Old school nuns

Photo: JannHuizenga /iStock
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The broad cobblestoned street curved as you climbed, so I didn’t see the convent until I was standing before its huge iron gates. Its massive bulk loomed like a castle. Going to college in Rome felt grown up until the first time I went through the sweeping iron gates and up to the great wooden door. I hesitated before knocking. This was the abode of nuns.

They roamed the halls and galleries of the sprawling enclosure in the thickest, blackest, wooliest habits. They looked as if they had lived there from the day the great architect Borromini forged the iron key in the fires of Mount Doom. Aged yet ageless, they yelled at each other in robust Italian as they went about their work. They walked with a spring in their step which seemed to say, “Get out of the way.”

No problem.

I had always been a little skittish around nuns ever since Sr. Purgatoria in first grade. Though she wore a shortened habit, she was still old-school when it came to discipline. Every 6-year-old in her class felt sure she was related to a certain green-faced character in The Wizard of Oz, and the day she threatened to keep me after school, I panicked like Dorothy when she was trapped inside the castle. If I missed the bus, how would I get home? My mother wouldn’t know where I was. She’d be calling me, calling me like Aunt Em, and then she’d fade away. Forever. At the end of the day, I went right out that door, blending into the thin plaid line. March, march, OH-wee-OH, oh-WEE-oh!

Illustration by Ethan O’Connor

Most nuns were perfectly safe and would never trap a kid in a classroom after school and cackle, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” Sr. Elvina even gave me a medal of Our Lady of Czestochowa to encourage me. But I still kept my distance. That was how I now planned to handle these Italian sisters.

It was easier said than done. In addition to their thick wool habits, they had other habits, all of which were hands-on. Say you overslept and Suor Stanislaus wanted to clean your cell. She would barge in and holler at you in Italian. If you nestled deeper into your itchy wool blanket, Atilla the Nun would march over to the huge window, throw open the shutters with a bang, and January or no January, let in a gust of fresh morning air.

It was worse if you refused to eat. On my first evening at the convent, I discovered that the suore’s pasta was a dish fit for the gods. So I had seconds. The suore then brought out several more courses and demanded that I eat them all. “Basta, basta (enough, enough)!” I pleaded, trying to think of the Italian word for “explode.” 

“Basta, basta,” they barked back at me and threw away the food on my plate in disgust. Picky Americans! After that, no matter how good the pasta or zuppe was, I vowed never to ask for seconds. Whatever was coming, be it tripe or colosseum cat, I had to leave room for it, because by the time they were finished force-feeding me that first night, I was fit for nothing except rolling into bed like a meatball.

It was worse if you refused to eat.

Worst of all, however, was being fool enough to date the locals. There were no cell phones in the ’80s, so when some beautiful stranger asked for your number, it was the convent phone. The nuns didn’t mind if your mother called, but if a young male Italian was on the line, they would tell him you died and hang up on him. Then they would yell at you.

It was during one such session when Suor Gaetana stuck her crooked finger in my face and warned, “Attenzione, Susanna!” that I saw something in her expression I had not noticed before — concern. She was looking out for me. I noticed something else, too: crinkles around her eyes. She liked me. Worse, I liked her.

She was not the enemy any more than my own mother was. Didn’t my mother drag me out of bed in the morning, demand respectful table manners, and keep strange boys away? Didn’t she stick her finger in my face when I was being stupid? I began to enjoy it. If some strange guy on the street asked me out to eat, I’d say, “Mi dispiace [I’m sorry]. Io mangia con suore [I am eating with the nuns].” 

Suore?” the stunned local would exclaim. 

“Oh yes, I live at a convent … .”

The convent was my home. On the outside, it seemed austere and forbidding, like the nuns. Once you stepped inside, there was the long polished corridor bathed in golden light from a row of grand windows; just beyond that lay a courtyard, resplendent in bloom, which welcomed you to rest on benches tucked here and there; above that were the balconies of our cells that looked out over a fountain, shaded by orange trees. All of this splendor had come through the careful tending of those mysterious beings in black.

The convent was my home.

I became best pals with the kindly portress, a lay associate named Gina. Who needs a common language when you both have two hands? Being with her also made the nuns themselves less intimidating.

Still, I just couldn’t hit Suor Atilla back when she clobbered me with my pillow that day. I was in my cell with my roommate when she burst in, looking for a fight. She chased me around the room, cackling and walloping us over and over, daring us to hit her back. We couldn’t. If God saw us bringing a pillow down on that aged wimple, the earth might open up and swallow us. We grabbed our flea market scarves and wound them up to flick in her direction. It was a hit. She cackled with delight.

My time in the convent was only three months, but it has stayed with me for more than 30 years. I have often returned to it in memory — and for a while it seemed that was the only way I would ever return. Then, 11 years after my time there, I had the opportunity to go to Rome for a week on a pilgrimage with my husband. 

My time in the convent was only three months, but it has stayed with me.

One night, a community of young sisters overheard me talking about the wonders of gelato and invited me out to get some. Though we had just met, we chatted easily as they led the way to the gelateria. It was at the bottom of a wide, cobblestoned avenue at the base of a hill. There was something familiar about it. I squinted up at the street sign. I couldn’t believe it. The sisters had taken me to the same street that led up to the convent. I resolved to visit the very next day. No matter what spectacular thing was scheduled on the tour, I was going home.

The next day, I went out on my own, retraced my steps, found the street, and climbed the winding slope to the convent. Its tall sweeping gates were open wide. I marched boldly up to the door and knocked. Minutes passed, and finally the great door opened. There was Gina, as before. The portress was older and far too thin for someone one of the guys had once dubbed “the portly.” 

I jabbered in broken Italian that I was a former student there and that we had once been friends. She studied my face, pointed to her eye and nodded, meaning, I remember you. Were the nuns still there? I asked. Yes, they were. I visited them all that day, especially Suor Gaetana in her kitchen and Suor Stanislaus upstairs, who sat upright in her wheelchair with a cast on her elevated leg, looking a spry 400. She wondered aloud who I was and what I was doing there. Should I hit her with a pillow to jog her memory? When the others told her that I was a former student boarder, she was taken aback that I would come and see them.

How could I not? Without her, without all of them, I might have missed nuns entirely — missed sending my daughters to summer-camp sisters, seeing them run full tilt across a room to hug a favorite sister, missed staying in convents instead of hotels, missed waking up to the sound of sisters chanting their Office, missed Mother Angelica and her homespun spirituality that so speaks to me. I would have missed seeing the other side of womanhood, as a spouse of Christ and a mother of souls.

Instead I just miss those nuns, who have all gone to Jesus now. I think of them every day when I throw open the windows of my bedroom, whatever the weather, to let in a blast of fresh air. 

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