The Facebook posts are coming out for Thank a Nun Day on May 5th. Or make that May 9th for other posters. I'm not sure whether the day is some kind of book tie-in (note the shameless plug for "Five Year in Heaven, in the illustration) or a grassroots effort to show gratitude for all that the good Sisters have done for us.
But while I am in love with the new style of nun that has emerged over the last 30 years -- the kindly, feisty advocate for the poor and marginalized -- I have memories of a darker sort.
Growing up in the mill town of Manchester, NH, I was heir to a tradition that contained many mixed agendas. In grade school, we were taught by
Les Soeurs de la Sainte Croix
, the Holy Cross sisters, who were an outfit started in France and exported to Canada, where my ancestors lived. When masses of Canadians emigrated to the US around the turn of the 20th century, the sisters followed, setting up schools and teaching the immigrant kids. They also served as church sextons, washing linens, training altar boys (only boys in those days), swapping out burnt votive candles for new, and generally being the working arm of Catholic liturgical life. If there was a May Day procession to honor the Virgin Mary, the nuns who organized it. Getting the kids to wear white outfits on First Communion? Nuns. Giving piano lessons, putting on plays and playing the organ at Mass? Nuns, again.
The women were driven, ubiquitous and dedicated. They did so much work around church that there was precious little for priests to do but say Mass once a day and bask in their own self-importance. Which many did.
But the sisters' volcanic output of activity came at a price. As teachers of immigrants, they played a enormous role in maintaining the immigrant culture. Children were taught in French half the day, and English the other, a reluctant nod to the predominant English-speaking culture in the US. School included a large dose of Catholic teaching, naturally. The books were old, with black-and-white woodcuts of children walking through dark, overgrown forests, books that seemed ancient even by the standards of the 1960s. Kids sat at desks all day, in silence, with all activity directed by the nun. There was no place for discussion, only answering after being called -- often at random by being picked from a stack of cards with each kid's name on it. Science, when we had it, consisted of copying an outline from a nun who dictated from the front of the room: "I. Rocks. Indent and write a. Igneous. Next line, b. Sedimentary." What math there was culminated, in 8th grade, with the task of adding up long columns of long numbers -- a task more suited to the needs of 1920's shopkeepers than to the children of the Space Age. When one adventuresome (and maybe exasperated) young sister tried to introduce her 8th grade class to the concept of "X," we were totally flummoxed, having no previous clues about x, y or any other algebraic concept.
And the terror.
For me, it started early. One day, when I was 7, we were lined up outside of class to go outside -- whether for recess or to go home I don't recall. We first-graders were lined up in a vestibule -- a small area to hang our coats -- that adjoined the class. I guess I must have said something to my "girlfriend" Charlotte because suddenly, Sister Adrien glared, fished out a pair of scissors hung at her belt beneath her robes, and said sternly (in French) "Would you like me to cut off a piece of your tongue?" That got my attention, and I shut up. Other nuns were said to have struck kids so hard they flew across rooms. Others were humiliated for the most minor of "offenses" (like folding a handkerchief on your desk) by having to kneel in front of the class.
But the emotional terror was probably more scarring. Apart from buttressing our French Canadian heritage (we learned
in French long before the Star Spangled Banner) the sisters were the main source for our religious teaching. But it wasn't all about memorizing the Baltimore Catechism and coloring out pictures of angels, though there was enough of that. By 5th grade, we were getting slide shows on the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to three shepherd children in Fatima. And no show about Fatima would be complete without dramatic images of the children's visions of Hell. Holy Week brought out lurid descriptions of the suffering of Christ, including claims that one of the thorns that crowned Christ's head had gone through the back of his skull and come out his eye! That's a pretty unforgettable image for an 11-year-old, let me tell you.
So, thank a nun? Maybe some people had examples of kindly, dedicated sisters who encouraged them to strive and to grow. Mine were a passel of medieval harpies who scared the bejesus out of me while providing me with a third-rate education. I am thankful that Vatican II dragged the sisters out of the cloister and into the wider world. More than any other Catholic group, the sisters heard Saint Pope John XXIII's call to a new openness to the world. They got educated. They devoted themselves to the poor. They dropped the cruelty and terror tactics. I am thankful for that. But I will never forget what they were for me as a small, frightened boy who only wanted to be good and was treated as little more than an incipient criminal.