Then There Were Nuns

Good nuns wear habits, as always.

Nuns are easy to spot, even the unhabited ones. Whether it’s a lack of fashion sense or just a personal commitment to dowdiness, they somehow manage to stand out — like the undercover cop with white socks. The aura of piety and self-denial surrounding the habited nun, however, is often mere affectation in the sister in civvies, or completely absent.

I grew up with nuns. My father had aunts who were Ursulines, the oldest order in the United States. And they were old, too — the oldest women I’d ever seen. We would visit their convent every Easter, marvel at the cancerous carp in the pond near the crypt where the even older nuns were buried, and then sit impatiently in a large stark room with highbacked chairs while Dad paid his respect to his ancient relatives.

My grammar school was run by Teresian nuns, from Chihuahua, Mexico. Sr. Amelia taught me Spanish in fifth grade and often complimented my innate ability to roll Rs. Sr. Isabel, in sixth grade, was the only nun I ever encountered that no kid could stare down. We all tried, and we all failed. She was positively inhuman. Sr. Isabel taught English grammar and thoroughly confused us by applying the principles of Spanish grammar. She was the only person I ever knew named Isabel and I couldn’t stand her, but for some strange reason I gave one of my daughters the same name. It’s the Spanish version of Elizabeth, my grandmother and my sister’s name.

I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, the era of the identity crisis. Everyone was having one. Except me. I seemed to be the only person missing out on the missing out. Actually having an identity, and knowing what my destiny was, was the only crisis I experienced. My parents were both writers, and I knew from the age of eight that that’s what I would be. It made everything so simple. I did leave the Church for 15 years, though, so maybe that was my crisis.

A lot of the nuns left the Church, too. They raised their consciousness and lowered their resistance to temptation. They found themselves and lost their faith. It was tragic.

My freshman English class in high school was taught by an ex-nun who’d married an ex-priest. Believe it or not, her married name was Vigil. One day my classmates excitedly told her that I’d given a sensational “pet peeve” in Speech class the previous hour. My mischievous friends went on and on until they forced a command performance on me. Reluctantly, I stood up and repeated the peeve: “I Hate Nuns.”

Not all the nuns with raised-consciousness and found-selves left the Church, unfortunately. Many stayed on, working diligently to undermine the institution they now loathed. In the past five decades, they’ve wreaked havoc, poisoning the minds of three generations of young Catholics and leading them into apostasy — all the while protesting their fidelity. If the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bad bishops, it must be grouted with the bile of bad nuns.

By the time I came back to the Church, in conjunction with my marriage, much of the nonsense had worked itself out and I was spared the confusion of trying to understand what was going on. Instead of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” the new anthem was “Where Have All the Followers Gone?” The churches weren’t packed on Sundays anymore, but the folks who were there were there by desire and not by default. And the nuns who’d remained habited, I’ve since discovered, are heroic figures, whose orders flourish as others wither away.

Five years after we were married, my wife and I attended Mass one Sunday at my old parish and heard the new pastor sermonize in his thick Irish brogue about the “Treason” nuns who once had taught there. Evann was puzzled by the potentially apt but acid epithet. “Teresian,” I translated.


  1. Nino Baldino

    ..yes from out of the past.after going to college evenings for 8 years and being denied a job in my home town as a teacher after student teaching their,,they hired someone sight unseen from Ohio yet,I had to scoot quick to the new ‘catholic’ high school for a job (being a family man with 7 chldren ) I thought it would be great to teach in such a place,man was I in the above.The Mercy order was coming apart at the seams..they fell for the line that they could do more on the outside of the Church then in..for the poor etc..they also were against our trying to save the folks of Nam from communism and thus in a few short years the order just dried up and died!!!I was the only teacher to present anti-abortion programs at the school etc etc..yes the story’nunsense’ is sadly right on the old button..this is the age of the lay-person!

  2. Aene

    I agree, one can often tell that a woman is a nun, even without a habit, but habits convey so much, and serve as a witness to faith. I never knew anyone – before the changes that religious orders made – who had a “problem” being around habited sisters. Even Protestants shook their heads when Catholic and Anglican nuns adopted lay clothes. Our local sisters gave up their grey dresses and starched, white coronets for shorter skirts and jackets. Some wore little veils (including one sister who perched hers on top of a huge bouffant hairdo) but most did not. I have a photo of myself in 1970, standing beside Sister Agnes, on a windy day. Sister has one hand on her little veil, holding it down, and one on her knee length skirt, doing the same. I stand unruffled in the wind in my ankle length maxi-coat. Go figure.

    Skirts on our nuns eventually gave way to slacks, makeup was worn (they just had to look like the people they were ministering to of course)some drank, one smoked, and numbers in our parish dwindled. One sister even ran off with one of our curates and got married. Eventually, three remaining sisters took an apartment in town, found lay jobs, made community life optional, and the convent became a parish center. Interesting to me that today, the orders of women which are thriving have habits, a more traditional lifestyle, and a focus that isn’t fixated only on the social implications of the Gospels or politics. I like that. In the novel, “In This House of Brede”, a Benedictine nun laments that nuns are turning more and more to the work of lay folk, and adds, “Maybe in time, lay folk will turn to the work of prayer and contemplation!”

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