I want to be fair and say that not all nuns are nuts. Many were sane enough to leave their ‘order’ when they had a choice. I know of families of orphans from which one or more of the girls enter a convent at a young age, institutionalised and never left because they had nowhere to go. A few are meant to be nuns and like it that way.
I went to Catholic convents from kindergarten to the end of high school. I’ve met many nuns of several orders. A lot of them left during those years. Later, I met more nuns when I undertook volunteer work in outback Australia. Those were the ones left behind. Let me say that although I feel I’ve had my fill of them, some were fine human beings.
Sister Saint Paul, my drama teacher during my first year at boarding school was one of them. I gave up drama after she died. From her I learnt to love Shakespeare’s language. Considering that I could barely speak English and was made to read four novels of Enid Blyton a week by the librarian, SSP was responsible for helping me hear the beauty in poetry. If not for her, I would not be a poet today.
One French nun, I forget which one, though fond of hitting us with a ruler, also showed interest in my creativity. She made me sketch the convent for their centenary model, paint scenes and costumes for plays and made me believe that I was actually good at something. I didn’t become an artist for all that but it was not due to lack of encouragement. I preferred to read, and sketching a building to scale while sitting on cold steps was not my idea of fun.
Sister Virginia taught music and believed in me as a singer. She used to take me for walks down the paddock and tried to make conversation with me though my English was poor. The nuns all have their own signals so when she’s wanted back at the convent someone would ring the bell. We’d be talking while the bell was ringing then we’d stop and replay them in our heads. Was it three long and two short – she’d ask and if I concur she’d pick up the shirt of her habit and run back, just like Maria in The Sound of Music. I heard she never took her final vows.
Sister Mary Thomas (‘Fossil’) used to come and collect me after school, when all the boarders were having their tea and biscuit. She’d pick up one of my pinafore strings and lead me away, her other hand holding a bowl of apple cores. We would go to the science lab and feed her rats. They bred out of control because she wouldn’t let us dissect them. She was a gentle old soul and made me feel special as her assistant carer of rats. I have to say that she used to twitch her mouth a certain way that reminded me of her charge.
Sister Mary Michael was the most special of them all. She was our boarding mistress after Bridget who used to talk to our shoes because she was short and didn’t want to look up at the girls. SMM was tall and vibrant, with bright red cheeks and a wide smile. She would play music after school and teach us how to waltz.
Once I crashed another boarder’s head on the floorboards a few times and upon hearing my story, the nun said ‘good on you, Mare’ in delight and made Donna apologies to me for calling me names. I only remember the word Yellow and that made me see red. I chased her around the garden, into the study hall and tackled her. Once we were on the floor it was easy for me to grab her long blond hair before anyone had a chance to pull us apart.
So you see, though some nuns made our lives miserable there were others who were kind and caring. Many who stayed too long became bitter and twisted. Some deserved better lives but had no choice. The good nuns made the best of it and I have been privileged to know a few.