Tag Archives: convent

Nuns, nice habits and strange foibles

Valerie10.jpg

A life –  This is the ninth instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs

I never had any trouble remembering the date of my baby brother’s birth, because when we arrived back in England from Belsen, we were sent to school at a convent in Yorkshire. It was with the sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Belgian teaching order. My brother’s birthday was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of many feast days when we were sent home, presumably so the nuns could pay due reverence to the day, unhampered by their fee- paying pupils, and causing my parents to grumble that they spent all this money in order for us to stay home.

Sometimes, as at Corpus Christi, we were required to attend in order to parade and go to Mass, and draw holy pictures. This was a time of severe mortification for me, because not being Catholic, our parents refused to buy us white dresses and veils to wear on feast days.

On the other hand, thanks to the books I had read with my grandmother, I was bigotedly anti-Catholic, and had no qualms about being different. The nuns themselves were mostly gentle and sophisticated women, many of them French or Belgian, others English. My form teacher, who was also the maths teacher, was the most avidly religious person at the convent and not a nun at all. Rather, she was an Irish Catholic, and, as I discovered later in New Zealand, she embraced a very different brand of Catholicism. ‘

Not to put too fine a point on it, she rammed religion and her devotion down our throats, exhorting us amongst other things, to bring old clothes to her to dispense to the needy. As she gathered them in from everyone except me, she would regularly intone, ” Ah, gurrells, it’s boi moi gude deeds to the puir that I hope to go to heaven.” She would interrupt long division to make us all stand up and say The Angelus, and we would then pray for the parents of all the unfortunate girls who had one Protestant parent. Since both my parents were Protestant, this was a prayer I obstinately refused to join in, as I had no regrets about their situation.

One day, her propaganda about “puir St Thomas Moore”, wicked Protestants and suffering Catholics enraged me so much, that having  just finished one of my father’s books, a history of the Borgia family, I had enough ammunition, I felt, with the Inquisition and the scandal of the Avignon Popes, to take her on. I never got beyond the Borgia Pope and a quick mention of the Inquisition, before she clapped her hands over her ears, and drowned me out by shouting: “What a pack of Protestant lies.” No-one liked me very much after that, and I would always be left to last when they were picking teams for netball and rounders.

One person who did like me, perhaps a little too much, was Mother Michael, a rather coarse -looking Englishwoman compared with the refined foreign nuns. She was not a teacher so much as our house- mother, and she was obsessed with long hair. My long, almost black, thick plaits were meat and drink to her. Every lunch hour I was dragged off to the big, sunny cloakroom-cum ante-room, and had my plaits ceremoniously undone, and brushed out.

The brushing went on all through play-time, and I never got to play with anyone. As the time for the bell drew near, she’d plait the blessed things up again, refusing to let me do them. She dragged the hair round my face quite differently to the way I scraped my hair back myself, and I’d get home every day, looking quite unlike the school girl who had set out in the morning.

Every day my stepmother would ask what was going on, and when I told her about the brushing and the plaiting, she’d say “It’s got to stop”. But I didn’t know how to stop it, so it went on until Mother Michael fell in love with another girl with long plaits.

The nuns wore elegant, plum- red gaberdine habits, with a long swinging pleated skirt, and a thick, beautiful cord with long tassels round their waist. Their rosaries also hung from this fat cord, and they had long, soft white wool veils which swung in the wind when they borrowed our roller skates and took a turn round the rink in the evenings when everyone was inside, doing their homework. The garden beside the skating rink plunged down towards Our Lady’s grotto, and then to the River Tees.

I would gaze out of the classroom window in our annexe called The Hermitage, in winter, and see the black, lacy boughs of the empty trees, the black running water of the river, white snow, and sometimes a flame- coloured squirrel silhouetted in the trees against the pale winter sky. The main convent building was grim, grey, Victorian Gothic, with long, shiny, lino-floored corridors where feet and voices echoed. It smelt of incense and wax candles, lino polish, and nearer the kitchens, carbolic soda and grease. In alcoves at regular intervals along the echoing corridors, painted statues of saints draped with rosaries presided. I glared at them like a latter-day Oliver Cromwell as our crocodile straggled to chapel for prayers every day after lunch.

I always enjoyed Retreat, three or four days of silence when we spent most of our time drawing and painting holy pictures, instead of wrestling with fractions, and going to chapel for mass, as well as the regular after- lunch prayers, and then Benediction. I hated the priest who came to the convent for the occasion, and whom all the nuns fluttered around and flattered and fawned upon. To the cynical ten-year-old looking coldly on, he looked like a very boring, not very bright man, who relished in an unspiritual fashion, the entirely undeserved attention he received.

I was happy to go to chapel as often as we did during Retreat, as I had figured out that God was everywhere so it didn’t matter where you were beating his ear. I had no idea why we were doing all this, but then, a lot of things puzzled me… so I loved the reverent silence of the whole day, including the silent meals with severe, beautiful Mother John standing at her lectern, reading from the lives of saints. During these meals we ate Assumption Tart, known to us all as Sumpies.

The story of the three fashionable Belgian Victorian women who decided to found the Order was read aloud as we ate the tart. None of them knew how to cook, clean, or sew, and so in the first week, the lady nun assigned to cooking duties threw together some ingredients in a panic and produced the hard, yellow crust of almost inedible pastry on which jam was smeared and which we still ate. We all welcomed Sumpies on the menu, as at least the jam was sweet, the only ingredient which had any taste. The convent food was still obviously flung together by nuns who could not cook.

During Retreat, our class was visited by both Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior, causing an outbreak of curtsying and crossing ourselves. Since no-one ever explained anything to children in those days, I couldn’t work out why a young Reverend Mother seemed more important than a Mother Superior. Reverend Mother was Polish, about twenty-eight, very young to have reached such rank, and had an indefinable air of holiness about her. She also had an amazing complexion, pale skin and brilliant red cheeks. She received total devotion from everyone, and she fascinated me. Sometimes she wasn’t well enough to come to our weekly audience with her, so Mother Adelaide, Mother Superior, came instead.

My father adored Mother Adelaide. She was just the sort of woman he loved, witty and wise, French, sophisticated, clever and rather beautiful. Long after, when I heard that Reverend Mother had died the following year of TB, I realised that Mother Adelaide had left her duties as superior of the order, to come over from Belgium to keep things going with as little disturbance to everyone, including the beloved young nun.

After a while, it was decided that my sister would do better at school on her own. So I agreed to ” sit the scholarship” in order to go to the local grammar school. My stepmother was then summoned for an interview with the county education authorities. She told me that they informed her that my maths was so abysmal there was no way I could qualify for higher education. But my English and general knowledge were so far ahead of my age, that there was no way they could not give me a scholarship. Nothing much has changed since then, my maths are still abysmal.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some wonderful coloured -peppers, red, yellow and orange, and instead of cooking them in my usual way, I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe – with adaptations! I chopped the three peppers and added them to a chopped onion, plenty of garlic and olive oil to sweat them until cooked. When soft I added a good glug of balsamic vinegar and boiled it all together, and then salt and pepper to taste.

This is where Jamie Oliver comes in. He recommended tossing in a generous handful of parmesan cheese and some table spoons of mascapone or cream cheese.  Stir it all together until everything is melted and amalgamated. He served it with pasta and I served it with steak and mushrooms, and it was delicious.. It may have been better with pasta but I won’t be using the cream cheese again.

Food for thought

If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

19 Comments

Filed under consciousness, cookery/recipes, great days, happiness, humour, life/style, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

Nuns and their habits

100_0807

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.

 

 

 

49 Comments

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