Last week, I re-tweeted a link originally posted by the author Sue Monk Kidd @suemonkkidd on Twitter for a New York Times Op-Ed column about the Pope’s “stinging reprimand” to American nuns. It was of course very cool to get a reply from SMK, but what I’m really stuck thinking about days later, are the memories the tweet, the retweet, and the article itself brought back to me. While this ‘reprimand’ the writer discusses had me heated, I also had felt a smile across my face as I thought about the nuns in my life. Looking back, I can only feel that I was fortunate to have had them.
I grew up in a half Catholic family. You could call it a mom who ran the show, or a dad who was supportive. I guess it was a little bit of both. Whatever it was, I mean that, my sisters and I grew up attending Catholic school, and though most of our teachers were members of the laity, for a lot of our time there, we were also taught by, nurtured by and certainly loved by nuns. I’m know it wasn’t the same for everyone, but my family was close with the school and its teachers, the nuns included. My mother was one of the Volunteers Superior and for many of our years at school, spent almost as much time there as we did. She was friends with the nuns; when I think back, she almost seemed like a kid sister to some of them.
I know that nuns, throughout history, haven’t always had the best reputation. We’ve all heard the stories of mean Sister So-and-So and the ruler she used to smack little hands with. Of course we all have different memories, but it sort of saddens me to think about such unpleasant recollections of these women, when mine are so far opposite. The nuns in my history might be the kindest women I will ever know. Sure, they were strict as teachers—as authority figures—but really, they were being adults, enforcing the rules, while we were being kids breaking them. They really were no different from any of the other people in charge. Maybe it was the habits that scared everyone.
My sister and I reminisce about the days our dad would pack lunch for us—leftovers from dinner the night before, maybe a pork tenderloin sandwich. Sure, on a baguette, this would be delightful (to us now as women in our thirties), but as 1st graders, this day-old meat on mushy white bread with mayonnaise was hardly appetizing. So whenever it was that Kristina found this in her lunchbox, she would give her lunch to Sister Teresa who always gladly accepted and ate like she was sitting at a queen’s feast, as my sister sustained herself on a baggie half-full of Goldfish crackers.
And then there were the after school visits. This may have been the one and only perk of living on the north end of town and thus, having to ride the “2nd bus” home, which meant a 45-minute wait after school, while the kids on the south end were delivered to their doorsteps. Those long stretches of time could get really boring, but for some of us, there was always the chance of cookies at the convent. If you were a lucky one that had to run an errand for the school secretary and take a walk to the nuns’ house (and my sisters and I often were), you got Oreos and Coke as a little repayment for your journey. A visit to the convent was like a peak into a secret world. Just as children don’t really believe their teachers are regular people, we didn’t think that of the nuns. Here was this house full of women, all older then our moms but whose ages we couldn’t even guess. They were all rather plain, none of them ever wearing makeup and usually, only clothes in some shade of blue or white. They lived in humble bedrooms that were simply furnished, with a Crucifix somewhere on the wall, a rosary on their beside table, a book of prayers, and maybe a plant. Sitting with them in their sunny kitchen with a plate of sweets, made our eyes pop with surprised delight.
My sister’s last year at the school was also the last year of the nuns there. They were relocated to less fortunate communities where I suppose, the need for them was greater. Sister Anna, who taught me in the 8th grade, was moved to a mission parish in Biloxi, Mississippi. After years there, she returned to her native Ireland where she lives now, retired.
I only know this, because I recently heard from Sister Anna. It was last month, when I was home for Easter, in my parents’ house. I found a letter addressed to me sitting on the dresser in the room where I stay. I saw the foreign stamps and the words “Air Mail” and immediately, I recognized the handwriting, as if I’d seen it only days (and not decades) before. Inside the envelope was a note accompanied by an article Sister Anna had recently come across about the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, whose name I took for my Confirmation and who, it was recently announced, is finally being canonized a Saint.
The letter, in part read: “Thought of you specially when I read the enclosed article. I get the Gulf Pine Catholic a month late but still enjoy it! You took the name Kateri for your confirmation and wrote a report on her. It was then that I learned about the Native American Indian girl for the first time.”
She wrote me this twenty-one years after having me in her class.
Looking back, it really was only a short time of our lives that the nuns were with us. Despite that, I am so appreciative of it today. Though as a child, I didn’t fully understand the dedication, selflessness and courage that it takes to be a nun, reading this article, I was reminded of that. I was reminded of these Sisters in my life, and thankful to have been witness to such beautiful examples of grace.