Nuns and their habits


I can’t help feeling that nuns are getting a bad press at the moment after seeing the film Philomena, and like everyone else in the cinema, running out of tissues. I thought back to the nuns at my convent… mostly French or Belgian, a couple of English and a few Polish ones. Some were old, some were beautiful, some were wise and some were silly – at least to a bigoted ten year old.

My father didn’t know about my past in which I’d  read all my grandmothers anti-Popish books, which included Westward Ho, and Foxe’s Martyrs, a catalogue of the three hundred people Mary Tudor burned for being Protestant. So sending me to a convent for a good education seemed a good idea to him.

I didn’t discuss it with him, for on our first day with our new parents, I’d been told I had to do exactly as I was told – always – so there didn’t seem to be any room for discussion. So a prejudiced Protestant got to observe the strange Catholic goings-on at her new school!

The nuns all looked wonderful in their no-expense spared rich plum-red gabardine habits, with wide swinging pleated skirts and wide sleeves. They wore a long snowy  white veil over the wimple which framed their faces and had a splendid thick knotted red cord round their waists to which they attached their rosaries.

We had a roller skating rink where we skated most days, and obsessed about how many ball-bearings our skates had. At night when I boarded for a while, and when everyone was supposed to be in bed and asleep, we could look down from the gabled windows, and see the nuns swirling round the rink on our borrowed roller skates,red  habits swinging, veils flying. An unforgettable sight.

The order had been formed by three aristocratic Belgian ladies, and we heard their history interminably when we sat in silence in the refectory at lunch, while tall, serious, severely beautiful Mother John stood at the carved lectern and read it to us during retreats. Retreats and the numerous saints Feast Days were a wonderful way of not doing schoolwork, which my parents disapproved of, since they were paying school fees.

During retreat, for several days we never spoke (which I loved even then), and did nothing but pray, draw holy pictures, tally what good deeds we’d managed to perform each day, using a flower as a symbol (I used a violet), process around the school grounds singing hymns, and if we were Catholic, celebrate mass with a portly priest imported for the job. I couldn’t bear him and the way all the nuns fawned over and spoiled the only man who ever came into their orbit! Apart from no speaking and mass, Feast Days were the same round of prayers and processing.

Mother Michael was our housemistress, a tall bony woman, English, and almost the only nun there who had no charm. She wore thick horn-rimmed spectacles, and I noticed uncharitably that in the chapel at prayers every day after lunch, she twiddled her Bride of Christ gold wedding ring and didn’t seem particularly devout.

I rather enjoyed this lunch-time prayer ritual, it also cut into time for lessons, as we walked in a long crocodile along the corridors on miles of polished linoed floors, passing numerous statues of saints frequently adorned with rosaries or necklaces. I thought most of the statues were ‘soppy’, a word we used then, and actually I think they probably were – mass-produced, sentimental, pastel- coloured and idealised images. I glared at them all like a latter-day Cromwell.

Chapel however, with its scent of incense was a pleasure, and a respite from effort and intrigue. Yes, the convent was a hotbed of intrigue and occasionally swept by gusts of vague hysteria – what convent girls would probably call ‘scharmerei’ – with favourites, crushes and gossip part of the mix.

I was Mother Michael’s favourite for more than a term. It was, in a good Catholic phrase – purgatory – because I was imprisoned every day in the airy second floor cloakroom in the Georgian house which was the home of the junior girls. It was a pleasant sunny room, but it might just as well have been a dungeon because I was chained, as it were, to a chair, and every lunch break Mother Michael undid my long dark brown plaits and spent the rest of the lunch hour break brushing my hair.

Friends came and went, washing their hands and changing their indoor shoes, but I was pinned to my penitential chair with my hair loose. Just before the bell Mother Michael would re-plait it, dragging it round my face like a Victorian orphan, and every day when I got home my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her, say it had to stop. I would have loved it to stop, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.

It went on until Mother Michael found another pair of promising plaits, not as long as mine, but long enough. The new favourite was rather smug to me, but I knew what she was in for, and watched with some pleasure as Barbara found herself nailed to the chair, and like me,  unable to join in the games of skipping and hopscotch, playing five stones and weaving cats cradles going on outside. Mother Michael had seriously interfered with my social life, and I felt no pity for her next victim.

The other nuns were civilised and kind, unbigoted and happy. Unlike the only teacher who wasn’t a nun, and who constantly tried to outdo them in piety and holiness. She was the maths teacher, so it was inevitable that our relationship would founder.

In fact it never recovered from the day when I finally rebelled and tried to speak my mind. As an Irishwoman, her constant theme was the ‘puir’ persecuted Catholics and all the dreadful things Protestants had done to them, including  executing Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators – we never celebrated Guy Fawkes day at the convent – and ‘puir ‘ St Thomas More, beheaded by Henry VIII.

Baulking at having to pray for the souls of my Protestant parents because they weren’t Catholic – after we’d interrupted long division yet again to recite the Angelus – my stroppy ten-year old self started to tell her about the Inquisition, and Borgia Popes etc.  But I got no further than the Inquisition. “Oh what a pack of Protestant lies!“ she shrieked dramatically, clapping her hands over her ears.

Not only was my relationship soured with Miss Cummins, but it never recovered from the disapproval of all the other Catholics in the room either… I paid the price for this rebellion, and was always left until last to be picked for rounders teams and  netball. I left the convent after a year without regret, and yet looking back I’ve had more fun from my memories of that unique environment than from some of my more conventional schools.

The beautiful High Victorian Gothic building, which housed the foreign nuns so far from their homes in Europe, and generations of schoolgirls, has now been turned into smart flats, surrounded by the glorious trees and grounds where we played so happily, watched by little red squirrels perched in the black branches of bare trees silhouetted against the snow.

I wonder if the skating rink is still there. I think no-one since would have enjoyed it as much as those gentle souls swirling silently around in the dusk, plum coloured habits swaying, veils flying and rosaries swinging. I do hope they bypassed purgatory and skipped straight into heaven.


Food for threadbare gourmets

Going cold turkey day after day post Christmas is not my idea of enjoying food. So after the second day I chop it into small pieces and freeze it. Yesterday we were ready to eat more turkey, so I defrosted it, stirred small pieces into a thick white sauce with plenty of nutmeg, some parsley and plenty of chopped mushrooms fried in butter. Served over savoury rice, it was good. Into the hot basmati rice I stir a chopped fried onion, plus a handful of peas, a handful of sultanas soaked in boiling water to plump them out, and plenty of toasted slivered almonds, salt and pepper plus more parsley. It beats the boredom of cold turkey.

Food for thought

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many splendoured thing

Francis Thompson 1859-1907, great English poet, mystic, vagrant who lived on the streets for most of his drug-addicted life.





Filed under cookery/recipes, happiness, humour, life/style, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

49 responses to “Nuns and their habits

  1. Enthralling glimpses of another world. Funny how few faiths seem able to admit how very horrible they have been to other faiths? Nuns certainly have weird habits – and that doesn’t even count what they wear!


  2. Thank you for sharing your interesting memories. Something to muse on, why God should send folk to purgatory after they have lived a life just for Him!!!


  3. Judging by the revelations of recent years Valerie your convent must have been inhabited by gentle souls.It certainly sounds like they hadn’t forgotten heir sense of fun with the late night skating. The stories of treatment in Irish Convent Schools certainly paints a different picture.and I’m glad your little Protestant soul didn’t suffer that purgatory though off course you may still be destined for a warmer clime for mentioning the Borgia Popes and the Inquisition. You’re lucky you didn’t get as far as the Cathars. Religion doesn’t have a place for truth it finds unpalatable..
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx


    • Hello David. good to hear from you – yes they were gentle and civilised compared with all those fierce Irish nuns – who brought their culture to New Zealand too… yes, warmer climes may swallow me after the life of fun and games I’ve had – but it was worth it ! Yes, Cathars and then we could have got to the Templars, couldn’t we – not to mention witches !!!


  4. Loved reading this – a look into something I have always been fascinated by. As a younger person, I wanted to become a Nun. Fascinating. Read it twice! 😀


  5. kerrymac22

    Interesting post!


  6. Thanks for sharing that interesting story, Valerie. Nuns and priests, as well as pastors, etc., are just people, trying to live the life they feel God has given them. They’re not perfect, but at least many of them are trying.



  7. how delightful. i too went to a convent but for all my high school years bar the last one when i came out here to america. Your Nuns habits sound glorious. Ours were brown and plain and deeply boring, not even long, which I thought was such a shame. That image of them swirling about the skating rink in their habits and rosarys (ours always wore keys) , is such a beautiful memory…thank you for that one, i shall take it to bed with me.. c


  8. I use to envy my girl friends who went to Catholic School and came home with all the juicy stories…far more interesting than my public school experience. At least we had football games and dances. They didn’t. the image of nuns on roller skates is classic. Too bad Philomena’s nuns had other motives. Love your stories, Valerie. 🙂


    • Thank you so much Lynne – so good to hear from you… yes, everyone seems to have enjoyed the picture of the skating nuns !
      Yes, apparently Philomena’s story was a common one… doesn;t bear thinking of…


  9. I wonder if my daughter has similar memories of the year and a bit she spent at a Catholic school (not a boarding school). She was about 10 at the time.


  10. Luanne

    Hah, wonderful story, Valerie!


  11. I, too, enjoyed Philomena, and yet I felt bad about the bad press the nuns received as a result of that scandalous episode in Ireland. I became a Catholic at the age of 18, so I have no childhood memories of nuns, but I did spend a few months with the Maryknoll Sisters, an order of missionaries. They weren’t as colorful as your skating nuns, but they were a delightful bunch of women.


  12. I wish for our modern youth to go back in time to the place you describe. They will leave their smart-phones and iPads in this 21st century and spend a day in the calm and silence you’ve described. I think that would be a blessing to their ears, eyes and souls.
    The past isn’t all good, neither is the future all bad, but something in the middle would be a good place.


  13. Dear Valerie,

    My smiles were wide and involuntary as I read of the skating nuns and pictured them with their veils billowing behind them. I could visualize them and another memory came to mind that I hope you don’t mind my sharing here.
    There was a log ride at Six-Flags in St. Louis, Missouri. The log swooshed through a channel of water and divided into two long hills for its finale. When (some 40 years ago) friends and I plummeted down that final hill, I looked over to the parallel hill and saw three nuns, veils flying out behind them. It’s one of those whimsical images that will forever stick with me.
    It must’ve been a challenge to be a Protestant child in a convent school.
    As a result of movies like Going My Way, Lillies of the Field, The Nun’s Story, The Trouble with Angels and growing up across the street from a Catholic friend who went to parochial school, l had an obsessive fascination with nuns. I remember how we used to put petticoats on our heads and pretend we were nuns. You can imagine my disappointment when I realized that not many of us Jews became nuns.
    I always enjoy reading your posts and thank you for sharing your life so eloquently. Thank you for being my tour guide to another place and time.




    • Dear Rochelle.
      Thank you so much for your appreciation, and for your stories… delicious..
      I do hope you are not battling this terrible cold I’m reading about…
      it must be a horrendous ordeal, thinking of you, Valerie


      • Dear Valerie,

        Your lovely memories seem to trigger ones of my own. I’m glad you don’t mind my sharing them here.
        As for the cold…we’ve had some record setting lows this past week. Fortunately the part of the country I live in hasn’t seen as much snow. My son in Chicago, some 8 hours away, has it up to his knees along with the sub-degree temperatures. At any rate, I’m thankful for a roof over my head and a space heater to add warmth to my writer’s garret.

        Kia Ora,



  14. Dearest Valerie,

    Your world and your words are beautiful. You have become my habit.

    Kia Ora,



  15. Sounds like nuns, like other people, can be good or bad. There’s a lot of stereotyping of religious people of all sorts.Well, Catholics and Protestants have persecuted each other, but as far as I know actually trying to wipe out populations of the other lot, as opposed to discriminating against them and crushing them if they rebelled, was a Catholic speciality; but we are talking about something that petered out around 1700.

    Glasgow is one of the most divided parts of the UK in terms of religion, but a friend of mine with a working-class Glasgow Catholic upbringing told me that as a kid, unknown to his parents or his Catholic teachers, he’d attended a Protestant Sunday School out of thirst for knowledge and won a prize for bible knowledge. A teacher/priest had found him with the prize and he’d feared the worst but the priest had said, “Well, since you won the prize it’s all right.”


  16. Another great story from your very interesting life!


  17. Oh Valerie, you have done it again. What a magical life you have lead. Perhaps it wasn’t really magical but it is a world so long gone. The skating nuns is a beautiful and charming image. I would like a painting of that. I am seeing Philomena this weekend. I have heard it is tough on the nuns but the priests and the nuns in Ireland could be so awful, so tormenting and so sad and angry.

    I think of Mother Michael braiding your hair and I can’t help but think what a sad woman she must have been. Was she lonely? Had she actually wanted children? a daughter? As a practicing Catholic, I am so thankful and relieved that Pope Francis has shown up. I doubt he will change the role of women in the Church but he is making a start in the right direction!

    Thank you thank you again! What a glorious post!


    • Dear Maggie, what a darling you are to enjoy the story so much ! Thank you so much…I had fun writing it…
      Yes, isn’t POpe Francis just wonderful. Every time he opens his mouth he says something that could change the world and all his actions are just so spontaneous perfect and loving… fascinating to see how he can/ will change not just the church but the world…


  18. Amazing how children adapt. I’ve had many Catholic friends who didn’t relish convents at all. One boyfriend confessed that he had a crush on one nun who would often rush into class with one red ringlet having escaped the wimple. He was crushed when he hugged her one day and discovered she was pregnant.

    Oh, the long braids. I had massive amounts of very long brown hair – mostly braided in my youth. I enjoyed staying with friends because I’d tell their mothers that my mother only renewed the braids every other day and lucky for them, it had just been done that day.

    In my adult life, the nuns I’ve encountered have been ones who’ve left the orders. They feel they are of more service by being out of the cloister.

    You’ve had a very interesting life, Valerie. Love your stories.


    • Hello Amy,
      Lovely to hear from you… I was astounded at your story of the pregnant nun with one curl escaping – all mine had their hair cut shirt to their ears!And the only man who crossed their path was the one parish priest…p’raps it was an immaculate conception!!
      So glad you enjoy my bits of fun, Amy, Love Valerie


  19. Michele Seminara

    I love reading stories of your childhood, Valerie! Thank you. x


  20. I loved your description of the nuns skating, Valerie, and of the inevitably super-charged but otherwise quite benign convent-school life. In whatever school one goes to, teachers will have their favorites, and nuns are no different. Sometimes it’s relatively benign, too, as in your case, and at other times–well, we all know about the pedophile priests.
    I too think that nuns get a bad rap on film and television, and it irks me. Somehow it seems to be acceptable to make nuns the butt of jokes and portray them as warped or at best pitiful—simply because they have chosen to be celibate? Again, while that might be considered admirable in a man–how many monk jokes can you think of?–it becomes ludicrous in a woman.
    I too went to a convent school for a time, in India. Did you say which country your convent was in? x Josna


    • Hello Josna, loved your comment- you’re so right about the way nuns get a sexist put-down… My convent was in Yorkshire in the most beautiful countryside by a rushing north country river XXX


  21. I’ve always been fascinated by nuns and sometimes thought I’d like to be one – though I’m not catholic. Perhaps it was the mystery, but also, I think, the attraction of a life lived in silence and contemplation. It was wonderful to read about your experiences in the convent and the image of the ice skating nuns will stay with me for a long time, I think!


  22. Your memories often read like a colourful novel to me, Valerie. It is amazing what you have experienced in your life (and still do). Also, you are turning those experiences into a well of insights – at least for me. 🙂

    Much love,


  23. Amy

    Enjoyed reading your interesting story. It reminded me my experience of living in a dorm that was ran by nuns when I was in college… 🙂


  24. I have been away for a few days as you know so it is lovely to come back and catch up on your posts. I remember the verse from James 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou has faith, and I have works: show me they faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.” Compassion, kindness, gentleness – these works I embrace without reservation. Not that I model these attributes perfectly, but they are my guiding influence. To me, faith is demonstrated through kindness. Thank you so much for your amazing post!!!

    “Smile at each other,
    smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other — it doesn’t matter who it is — and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.”

    Mother Teresa


  25. Hello Rebecca, what a beautiful comment. i so agree with you,,, kindness seems the most important thing in the world….I remember reading that as he died Aldous Huxley said the world needed more kindness…


  26. Juliet

    What fascinating reminiscences, and how well-timed because I’ve just returned home from seeing ‘Philomena’.


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