Articles

When A Girl Becomes A Nun

Amid the blast of buzz-bombs in London, Catharine Bedford, a Canadian corporal, struggled, through doubt, and torment to the decision that, she now finds, has won her a life of peace, devotion and hard work in a black habit

MCKENZIE PORTER April 15 1951
Articles

When A Girl Becomes A Nun

Amid the blast of buzz-bombs in London, Catharine Bedford, a Canadian corporal, struggled, through doubt, and torment to the decision that, she now finds, has won her a life of peace, devotion and hard work in a black habit

MCKENZIE PORTER April 15 1951

When A Girl Becomes A Nun

MCKENZIE PORTER

ONE YEAR after she returned from Europe with two stripes on her Army tunic, a pretty, fragile, 24-year-old Canadian named Catharine Bedford became a nun. In a ceremony which the Roman Catholic Church regards as a marriage to Christ she cut off her hair and changed from a white bridal gown to the black habit of her vocation.

At that moment, in June 1947, Catharine Bedford was no more. Her body was inhabited by a new personality christened, by choice of the other nuns, Sister Mary Janice. She would endeavor to spend the rest of her days in the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.

Her mother was proud; her father was sad.

This girl who had been a winsome high-school student, a blithe bank clerk and a spry CWAC corporal became, in the terminology of the Roman Catholic Church, “a religious.” She had “walled herself up” in à community of women sworn to obedience, poverty and chastity. She would seek perfection through worship and reflection during most of her wakeful hours. Her ultimate service to others would be school teaching.

She would rise at 5 a.m. and retire at 9 p.m. Every day would be a rigid routine of prayer, meditation, study, dishwashing, ironing, sewing and darning—timed by the clang of a bell. Her most active recreations would be brief periods of basketball, table tennis and lawn tennis, with greater emphasis on pastimes like embroidery, music and reading.

She is not allowed to leave the convent without first asking permission, even on a trivial errand. She is not allowed to visit her home, but one day in each month she may receive her parents and friends at the convent. Once a month also she may receive and write letters.

Each year she will spend eight days in Retreat. During this period she will listen to religious instructions from a priest and then pass the rest of the day in meditation and prayer.

There will be an annual 14-day holiday in a St. Joseph’s rest home by Lake Simcoe. Here bells ring only for meals. She can relax in the sun, walk through the woods, or row on the lake. But sTte will still spend several hours each day in chapel.

Sister Mary Janice will never have a penny of her own in her pocket. She will turn over all gifts to the convent. When traveling she will be provided with the exact fare and just enough for modest meals.

Her sleeping quarters are in a long dormitory with other nuns and her only privacy is a cubicle of white curtains around her simple hospital cot, one small chair and a dresser. Her underclothes and night clothes are coarse and unadorned. Her stockings are black cotton and much mended. Her shoes are as stout as a man’s.

The convent she entered is a series of rambling brick buildings joined by passages and numerous angled staircases in the shadow of the Ontario Parliament Buildings, on Wellesley Street, Toronto. One section is occupied by resident pupils and day girls of St. Joseph’s College School, a jolly, scampering, inky group whose musical laughter rings in contrast to the tranquillity elsewhere.

The regions reserved for the nuns are a meandering medley of large common rooms and tiny waiting rooms, a maze of rectangles in which one could easily get lost. They are darkly painted and sparsely furnished with chairs and sofas whose contours reflect every whorl and coruscation of Victorian design and whose long - imprisoned

Amid the blast of buzz-bombs in London, Catharine Bedford, a Canadian corporal, struggled, through doubt, and torment to the decision that, she now finds, has won her a life of peace, devotion and hard work in a black habit

springs seem on the point of bursting their bonds. Heavy drapes and yellowing net curtains impart to thèse whispering galleries a semblance of perpetual twilight but here and there shafts of sun glint on highly polished floors and illuminate with fierce beauty fhe agony of the Figure on the Cross.

It was to this atmosphere that Sistér Mary Janice committed herself three years ago. The organ played happy music as she filed out of chapel with ether girls who had become nuns. The reception, to the families that followed in the enclosed gardens, had an air of rejoicing. While guests took tea and cakes one sister said with a twinkle in her eye: “When I first saw Catharine

1 said to myself ‘She will never come here.’ She was so fond of parties and pretty clothes. But it just shows that you never know whom our Lord will call next.” *

Catharine Bedford was born in Toronto in 1924. She has an older sister and a brother. Her father, who emigrated from England, was in the automobile business and is now retired. He was an Anglican by upbringing but when he married Mrs. Bedford, a Canadian-born Roman Catholic, he became Catholic too. The family went to Mass every Sunday but was not unusually religious. Catharine was educated by nuns at a Roman Catholic high school in North Toronto. She was impressed by their serenity but never dreamed then of taking the veil.

In 1941 she left school to become a bank clerk. She wore lipstick, bought smart frocks, went to dances and parties, and changed boy friends regularly. In 1943, when she was, 19, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. “Frankly,” she says, “I wanted to get a free trip to England.”

She was posted as a stenographer to Canadian Military Headquarters, Trafalgar Square, London. On the surface she was like any other attractive girl in the service. She wise-cracked in the canteens, lined up for movies with her pals, and made dates with soldiers. But she was more deeply disturbed than the average girl by the harlots of Piccadilly, the slaughter of bombings and the misery of air raid shelters.

One day she took cover as a buzz-bomb fell and when she looked up she saw the body of a Red Cross girl killed by the blast. She said to herself: “The world is mad!” She says today she thinks it was after this incident that she first heard “the call.” She adds: “I couldn’t believe it. I kept

telling myself I was deluded by the strain.”

Something impelled her to spend several week ends

at Osterley, on the western outskirts of London, where Jesuit Fathers ran a House of Retreat for Roman Catholic service women. Here she took part in religious discussions designed to stimulate meditation and then spent hours alone trying to divine the meaning of strange stirrings in her heart.

Later, at Canadian Army Headquarters in Germany, her religious inclinations became stronger. When she returned to Canada she thought she would get over it. But the idea of entering a convent was constantly in her thoughts. If it were a genuine call, she told herself, it should be accompanied by a blinding revelation, a rush of spiritual ecstasy. But in fact it was a slow torment which she tried to forget by going to more dances and parties.

She couldn’t face taking a job. For nearly a year she was on the point of a nervous breakdown. Her parents were anxious but she didn’t mention what was on her mind. At last she spoke of her trouble to a priest at confession. He told her it was possible that Christ was calling to her. He said that if the idea had been on her mind so long it might be better not to fight it.

Catharine’s last act of resistance was to buy an expensive fur coat. It was a waste of money. Soon she began telephoning various convents for appointments. The Rev. Mother of St. Joseph’s nuns in Toronto talked to Catharine for half an hour.

“And then,” Catharine says, “I knew ... I just knew this was the place for me. It’s a question of finding the spirit that suits you. The spirit of St. Joseph’s is humility, charity and justice.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph, a young order compared with some, were founded 300 years ago in Le Puy, France. They

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were one of the first to break the tradition of total enclosure. This year they will celebrate their Canadian centenary.

From one group of four nuns who settled in Toronto in 1851 they have become 600. The Mother House on Wellesley Street, Toronto, administers convents in St. Catharines, Thorold, Oshawa, Barrie, Orillia, Montreal, Winnipeg, Rosetown (Sask.), Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Chilliwack (B.C.).

In Toronto the sisters direct the hospitals of St. Michael’s (700 beds), St. Joseph’s (600 beds) and Lady of Mercy (250 beds). Their House of Providence for the aged and infirm has 600 guests and their Sacred Heart Orphanage shelters more than 60. They also administer St. Joseph’s College, which is affiliated through St. Michael’s College with the University of Toronto. They have other hospitals in Winnipeg and Comox (B.C.). Across Canada they run nine high schools and 33 parochial schools.

Catharine’s 15-Hour Day

The income of the order is derived from school and hospital fees, endowments, gifts and grants. Wealthy nuns have willed their estates to the community but St. Joseph’s, unlike some orders, does not make this a condition of admittance. Families whose daughters join St. Joseph’s present the convent with a “dowry” of $100. This is returned if the girl decides to leave.

About 150 nuns live in the Mother House in Toronto. They range in age from 18 to 90. Many have university degrees and in addition to religious observances put in a full day nursing or teaching. Some do secretarial, administrative and domestic work for the convent proper or its hospitals and schools. All strong nuns, no matter what their special duties, take turns at laundry, kitchen and cleaning work. As they get older their manual tasks or “charges” become lighter. One St. Joseph’s nun who is 89 and blind spends her whole day in chapel.

Although the weight of their responsibility and the degree of their intellect varies, all sisters are equal in status except the Mother General, four councilors, a treasurer and a secretary. These are elected by ballot from the Canada-wide community. Their term of office lasts six years and then they “revert to the ranks.” During office they are the highest authority. They appoint the Mother Superiors of all branch convents.

Catharine Bedford entered the Mother House as a Postulant. This initial term lasts six months. She wore a black veil which revealed her hair, a calf-length black frock and black shoes and stockings. Her day consisted of 15 hours of religious observances, studies and household chores. When she expressed a wish to remain the superiors were satisfied with her sincerity and she went through the ceremony of Receiving the Habit.

To Die to the World

Preceded by a little girl who carried for consecration the black habit of her order, Catharine walked into the chapel of the Toronto convent in bridal white. Her parents watched her glide up the aisle, her hands folded in piety and her face lit by rapture. Candle flames dappled her brown hair with stars as she knelt before the altar. The hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” was intoned by the assembled prelates and a choir sang the responses.

A bishop blessed with holy water the sombre robe which was to envelop Catharine in “justice, holiness and truth” and the snowy linen headdress and veil which were to be the emblems of her virginity, and the cincture, or cord with the three knots, which symbolized the scourging of Jesus and would recall to her the reasons for penance.

Then the bishop questioned her: “What do you ask, my child?”

“Your Excellency,” Catharine replied, “I ask for the habit of the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph.”

“To become a true sister,” said the bishop, “you should die to the world, to your parents, to your friends, and to yourself, and live only for Jesus Christ.”

“That I desire with all my heart,” said Catharine.

The bishop said none but those who had experienced it could ever know the immensity of the spiritual struggle associated with the decision of a young woman to become a nun.

Then he said to Catharine: “I shall grant your request, my child, and wish Mother General to receive you into the congregation, to cut off the superfluity of your hair and to divest you of the vanity of worldly dress, in order that you might put on the poor habit you have longed for with such ardor.”

The organ played while in retirement the bride’s locks were shorn by one of the other sisters and she exchanged her white satin for the black serge of the transformation.

No Disgrace In Leaving

When Catharine returned, her big grey eyes, retroussé nose and delicate mouth were framed in stiff linen. But even under the heavy folds of the habit her youthful stride was still apparent.

The bishop said: “Behold now, my

child, you are dead to the world. Are you satisfied?”

Catharine said: “I experience in my heart the most perfect joy.”

“You have reason,” said the bishop, “for you begin to have in a most particular manner St. Joseph for your father, the most Blessed Virgin for your mother, and Jesus Christ for your spouse.”

This made her a Novice. Two years of theological study followed. She then took Temporary Vows and became a Junior Professed. At this stage the superiors decide what form of secular work the young nun should follow. They considered Sister Mary Janice would make a good high-school teacher. In September of 1949 they entered her at the University of Toronto where she is taking her B.A. Normally the convent pays university fees, but in Sister Mary Janice’s case they are saving money by letting her use a Department of Veterans Affairs scholarship.

Next year she will take her Final Vows and become a Senior Professed. Right up to this time she will be spiritually free to abandon convent life if she wishes. About 50% of St. Joseph’s Postulants, Novices and Junior Professed return to normal life. Many of them marry. It is sometimes called “hopping over the wall” by younger nuns, although St. Joseph’s superiors frown on such levity. But there is no disgrace attached to leaving.

Once she has taken Final Vows, however, the nun is committed for life. She may be absolved from the vows only by special dispensation which, depending on the circumstances, might have to come from the Pope himself. There is nothing in temporal law, of course, to prevent her running away.

The dishonoring of Final Vows has

been likened by one saint, in his writings, to adultery. The Sisters of St. Joseph’s, however, regard this as an extreme view. The Canadian branch of the order has not had cause to give the question of a fully professed absconder much thought since it has never happened in their history.

Sister Mary Janice feels convinced she will be able to face her final vows. The Novice Mistress says: “She is

quite sure of her vocation.”

All through her Postulancy and Novitiate Sister Mary Janice’s superiors were vigilant for signs which might have betrayed in her unworthy motives. In some orders girls have been rejected because they were suspected of running away from supporting a dependent relative; or of making a dramatic gesture to show a former boy friend what a treasure he’d lost; or of gratifying a fancy that they have unearthly beauty in the veil; or of suffering from a schoolgirl crush on one of the other sisters.

The Sisters of St. Joseph’s have to be sure that a Postulant is in good health since the rigors of religious life are too much for delicate girls.

Her father’s objections at first troubled Sister Mary Janice. But her father has now accepted her decision. When his older daughter recently gave up a well-paid secretarial job and joined her sister in St. Joseph’s he raised no objections.

Sister Mary Janice is the only nun in her university class. Other students at first were distant. But when they found she was not sanctimonious they warmed to her. One male student amused her by saying, “Why you talk like any other girl!” She chats brightly with fellow veterans of Army days.

With a smile she says: “The other

students seem to think that because I’m a religious I’m quicker at my studies than they are. But it’s not true. One boy in botany lab is always coming to me for advice. I have to tell him ‘You know more than I do!’ The only difference is that I’m perhaps a little more conscientious.”

Sister Mary Janice belongs to an order which prides itself on smiling, intelligent, well - adjusted members. They discourage primness and melancholy. Some of the younger nuns often play pranks on each other.

Part of the routine is set aside for recreation. There are mild exercises in the gym or table tennis. They play lawn tennis, provided the court is out of public view. Sister Mary Janice says: “We have to hitch up our habits and it would be against our rules of decorum to be seen.”

Once a year the Novices give a play in male and female stage costumes and wigs. A big problem is the St. Joseph’s custom of never doffing the habit except on retiring. The players look bulky because stage costumes have to be worn over a habit. Therefore the less voluminous nurses’ clothing is worn.

During university vacations Sister Mary Janice takes part in the full religious life of the community. Before breakfast there are two hours of prayers and meditation. Throughout the day classes are held on religious subjects. Certain periods, too, are set aside for walking in the garden and discussion.

There are three meals a day, some of which are taken in silence. A reader reads aloud from a spiritual work. After supper there are evening prayers. A number of men are employed about the buildings to do the heaviest jobs and maintain machinery. But all womanly work is done by the nuns.

The Novice Mistress explained to Sister Mary Janice that God’s will is reflected in the orders of the superiors. Even if Sister Mary Janice finds orders rub her the wrong way she will obey, with humility.

Every morning Sister Mary Janice is awakened by a bell and the voice of a sister crying “Benedicamus Domino!” (“Let us bless the Lord”). She replies in chorus with the others “Deo Gratias!” (“Thanks be to God”). There is a rustle of curtains as her sisters dress. Soon she joins a rippling tributary of black which flows to meet many others pouring from corridors into a main stream of nuns bound for chapel. There, as the dawn breaks through the windows, 150 voices murmur in prayer.

In the last three years the girl who was Catharine Bedford thinks she has found her vocation. If, in a moment of doubt, she were to ask: “Would it

be a sin if I didn’t go on?” the answer she would get from her superiors, who are used to the question, would be: “No, not a sin, but a tragedy.” ★