Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Turning Points

November 4, 1967, four days after I turned 21 and didn't need my parents' permission, I took a Vermont Transit bus to Boston, walked from the old station carrying a fairly light suitcase to 17 Louisburg Square, and rang the doorbell. The door was heavy oak with a grill at eye level. Sister Emily Louise opened the door and invited me into the parlour at the top right of about five stairs. St. Margaret's Convent smelled of a combination of candle wax, floor wax, incense and other scents that still stir me when I encounter them. All was quiet. Sister Eleanora, who was novice mistress at the time, must have taken me to my room. I was wearing a navy skirt, a lovely white and blue flowered blouse Mum and Dad gave me for my birthday, and a wedge wood blue sweater.

Front door - St. Margaret's Convent, 17 Louisburg Square

What is now # 19 was the main door at # 17.
Trying to make my scanner work with better images, but it's not willing.
The convent was first 3 townhouses, and then # 13 was added.
For the next two weeks, I did what I was asked, settled in to some extent, and at Vespers on November 20th, I walked down the aisle in my little and long black dress with the Peter Pan white removable (for laundry purposes) collar and black cloth belt, a tiny white veil, black socks and shoes, genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle on the altar, turned right and knelt in the postulants' stall. I was received as a postulant and began my journey in the Religious Life 46 years ago this evening.

Chapel - 17 Louisburg Square

What is it that aches still? A longing that Ken Genge, our parish priest in St. Lambert in the early 80's, said meant I still loved God.

I was so young. Immature even, though I didn't realize it of course. I was terribly homesick for months, and yet also settled in to my new home as if I'd always belonged there. I'd sit on the roof at night and imagine that the same stars were shining over Montreal. And I missed playing street hockey with my brother, Jim. I had always been terrified of going away from home - as if someone would die while I wasn't there to protect them ... or ... as if I might. 

Still, it was right. 

I was a little startled by the little wooden stool we were required to sit on at the feet of the novice mistress for our Sunday afternoon conference. How are things going? Spiritual and otherwise? I felt like a fish in water - I belonged. Always terrified of making mistakes, of course - that's normal - or was in those days - terrified of being sent packing. 

Sister Eleanora had me cleaning guest rooms. It's one of those conundrums - I can never remember which was the right way and which was the 'wrong' but whatever, I did it 'my' way which of course made more sense. Do you dust first and then dust mop the floor after stirring up the dust - or do you dust mop the floor, stir up the dust, and then wipe the window ledges and such? Well, it was important - and she told me I was stubborn - with a twinkle in her eye - and thus came into being one of the sayings I still use with great regularity: "Stubbornness can become perseverance." And I persevered. For a long time. Some of the most wonder-full years of my life were lived as a Sister of St. Margaret.

Sister Eleanora was an upright, tall, large-boned woman who wore glasses, could be quite serious, and who also had a sense of fun that kept developing. Over the years, working with her at Trinity Mountain Camp in CT and at the convent, she was a model for me in some ways. She and Sister Felicitas I think of as being two of many, really, who could hold onto what was most important in the Religious Life and who could let go when times a'changed. 

Sister Felicitas - ahh - Mother Mary Agnes had told her once (or more than once?) that she was a rebel. Or was it another word beginning with 'R"? Radical! that's it! At any rate, she took it as a compliment, though it probably wasn't meant to be. She was tiny, feisty, spoke her mind, stood firm and bent when necessary. She was the first Sister I met - as she was in charge at St. Margaret's Home in Montreal. I remember going over for a meal and services - and the first one was a Friday dinner. Urrgghh. Silent Friday dinner. And FISH. In those days, the sister-in-charge dished up our food. So, I had a plate full of dry white fish, (I don't like fish, dry or not), white boiled potatoes, and probably some vegetable. Well, I struggled on... and on ... and on ... while the Sisters finished and sat politely. Sister Jane, Sister Juliana, and Sister Rosemary, I think. Sister Felicitas must have had pity on me and ended the meal, or I'd still be trying to swallow that pesky dry fish and dry potatoes.

Sister Eleanora went on to be in charge in NYC in February 1968, and Sister Rosemary became our novice mistress. One of my favourite people ever, anywhere. Sister Rosemary was nutty. The very best kind of nutty. She often spoke before putting her brain in gear, and sometimes acted impulsively as well. A story is told about her giving away a Sister's pair of boots to someone who came to the door needing boots. And I think she gave knitting away as well - not her own. She had a heart as big as the ocean. She loved Jesus. She was generous and loving. Whenever I hear Canada geese flying over, I feel her reach over to touch my shoulder and whisper, "Listen!" Geese were flying over the convent as we knelt in the dark silence of evening chapel before Compline at 9:00. 

Sister Rosemary got rid of the little stool. First thing. She entered the community in March 1946, six months or so before I was born. She told us that at her first conference she thought Sister Eleanora was joking when she, a new little postulant, was told to sit on the low stool. Nope. Another one who could hold onto essentials and toss out things that no longer made sense. We were to sit on chairs, eye level, like the adults we were.  (Well, I did a good imitation sometimes of being adult - and it's not a put-down really - it's true - but I was much more than that. I loved and was loved - even though I couldn't take in love at the time. I gave of myself wholeheartedly to this new and challenging life.)

As a postulant I helped in the kitchen and pantry - and I'd end up running up and down the pantry stairs too often. Sister Louise (who was one of the Sisters from Canada) would say, "Use your head and save your feet." Still doing that - still saying that - still remembering Sister Louise.

BBQ at the beach at Duxbury c 1972
Sister Mary Alice at right (I thought at first it was Sister Louise)
Background - two of the three Syrian Orthodox Sisters from Kerala, India, who trained in our novitiate

Sister Eugenie worked in the sewing room. She was from Montserrat and her father must have been a seaman of some sort, as she loved to use sea terms. She had a small Union Jack in the far corner by the window. Imagine! In Boston, the land of the Tea Party - the original Tea Party - not the conservative mmmm... one of today. Her birthday was St. John the Baptist Day, June 24th for you non-Quebecers - and maybe her Profession anniversary as well. She used to take a silent retreat day on her birthday - and I, in my youth, couldn't imagine being silent on one's birthday! I couldn't have, but then mine was Hallowe'en. Still is, actually. :-)

Sister Eugenie was tallish, angular, spunky, and she liked my spunk. Funny how you know when someone loves you as you are. I hadn't even begun to love myself. When I was clothed as a novice on June 8, 1968, First Vespers of Trinity Sunday, Sister Eugenie had prepared my first habit, novice's veil, and all other necessaries. My name became Sister Roslyn Marie. I suppose now, I'd just go with the Roslyn, but then it was a way of staying connected with Quebec - Ville Marie having been an early name for Montreal.

One morning, I came down to chapel around 6am to find a notice on the door saying that Sister Eugenie had died suddenly in the night. Shock. Grief. She was one of the first of my Sisters to die. And I'd loved her. When they carried her coffin down the large curved staircase from the second-floor chapel after her requiem mass, we were all lined up in the front hall to bid her goodbye. My eyes filled with tears, and a novice motioned to me not to cry. We're supposed to be happy for her. In a sense, we weren't of this world.  Sadness and anger weren't open in those days. How different it was when Sister Mary Eleanor died many years later. 

So many stories. Sister Marjorie Raphael was the Mother Superior when I arrived, Mother Mary Agnes having been ill and died shortly before I came. She was (and is) grace-full and wise. A wonderful artist. She sent me to Haiti, even though I didn't want to go! (Well, I said I was immature - and spiders - never mind tarantulas are very high on my 'terrified of' list). How could I have known that another turning point had come, one that changed my heart and mind in unimaginable ways. I will always be thankful to her. 

One last story - more perhaps to come - of the trip to Haiti. October 15, 1971. Mother MR was away on holidays. Sister Rhoda and Sister Adele Marie took me to Logan Airport. No one thought that I might need money - and I wasn't used to having it. After they'd gone, I woke up. Well, I found a penny on the floor. Not enough to even make a phone call. The plane to Miami was very late coming in and therefore late leaving. We had a nice meal on the plane, including a small bottle of red wine. We didn't drink wine in those days, so I just packed it away rather than waste it. handed it over on my arrival. someone enjoyed it. :-) 

Miami. Huge airport. Very little time to make the Air France flight to Port-au-Prince. Ran carrying a long box with a huge paschal candle in it for Cathédrale Ste-Trinité, a violin in its case for the music school at Ecole Ste-Trinité, and my carry-on bag. (Imagine running through an airport today with two objects that look like they could have guns in them!)

Out of breath, made the flight. Took off. Not used to flying. The plane went silent when it reached a certain height (This was 1971, not a high-tech jet of today). Panic. I thought it was the end. It wasn't. We flew in over Ile de la Tortue and south to PauP. Mountains. L'Artibonite. Excitement. Anxiety. A new world.

The plane landed. We de-planed on the tarmac. I got to customs and found that my bags hadn't made it onto the flight. And that I needed two dollars to get into the country. A penny didn't cut it. Sister Jean was waiting for me; I could see her. But she hadn't thought to bring any money either, so she rushed (as fast as a nearly 80 yo with short legs and in a long habit could rush) trying to find someone she knew to lend her the $2. She did. Ann Benny. Phew! I was in!

OK, so I got through customs into the convent jeep and we drove through PauP - sights, sounds, scents all so new and exciting. overwhelming. A different world. We arrived at the convent behind the cathedral. Rue Pavé, rue Montalais. My summer habit was in my suitcase in Miami. It was HOT. The decision was made that I could borrow one of Sister Jean's - she who was at least 6 inches shorter than I and twice as round. :-) So - there I was, a light grey habit far shorter than it should have been though my knees weren't quite showing, bulkily gathered in at the waist , and ready to begin my new life.

Adventures unimaginable before me. Challenges. Life in all its fullness. Learning. Oh my. Frustrations. Being the youngest Sister there by at least 30 years from Sister Anne Marie, the next youngest - and onwards and upwards. In two years, I saw one baby tarantula and there was another regular size we didn't see that bit our dog, Teddy's nose. Mind you, I didn't look very hard unless I felt endangered. Sister Anne Marie and Sister Joan used to get up at about 4:00 to get in chapel time before heading to their schools. One morning (they told us) when they opened the wooden chapel doors, they found them covered with newborn (hatched?) dozens and dozens of tarantulas. I never asked myself 'til now where they lived after their discovery. It's called denial.

I did throw a saucer on top of a very large, fat spider early one morning in my room, and asked Tony if he could dispose of it for me. He laughed and said it wasn't a tarantula - rather was called - translated - mama's baby. Harmless. Well, how was I to know a 3" spider was harmless? And the little anolis running about more than made up for the terror of spiders. Skittering here and there, up candles and walls, along ledges. changing colour according to their surroundings. My heart laughs remembering them.

One morning as the Sisters gathered on the downstairs verandah, Peter our black cat with the Siamese meow, ran by with an anoli in his mouth. I grabbed and forced Peter to let go, and the anolis disappeared leaving its tail behind. Ah well, safe, anyhow. (Apparently a black cat with Siamese meow is descended from a Siamese that 'married' out of its class.)

Kneeling at the cathedral at the 6:00 mass, I felt something crawling under the skirt of my habit at hip level. I enclosed it in my hand through the material, went for communion, one hand down rather than two piously folded. Got through Mass and out into the courtyard and shook my habit. Out fell the anolis. Imagine if I had not know it was an anolis, I would not have been a good little nun and waited patiently with the 'thing' enclosed in my fist. Urrggghhhh! Arrgghhh! Help! It was not a tarantula! :-)

Sisters Anne Marie, Virginia, Roslyn Marie
Sister Jean and Mother Marjorie Raphael c 1972 at Kenscoff, Haiti


  1. It really is funny that our lives are so similar and yet so different. I went out to Papua New Guinea for 2 1/2 years to teach in the school of Nursing in Vunapope, East New Britain and work in the hospital when the sister went on retreat.. Loved every minute of it. Faced lots of challenges. It was run by MSC sisters (MIssionaries of the Sacred Heart) and I was the only lay person to work there (apart from indigenous). Loved them all and they treated me very well. Came back to England and six weeks later met my husband......the rest is history!!!!!!

  2. Thank you so much for posting these reminiscences. In the 1970s, I was a communicant at the Church of the Advent in Boston and used to attend compline at the convent of the sisters in Louisberg Square - so sublimely peaceful. I also used to make silent retreats at the convent in Duxbury, another place of great peace. The kindness of the sisters was balm to the spirit of an exhausted law student. (Then) Mother Marjorie Raphael has a special place in my heart, as does the rector of the Advent at that time, Harris Collingwood - gone these many years, and still missed.

    1. Dana - I'm so glad my post brings back memories. And yes - Harris Collingwood as well - a sad day that he died so young. I still miss the Louisburg Square chapel - and of course, Duxbury. Where are you now? an exhausted lawyer? :-)

    2. I'm so sorry that I didn't check to see whether you had posted a response to my post. I just came back to your blog and read more entries. Interesting, the journeys we go on. I still practice law (in Flagstaff, Arizona), but trained as a yoga teacher after more than 40 years of practicing yoga and teach that, as well as practice law. My spiritual life, once so firmly governed by Anglo-Catholic practice, has become less structured and more focused on an opening of the heart than anything else. Eastern meditation practices seem more helpful in facilitating this for me at this point in my life. Wishing you well.