in my journal about listening to others, depending on and trusting them with responsibilities, trying to bring them out, helping them, confronting them when they have let me down, etc. Instead of encouraging students to join me in some fun creative project, I was now drawing them into self-analysis, which was destroying me! But both of these approaches reeked of control. I simply wasn't able to relate like an adult without being in control, calling the shots.

How I rejected the community that rejected me

Added to that, I could no longer respect or invest in religious community as run then. It offered nothing but restraint and fear and powerlessness, not expansion and growth. I no longer admired nuns. Since the superior had acquiesced and let Father Kelley take my projects away from me, I felt we were powerless women who let priests run our lives. I longed to participate in some meaningful project that broke free of the limits of religious life. I had done this with my forays into art and theater and debate and speech and films. I always wanted a richer life than the bare minimum. Teaching only high school English for the rest of my life didn't interest me, especially without extracurricular activities, involving the larger community. Usually I had generated those myself: at Noll we got into the Indiana High School speech and debate meets; at Marian Central we had the film society with outside teachers. There was no guarantee that our religious community itself would afford this, and frequently superiors protested when I did. I lamented that my religious community kept us cordoned off from the world and didn't involve us in some adult level projects with lay people. I hated feeling thrown back on the limited resources of the narrow specialized community for support, without any larger input. I wrote to myself: "I want to invest myself positively somewhere. The community keeps us cooped up together, protected from a (they think) religiously hostile world, and it bolsters our sense of Catholic identity and importance and divine origin (and national too--ugh)." The community seemed so narrow; I didn't want to belong to them, with their limited concepts. I didn't believe in the overall project of a convent anymore, as a place where women were protected from the world. Too often, nuns seemed like children, acted and talked like children. I feared identifying with them, being limited to everlasting childhood myself. "I've been acting like a child (it was easiest to do that) when they were trying to make me be one for so long, that I think I'm going to be phony, acting like a mature person when I'm not sure I am one. " I thought the world looked more mature and intelligent than the community. Nuns actually frightened me: "I feel the same irrational fear of them that I felt when I was a child at Clyde--a fear of mothering and dependency. . . There is an irrational fear of nuns in me, because there is something irrational in them. Maybe what depresses and scares me about them is that they seem to have no future, no relevance." I sometimes felt as if I were in an asylum for the mentally incompetent. There was nothing solid to their fun, no center, no seriousness of purpose to their lives.

I was rejecting the community. I didn't want to be shackled to something that to me seemed dead. As my mood darkened, I tried to fight against it, to be a cheerleader when I went out with the nuns: "When we're out together I try to be helpful to them and to focus on them, but they're such dead souls. How can I root for a lot of ghosts except in irony?" Being in a group of dead souls threatened me; I identified with lively democratic people; I feared the dead, feared isolation, feared the irrationality of power. "Perhaps the reason I feel things are hopeless in the community and in the church is the isolated, alienated lives we lead. In the Loyola group I trusted the group's responsibility. But in the convent, with all the responsibility vested in the top, we at the bottom lose hope and all the decisions seem irrational." One of the irrational decisions I feared was where I would be assigned. This nomadic life I had been living, becoming attached to students and a school only to be uprooted, went against my natural need for continuity and my loyalty to those I loved. "I want a place--tenure--job security, plus good working conditions." Only this way could I retain some sense of myself in a swiftly moving society. The impassive faces of the nuns I'd been with-did they not come from not being allowed to invest themselves in a place and work for that place for a long time? Only when sisters were old were they allowed to semi-retire at a mission. Except for some like Sr. Edith and Sr. Scholastica who read the newspaper, the sisters had nothing to talk about. I had been engaged in an interpersonal experiment at a deeper level at Loyola, and I longed for connection with people on a deeper level than we had in community, where personal friendships were frowned upon and all the conversation was on a general level.

My Identity Crisis

Perhaps the worst feeling was that I wasn't being given scope, wasn't being taken seriously, wasn't being trusted with any responsibility, was being marginalized because of who I was. Who was I? The artist? The people I liked and admired and often identified with were the creative, odd, eccentric people, but the community didn't understand these people. They were afraid of artists. Since Father Kelley had complained about and "silenced" me, the nuns in charge thought I was a loose cannon who would do wild things [like have variety shows], make mistakes, get in trouble with the pastor, so better not to give me any responsibilities outside the convent. I didn't doubt that I had made mistakes, but it bothered me that I wasn't allowed to make them. "The community is working with only three fingers, and if I won't be one of those, I don't fit in. The organism (community) is at such a primitive stage of development that it can't use these extras that I bring [art fairs, variety shows, film festivals].. . . I'm on the lunatic fringe. I'm not working at the things they take so seriously; I believe in other things. I look at the nuns and I'm revolted and have no confidence in them and feel more confidence in myself than in them." I saw myself as a sort of rebel, a non-conformist. In the Sixties, non-conformity was in, of course, but not in the convent. I began to doubt and distrust myself. I felt like I'd joined the mental patients. What could I do?

Another obstacle to taking myself seriously was the religious habit which we still wore. There had been much discussion within our community about modernization, which devolved down to a debate on whether to modernize the habit, as if that were the only thing that was needed reform. One whole summer of discussions passed without a decision on that topic. I felt my identity so limited by the habit that whenever I acted in any capacity but nun, I felt like I was posing--"Sister posing as a director," "Sister posing as a film critic," "Sister posing as a therapist." Who would take me seriously? "People wouldn't expect me to be doing this (running a film society). They would regard me as an elementary school teacher on a holiday, or as an eccentric (like Maria Concepta) but wouldn't take me seriously. The fact that women in the world were breaking out of their traditional roles totally bypassed nuns. People expect women to free-lance at other projects now, but not nuns."

In the language of the time, I was "having an identity crisis." Who was I? I felt that everything that I wanted to be identified with had been taken away from me. I was left with "being a nun." In the language group, especially, I felt vulnerable. I didn't know whether to let them laugh at me (as a silly naive nun who didn't know any better). I couldn't get angry with them; I wanted to be their friend. So I became angry at my surrogate mother, the community: "I can't stand the nun situation," I wrote in my Loyola journal. "I feel angry at the order for dressing me up so funny that everybody laughs at me. 'My mommy dresses me funny so everybody'll know I'm hers--her little girl. Her little angel. I feel like she deliberately set out to make me a spectacle of ridicule. I'm blaming my mother when everyone laughs at me. My mother dresses me funny." There was no core of myself that I could recognize and feel good about. I was not known or understood by others, not even by myself.

Worst of all, I felt my talents weren't being used. "This would have been a perfect role for her, but she never had the opportunity to sing it." Hearing these words about a famous soprano broke my heart. I felt that I never had the opportunity to sing the part I was best suited for. What I was good at was not being allowed to develop; whereas what I was poor at was being tested constantly. "This life puts all the burden on my weakest side--social adaptability and social responsibility --without giving me any options. My strong side--my task orientation--is the side of myself that nothing is asked of. There are no options."

How a dead end turned into a corner

All sorts of scales were dropping from my eyes that summer of 1966, inspired by that psychology course at Loyola. I was spending the summer in Hammond, where I could commute to the language course at Loyola, to keep in touch with Fr. Curran and Fr. Tranel, with whom I was still having once-a-week chats. In one of our talks, sitting in the lobby of Loyola's downtown campus, I mentioned to him that looking back on that year at St. Joe's and looking ahead only to more of the same, I felt there was nothing on the horizon for me, nothing to look forward to. I didn't look forward to going back to St. Joseph's and Sr. Robertina and no involvement with the students. I didn't say it but I felt like I was at a dead end. I was limited to being a high school teacher; I could forsee no further development of my career. I yearned for something to look forward to, something coming on the horizon. Fr. Tranel picked up on my pain and reflected back to me: "It sounds like you feel you're getting a diminishing return on your investment." Eureka! That's it! His saying that liberated and unblocked me. There was an option, a door to the future, although a drastic one. I could leave the community.

I faced the fact that I was having to put everything into my life that I wanted, that I was having to nourish and condition myself psychologically to offset what they were doing to me, that I was being damaged rather than nourished in the convent. I was drying up emotionally. I was suffering from insufficient stimulation. There was nothing to live for. "They're putting you in a position where you can't do any harm," he reflected back to me. Was that what I wanted? To be protected against doing any harm? I felt as if I had been defined as a liability. I might as well be dead. I felt that I was in a graveyard of dead souls. "In the graveyard (of the convent), I want to recreate myself, but if they won't let me do it, then they're destroying me. I'm in the graveyard and we're all sitting around dead, and they're pouring more dirt on my head. I can either stay and be a little girl forever, being led around, or I can be mature and responsible for my decisions, direct my own investment." It wasn't so much that I didn't like religious life; I didn't like what being a nun had turned out to be in my life. I wanted to be in the mainstream, to compete without the protective barrier of the habit, to get rid of the games I played because of the habit. "I want to know the two legs on which I stand, my own or the nun's." Father Tranel gave me the courage to stand on my own two legs. I was thirty-five. If I waited much longer, it would be too late to start a new career.

Who should I be? How I cast about for my new identity

What could I do to take myself seriously? Many pages of my journal from the summer of 1966 were devoted to searching for what path I might want to follow. I looked back over the various kinds of projects I liked and had participated in--film societies, plays, variety shows, art fairs, yearbooks--in an effort to discern what I wanted to invest myself in. The accidental way that I found my path, stumbling along through offhand observations, astonishes me as I reread these pages. The community wasn't challenging me, wasn't giving me anything to do which I took seriously. "I want to do some adult work which will make me independent and which I and others will take seriously." I thought about film-making. Film included so many things I loved--drama, photography, design, imitation ("the liveliest art"). The film course I had at ND, the film societies I had been in or led, my photography interests-film was where I was heading. I actually called up some film studios in the Chicago area while at Loyola for my class, to find out if I could get a job with them, to no avail. I had no standing with them. What references had I? Who would take me seriously? Without the protective garb of the nun, who was I? The determination to get some new identity to suit myself forced me on.

What affiliation should I give when applying for a job? Not the convent, definitely. The psych department at Loyola? That was flimsy. " Maybe I'd better go to school a year and affiliate with a name school so I can claim an affiliation honestly." The thought of connecting with a university turned on my typical energy for beginning projects. I imagined myself launching a new career in psychology, starting with a master's degree. I would study anxiety or angst. I always liked to develop projects, so I poured into my journals ideas for research projects that I could work on in the counselling field. "Research on existential experiences of angst and counseling remedies" was the title of one such project: Experiences were to be drawn from literature, art, films, biblical experiences, with insights from the literature on counseling and Thomism. Applications of the counseling remedies would be given for the fields of learning, business and marriage. Later I abridged this: "The area where I'm going to specialize is the expression of angst or fear in art and literature, and the removal of angst by prudence, counsel, etc."

Seeking graduate student affiliation, I called IIT and asked for an application. My journal has all the phone numbers I called and the names of people I talked to and information I received. Giving my "secular name" for the first time in years was the first step to my new identity. I was embarking on my own personal quest. Emboldened by my success in talking to Mr. Jenny, head of counseling psychology at IIT, I called the University of Chicago, still looking for someone who would be interested in my research project of angst in art and literature and counseling. At the U of C I talked to Ernie Newland at 333-2606, then to Dr. Merle Ohlson at 333-2550. While I was talking to them, I asked for literature about the PhD in English, as an afterthought. Counseling was what I was really interested in then, but English was easy. My practical nature immediately seized upon that option. I went over in my mind the advantages and disadvantages of doing the PhD in English, with not too much enthusiasm. "I 'll just have more of the same discipline as I have now, but I'll have gotten shored up again in English. I'll be specializing but can stay open. I can get a better job with a PhD in the fall, at a university. I won't have to take all the science courses I would in a behavioral science program. I can start looking for the values in literature; however, I can't do professional counseling. But I can see how courses are taught there, and maybe I could teach there?" I listed my main priorities "1) independence--to be selp-supporting, self-respecting, responsible for myself; 2) Chicago--where Father Curran and the counseling group are"--I was going to continue hanging onto them, and finally-"3) real work. "

The Ouija Board Method

What would supply all those things to me-independence, self-respect, support, responsibility, Chicago, work? One mystery of my life is how I find my path, not by dreaming of it, but by recognizing it when it appears, like letters on the Ouija board or the writing on the wall. Without having ever had one thought or desire to go to the U of C, suddenly it offered the solution to everything in a very practical way. This was the easiest path. I already had an MA in English, I could probably get into the U of C; that would give me standing and affiliation, a base in Chicago. In writing in my journal these words, in red-letter, staccato sentences: "I could stay in Chicago and go to the U. of Chicago in English," I stumbled onto my path. I was just being practical.
Once I set a course, I head straight for it and don't look back. I wanted to combine English with psychology. "Go to U. of Chicago tomorrow.... I think I need to experiment right away in Chicago though, while I think of it...If I'm going to be self-invested in English, I ought to start or study it.... I don't want a full time job, but I do want a job."
Perhaps the great drive that carried me through graduate school, into a university teaching career, with all sorts of side forays into art, writing, travel, etc., came as an explosion of energy resulting from my being blocked in my task-seeking in the community. Perhaps this red-letter discovery was the first burst of energy that rewarded me for shooting through that door Father Tranel opened for me in that summer of my transformation.

August, 1966

Once I had made up my mind and had a destination, I made an apointment with Mother Verda Clare and went to South Bend during July. As I was talking to her, telling her of how I felt, she remained passive, totally unresponsive. It was like talking to a blank wall. I told her about my interest in counseling and my desire to develop a research and learning project, but she didn't take it seriously. At that time we were only teachers or nurses; we didn't carve out careers in fields that interested us. I was a math and English teacher, as far as she could see; what was I talking about counseling for? We didn't have a need for "counseling." As I talked and she sat there in silence, my words seemed to be falling into a well. I pushed on to say that if my life couldn't change within the community, I would have to leave. Perhaps I was hoping she would respond, "Well, dear, why don't you take a year off, go and take the counseling program at IIT, and come see me next year." No luck. She gave me no hope. "So I guess I'll have to leave," I said, my voice falling into the grave. I had backed myself out the door, and she hadn't stopped me. All she said was "You must go and see Mother Kathryn Marie and ask her permission to leave." After 14 years, no effort to keep me. And, as always, I would have to ask permission. So I made an appointment with Mother Kathyn Marie, who had been the dean while I was at St. Mary's. She was more upbeat than Mother Verda Clare. She didn't offer me anything, but at least she had some spirit and gave me some of hers. I didn't feel like it was the end of the world after talking to her. She told me to write a letter to her giving my reasons. Back at Noll on July 29, I wrote this letter, covering over all my emotions with a flood of self-analyses that she must have thought was crazy. I had to back up my request to leave with authority figures, so that she would see I wasn't leaving just on my own capricious motivation, but under guidance.

Dear Mother,
Since I talked with you Wednesday I have had several more talks--with Sr. Alma Clare [our superior at Noll] and with Father Tranel. I tried to see Father Curran, but he said he has been refusing everyone who has asked him this summer, because he is too busy. I feel satisfied without talking to him, however; Sister and Father have helped me clarify my feelings. As I see myself now, I have been consciously desiring independence in order to be able to respect myself, yet unconsciously desiring dependence. This conflict has expressed itself in a "reaction formation" in my behavior so that I held back from participating and investing myself; I became a loner, standing by unless invited.
In order to overcome this reluctance to commit myself to the project, a powerful force in myself moving me to the good of the project itself is necessary--an otional response of love or desire for some suitable good. [Aristotle's Ethics, no doubt.] I do not feel this toward the general projects of the community. I desire to help others, but I don't believe in traditional Catholic education. I believe in experiments, but I understand that the nature and extent of the community's commitments at present limits this and leaves it to others. [Note: not me]
In order to turn aside from my self-defeating direction in the community, I am asking for a dispensation from my vows. I value very highly the training I have received and the rich companionship and closeness to the source of new thought which we have enjoyed. I feel guilty in leaving because I think I have been a dependent and used the community for my dependency needs. [I hadn't realized that the community had been using me, without any recompense, for 14 years.]
At present I am looking for a project which will apper to me as a 'suitable good."
I have several ideas [really just two: MS in Counseling at IIT or PhD in English at U of C] all of which may prove impractical but the long-range goal of self-investment and independence appeals to me.
Sister Joseph Frances

This is the only outer document I have from that summer. In it I sound like the therapist treating Sr. Joseph Frances, and diagnosing her problems and recommending that she leave as part of her treatment. I was not the nun Joseph who was torn by confusion and pain. This detached role allowed me to retain control and distance myself from Sr. Joseph Frances and the bad things she was doing (having bad feelings and wanting to leave). I was standing behind her, helping her. While she was misbehaving, I was "keeping up appearances." My cool scientific exterior masked a painful interior, too terrible to allow myself to get close to. In my journals however, I was still digging up my fears and insecurities. On the very day I wrote that self-possessed letter, my journal about the class held earlier that Friday revealed self-distrust: "If I haven't any direction myself, then I can't imagine anyone else can, so I take always a negative direction. I've trapped myself in a negative direction. I've seen everything as an attack on myself and defended myself against it."

I called my parents to tell them I was leaving. They must have wondered when I called, for I always wrote to them, never called, and my letters were always cheery, covering up my pain. My father wept, and my mother had to convince him that it was a good thing. Fr. Lakas, a Jesuit at Rockhurst College, talked to them and reassured them that it would be good. He was a friend of my brother Joe and understood human needs above the needs of religious communities. Eventually my father got to the point where he felt sorry for nuns when he saw them (to think that they were losing ME).

Bold, Fearless, and Clinging: how I struggled for independence

I applied at IIT and at the University of Chicago; fortunately their fall quarter didn't begin until October and they were still accepting admissions. I still had a big question whether going on for graduate work was really what I was looking for. Perhaps I should get a job? "Will this meet my needs for status or recognition, response, new experience, security, independence, financial independence? I would respect myself more if I got a job; otherwise I'll be putting off becoming responsible for a year." I was seeking independence, yet I was still clinging to the group at Loyola in August, still going to classes, for security, to hang onto something familiar. I was especially clinging to Fr. Tranel, depending on his good opinion, looking at him as a bridge figure, the only one from my old life who knew about and approved my choice.

I was totally confused about dependence and independence. I was stepping out into independence, but I was really very insecure and dependent. I needed shoring up. Dependence was the strong undercurrent pulling me down underneath the surface of my independence. I covered my dependence with aggression and showy independence and I said whatever I felt like. I had many questions about Fr. Tranel. Would I see him after I left? I still needed a helping relationship. "Am I going to find someone else to listen to me now? All I need is a listening ear. I can walk as long as I know someone is there listening. He doesn't have to be the one helping me." I was leaving to become an adult, yet I still felt like a child, looking for a caring adult to look after her. "Am I going to the U. of Chicago to find nother adult to depend on?"

Every step of the way was a tentative step toward independence. I was leaving the community and I needed a place to live. One page of my journal is marked "Apartments." I knew nothing of Hyde Park addresses in those days and wanted to be around the Midway. Now that I have lived in the Hyde Park area for thirty years, those hit-or-miss lists amaze me. I certainly wouldn't want to live at the addresses in Woodlawn ; in fact, of all the places I have listed, only the Cloisters is a desirable address.

Self Doubt

"Right now I'm panicking because I m so insecure and haven't heard yet from the U. of Chicago. I feel sure they'll reject me. (At the same I feel sure they'll be glad to have me.)" I was having my doubts that I even wanted to go back to grad school; I thought about applying for a job teaching in Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, near my parents' home. "I don't want to have plenty of time to study; I want to work." I had remorse about people I would be letting down by leaving. I felt guilty about promising people things: "I find it hard to let people depend on me. I can promise more than I can produce." I had to reassure myself by reading Aristotle and "the higher good" : "All I know for sure now is that I am searching for something good in my life--not just a continuation of my former dependency needs." My sensitive appetite was grieving over all the the lesser goods I would be giving up, all the pleasures of trips with students and friends. I was cutting off a whole world of friends that I had had for many years--nuns, students, parents. I would just disappear into the night as soon as that summer session ended. "All the old familiar particular goods I am letting go, but can I? I am afraid. My soul is sorrowful in the presence of this upheaval and uprooting. I don't need another year of study, especially about theory, but I need to choose some particular goods which are means to the end. I need responsibilities. I need to stop thinking about myself and get involved in something with other people-e.g., in a learning experience. I always want to do something different--art? Maybe it would be good for a year just not to think." I thought that, after all the years of denying my sensitive appetites, they were now rebelling, causing me grief and sorrow. And I couldn't escape into activity, for I was incarcerated at the Provincial House in South Bend, waiting for my dispensation.

How I left with my tail between my legs

In those days when nuns were still in their habits, we had to wait until a dispensation from our vows came from Rome, which took several weeks. While at the Provincial House I felt extremely depressed as I went to services and meals with the other nuns. They all knew why I was there, waiting to leave. I felt I had no common goal with them. That bond had been broken. I was like a woman still living at home with her husband while waiting for her divorce. The nuns staying at the Provincial House were often ones with problems-mental problems, transitions. To me they seemed coddled. "Instead of coddling our ill and disturbed, we should be turning outward and assuming that everyone here can keep up the pace," I wrote. "We have coddled our idiocyncracies too long. I want someone to say 'Get to work, Joseph; your problems are blocking us from making progress.. . . Why limp along with the group in lock-step when you can see the goal is to get lined up with lay people and help others?'" The nuns were caught up in the usual transitory affairs of daily life in convents, all the minutiae which I could no longer even try to take an interest in. I was unable to talk to them. No one was concerned with what I was doing; I no longer counted. For one who always wanted to be "in," alienation was very painful. "Around the nuns I have a feeling that I am not a person; I feel passed by all the time. Only when I feel myself operating do I know I'm there."

I called the U. of Chicago graduate admissions office to ask what my chances of being admitted were. The admissions secretary said that my application looked strong, that someone had circled the courses in Greek on my transcripts. She buoyed my spirits; she was from the outside world and to her my application looked strong. "I depend on people like the woman in the admissions office to understand. I feel like I present myself to them and they accept me as an adult." In my desperation, I made notes to myself: "Call K.U. and apply." I had the phone numbers of the graduate school and the English department written in firm red.

That August was scorching, as I stayed in the basement of the provincial house making an outfit to wear in the outer world. I made a skirt and blouse, size 16, not realizing that I had lost weight and was down to a 14 or even 12. The superior was Sr. John Vincent, but I felt sorry for her. She was for me a final example of what could happen to me. She was --"frustrated, with nothing meaningful to do yet trying to show her love by doing everything, and miserable because there's no response."

When the dispensation finally came, I called my parents who drove up to get me. My 69 year old father and 62 year old mother drove in the heat of August and loaded my trunk into the trunk of their car. The night before I left, the chaplain, an ancient priest, read me my dispensation, concluding with these words of his own: "And if, by some chance, you should happen to save your soul, it will only be because of the years you have spent as a sister of Holy Cross." Those were the last words for me from my community. No goodbyes were exchanged. I felt I was leaving in disgrace, with my tail between my legs. The ones I wanted to say goodbye to were not the ones who stayed at the Provincial House. My best friend Dorothy was in France, and had called me in disbelief when she heard the news. (She left several years later.)

The next morning we drove away from the convent, I in the new outfit I had made, taking my trunk and the $200 that was returned to me-- my "dowry." As we were leaving, I felt numb. There was nothing positive to look forward to. I didn't know where I was going, having heard from neither IIT or the University of Chicago. But a great rock was lifted from my heart. At last all the painful burden was removed. I felt free.

Counting my blessings

When I left the convent that August with $200 and a feeling of numbness, I didn't know it but I took many intangible benefits with me. All the self-exploration of that tormented summer afforded me guideposts for my future life. That pent-up frustration of my creative energies afforded a burst of energy with which I left the convent (negative though much of it was) that carrried well into my post convent life. Although I would specialize in English, I would put into my life all the other things I wanted--art, films, theatre, music, even counseling. I would prove that I was doing the right thing. Oddly enough, another blessing was that I wasn't married at 35. When I was choosing, I didn't have to follow a man's choice-I could have it all. No one was stopping me, or questioning me. In fact, in my family, as I saw, my brother was trying to have it all.

As I reflect back now on my fourteen years in the convent and how they influenced the years that followed, I see that I personally benefitted in many ways from the experience. When I see young people today waiting for just the perfect job or career, postponing making that big step even into their thirties, I must admit that it was good that at 24 I was simply sent into classrooms with 40 students and told to begin teaching, even when I wasn't prepared; the students were my responsibility. I had to step up to the plate and teach them algebra or English or bookkeeping, without making any excuses or asking for any delays. Now I do not dither and have no patience with dithering; when I have to do something, I get to it, and wonder when others cannot get started.

Also congenial was the scheduled life. Our whole life was regulated by bells, starting with the rising bell at 5:30, summoning us to Matins, Lauds, then meditation and Mass before the 7 a.m. breakfast bell, in order to be in the classroom by 7:45 in order to preside over the students as they arrived between 8:00 and 8:30 school bells-all that regulated life laid down a deep discipline and regularity in me, to which I was no doubt disposed, as I know others who left and immediately adjusted to sleeping in. I am an early riser to this day. A recurring dream that I had years after I left the convent was one in which I still wore the habit, though I knew I was no longer a nun. I was happy knowing I could step out of it at any time, so I continued wearing it. I couldn't figure out why I had that dream, but now I believe it was that the disciplined life was so congenial, I was still observing it.

I also enjoyed the sense of accomplishment in fitting so much into one day-all that I had to do and all that I wanted to do on the side. Doing spiritual practices, teaching 5 classes, meeting with students after school to work on yearbook or newspaper, coming home in time for Vespers, spiritual reading, dinner and "community hour," preparing for classes the next day, and besides that preparing for a debate or speech contest or rehearsing for a play, I had the energy for it all. I went into overdrive and thrived. I loved to be busy, to see the product of my efforts, to see the students enjoying themselves and being productive. All my problems with the community began when I was deprived of extra work and projects. People now ask me where I get the energy to do all I do. If they could have seen me then, they wouldn't ask.

Best of all was the pleasure I got out of discovering and bringing out hidden talent in students. Because I had always been aware of and had had to fight for my individuality, I could recognize the individuality in others and reach out to individuals. I could recognize what someone might be good at and I wanted them to have the chance to develop. Each class presented me with 40 students, aged 14 through 18, whom I had to get to know quickly. I was eager to know their names, to get to know them as individuals, to size up their readiness, to see what I could do with them, so to speak. I recognized which students were looking for something else and which were content on their own planets. I could sense what motivated them-usually the desire to feel part of the action. I could provide the action and invite them to join in. Once I knew everybody, I could give each something special to do, relating to that person's special interest. A good reader would become the narrator. One with a comic turn would get a comic part. I was definitely into giving individual attention. I would create an atmosphere of group participation in which everyone could shine. This was my ideal classroom

And how fortunate I was to have taught in Catholic schools, where there were parents at home and a nun in school-laying down the law. When I was in graduate school and substituted in the Chicago public schools for extra money, I wondered how any teaching could get done.

A downside

I had become more pessimistic and self-doubting after this struggle. My convent experience had made me see indifference everywhere. I readily understood and internalized the feelings of those who lived under oppressive regimes that cared nothing for their subjects (e.g. The Gulag Archipelago). I expected indifference to my efforts; if I asked for some help or concession, I was prepared for nothing. This negative expectation has plagued my life; it has also made me skeptical--which can be good. Fortunately I didn't feel this way with students or with creative people in general, whom I felt free to ask anything.

With encouragement, I might have grown old as a nun teaching high school students like those I had had. But even had I not left the convent then, I would have left a few years later, when the general exodus from religious communities began in earnest. Within ten years, the nuns were out of their habits, living on their own or in small communities without a superior, practicing ministries undreamt of by our superiors' philosophy. I had anticipated the life that they would be living. I seemed to sense that, at thirty-five, the moment for me to leave had arrived-when I was still young enough to begin a new career. But what would that career be?

Home Memoirs