The nuns’ story


Karen Kissane

Carol Hogan found the hardest thing about being a nun was the absence of beauty. She loved beautiful things – her degree had been in fine arts – but her spartan convent had nothing as worldly as paintings or flowers and few books. Hogan herself was no picture, in a shapeless black dress with her hair pulled back under a frilled mobcap. Her mother was appalled the first time she saw her this way. “Darling, you do look dreadful!” she cried, and burst into tears.It was 1953. Hogan, then 22, had been on a predictable path until that point, her twin goals being an education and a husband (“preferably a doctor!”). She was far from shy or retiring. “When we were at uni we didn’t count our marks. We counted our parties and boyfriends; I went to seven balls with seven different guys in seven different weeks.”

But then she realised that she felt the mysterious pull she defines only as “the call of God”. She decided not just to become a nun, but to withdraw from the world by entering the kind of order with the most severe regimen: an enclosed convent.

For the next 12 years, her every moment was dictated by the mediaeval rhythms of monastic life. She spent six hours a day in the convent chapel, praying and singing hymns and psalms in Latin. Much of the rest of the time she baked altar breads. She never went out except to the dentist.

She did not speak except for one hour in the evening, and even then: “We were not allowed to talk about ourselves; oh, my Lord, no. No intimacy at all, except with Jesus. At one stage we had chooks, and I think we had cats. I remember thinking to myself, ‘If we don’t stop talking about the chooks and the cats I’ll scream’.”

Life was so ordered that the search for sins to confess became the week’s creative challenge. In desperation, she laughs, “One of our sisters used to confess ‘vain and idle and useless thoughts’.”

Hogan is still a nun, but today she lives by herself, wears civvies, preaches feminism and is the chaplain for international students at Melbourne University. She has prepared a stream of students for baptism in the Catholic Church; she has also counselled several on how to accept their homosexuality.

To outsiders, says Perth theologian Jan Gray, it looks like nuns have bungee-jumped from mediaevalism into modernity. Has it been a good thing? “Yes!” says Hogan. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”

The speed of the revolution in their lives, which saw seven centuries of tradition overturned in less than a generation, far outstrips the rapid workplace change the rest of the community finds so dizzying. But the world continues to change faster than they do and the social and theological changes that led to the sisters’ revolution also mitigate against their continuance.

These include the understanding that exploration rather than denial of the self is important for spiritual growth; the resistance to institutional authority calling the shots or mediating one’s relationships, including the relationship with God; and the growing independence and life choices of First World women.

Orders of nuns in Australia are in a decline that for many, verges on extinction.

This has implications for the religious, cultural and social mores of the 27 per cent of Australians who call themselves Catholic. It has implications for the huge network of schools and hospitals that nuns set up across the nation, which were formerly staffed and managed largely with their free labor.

And it has ramifications for nuns themselves. What is it like for those who continued as “brides of Christ” even after the turmoil of the 1960s that caused so many to leave?
What do they make of their legacy and the parts of it – involvement with stolen children, abuse of orphans in institutions – that do not survive moral scrutiny today? And has their devotion to a religious ideal and their celibacy been made less meaningful by the fact that either God has stopped calling, or young women have stopped answering?

The peak year for Australian nuns was 1966, when 14,620 women were in convents. By 1996, the figure had halved to 7360 and most of those were elderly. Today, the nation’s 120 or so female orders have only about 60 novices training for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, according to Sister Mary Cresp, of the Australian Council of Leaders of Religious Institutes.

Hogan’s order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, has no novices, and only one nun is under 65. They had an applicant several years ago, but decided that in all conscience they had to turn her away. They sold their altar-bread business to Cistercian monks and used the money from the sale of their large convent to provide for themselves in old age. “There’s no point in asking someone to commit their life now,” says Hogan. “I even worry about (the youngest sister, who is 53); I said to her ‘What are you going to do?’”

A common view of women who entered convents was that they were running away from the world. In fact, for many, the opposite was true; becoming a nun opened them up to adventure in a way that would not otherwise have been possible given the restrictions on women’s lives in earlier times. Take the Sisters of St John of God; founded originally to help with poverty during the Irish potato famine, they came to Australia from Ireland in 1895 and worked in hessian tents nursing miners at Kalgoorlie.

CHRISSIE CONNOLLY grew up as the eldest of eight children in a farming family in the west of Ireland. Like Hogan, she describes herself as a party girl when young. “But in the back of my mind I was thinking, `What is life all about? Is this how I’m going to spend my life – having a good time, enjoying myself?”‘

In 1946, aged 17, she joined a St John of God nursing convent and became Sister Teresina. Four of her sisters later followed her into the convent and out to Australia.

She arrived in Western Australia knowing it would be hard. “In those days in Subiaco we had … no lay people; it was all sisters working in the hospital. You were going all day long, run, run, run, run. We never knew what it was to have a day off; we worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. We got a holiday once a year for two weeks. We had to study as well as work; you’d come off duty in a broken shift, you’d have your dinner, have prayers then go back to the study hall and back down to duty at 5 o’clock.

“But we were looking after people and people were very grateful, and we were bonded together. We’d have our fun in between times, sorting the laundry and bringing patients to the theatre and back again.”

Back then, religion was a deeply felt part of people’s lives in Ireland in a way that seems unimaginable now, she says.

Perhaps also behind her decision was the knowledge that her mother had always wanted to be a nun. Connolly knows she took the adventurer’s course; she has travelled and studied in Asia and America and spent 10 years as chief executive officer of 500 staff at a large private hospital in Ballarat. In her day, becoming a nun “laid the world at your feet. They gave you no choice (about where you would go), but you knew you were going to be out in it”.

“When I go back to Ireland and see the girls that were my friends when I was going to school – there’s a friend up the road, she’s very happily married and she has about 10 or 11 children and she’s never moved away from there.”
Madeline Duckett joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1965. She used to sing Beatles’ songs in her head while hanging out the washing during silence and played tennis in ankle-length habits and starched veils. Duckett joined straight from a Mercy boarding school; convent life was not so different, she says dryly.

Her spontaneity “went underground” for some time after she entered. Like Maria in the The Sound of Music, “I was too scared to be spontaneous because I just seemed to always get into trouble when I did. I kissed the ground any number of times. Any infringement of (the order’s) Rule you were supposed to confess. Breaking the silence was one of the major ones”.

Duckett and her fellow novices did dress as brides and were bussed en masse to St Patrick’s cathedral in the city, to the amazed gaze of onlookers. Of more concern to Duckett was what happened after the bridal gown was exchanged for the habit, part-way through the ceremony. “In the habit we did the prostration (lying flat upon the ground to signify surrender to God). So we had to practise for nights beforehand so that it wasn’t bottoms up when you went down or got up.”

That was the world Duckett joined, but it was not to survive the tsunami that followed Vatican II (1962-1965), Pope John XXIII’s push to modernise the church. For Duckett, an immediate result was an eye-opening year of study of the new theology. “That was the most mind-blowing experience. None of us had studied moral theology as such; we’d simply been told what was right and what was wrong. And now we learned about some of the ways you come to decision-making and that for the law to be the law it has to fulfil certain criteria. It was very, very freeing.”

But after all this opening up came a sudden closing down. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical banning artificial contraception. Suddenly many priests and nuns were openly criticising church teaching and leaving.

In Hogan’s order, half the nuns left within 12 months in 1968-69. “That really shook me up because my best friend in the order left. And she said, `we’re not women of charity, maturity and prayer; it’s just not working here, this thing’. I thought, `you’re right’. What was going wrong in one sense was the (lack of) maturity. You just couldn’t grow and relate.”

Hogan now believes the 12 years she spent locked away from the world were dehumanising. “When I walked in the door of the convent and became Sister Mary Frances, `Carol’ died,” she says. “Total abnegation of the self was the centre of our spirituality. It required us to be like a candle that burnt before the Blessed Sacrament and left no trace.

“I think the structure (of that enclosed order) just dehumanised people. It took away intimacy; it took away development; it took away the possibility of being an independent thinker … I think perhaps one of the reasons I look younger than I am is because there was this arrested development for 12 years.”

Connolly was disturbed by the number of nuns leaving her order, but never had doubts herself. She remembers endless debate about every little aspect of change: what length should skirts be, how much hair should show? One of her four sisters left and later married. Connolly was sympathetic to her unhappiness and to her decision. “We just accepted it. Whatever was best for her.”

While many nuns agonised over the changes, Duckett says that lay people also resisted nuns abandoning their habits and their convents. “It’s like you can’t be human and you can’t be imperfect because you have to hold on to the sense of the holy for the human race. Part of the whole transition is (that we are) no longer being set apart or stood on a pedestal so that the rest of humankind can get on with their lives (and ignore spiritual issues).”

There has always been a mystique about nuns as the brides of Christ, the eternal virgins who devote themselves to the sacred. The image is of piety and selflessness and of life on a higher plane than the rest of the mortal world. Yet most nuns also engaged intensely with the physical world through work such as nursing, teaching or welfare. In Hollywood scripts, the mystique was often reduced to the cliche of tension between the love of God and the love of a good man (such as Peter Finch, in Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of The Nun’s Story).

The reality is that the life of celibacy and devotion has always worked for some and embittered or exploited others. Says one Catholic observer, who did not wish to be named: “The `metaphorical marriage’ stuff sexualises their relationship with God, in a way; they use the language of love much like the mystics do. There is a long tradition of that in the church. But what it does to the ordinary person who isn’t a great mystical poet, trying to live their lives out in that language, I don’t know.”

Gray, a theology lecturer at Western Australia’s Notre Dame University, sharply dislikes the whole concept. In the early 1990s, she interviewed 80 nuns, aged from 26 to 83, for her book, Neither Escaping nor Exploiting Sex: Women’s Celibacy. “Most of them found (the bride of Christ image) intolerable or just unhelpful,” she says. Gray says her life as a nun is “a quest for the ultimate means of union with what’s good and what’s beautiful and what’s wonderful about being human … (But) I don’t want to be part of a harem, even God’s harem.”

Many nuns talk about celibacy as something that allows them to share themselves with everyone rather than just one person. Gray calls that “the prostitution interpretation – `I am available, I can move around, people can do with me what they want”‘.

“I think it’s dangerous in that it has led to abuse (of their goodwill). A lot of women who are religious have gone into situations and stayed in situations they should never have stayed in because of this notion that they have to be available. A lot of women have been kept working in institutions in the church where they have been treated like dross, given no thanks and just been used as pieces that could be moved around. The old religious life demanded that, that you have no attachment to any person or any place.”

For her research, Gray interviewed only nuns whom she felt coped well with their sexuality. “They were people who hadn’t been twisted by their celibacy,” she says. “They weren’t depressive and they weren’t asexual.” Because of this focus her sample was not random or necessarily representative, so its findings cannot be generalised to all nuns.

But Gray found that up to 25 of those interviewed “hinted at, if not explicitly described, significant sexual encounters” since taking their vows, although not all of these had been full sexual encounters. They had sought forgiveness and saw them as growth experiences. “Most have been able to incorporate any deviations from their vow as an important part of learning who they are.”

All nuns who stay nuns sacrifice partnerships and children. Duckett says leaving her first boyfriend behind when she entered was painful, but she has not missed children. While Hogan says: “People would say I’m not fulfilled because I haven’t got a child, but I don’t feel that way. I’ve got three little children I call my adopted grandchildren whom I’m very close to.”

Connolly admits to moments of regret at not having her own home and family.

“Oh Lord, yes. There’s no human being in any position, any vocation, who doesn’t have some regret, especially when they come to their 40s. There are pluses and minuses, though.

“This might sound selfish, but I can go to bed at night-time not worrying about where my kids are or what they might be doing.”

Men have never been an issue for her, although occasionally a surgeon, unaware that she was a nun, would try to ask her out. “We used to have great fun because all the staff knew, but some of the doctors didn’t know.” But forget Audrey Hepburn and the tragic romance of renunciation; passes were more likely to be dealt with summarily. One nun was washing a patient who tried to kiss her. “She put the soap in his mouth,” laughs Connolly.

That sturdy blend of idealism and pragmatism has left a large legacy in Australia. Many of the Catholic system’s 1700 schools were founded and run by nuns, as was much of its health system (at present 20 public hospitals, including St Vincent’s and the Mercy Hospital for Women in Melbourne, as well as 8300 beds in other kinds of hospitals and 16,500 aged-care beds).

But just as nuns are struggling with the future – lay people must be organised to run all this now, and big old convents must be sold or turned over to other uses – the past has come back to haunt them. There have been reports of physical and emotional abuse, such as beatings and cold baths, in orphanages and children’s homes in the 1950s and 1960s and at least one order has formally apologised for having accepted stolen Aboriginal children into care.

“In hindsight we should have questioned what, as a church, we were asked to do for the Government,” a leader of the Order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart said in 1999.

Connolly and Duckett find it painful that such news has overshadowed so much good work. And Gray points out that there are different social mores now about the use of violence in education and family life and that nuns in earlier times often worked under appalling circumstances.

One nun told a 1998 inquiry into government and church welfare institutions of her time in a notorious orphanage in Queensland. “All those babies. They’d always be putting their arms up, and you didn’t have time to give them any individual love.” That inquiry found abuse “was allowed to happen” in both church and government institutions because of scant resources, a lack of support from society, overcrowding, isolation and the powerlessness of institutional inmates.

ONE Catholic observer says nuns are blamed for work that the church insisted the orders take on, such as dealing with the consequences of the forced migration of children from England after the war. “Many of these kids weren’t even toilet trained; they were seven or eight and were basically street kids abandoned or lost during the Blitz. There were such numbers, and such a degree of need, and of course these women weren’t trained. Most of the people in orphanages were neither teachers nor nurses. The whole story is a tragedy.”

There is also a less tangible legacy. Nuns ran large institutions and took on powerful roles in an era where women were largely invisible in public life; Catholic convent girls grew up seeing that women could work and lead. The bright ones took it as their ticket to life.

Through their teaching, nuns shaped Australian Catholicism and tried to inject generations of children with a sense of social justice. Public figures such as Labor Senator Rosemary Crowley and ex-Senator Susan Ryan have talked about the effect of nuns on their world views, as has that ferocious feminist and refugee from Catholicism, Germaine Greer.

Crowley remembers the nuns at her old convent school being divided between the sadistic and the wonderful. She has no doubt about their effect on her attitudes. Crowley, now with the Labor Party, still recalls learning in primary school about Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which promoted the rights of workers to unionise and expect a fair wage.

And she remembers the nun who became her sports mistress. Upon learning that Crowley’s basketball team had never won a match, she asked crisply: “Didn’t we know it was to the greater glory of God to develop all of our talents?” (The following year they were undefeated champions.)

Connolly’s last job was as “mission sister” for St John of God’s Perth hospital, training 400 lay staff in the values, such as compassion and duty of care, that the nuns want to continue after they hand over the reins.

Connolly is philosophical about the collapse in vocations. She sees orders of nuns as having developed largely in response to social needs that are now being filled in other ways. “I don’t think that really matters because the religious orders were founded, a lot of them, for education and health. And look at the fine job the lay people are doing now. There will always be religious sisters, I believe, but in different numbers; smaller numbers.”

Duckett believes many orders are in a process of transformation and rejuvenation rather than utter decline. “It’s the cocoon thing. Maybe we won’t have the numbers in the same way in the future, but something else is happening that’s beyond what we can put words on at the moment. We’re moving into a new, radical way of being.”

Hogan went through a period of intense rage and review about her life when she first discovered feminism and thought through its implications for the position of women in the church. “I thought that for 2000 years women had been deceived and I had too.”

Now, she says, she knows that Jesus was a feminist – “Who was the first evangelist? Who got the news (of the resurrection) first? Mary Magdalen. Do we ever hear that in church?” And in her teaching and counselling she routinely employs what some feminist scholars call the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: “I call it smelling a dead rat – and holding it up!”

Having come to terms with all this, the realisation that her order was facing sunset “was very, very upsetting for me for a while. I thought, `I’ve given the best years of my life to something that just seems to be a failure”‘.

“The whole tribal thing of church has gone; it was the focal point, it was the St Patrick’s day march and the St Patrick’s night concert, it was the parish school, it was the local thing you walked to. Now everything’s changed and everything’s up for grabs in the post-modern world. I don’t quite know where the church will go, because it hasn’t even gotten into modernism, I don’t think, much less post-modernism.”

But she loves her work at the university and knows she continues to make a difference to people’s lives. “I have chosen to stay in my religious community because it has given me my vision and been the framework of my life; it’s been the sea in which I’ve swum. It has enabled me to live my dream.”

The nuns who remain are, as ever, at the forefront of social need; it was the Sisters of Charity in Sydney who tried to set up Australia’s first injecting room. But, with female ordination not even a blip on the Vatican’s radar, it is possible that the falling away of nuns will further weaken the limited power of women in the institutional church. Connolly acknowledges that all but one of the CEO positions for St John of God hospitals handed over to lay people in the past 15 years went to men.

DUCKETT is not convinced that it matters, given the declining relevance of institutional religion to many people’s lives. Formerly a secondary teacher and tertiary lecturer, she has also been on the board of the Jesuit magazine of public affairs, Eureka Street. Now she works at a small spirituality centre for women that uses myth, psychology and a broad sense of spirituality rather than dogma to help people explore their lives.

Nuns are “definitely beyond the cloister”, she says, but now they need “to rediscover the contemplative heart that exists at the centre of all the action.

“Younger people are also looking for meditation or that coming to a quiet place within themselves; it’s a real spiritual search today, but it’s not necessarily a religious one … I think God and the whole thing is beyond religion. Religions are ways of coming into that.”
People now want smaller groups and more personal ministry. “I think we’ve done the big churches and cathedrals. There are historical moments where that’s the way of expressing it and then there’s a need for it desperately to be balanced out by a more intimate kind of setting where people cannot just hear the word, but actually grapple with it and see where it integrates into their own lives.”

Duckett and the others interviewed here have never wanted to be priests and have no strong feelings about female ordination. She says: “If we look back on our lives, we can see a pattern, and within that pattern is the gift we each have to offer to the world around us.

“We are all ordained by life to do what it is our gift to do. It’s another kind of ordination – call it primordial – than just being ordained by oil. And any priest worth his salt is not just ordained once; he is ordained again and again through the lives he comes in contact with and what these people give to him.” Or to her.

First published in The Age.