Diary: Jean McGarry, A Girls’ Education

I liked walking the nuns home from school, holding their bags, hoping for a glimpse of their chilly, varnished cave and its holdings. They walked in pairs, briskly, in tent-like cloaks and flimsy veils. I trotted beside them, or behind, but they were already tunneling into their privacy, after a day spent prosing and scolding from a desk propped on an oak platform.

Around me, the hours of the day formed a canonical circle: matins, when fathers trekked out with lunch pails; lauds, hanging sheets on the pulley line; nones, boiling potatoes and cooling jello; vespers, homework, lager beer, bologna and cheese sandwiches for the lunch bag; a joke, slap, and amen to a day when no one sickened and died, when the day’s rages were cooled by sighs and snores, to the tune of the clanking radiator, as the streetlight diagrammed the window.

Two of ours entered after high school. Postulants, novices, final vows mumbled, prostrate and face down in front of the altar, and arrayed for the occasion in one of a handful of wedding gowns stored away in mothballs. It was the day to be veiled, at ceremony’s end, in black, and to be immured as a new possession of the church, bride of Christ, never again to cross the threshold of the tenement—or even the funeral home. Lost to the world to save the world, as we were told, through sacrifice and prayer.

Martha and Ann Marie elected themselves and were accepted as Sisters Columba and Fidelis; and by then, or maybe long before then, I was a lost cause, packed off to an all-girls college devoted to vanity and regimens against boredom: bridge, high tea, social club, weekly bussing to mixers at the all-boys unit, destined to be pinned and engaged, married in the college chapel, and delivered to raise an abundance of offspring in the one true faith.

To my father, who’d suffered at their hands and was fearful of all women except the one he married, they were “holy women,” never to be questioned, even when we brought home a “tale” of boys clocked on the head with a stapler, or stood in the wastebasket for a shameful morning, or day. “No one asked for your opinion” shut me down, so my opinion, if I had one, was lost to me for these many years, now with so few of them left, their home bulldozed, and the remnant tucked away who knows where. Mother Columba came to my father’s wake at the Irish undertakers, in a knee-length, navy dress with bangs visible under a mini-veil.  She had risen to fill a void at the top, her bossy ways unaltered.

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Sisters Columba and Fidelis were, by Rule, never seated side by side, or allowed to pair up at recreation, slated for thirty minutes in the morning, before lunch, and in the afternoon, after classes, assignments, and devotions private and communal. What did they do to recreate? They sewed, making aprons for the Christmas bazaar, embroidering tea towels and handkerchiefs; they wrote letters to the pagan children at missions in Africa and South America; they listened to the peppy Mother Martha, playing Irish and French tunes on the spinet; they wrote home once a month. On warmish days, they circled the yard one way, then the other, of the parochial school. They were not supposed to pray, but some did—it was too stark a chasm in the hours of prayer and devotions, and hourly meditations on the passion and death of their Savior.

Sister Columba was the perfect postulant—cheerful, brisk, with just enough, but not overmuch piety. You could hear her outside the convent’s recreation hall, chortling, gabbing, and zipping from table to table, draining the excess youthful energy for the sake of sound sleep and digestion.

Sister Fidelis made appointments with her spiritual advisor, who duly relayed to the mother superior the portrait of a soul troubled by pious exaltation, an overreaching tinged with pride, a desire for God and godliness, perfection—if you will—an overstressing of the soul that would end (the priest had trained as a theologian), when it faltered, as it would in someone so young, into spiritual dryness, a temptation to despair.

The extra counseling sessions were stopped, and Sister Fidelis assigned to the laundry sister, a Quebecois, who spoke no English, for correction—not a punishment, it was said, because although the postulant was in error, only her divine Savior could distinguish the degree of fault, of intention, perils to the most ardent vocation.

They were destined for the classroom, matriculating at the College of the Holy Sepulchre. If anything, even more spiritual substance was leached, as they filled a reserved portion of seats every weekday, taking notes on stationery furnished by the order. Their days were absorbed with assignments of reading, arithmetic, composition, English grammar, and Christian Doctrine, Church history and penmanship. Their fervid connection to the three persons of God and his mother Mary, and all the saints, was stretched to a thinness.

But they managed and, in the fall three years later, were received into the order, crowned with the black veil as the final vows were enunciated before a full house; and after, helped in the sacristy to strip off the wedding gown and unpin the lacy mantilla covering their shorn heads. From sisters, they were now mothers.  Prayer books, rosaries, and Spiritual Bouquets, handkerchiefs, soap, statues, fountain pens, and boxes of chocolates to share with the community.

And they were returned to our parish and assigned classrooms in Corpus Christi School; Mother Fidelis to ninth grade, Mother Columba to second. While they were away, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, race riots spread across the nation, the thrills of Woodstock and the Summer of Love, the rise of the Black Panther Party, escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, the draft and lottery, the Mass said in the vernacular, stripped of the austerity of Gregorian chant and brightened with simple melodies supported by piano. Nothing was the same, but the Faithful Flock drew the curtain on their quiet lives, and held it shut for as long as they could.

Photo: Jean McGarry’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island

Jean McGarry is the author of nine books of fiction, most recently the short-story collection No Harm Done and the novel Ocean State.

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