A DAY IN AN ANGLICAN CONVENT
Elections, wars and World Series don’t penetrate the remote tranquillity of the Sisters of St. John the Divine who work and pray from dawn till dark just a few yards off Canada’s busiest street
AT THE CONVENT of St. John the Divine, one of the country’s two Anglican convents, the day begins at a quarter to six. It is a bright morning in late summer and a nun, called the Vigilant, glides silently down the long pink corridors of the new building where the Sisters sleep. She pushes open each door a few inches and calls, “Let us bless the Lord.” A sleepy voice inside answers, “Blessed is the name of the Lord, now and ever and from ages to ages.” Both nuns breathe “Amen,” and the Vigilant passes on to the next door.
Outside the yellow brick walls of the dormitory where the nuns now are beginning to dress is the quiet of the deep country, although the convent is well inside the northern boundaries of Toronto’s new metropolitan area. It is too early for anyone to be awake in the neat bungalows that fringe the convent grounds beyond a high board fence. Traffic noises from Yonge Street, only a few hundred yards away, never penetrate the convent garden.
All through the day delivery trucks, tourists with boats lashed to trailers, and busloads of suburban shoppers will pass the convent entrance, an unmarked rutted lane off one of the busiest thoroughfares
handsome figures in engraved shrines and a glowing stained-glass window. Through lack of funds no chapel has yet been built in the new mother house, and the Sisters worship in a plain square room that used to be a drawing-room. The altar is simply a long table draped in fine linen and satin brocade encrusted with embroidery. The nuns enter the chapel with their eyes down, genuflect toward the altar and fall to their knees in the pews, making the sign of the cross. With their eyes closed in prayer, their faces take on an ethereal beauty.
The sound of chimes outside the hushed room signals the beginning of the first prayers of the day. The nuns on either side of the chapel alternate in reading verses from the Bible in a lulling rhythm of sweet, high voices.
“The Lord is my shepherd . . . therefore can I lack nothing.”
“He shall feed me in green pastures . . . and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.”
Now there is a small pause while some of the nuns slip out to start breakfast. The gentle-faced Sisters move about these tasks sedately, their flowing skirts and veils fluttering as they walk. When they speak later in the day their voices are soft and fragile and in repose their faces have an expression of sweet passiveness. In the convent they read no newspapers, hear no radios, know no music except the sound of their own voices singing their prayers, have looked at television just once and have seen but one movie (a religious short subject) in thirty years. They never telephone friends or relatives for a casual conversation. Traffic terrifies them, airplane travel seems daring, modern homes look cold and modern clothes wild. Only a few, perhaps five nuns at the most, can name the present prime minister of Canada. None ever votes.
This withdrawal is not true of all the nuns of St. John the Divine. Most of the seventy Sisters of the order live outside their Toronto mother house nursing Sisters at St. John’s Convalescent Hospital north of Toronto, teaching Sisters at Qu’Appelle Diocesan School in Regina, Sisters engaged in such works of mercy as a refuge for unmarried mothers in Edmonton, slum work in Montreal, a home for aged women in Toronto and the training of helpless mentally retarded children in Aurora, Ont. Apart from the strong religious side of their lives these “outside” Sisters are as much a part of a normal world as any busy nurse, teacher or social worker. At Aurora, for example, they run a farm and face the secular problem of the milk and beef prices; at Bracebridge, Ont., they battle apathy in their efforts to teach the Gospel to children on outlying farms; in Regina they must make such temporal decisions as which teen-ager
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in Canada. At night the traffic will be swifter, salesmen speeding in dusty cars, couples on their way home from movies and giant diesel transports trailing a stench of blue smoke. None of this ever disturbs the peace of the convent where thirty women are Jiving out their lives in prayer.
The convent is a queerly matched building, half a gracious old country home and half a three-months-old dormitory of bright yellow brick. The Sisters call themselves English Catholics, or very high Church of England. They represent an almost unknown minority in Canada where there are more than three hundred orders of Roman Catholic nuns. The Sisters of St. John the Divine have the distinction of being the only Protestant order founded in Canada; the other order, Sisters of the Church, has its headquarters or mother house in England.
This morning, as every morning, the nuns allow themselves forty-five minutes to dress because the habit is clumsy to get into. They wear simple cotton knit underwear, black silk stockings and rubber-heeled black oxfords. Some of the heavier Sisters wear corsets. Over a loose black slip goes the heavy black gown, a wool mixture in the winter and a silky texture in the summer. The gown is bound at the waist by a black silk rope with three heavy knots in the end that swings free. These symbolize the three vows of the Sisters: poverty, chastity and obedience.
The oblong piece of black cloth worn over the habit is also symbolic; it is the scapular, or yoke, whose meaning is found in the words “Take My yoke upon you and learn with Me.”. A stiffly starched high white collar with a deep bib goes on next and then a black cord from which hangs a black cross bound with silver. The nuns don’t shave their heads, as some orders do, but keep it cut short enough to be concealed by the white cap which fits close above their eyebrows, fastens under the chin and is held snug against the cheeks with elastic. The veil goes on last.
The narrow bedrooms in which they dress are called “cells,” not because they resemble a prison as they do in cloistered orders but as a derivation of the French word del, which means heaven. The Rule of Life by which the Sisters live states that a cell is “a place where a Sister dwells alone with God.” All the cells are alike with pale green walls, pink and beige Marboleum floors, a narrow metal cot with an inner-spring mattress and two pillows, a white counterpane, a chest of drawers painted pink, a chair, a small closet, a prayer book stand, one religious picture and a crucifix on the wall.
Dressed, the nuns hurry silently to.; the chapel for a few minutes of private meditation before the first of the day’s seven periods of prayer begins at six-thirty. On the way they nod to one another but do not exchange a word. They are in the period of Greater Silence from nine at night until nine in the morning.
At present the Sisters are apologetic about their chapel. Their previous convent, from which they moved a few weeks ago, had a magnificent chapel paneled in quarter-cut oak with Gothic scrolls,
A DAY IN AN ANGLICAN CONVENT continued
In Their Own Secluded World The
Humble Sisters Are Never Idle
is most likely responsible for the cake crumbs in the dormitory.
But the lives of the nuns who live in the mother house just off Yonge Street at the junction of Highways 11 and 400 offer a contrast. The atmosphere of the convent is so tranquil, so still that the songs of the birds sound raucous and the rustle of the trees in the wind seems hearty and coarse. In the big garden in front of the old house a child never cries, a voice never scolds, a man never laughs. The silence becomes a physical force and visitors tiptoe across the flagstone terrace.
In the small crowded chapel a Church of England priest has arrived from the city to hold Communion, a ritual as old as Christianity. The service seems but little removed from Roman Catholic ritual: the priest speaks in English instead of Latin, there are no images of the Virgin Mary, the nuns wear no rosaries these are the only superficial differences. Essentially the Roman Catholics differ from the English Catholics in loyalty to the Pope; many Anglicans are doubtful of nuns and monks
in their church; in Oshawa, Ont., the Sisters of St. John the Divine were denounced some years ago for their “Popish ways.”
After Communion the nuns have their breakfast in a big pastel-green refectory where bare trestle tables have been set with pitchers of milk, bowls of cereal and platters of whole oranges. The Mother Superior, the former Sister Aquila, leads in a lengthy grace and the nuns sit down to eat in silence. No one speaks at mealtime at the convent, except on such special occasions as Christmas. Sisters who serve the convent’s strong tea incline their heads and point to a half empty cup; they are answered with a nod or a shake of the head. A nudge and mouthing the word silently indicates “Please pass the butter.”
After breakfast they return to their cells to make their beds and tidy the room. They still do not speak; a lift of the eyebrows means “Have you finished with the mop?” When the cells are clean, the Sisters return to the chapel for a half hour’s meditation. On fine days like this one they walk in the garden, their heads down, their eyes thoughtful. This meditation was organized the evening before when the Sisters chose some selection from the Bible or a paragraph from a collection of subjects for meditation.
Now a bell summons the Sisters to chapel for two more offices of prayer. These end just before ten o’clock and the nuns form a circle in the common room for their daily conference, at which they will speak their first words of the day, apart from their prayers. The Mother conducts the conference, at which the Sisters have an opportunity of asking the Mother’s permission to purchase thread in Toronto or to speak to another Sister about a laundry problem. Through the day the nuns will not exchange visits; the conference and a recreation period after supper are the only times in the day the Sisters in the kitchen, for example, have an opportunity to speak to the Sisters in the sewing room.
At ten o’clock the working day begins. The nuns who work in the kitchen pin up their wide black sleeves and tie a blue cotton duster over their habits. The large kitchen in the old house is painted white and has stainless-steel sinks, a picture window and two electric stoves. One of the nuns pops a ten-pound roast into the newer of the two ovens, the one with a crucifix hanging above it. Sister Mary Ruth, a tiny stooped nun with a straw hat clapped over her veil, is already in the garden weeding petunias. Sister Philippa, who became a nun only a few months ago, wears a duster to protect her habit in the library where she is sorting and classifying the convent’s ten thousand books, most of them
theological. The small secular section is already arranged Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, E.
Pauline Johnson, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The convent has two profit-making industries, altar-bread baking and church embroidery. The bakery in the basement of the new wing supplies most of the wafers used in Holy Communion by the Church of England in Canada. The wafers are packed in airtight metal containers which will keep them fresh for two years. A minister in Jamaica once horrified the Sisters when he cheerfully reported the holy bread was still in good condition after four years.
The embroidery room is in the old house, a wide cool room where two Sisters sew in rarely broken silence. They work steadily but unhurriedly on a backlog of orders for vestments and ’altar drapes that will take them years to fill.
Occasionally Sister Joanna must go to Toronto to purchase thread or linen in a department store.
She is filled with wonder at the strange merchandise and recklessly rides the escalators, which many of the Sisters are afraid to do. In the twenty years since she became a nun, Sister Joanna has observed some distressing changes in the world, the modern trend to paint the walls of a room in contrasting colors, the number of lights that fias!) off and on outside stores, mechanical household appliances that mystify her. “I am out of place in the world now.” she once remarked in her wispy voice. “I iim always so glad to get back to the convent.” She wás astonished to hear recently from a visitor that Canada was in the midst of an election campaign. “I; suppose they talk about things like that, in the world,” she observes gently.
“We live in the world, but apart from it,” explains Sister Francesca, a tiny voluble nun who has been a schoolteacher most of her adult life. “We are specialists in spiritual development, so it is not our duty to keep abreast of the world.
“Of course,” she adds, her head cocked to one side, like a bird, “as a teacher I feel that I must keep up with current events.”
Does the Sister then know about influences like McCarthy?
“McCarthy?” she answers brightly. “You mean Justin M’Carthy, the historian ...”
For many years when Sister Christabel was convent librarian she
read the Toronto Globe and Mail every morning. It was from her that the Sisters learned, during their recreation period, of the atomic bomb. She also searched for subjects for prayer in the newspaper and every day drew up a list of disasters which deserved the nuns’ supplication. Tiny shriveled nuns of eighty and tall beautiful black-browed nuns of thirty prayed earnestly for famine sufferers in China, for the Boyd gang, for Winnipeg flood victims and for the Rosenbergs.
“We can’t give anything in the way of material aid,” a nun explains. “We do what we can: we
pray. It does help, you know.”
The nuns, who number poverty among their vows, decided several months ago that they could no longer atFord a newspaper. The convent is sparsely supported by the interest from an endowment fund frugally nourished by occasional legacies, by voluntary donations and by profits from the altar-bread bakery and the sewing rooms. In addition the mot her house receives a grant for nuns who nurse or teach school. The diocese of Qu’Appelle, for example, pays one hundred and fifty dollars a year for each teaching Sister.
At noon, the close of the morning work period, anot her period of silence envelops the convent. For the next three hours the nuns will not speak except to pray, to answer the telephone or to deliver an urgent message. This is known as the period of Lesser Silence, in memory of the three hours of darkness and desolation Christ spent on the cross.
The nuns have their dinner at one. The Mother Superior dishes up the main course which may be fish or eggs on Fridays, slices of roast other days, plus potatoes, another vegetable and gravy. Dessert usually is a pudding. The nuns read religious works during dinner and the refectory is as silent as a library.
After dinner the nuns return to the chapel. Though the hot July sunlight pours straight down they appear cool and composed. They are often asked if the habit isn’t stifling in the summer and they invariably answer that they believe it to be cooler than ordinary clothing because the sun cannot penetrate it. Chapel is followed by a rest period of a half hour or so. Some Sisters lie on their beds, a few sit in the garden writing letters or doing some of the required Continued on page 60
A Day in an Anglican Convent
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reading of the day—fifteen minutes of the Bible and a half hour of some other spiritual reading.
Most of the nuns have read the biography of Hannah Grier Coome, the widow from Belleville, Ont., who founded the order of St. John the Divine in Toronto in 1884. Mrs. Coome lived most of her married life in England and when she was widowed she decided to return to England and enter a convent. She was persuaded to found a convent in Toronto instead. The first mother house was a renovated stable on Robinson Street furnished with three beds (one novice accompanied her and another was expected), a few chairs, a table, a dishpan, some dishes and a coal scuttle. The Mother Foundress dined on her first night by the light of candles stuck into the necks of bottles.
In spite of this beginning Sister Hannah soon spread a network of good works over the neighborhood —meals for the poor, a dispensary for the sick, Bible classes for the young. Her work won her friends and donations. Toronto Orangemen who suspected her of being a Roman Catholic influence on Protestantism at first threatened to burn down the convent; they changed their minds and gave her the collection from their next meeting. Horses reared at the sight of Sister Hannah in her black habit and once a man shoveling snow shook his fist at her dark figure as she passed and shouted “God is LIGHT!”
Nuns wear black as a symbol of widowhood, since a spiritual marriage to Christ is part of the ritual of profession. Every nun wears a gold wedding band inscribed Delectus meus mihi et ego illi — My Beloved is Mine and I am His.
In 1889 the order moved to Major Street in downtown Toronto. More than sixty years later a new home was needed when it was found that the Major Street buildings didn’t conform to fire regulations. The Sisters’ slim building fund bought their present twenty-two-acre property. Sale of the old convent and of some of their acreage to home-builders raised funds to enlarge the home on the property. Still needed are a chapel, an infirmary for the order’s many aged nuns and a guest house for lay retreats. This autumn the nuns are appealing to the public for funds for these projects.
In the middle of the afternoon at the convent the period of Lesser Silence ends and the work period resumes.
“Do you suppose we could persuade the Sister who arranges the house flowers to put a bouquet on this small table?” a nun comments to another nun in the hall, delicately avoiding any names.
“I did mention it to her yesterday,” the other offers apologetically.
“1 know why she doesn’t want to do it,” retorts the first nun. “It’s because she has to mop the hall and that makes something extra to move. Well, 1 used to mop the hall myself and I never minded moving an extra piece.”
In her office across the hall the Mother Superior sighs sadly. “We bring our human nature with us when we become Sisters,” she observes gently. “The devil makes it his business to be more active in a convent where people are trying to give their best to God. Many are called, but few are chosen.”
The Mother Superior of the order of St. John the Divine is English-born,
a delicate woman with beautiful eyes and a shy manner. She was elected Mother by the nuns in 1945 and re-elected five years later. She is a modern nun, using airplanes to travel whenever the trip is urgent and she has permitted television and a movie in the convent on two special occasions.
The television was brought in for Coronation Day because of the religious nature of the ceremony, and the nuns were awestruck. The movie, a Technicolor short called The Power Within, about Church of England missions, was shown in the convent basement.
The Mother Superior often spends her afternoons interviewing women who want to enter the convent. Her decision in these cases is not made hurriedly. No one motivated by grief or frustration is ever considered. “We don’t want maladjusted, unhappy women,” she explains. “Much of our work is dealing with such problems and we cannot have our Sisters anything but normal.”
Since complete submission is a requisite for a Sister, the Mother applies an odd test to all applicants. A graduate nurse who wanted to be admitted as a nursing Sister was asked: “If you were not permitted to be a nurse would you be willing to wash dishes and do housework?” “Well,” answered the nurse, “maybe for a while, but I was hoping I could be a nursing Sister.” Her application was turned down.
Each Year, A Month Off
Few women, in spite of moments of fervent longing for a convent life during some domestic melee of whining children, stained rugs, laundry hanging in the rain and irritable husbands, could tolerate the mystical selfless life of a professed nun.
For it is a hard life, if a tranquil one. The Sisters must find a place in their day’s tasks of cooking, washing, sewing, nursing, doing social-service work, gardening and cleaning, for four and a half hours of prayer, meditation and reverent reading. The twofold demand on their time exhausts them. There is a constant flow of spent nuns coming home to the mother house for a rest. Every nun gets a month’s rest each year. The Mother decides how each Sister may spend it; sometimes they are allowed to stay with their families; most go to the order’s cottage at Port Sydney on Georgian Bay, where they enjoy rowing their flat-bottomed boat and bathing in modest suits a modern concession.
There is a growing concern in the Mother Superior because a career of serving Christ has diminishing appeal in the modern world and there are nol enough nuns in the order to maintain all the branch houses.
Three to five postulants enter the convent every year and only one in three perseveres to become a nun. The order needs twice as many postulants, but restless postwar life is yielding few nuns. The Sisters have observed another disturbing trend: More nuns are leaving convents now than ever before in history. “English, Eastern and Roman orders all over the world have noticed this change,” Sister Francesca once observed to a visitor. “The tradition of staying with things is passing. Few people any more have any real dedication to their jobs.” The nuns, however, regard this as a passing peculiarity of the times.
The existence of a nun is perhaps the strangest way of life for a woman. Some nuns compare it to marriage in that it is a lifelong dedication; others compare it to dying and being reborn, since a nun makes her will when she is professed and gives away all her
possessions, usually to the convent. She renounces more than her right to wear lipstick and gay dresses: she gives up her right to make her own decisions, to have a positive personality, to read and speak independently, to bear a child, to own anything. In return she receives a tranquil feeling of belonging in a special sense to God, of freedom from bickering and insecurity. Most of the women who become nuns in this Anglican order come from average-income homes but a few have known great luxury and a few have known hunger. Three nuns are colored; one of these comes from Jamaica. A nun may not take her vows until she is twenty-five, after six months as a postulant and three years as a novice. Postulants must be more than twentyone or have the written consent of their parents. Women over thirty-five are rarely admitted. The novices are instructed by S:ster Barbara, the novice mistress and a woman of unusual grace. At the end of the novitiate admission into the order is voted on by all the nuns in a secret ballot. Sometimes a novice is refused on the advice of the convent’s I neurologist, who advises the Mother Superior on the state of the novice’s nerves. He also acts as an adviser on 1 the well-being of the nuns. Once lie suggested a certain nun leave religious life and the other Sisters voted unanimously to release her from the convent because they felt she had become a religious fanatic. But there is no way in which a nun can be released from her vows, which are made to God. Therefore the Mother takes great care in admitting postulants. They are encouraged to read Monica Baldwin’s story of her experiences in a convent, I Leap Over the Wall, and they are told of the nuns who have left the order, in order to avoid possible tragic mistakes. At five o’clock the Mother Superior puts her correspondence away in a steel filing cabinet surmounted by a crucifix and joins the nuns in the chapel for vespers, a song service at which incense is burned. This is the busiest time of the day for most women —hurrying home from the office to clean an apartment and cook a meal, spooning cereal into a baby while the potatoes boil over, bathing a collection of splashing children as the company rings the front doorbell. The nuns raise their faces and sing “Alleluia.” Supper at the convent is usually eggs or cheese or bacon strips, with bread and butter, whole tomatoes and fruit for dessert. Afterward the nuns gather outside on the flagstone terrace for the recreation period, bringing with them their mending and crochet. They keep a family feeling by having one general conversation rather than several cliques, so nothing of a personal nature is ever discussed. The nuns exchange news from the branch houses and on the health of absent Sisters.
After recreation the Sisters go back to the chapel in the gathering dusk to prepare their meditation for the next day. At nine o’clock they say the final office of the day. It is now dark outside and the period of Greater Silence has begun. The nuns’ long garments whisper as they go into the darkened refectory for a biscuit and a glass of milk. They wash their glasses in the sink and smile and nod at one another. By nine-thirty the lights in the cells begin to wink out. Across the board fence that separates the convent grounds from the bungalows comes the sound of a lawn mower, of a car door slamming, of a woman’s voice impatiently calling her children, of a teenager’s shrill giggle. Then the cells are dark. -fr