Life in the Grey Nunnery was first published in Boston, in 1857 by Edward P. Hood, who was credited as the book's editor. It is likely that this account is by Sarah J. Richardson "as told to" Edward Hood, though it may in fact be completely fictional. It is clearly an anti-Catholic book, an example of the genre of fiction referred to as "the convent horror story." Anti-Catholic sentiments were common in the United States during the middle part of the 1800s probably directed at the relatively large number of Catholic immigrants arriving from Germany, and particularly Ireland during this period. These sentiments resulted in riots and the burning of churches, including the destruction by a mob of the Ursuline convent and girl's school in Charlestown Massachusetts. During this period a powerful nationalist political party the "Know Nothings" also emerged, and won a number of influential positions in the 1850s, particularly in New England. They succeeded in creating legislation hostile to the Catholic church, barring Catholics from various positions and requiring Catholic institutions to submit to hostile "inspections." The interested reader is encouraged to use a literature search for the terms MARIA MONK or KNOW NOTHINGS to learn more about this genre of literature and the social circumstances in which it was created.
LIFE IN THE GREY NUNNERY AT MONTREAL
An authentic narrative of the horrors, mysteries, and cruelties of convent life by Sarah J. Richardson, an escaped nun.
Edited by Edward P. Hood
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER I PARENTAGE—FATHER'S MARRIAGE CHAPTER II THE WHITE NUNNERY CHAPTER III THE NURSERY CHAPTER IV A SLAVE FOR LIFE CHAPTER V CEREMONY OF CONFIRMATION CHAPTER VI THE GREY NUNNERY CHAPTER VII ORPHAN'S HOME CHAPTER VIII CONFESSION AND SORROW OF NO AVAIL CHAPTER IX ALONE WITH THE DEAD CHAPTER X THE SICK NUN CHAPTER XI THE JOY OF FREEDOM CHAPTER XII STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND CHAPTER XIII LANDLADY'S STORY CONTINUED CHAPTER XIV THE TWO SISTERS CHAPTER XV CHOICE OF PUNISHMENTS CHAPTER XVI HORRORS OF STARVATION CHAPTER XVII THE TORTURE ROOM CHAPTER XVIII RETURN TO THE NUNNERY CHAPTER XIX SICKNESS AND DEATH OF A SUPERIOR CHAPTER XX STUDENTS AT THE ACADEMY CHAPTER XXI SECOND ESCAPE FROM THE NUNNERY CHAPTER XXII LONELY MIDNIGHT WALK CHAPTER XXIII FLIGHT AND RECAPTURE CHAPTER XXIV RESOLVES TO ESCAPE CHAPTER XXV EVENTFUL JOURNEY CHAPTER XXVI CONCLUSION
APPENDIX I ABSURDITIES OF ROMANISTS APPENDIX II CRUELTY OF ROMANISTS APPENDIX III INQUISITION OF GOA—IMPRISONMENT OF M. DELLON, 1673 APPENDIX IV INQUISITION OF GOA, CONCLUDED APPENDIX V INQUISITION AT MACERATA, ITALY APPENDIX VI ROMANISM OF THE PRESENT DAY APPENDIX VII NARRATIVE OP SIGNORINA FLORIENCIA D' ROMANI
LIFE IN THE GREY NUNNERY.
I was born at St. John's, New Brunswick, in the year 1835. My father was from the city of Dublin, Ireland, where he spent his youth, and received an education in accordance with the strictest rules of Roman Catholic faith and practice. Early manhood, however, found him dissatisfied with his native country, longing for other scenes and distant climes. He therefore left Ireland, and came to Quebec.
Here he soon became acquainted with Capt. Willard, a wealthy English gentleman, who, finding him a stranger in a strange land, kindly opened his door, and gave him employment and a home. Little did he think that in so doing he was warming in his bosom a viper whose poisonous fangs would, ere long, fasten on his very heart-strings, and bring down his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. His only child was a lovely daughter of fourteen. From what I have heard of her, I think she must have been very beautiful in person, quiet, gentle and unassuming in her deportment, and her disposition amiable and affectionate. She was exceedingly romantic, and her mental powers were almost, if not entirely uncultivated; still, she possessed sufficient strength of character to enable her to form a deep, ardent, and permanent attachment.
The young stranger gazed upon her with admiring eyes, and soon began to whisper in her ear the flattering tale of love. This, of course, her parents could not approve. What! give their darling to a stranger? Never, no, never. What could they do without her? Grieved that their kindness should have been thus returned, they bade him go his way, and leave their child in peace. He did go, but like a thief he returned. In the darkness of midnight he stole to her chamber, and bore away from the home of her childhood, "a father's joy, a mother's pride."
Who can tell the anguish of their souls when they entered that deserted chamber? How desolate their lonely hearthstone! How dark the home where her presence had scattered rainbow hues! A terrible blow it was to Capt. Willard; a very bitter thing thus to have his cherished plans frustrated, his brightest hopes destroyed; to see the very sun of his existence go down at midday in clouds and darkness. Yes, to the stern father this sad event brought bitter, bitter grief. But to the mother—that tender, affectionate mother, it was death. Yea, more than death, for reason, at the first shock, reeled and tottered on its throne; then, as days and weeks passed by, and still the loved one did not return, when every effort to find her had been made in vain, then, the dread certainty settled down upon her soul that her child was lost to her forever. Hope, gave place to despair, and she became, from that time, a raving maniac. At length death came to her relief, and her husband was left alone.
Six weary years passed over the lonely man, and then he rejoiced in the intelligence that his child was still living with her husband at St. John's. He immediately wrote to her imploring her to return to her old home, and with the light of her presence dispel the gloom of his dwelling. Accordingly she left St. John's, and in company with her husband returned to her father. I was then about a year and a half old, but I have so often heard these facts related by my father and grandfather, they are indelibly impressed on my mind, and will never be erased from my memory.
My mother now thought her trouble at an end, that in future she should enjoy the happiness she once anticipated. But, alas for all human prospects! Ere one short month had passed, difficulties arose in consequence of the difference in their religious opinions. Capt. Willard was a firm Protestant, while my father was quite as firm in his belief of the principles of the Roman Catholics. "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" They parted in anger, and my father again became a wanderer, leaving his wife and child with his father-in-law. But my mother was a faithful, devoted wife. Her husband was her heart's chosen idol whom she loved too well to think of being separated from. She therefore left her father's house, with all its luxuries and enjoyments, to follow the fortunes of one, who was certainly unworthy of the pure affection thus lavished upon him. As her health had been delicate for the last two years, she concluded to leave me with her father for a short time, intending to send for me, as soon as she was in a situation to take care of me. But this was not to be. Death called her away, and I saw my mother no more till her corpse was brought back, and buried in her father's garden.
Two years I remained with my grandfather, and from him, I received the most affectionate and devoted attention. My father at length opened a saloon, for the sale of porter, and hired a black woman to do his work. He then came for me. My grandfather entreated that I might be allowed to remain. Well he knew that my father was not the man to be entrusted with the care of a child—that a Porter House was no place for me, for he was quite sure that stronger liquors than porter were there drank and sold. In fact, it was said, that my father was himself a living evidence of this. But it is of a parent I am speaking, and, whatever failings the world may have seen in him, to me he was a kind and tender father. The years I spent with him were the happiest of my life. On memory's page they stand out in bold relief, strikingly contrasting with the wretchedness of my after life. And though I cannot forget that his own rash act brought this wretchedness upon me, still, I believe his motives were good. I know that he loved me, and every remembrance of his kindness, and those few bright days of childhood, I have carefully cherished as a sacred thing. He did not, however, succeed in the business he had undertaken, but lost his property and was at length compelled to give up his saloon.
I was then placed in a Roman Catholic family, where he often visited, and ever appeared to feel for me the most devoted attachment. One day he came to see me in a state of partial intoxication. I did not then know why his face was so red, and his breath so offensive, but I now know that he was under the influence of ardent spirits. The woman with whom I boarded seeing his condition, and being a good Catholic, resolved to make the most of the occasion for the benefit of the nunnery. She therefore said to him, "You are not capable of bringing up that child; why don't you give her to Priest Dow?"—"Will he take her?" asked my father. "Yes," she replied, "he will put her into the nunnery, and the nuns will take better care of her than you can." "On what condition will they take her?" he asked. "Give the priest one hundred dollars," replied the artful woman, "and he will take good care of her as long as she lives."
This seemed a very plausible story; but I am sure my father did not realize what he was doing. Had he waited for a little reflection, he would never have consented to such an arrangement, and my fate would have been quite different. But as it was, he immediately sent for the priest, and gave me to him, to be provided for, as his own child, until I was of age. I was then to be allowed to go out into the world if I chose. To this, Priest Dow consented, in consideration of one hundred dollars, which he received, together with a good bed and bedding. My mother's gold ear-rings were also entrusted to his care, until I should be old enough to wear them. But I never saw them again. Though I was at that time but six years old, I remember perfectly, all that passed upon that memorable occasion. I did not then comprehend the full meaning of what was said, but I understood enough to fill my heart with sorrow and apprehension.
When their bargain was completed, Priest Dow called me to him, saying, with a smile, "You are a stubborn little girl, I guess, a little naughty, sometimes, are you not?" Surprised and alarmed, I replied, "No, sir." He then took hold of my hair, which was rather short, drew it back from my forehead with a force that brought the tears to my eyes, and pressing his hand heavily on my head, he again asked if I was not sometimes a little wilful and disobedient. I was so much frightened at this, I turned to my father, and with tears and sobs entreated him not to send me away with that man, but allow me to stay at home with him. He drew me to his bosom, wiped away my tears, and sought to quiet my fears by assuring me that I would have a good and pleasant home; that the nuns would take better care of me than he could; and that he would often come to see me. Thus, by the aid of flattery on one side, and sugarplums on the other, they persuaded me at last to accompany the priest to the White Nunnery, St. Paul's street, Quebec.
I was too young to realize the sad change in my situation, or to anticipate the trials and privations that awaited me. But I was deeply grieved thus to leave my father, my only real friend, my mother being dead, and my grandfather a heretic, whom I had been taught to regard with the utmost abhorrence. Little, however, did I think that this was a last farewell. But such it was. Though he had promised to come often to see me, I never saw my father again; never even heard from him; and now, I do not know whether he is dead or alive.
THE WHITE NUNNERY.
On my arrival at the nunnery, I was placed under the care of a lady whom they called a Superior. She took me into a room alone, and told me that the priest would come to me in the morning to hear confession, and I must confess to him all my sins. "What are sins?" I asked, and, "How shall I confess? I don't know what it means." "Don't know what sins are!" she exclaimed in great astonishment "Why, child, I am surprised that you should be so ignorant! Where have you lived all your days?" With all the simplicity of childhood, I replied, "With my father; and once I lived with my grandfather; but they didn't tell me how to confess." "Well," said she, "you must tell the priest all your wicked thoughts, words, and actions." "What is wicked?" I innocently asked. "If you have ever told an untruth;" she replied, "or taken what did not belong to you, or been in any way naughty, disobedient, or unkind; if you have been angry, or quarrelled with your playmates, that was wicked, and you must tell the priest all about it If you try to conceal, or keep back anything, the priest will know it and punish you. You cannot deceive him if you try, for he knows all you do, or say, or even think; and if you attempt it, you'll only get yourself into trouble. But if you are resolved to be a good girl, kind, gentle, frank, sincere, and obedient, the priest will love you, and be kind to you."
When I was conducted to my room, at bedtime, I rejoiced to find in it several little cot beds, occupied by little girls about my own age, who had been, like myself, consigned to the tender mercies of priests and nuns. I thought if we must live in that great gloomy house, which even to my childish imagination seemed so much like a prison, we could in some degree dispel our loneliness and mitigate our sorrows, by companionship and sympathy. But I was soon made to know that even this small comfort would not be allowed us, for the Superior, as she assisted me to bed, told me that I must not speak, or groan, or turn upon my side, or move in any way; for if I made the least noise or disturbance, I would be severely punished. She assured me that if we disobeyed in the least particular, she would know it, even if she was not present, and deal with us accordingly. She said that when the clock struck twelve, the bell would ring for prayers; that we must then rise, and kneel with our heads bowed upon the bed, and repeat the prayer she taught us. When, at length, she left us, locking the door after her, I was so frightened, I did not dare to sleep, lest I should move, or fail to awake at the proper time.
Slowly passed the hours of that long and weary night, while I lay, waiting the ringing of the bell, or thinking upon the past with deep regret. The most fearful visions haunted my brain, and fears of future punishment filled my mind. How could I hope to escape it, when they were so very strict, and able to read my most secret thoughts? What would I not have given could I have been again restored to my father? True he was intemperate, but at that time I thought not of this; I only knew that he was always kind to me, that he never refused what I asked of him. I sometimes think, even now, that if he had not so cruelly thrust me from him, I might have been able to win him from his cups and evil course of life. But this was not to be. Having given himself up to the demon of intemperance, it is not surprising that he should have given away his only child; that he should have placed her in the hands of those who proved utterly unworthy of the trust. But however indignant I may at times have felt towards him, for the one great wrong he committed against me, still I do not believe he would ever have done it but for the influence of ardent spirits. Moreover, I do not suppose that he had the least idea what kind of a place it was. He wished, doubtless, that his child might be well educated; that she might be shielded from the many trials and temptations that cluster around the footsteps of the young and inexperienced, in the midst of a cold and heartless world. From these evils the nunnery, he thought, would be a secure retreat, for there science, religion, and philanthropy, PROFESSEDLY, go hand in hand. Like many other deluded parents, he thought that "Holiness to the Lord" was inscribed upon those walls, and that nothing which could pervert or defile the youthful mind, was permitted to enter there. With these views and feelings, he was undoubtedly sincere when he told me, "I would have a good home, and the nuns would take better care of me than he could." Rash his decision certainly was, cruel it proved to be; but I shall ever give him credit for good intentions.
At length the bell rang, and all the girls immediately left their beds, and placed themselves upon their knees. I followed their example, but I had scarcely time to kneel by my bed, when the Superior came into the room with a light in her hand, and attended by a priest. He came to me, opened a book, and told me to cross myself. This ceremony he instructed me to perform in the following manner: the right hand is placed upon the forehead, and drawn down to the breast; then across the breast from left to right. The Superior then told me to say the prayer called "Hail Mary!" I attempted to do so, but failed, for, though I had often repeated it after my father, I could not say it correctly alone. She then bade me join my hands, and repeat it after her. "Hail Mary! Full of grace! The Lord be with thee! Blessed art thou among women! Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus! Mother of God! Pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death, Amen."
"Now," said the Superior, as I rose from my knees, "you must learn every word of that prayer before to-morrow night, or go without your supper." I tried my best to remember it, but with so little instruction, for she repeated it to me but once, I found it quite impossible the next night to say it correctly. Of course, I was compelled to go without my supper. This may seem a light punishment to those who have enough to eat—who sit down to a full table, and satisfy their appetite three times per day, but to a nun, who is allowed only enough to sustain life, it is quite a different thing. And especially to a child, this mode of punishment is more severe, and harder to bear than almost any other. I thought I would take good care not to be punished in that way again; but I little knew what was before me.
Before the Superior left us she assisted me into bed, and bade me be very still until the second bell in the morning. Then, I must rise and dress as quickly as possible, and go to her room. Quietness, she enjoined upon me as a virtue, while the least noise, or disturbance of any kind, would be punished as a crime. She said I must walk very softly indeed along the halls, and close the doors so carefully that not a sound could be heard. After giving me these first instructions in convent life, she left me, and I was allowed to sleep the rest of the night.
The next morning, I awoke at the ringing of the first bell, but I did not dare to stir until the second bell, when the other little girls arose in great haste. I then dressed as quickly as possible, but not a word was spoken —not a thought, and scarcely a look exchanged. I was truly "alone amid a crowd," and I felt the utter loneliness of my situation most keenly. Yet I saw very clearly that there was but one course for me to pursue, and that was, to obey in all things; to have no will of my own, and thus, if possible, escape punishment. But it was hard, very hard for me to bring my mind to this. I had been the idolized child of affection too long to submit readily and patiently to the privations I was now forced to endure. Hitherto my will had been law. I had naturally an imperious, violent temper, which I had never been taught to govern. Instead of this, my appetites were pampered, my passions indulged, and every desire gratified as far as possible. Until that last sad parting, I hardly knew what it was to have a request refused; and now, to experience such a change—such a sudden transition from the most liberal indulgence to the most cruel and rigorous self-denial—Oh, it was a severe trial to my independent spirit to submit to it. Yet, submit I must, for I had learned, even then, that my newly appointed guardians were not to be trifled with. Henceforth, OBEDIENCE must be my motto. To every command, however cruel and unjust, I must yield a blind, passive, and unquestioning obedience.
I dressed as quickly as possible, and hastened down to the Superior. As I passed through the hall, I thought I would be very careful to step softly, but in my haste I forgot what she said about closing the door, and it came together with a loud crash. On entering the room, I found the Superior waiting for me; in her hand she held a stick about a foot long, to the end of which was attached nine leather strings, some twelve or fifteen inches long, and about the size of a man's little finger. She bade me come to her, in a voice so cold and stern it sent a thrill of terror through my frame, and I trembled with the apprehension of some impending evil. I had no idea that she was about to punish me, for I was not aware that I had done anything to deserve it; but her looks frightened me, and I feared,—I know not what. She took hold of my arm, and without saying a word, gave me ten or twelve strokes over the head and shoulders with this miniature cat-o'-nine-tails. Truly, with her, it was "a word and a blow, and the blow came first." Wherever the strings chanced to fall upon the bare flesh, they raised the skin, as though a hot iron had been applied to it. In some places they took off the skin entirely, and left the flesh raw, and quivering with the stinging pain. I could not think at first what I had done to deserve this severe punishment, nor did she condescend to enlighten me. But when I began to cry, and beg to go to my father, she sternly bade me stop crying at once, for I could not go to my father. I must stay there, she said, and learn to remember all her commands and obey then. She then taught me the following verse:
I am a little nun, The sisters I will mind; When I am pretty and learn, Then they will use me kind. I must not be so noisy When I go about the house, I'll close the doors so softly They'll think I am a mouse.
This verse I repeated until I could say it correctly. I was then taken to the breakfast-room, where I was directed to kneel before the crucifix, and say my prayers, which I repeated after the Superior. I was then seated at the table, and directed to hold my head down, and fix my eyes upon my plate. I must not look at any one, or gaze about the room; but sit still, and quietly eat what was given me. I had upon my plate, one thin slice of wheat bread, a bit of potato, and a very small cup of milk. This was my stated allowance, and I could have no more, however hungry I might be. The same quantity was given me every meal, when in usual health, until I was ten years of age. On fast days, no food whatever was allowed; and we always fasted for three meals before receiving the sacrament. This ceremony was observed every third day, therefore we were obliged to fast about one-third of the time. Yet, however long the fast might be, my allowance of food was never increased.
After breakfast the Superior took me to Priest Dow for confession. He kept me with him all day, allowing me neither food nor drink; nor did he permit me to break my fast until four o'clock the next day. I then received what they call the sacrament, for the first time.
To prepare for this, I was clad in a white dress and cape, and a white cap on my head. I was then led to the chapel, and passing up the aisle, knelt before the altar. Priest Dow then came and stood before me, and taking from a wine-glass a small thin wafer, he placed it upon my tongue, at the same time repeating some Latin words, which, the Superior afterwards told me, mean in English, "The body and blood of Christ." I was taught to believe that I held in my mouth the real body and blood of Christ. I was also told that if I swallowed the wafer before it had melted on my tongue, IT WOULD CHOKE ME TO DEATH; and if I indulged an evil thought while I held it in my mouth I SHOULD FALL INTO A POOL OF BLOOD.
While in the White Nunnery, I spent the most of my time in the nursery. But the name gives one no idea of the place. The freedom and careless gayety, so characteristic of other nurseries, had no place in this. No cheerful conversation, no juvenile merriment, or pleasureable excitement of any kind, were ever allowed. A merry laugh, on the contrary, a witty jest, or a sly practical joke, would have been punished as the most heinous offence. Here as elsewhere in the establishment, the strictest rules of silence and obedience were rigidly enforced. There were twenty little girls in the room with me, but we were never permitted to speak to each other, nor to any one except a priest or a Superior. When directly addressed by either of them we were allowed to answer; but we might never ask a question, or make a remark, or in any way, either by looks, words, or signs, hold communication with each other. Whenever we did so, it was at the risk of being discovered and severely punished. Yet this did not repress the desire for conversation; it only made us more cautious, artful, and deceptive. The only recreation allowed us was fifteen minutes' exercise in the yard every morning and evening. We might then amuse ourselves as we chose, but were required to spend the whole time in some kind of active exercise; if one of our number ventured to sit still, we were all punished the next day by being kept in the house.
It was my business, while in the nursery, to dust all the furniture and the floor, with a flannel mop, made and kept for this purpose. The floors were all painted and varnished, and very easily kept clean.
Two hours and a half each day we spent with a priest, whom we were taught to call Father Darity (I do not know as I spell this and other names correctly, but I give it to the reader as it sounded to my ear). He appeared to take great pleasure in learning us to repeat the prayers and catechism required by Priest Dow. He also gave us a variety of instructions in other things, enjoining in particular the most absolute obedience and perfect silence. He assured us that if we dared to disobey him in the least particular, he should know it, even if he was not present with us at the time. He said he knew all our thoughts, words, and actions; and if we did not obey, he should "EAT US WITH A GRAIN OF SALT."
I presume my reader will smile at this, and exclaim, "How absurd!" Yes, to you it is absurd; but to the mind of a child who placed the utmost confidence in his veracity, it was an evidence that he was invested with supernatural powers. For myself I believed every word he said, and nothing would have tempted me to disobey him. Perfect obedience he considered the highest attainment, and, to secure this, the greatest of all virtues, no means were thought too severe. We were frightened and punished in every possible way.
But, though Father Darity acted on the one great principle with the Romanists, that the "end sanctifies the means," he was in general a much kinder man than Priest Dow. He urged us on with our catechism as fast as possible, telling us, as a motive to greater diligence, that the bishop was soon to visit us, and that we could not be admitted to his presence until we had our prayers and catechism perfectly.
One day, when we were in the yard at play, I told one of the little girls that I did not like to live there; that I did not like one of the people in the house; that I wished to return to my father, and I should tell him so the first time he came to see me.
"Then you like to live with your father?" said she. I told her I did, for then I could do as I pleased, without the fear of punishment. She said that she did not like to live there any better than I did. I asked her why she did not go away, if she disliked to stay. She replied, "I should like to go away well enough, if I had any friends to go to; but my father and mother are both dead, and I have no home but this; so you see I must stay here if they wish me to; but there is one consolation; if we are good girls, and try to do right, they will be kind to us." I made no further remark; but the moment we returned to the house she told the Superior what I said, taking good care not to repeat her own expressions, and leaving the Superior to infer that she had made no reply.
I saw at once by the stern look that came over the lady's face that she was very angry; and I would gladly have recalled those few hasty words had it been in my power to have done so. She immediately left the room, but soon returned with Priest Dow. His countenance also indicated anger, as he took hold of my arm and led me to a darkened room, in which several candles were burning.
Here I saw three scenes, which I think must have been composed of images, pictures, and curtains. I do not pretend to describe them correctly, I can only tell how they appeared to me.
The first was an image of Christ on the cross, with his arms extended as we usually see them in pictures. On his right hand was a representation of heaven, and on the left, of hell. Heaven was made to appear like a bright, beautiful, and glorious place. A wall of pink color surrounded it, and in the center was a spring of clear water. In the midst of this spring stood a tree, bearing on every limb a lighted candle, and on the top, the image of Christ and a dove.
Hell was surrounded by a black wall, within which, there was also a spring; but the water was very black, and beside it stood a large black image, with horns on its head, a long tail, and a large cloven foot. The place where it stood was in deep shadow, made to resemble, as neatly as possible, clouds and darkness. The priest led me up to this fearful object, and placed me on one side of it, while he stood on the other; but it would turn away from him towards me, roll up its great eyes, open its mouth and show its long white tusks. The priest said it turned from him, because he was a good man, and I was very wicked. He said that it was the devil, come up from the bottomless pit to devour me; and if I said such wicked words again, it would carry me off. I was very much frightened, for I then thought that all he said was true; that those images, which I now know were strung on wires were really what they were made to represent.
In fact, until I was fifteen years old, I really believed that the image I then saw was an evil spirit. But since that time, I have been made to know that the priests themselves are the only evil spirits about the place.
Priest Dow then led me back to the nursery, and left me with the Superior. But he soon came, back, saying he "knew what I was thinking about; that I had wicked thoughts about him; thought he was a bad man, and that I wished to leave him and go to my father;" Now this was all true, and the fact that he knew it, frightened me accordingly. It was a sure proof that what Father Darity said was true. But how could I ever be safe, if they could thus read the inmost secrets of my soul? I did dislike them all very much indeed and I could not help it. How then could I avert the consequences of this deep aversion to convent life, since it could not be concealed? Was it possible for me so far to conquer myself, as to love the persons with whom I lived? How many nights did I lie awake pondering this question, and resolving to make the effort. I was, of course, too young to know that it was only by shrewd guessing, and a general knowledge of human nature, that he was enabled to tell my thoughts so correctly.
"Now," said he, "for indulging these dreadful thoughts, I shall take you back to the devil, and give you up to him." I was frightened before; but I have no words to describe my feelings when he again led me back, and left me beside the image, saying, as he closed the door, "If the devil groans three times, and the Lord does not speak, you must stay here until to-morrow at this time." I trembled so that I could hardly stand, and when, after a few moments, a sound like a groan fell upon my ears, I shrieked in the extremity of terror.
[Footnote: Cioui, formerly a Benedictine Monk, giving an account of his imprisonment at Rome, after his conversion says:—
"One evening, after listening to a discourse filled with dark images of death, I returned to my room, and found the light set upon the ground. I took it up and approached the table to place it there, but what was my horror and consternation at beholding spread out upon it, a whitened skeleton! Before the reader can comprehend my dismay, it is necessary he should reflect for a moment on the peculiarities of childhood, especially in a Romish country, where children are seldom spoken to except in superstitious language, whether by their parents or teachers: and domestics adopt the same style to answer their own purposes, menacing their disobedient charges with hobgoblins, phantoms and witches. Such images as these make a profound impression on tender minds, leaving a panic terror which the reasoning of after years is often unable entirely to efface. There can be no doubt but that this pernicious habit, is the fruit of the noxious plant fostered in the Vatican. Rising generations must be brought up in superstitious terror, in order to render them susceptible to every kind of absurdity; for this terror is the powerful spring, employed by the priests and friars, to move at their pleasure families, cities, provinces, nations. Although in families of the higher order, this method of alarming infancy is much discountenanced, nevertheless, it is impossible but that it should in some degree prevail in the nursery. Nor was it probable that I should escape this infections malady, having passed my whole days in an atmosphere, charged more than any other with that impure miasma priest-craft."]
Then immediately I heard the question, and it seemed to come from the figure of Christ, "Will you obey? Will you leave off sin?" I answered in the affirmative as well as I could, for the convulsive sobs that shook my frame almost stopped my utterance. I now know that when the priest left me, he placed himself, or an assistant, behind a curtain close to the images, and it was his voice that I heard. But I was then too young to detect their treacherous practices and deceitful ways.
On being taken back to the Superior, I was immediately attacked with severe illness, and had fits all night. It seemed to me that I could see that image of the devil everywhere. If I closed my eyes, I thought I could feel him on my bed, pressing on my breast, and he was so heavy I could scarcely breathe. I was very sick, and suffered much bodily pain, but the tortures of an excited imagination were greater by far, and harder to bear than any physical suffering. For long years after, that image haunted my dreams, and even now I often, in sleep, live over again the terrors of that fearful scene. I was sick a long time; how long I do not know; but I became so weak I could not raise myself in bed, and they had an apparatus affixed to the wall to raise me with. For several days I took no nourishment, except a teaspoonful of brandy and water which was given me as often as I could take it I continued to have fits every day for more than two years, nor did I ever entirely recover from the effects of that fright. Even now, though years have passed away, a little excitement or a sudden shock, will sometimes throw me into one of those fits.
A SLAVE FOR LIFE.
During this illness I was placed under the care of an Abbess whom they called St. Bridget. There were many other Abbesses in the convent, but she was the principal one, and had the care of all the clothing. If the others wished for clean clothes, they were obliged to go to her for them. In that way I saw them all, but did not learn their names. They approached me and looked at me, but seldom spoke. This I thought very strange, but I now know they dared not speak. One day an Abbess came to my bed, and after standing a few moments with the tears silently flowing down her cheeks, asked me if I had a mother. I told her I had not, and I began to weep most bitterly. I was very weak, and the question recalled to my mind the time when I shared a father's love, and enjoyed my liberty. Then, I could go and come as I chose, but now, a slave for life, I could have no will of my own, I must go at bidding, and come at command. This, I am well aware, may seem to some extravagant language; but I use the right word. I was, literally, a slave; and of all kinds of slavery, that which exists in a convent is the worst. I say, THE WORST, because the story of wrong and outrage which occasionally finds its way to the public ear, is not generally believed. You pity the poor black man who bends beneath the scourge of southern bondage, for the tale comes to you from those who have seen his tears and heard his groans. But you have no tears, no prayers, no efforts for the poor helpless nun who toils and dies beneath the heartless cruelty of an equally oppressive task-master. No; for her you have no sympathy, for you do not believe her word. Within those precincts of cruelty, no visitor is ever admitted. No curious eye may witness the secrets of their prison-house. Consequently, there is no one to bear direct testimony to the truth of her statements. Even now, methinks, I see your haughty brow contract, and your lip curl with scorn, as with supreme contempt you throw down these pages and exclaim, "'Tis all a fiction. Just got up to make money. No proof that it is true." No proof do you say? O, that the strong arm of the law would interpose in our behalf!—that some American Napoleon would come forth, and break open those prison doors, and drag forth to the light of day those hidden instruments of torture! There would then be proof enough to satisfy the most incredulous, that, so far from being exaggerated, the half has not been told. Sons of America! Will you not arise in your might, and demand that these convent doors be opened, and "the oppressed" allowed to "go free"? Or if this be denied, sweep from the fair earth, the black-hearted wretches who dare, in the very face of heaven, to commit such fearful outrages upon helpless, suffering humanity? How long—O how long will you suffer these dens of iniquity to remain unopened? How long permit this system of priestly cruelty to continue?
But I am wandering from my story. Would that I might forever wander from it—that I might at once blot from memory's page, the fearful recollection that must follow me to my grave! Yet, painful as it is to rehearse the past, if I can but awaken your sympathy for other sufferers, if I can but excite you to efforts for their deliverance, it is all I ask. I shall have my reward. But to return to my story.
The Abbess saw how deeply I was grieved, and immediately left the room. St. Bridget told me not to cry, for she would be a mother to me as long as I remained with her, and she was true to her promise. Another sister, who sometimes came to my room, I believe was crazy. She would run up to my bed, put her hand on me, and burst into a loud and hearty laugh. This she repeated as often as she came, and I told the Abbess one day, I did wish that sister would not come to see me, for she acted so strange, I was afraid of her. She replied, "do not care for her; she always does just so, but we do not mind her; you must be careful what you say," she continued, "for if you speak of her before any of the sisters, they may get you into trouble."
When I began to get better, I had a sharp appetite for food, and was hungry a great part of the time. One of the sisters used to bring me a piece of bread concealed under her cape and hide it under my pillow. How she obtained it, I do not know, unless she saved it from her own allowance. It was very easy for her to hide it in this way, for the nuns always walk with one hand under their cape and the other by the side. Truly, in this instance, "bread eaten in secret" was "pleasant." Of all the luxuries I ever tasted, those stolen bits of bread were the sweetest.
During my illness I thought a great deal about my father, and wondered why he did not come to see me, as he had promised. I used to cry for him in my sleep, and very often awoke in tears. St. Bridget sought in every possible way to make me forget him, and the priest would tell me that I need not think so much about him, for he no longer cared for me. He said the devil had got him, and I would never see him again. These cruel words, so far from making me forget, served to awaken a still greater desire to see him, and increased my grief because I was denied the privilege.
In the room with me, were six other little girls, who were all sick at the same time, and St. Bridget took care of us all For two of the little girls, I felt the greatest sympathy. They were quite young, I think not more than three years of age, and they grieved continually. They made no complaint, did not even shed a tear, but they sobbed all the time, whether asleep or awake. Of their history, I could learn nothing at that time, except the fact, that they were taken from their parents for the good of their souls. I afterwards overheard a conversation that led me to think that they were heirs to a large property, which, if they were out of the way, would go to the church. But it is of what I know, and not what I think, that I have undertaken to write, and I do know that the fate of those little girls was hard in the extreme, whatever might have been the cause of their being there. Poor little creatures! No wonder their hearts were broken. Torn from parents and friends while yet in early childhood—doomed while life is spared, to be subject to the will of those who know no mercy—who feel no pity, but consider it a religious duty to crush, and destroy all the pure affections—all the exquisite sensibilities of the human soul. Yet to them these hapless babes must look for all the earthly happiness they could hope to enjoy. They were taught to obey them in all things, and consider them their only friends and protectors. I never saw them after I left that room, but they did not live long. I was glad they did not, for in the cold grave their sufferings would be over and they would rest in peace.
O, how little do Protestants know the sufferings of a nun! and truly no one can know them except by personal experience. One may imagine the most aggravated form of cruelty, the most heart-rending agonies, yet I do believe the conception of the most active imagination would fall far short of the horrible reality. I do not believe there was one happy individual in that convent, or that any one there, if I except the lady Superior, knew anything of enjoyment. Life with them was a continual round of ceaseless toil and bitter self-denial; while each one had some secret grief slowly but surely gnawing away the heart-strings. I have sometimes seen the Abbess sitting by the bedside of the sick, with her eyes closed, while the big tears fell unchecked over her pale cheeks. When I asked her why she wept, she would shake her head, but never speak. I now know that she dare not speak for fear of punishment.
The abbesses in the various parts of this convent are punished as much as the nuns, if they dare to disobey the rules of the priests; and if the least of these are broken in the presence of any one in the house, they will surely tell of it at confession. In fact, they are required to do this; and if it is known that one has seen a rule broken, or a command disobeyed, without reporting it, a severe punishment is sure to follow. Thus every individual is a spy upon the rest; and while every failure is visited with condign punishment, the one who makes the most reports is so warmly approved, that poor human nature can hardly resist the temptation to play the traitor. Friendship cannot exist within the walls of a convent, for no one can be trusted, even with the most trifling secret. Whoever ventures to try it is sure to be betrayed.
While I was sick Father Darity came often to see me, and by his kindness succeeded in gaining my affections. I was a great favorite with him; he always called me his little girl, and tried in every way to make me contented. He wished to make me say that I was happy there, that I liked to live with them as well as with my father. But I could never be persuaded to say this, for it was not the truth, and I would not tell a falsehood unless forced to do so. He said I must be a good girl, and he hoped I would sometime see better times, but I could never see my father again, and I must not desire it. He advised me, however hard it might be, to try and love all who came into the nunnery, even those who were unkind, who wished to injure me or wound my feelings. He told me how Jesus Christ loved his enemies; how he died for them a cruel death on the cross; how, amid his bitter agonies, he prayed for them, and with his expiring breath he cried, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." "And now," said he, "can you do as Jesus Christ did? He has set you an example, can you not follow it?" "No, sir," I replied, "I cannot love those who punish me so cruelly, so unjustly. I cannot love the little girl who reported what I said in the yard, when she said as bad things as I did." "But you forget," said he, "that in doing this she only obeyed the rules of the house. She only did her duty; if you had done yours, you would have reported her." "I'll never do that," I exclaimed, emboldened by his kindness. "It is a bad rule, and—" "Hush, hush, child!" he cried, interrupting me. "Do you know to whom you are speaking? and do you forget that you are a little girl? Are you wiser than your teachers? I must give you a penance for those naughty words, and you will pray for a better spirit." He said much more to me, and gave me good advice that I remember much better than I followed. He enjoined if upon me to keep up good courage, as I would gain my health faster. He then bade me farewell, telling me not to forget, to repeat certain prayers as a penance for my sin in speaking so boldly. O, did he think when he talked to me so kindly, so faithfully, that it was his last opportunity to give me good advice? Did he know that he left me to return no more? I saw nothing unusual in his appearance, and I did not suspect that it was the last time I should see his pleasant face and listen to his kindly voice. I loved that man, and bitter were the tears I shed when I learned that I should never see him again. The Abbess informed me that he was sent away for something he had done, she did not know what. O that something! I knew well enough what it was. He had a kind heart; he could feel for the unfortunate, and that, with the Roman Catholics, is an "unpardonable sin."
CEREMONY OF CONFIRMATION.
I continued to regain my health slowly, and the Abbess said they would soon send me back to the nursery. I could not endure the thought of this, for I had the greatest fear of the Abbess who had the charge of that department. She was very cruel, while St. Bridget was as kind as she dare to be. She knew full well that if she allowed herself to exhibit the least feeling of affection for those children, she would be instantly removed, and some one placed over them who would not give way to such weakness. We all saw how it was, and loved her all the more for the severity of her reproofs when any one was near. With tears, therefore, I begged to be allowed to stay with her; and when the priest came for me, she told him that she thought I had better remain with her till I gained a little more strength.
To this he consented, and I was very grateful indeed for the kindness. Wishing in some way to express my gratitude, as soon as I was able I assisted in taking care of the other little girls as much as possible. St. Bridget, in turn, taught me to read a little, so that I could learn my prayers when away from her. She also gave me a few easy lessons in arithmetic, and instructed me to speak the Celt language. She always spoke in that, or the French, which I could speak before, having learned it from the family where I lived after my father gave up his saloon. They were French Catholics and spoke no other language.
As soon as I was sufficiently recovered to leave my room, I was taken to the chapel to be confirmed. Before they came for me, the abbess told me what questions would be asked, and the answers I should be required to give. She said they would ask me if I wished to see my father; if I should like to go back to the world, etc. To these and similar questions she said I must give a negative answer. "But," said I, "that will be a falsehood, and I will not say so for any of them." "Hush, hush, child!" she exclaimed, with a frightened look. "You must not talk so. From my heart I pity you; but it will be better for you to answer as I tell you, for if you refuse they will punish you till you do. Remember," she added, emphatically, "remember what I say: it will be better for you to do as I tell you." And she made me promise that I would. "But why do they wish me to tell a lie?" I asked. "They do not wish you to tell a lie," she replied; "they wish you to do right, and feel right; to be contented and willing to forget the world." "But I do not wish to forget the world," I said. "I am not contented, and saying that I am will not make me feel so. Is it right to tell a lie?" "It is right for you to obey," she replied, with more severity in her tone than I ever heard before. "Do you know," she continued," that it is a great sin for you to talk so?" "A sin!" I exclaimed, in astonishment; "why is it a sin?" "Because," she replied, "you have no right to inquire why a command is given. Whatever the church commands, we must obey, and that, too, without question or complaint. If we are not willing to do this, it is the duty of the Bishop and the priests to punish us until we are willing. All who enter a convent renounce forever their own will." "But I didn't come here myself," said I;" my father put me here to stay a few years. When I am eighteen I shall go out again." "That does not make any difference," she replied. "You are here, and your duty is obedience. But my dear," she continued, "I advise you never again to speak of going out, for it can never be. By indulging such hopes you are preparing yourself for a great disappointment. By speaking of it, you will, I assure you, get yourself into trouble. You may not find others so indulgent as I am; therefore, for your own sake, I hope you will relinquish all idea of ever leaving the convent, and try to be contented." Such was the kind of instruction I received at the White Nunnery. I did not feel as much disappointed at the information that I was never to go into the world again as she had expected. I had felt for a long time, almost, indeed, from my first entrance, that such would be my fate, and though deeply grieved, I was able to control my feelings.
The great day at length came for which the Abbess had been so long preparing me. I say great, for in our monotonous life, the smallest circumstance seemed important. Moreover, I was assured that my future happiness depended very much upon the answers, I that day gave to the various questions put to me. When about to be taken to the chapel, St. Bridget begged the priest to be careful and not frighten me, lest it should bring on my fits again. I was led into the chapel and made to kneel before the altar. The bishop and five priests were present, and also, a man whom I had never seen before, but I was told he was the Pope's Nuncio, and that he came a long way to visit them. I think this was true, for they all seemed to regard him as a superior. I shall never forget my feelings when he asked me the following questions, which I answered as I had been directed. "Who do you believe in?" "God." "How many persons are there in God?" "Three; the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" "What world have you lately left?" "The world of sin and Satan." "Do you wish to go back and live with your father?" "No Sir." "Do you think you can live all your life with us." "I think I can, sir." He then said, "You will not fare any better than you have hitherto, and perhaps not as well." It was with the greatest difficulty that I could control my feelings sufficiently to answer this last question. But remembering what the Abbess had told me, I suppressed my tears, and choked down the rising sob. Surely those men must have known that I was telling a falsehood—that the profession I made was not in accordance with my real sentiments. For myself, I then felt, and still feel that the guilt was not mine. The sin did not rest with me.
The Bishop was then told to hear my confession, after which, a priest took some ointment from a small box, and rubbed it on my forehead, and another priest came with a towel and wiped it off. I was then taken back to St. Bridget, with whom I remained, as long as I was in the White Nunnery.
On my tenth birthday, the Bishop came to the Abbess very early in the morning, and informed her that I was to take the White Veil that day, and immediately after the ceremony, I would leave for the Grey Nunnery in Montreal. He desired her to make all the necessary preparation, and take her leave of me, as she would not see me again. This was sad news for us both, for I felt that she was my only friend, and I knew that she felt for me, the most sincere affection. She gave me much good advice in reference to my future conduct, and with tears exhorted me to be kind, cheerful, and obedient. I was going to a new place, she said, and if I was a good girl, and sought to please my superiors, I would find some one to be kind to me. She advised me to try and appear contented in whatever situation I might be placed, and above all other considerations, never disobey the least command. "Obedience," she again repeated, "is the rule in all convents, and it will be better for you to obey at once, and cheerfully, and willingly comply with every request, than to incur displeasure and perhaps punishment, by any appearance of reluctance or hesitation. If there is any one thing that you dislike to do, be sure that you do not betray your feelings, for if you do, that will be the very thing they will require of you; and I assure you, if you once become the object of suspicion or dislike, your condition will be anything but agreeable. You will be marked and watched, and required to do many unpleasant things, to say the least. Therefore I hope you will perform all your duties with a cheerful and willing spirit." Bitterly did I grieve at the thought of being separated from the only being on earth who seemed to care for me. In the anguish of the moment, I wished I might die. St. Bridget reproved me, saying encouragingly that death was the coward's refuge, sought only by those who had not the resolution to meet, endure, or overcome the trials of life. She exhorted me to courage, perseverance and self denial, saying that if I fought life's battle bravely, I would have my reward.
She changed all my clothes, and assisted me to put on a white dress and cape, and a white cap and veil. She then gave me a card of good behavior, embraced me for the last time, and led me out to the Bishop, who was waiting to conduct me to the chapel where the ceremony was to be performed.
I there met ten other little girls, who, like myself, were compelled to take upon themselves vows they did not understand, and thus, by an apparently voluntary act, consign themselves to slavery for life. They were all strangers to me, sent here, as I afterwards learned, from some nunnery in Ireland, where they had friends who were too solicitous for their welfare. The priests do not wish the nuns to see friends from the world, and they will frame almost any plausible excuse to prevent it. But when the friends become too urgent, as they sometimes do, and their inventive powers are taxed too severely, or if the task of furnishing so many excuses become too irksome, the poor hapless victims are sent off to some other nunnery, and the friends are told that they were not contented, and wished to go to some other place, and that they, generous creatures that they are, have at length, after much solicitation, kindly consented to their removal. And this too, when they know that these very girls are grieving their lives away, for a sight of those dear friends, who, they are confidently assured, are either dead, or have entirely forgotten them! Can the world of woe itself furnish deceit of a darker dye?
The Bishop led me up to the altar, and put a lighted candle into my hand. He then went under the altar, on which a lighted candle was placed, and soon returned followed by two little boys whom they called apostles. They held, each, a lighted torch with which they proceeded to light two more candles. On a table near the altar, stood a coffin, and soon two priests entered, bearing another coffin, which they placed beside the other. A white cloth was spread over them, and burning candles placed at the head and foot. These movements frightened me exceedingly, for I thought they were going to kill me.
Forgetting in my terror that I was not allowed to speak, I asked the Bishop if he was going to kill me. "Kill you!" he exclaimed, "O no; don't be frightened; I shall not hurt you in the least. But it is our custom, when a nun takes the veil, to lay her in a coffin to show that she is dead to the world. Did not St. Bridget tell you this?" I told him she did not, but I did not dare to tell him that I supposed she felt so bad when she found I must leave her, that she entirely forgot it. He then asked very pleasantly, which of the two coffins I liked the best, saying I could have my choice. I replied, "I have no choice." This was true, for although he assured me to the contrary, I still believed he was about to kill me, and I cared very little about my coffin. They were both large enough for a grown person, and beautifully finished, with a large silver plate on the lid. The Bishop took me up in his arms, and laid me in one of them, and bade me close my eyes.
I lay in that coffin a long time, as it seemed to me, without the least motion. I was so much alarmed, I felt as though I could not even lift a finger. Meantime the Bishop and priests read alternately from a book, but in a language I could not understand. Occasionally they would come and feel my hands and feet, and say to each other, "She is very cold." I believe they were afraid I should die in their hands, of fear. When at last they took me up, they told me that I would carry that coffin to Montreal with me—that I would be laid in it when robed for the grave—and that my bones would moulder to dust in it. I shall never forget the impression these words made on my mind. There was something so horrible in the thought of carrying a coffin about with me all my life, constantly reminding me of the shortness of time, and the sure approach of death, I could not endure it. Gladly would I have left it, costly and elegant as it was, choosing rather to run the risk of being buried without one, but this was not allowed. I could have no choice in the matter.
These ceremonies concluded. I was taken to a small room, and a woman assisted me to change my clothes again, and put on the Grey Nunnery suit. This consisted of a grey dress and shoes, and a black cap. Each nunnery has a peculiar dress which every nun is required to wear. Thus, on meeting one of them, it is very easy to tell what establishment she belongs to, and a run-away is easily detected. On leaving the chapel, I was taken to the steamboat, with the other ten girls, accompanied by a priest. Our coffins were packed in cotton, and placed on the boat with us. On our arrival at Montreal, we found a priest and two nuns waiting for us to conduct us to the nunnery.
THE GREY NUNNERY.
The Grey Nunnery is situated on St. Paul Street, Montreal. It is four stories high, besides the basement. It occupies a large space of ground, I do not know how much, but it is a very extensive building. The roof is covered with tin, with a railing around it, finished at the top with sharp points that look like silver, about a foot in length, and three feet apart. Over the front door there is a porch covered with a profusion of climbing plants, which give it a beautiful appearance. The building stands in a large yard, surrounded on all sides by a high fence, so high indeed, that people who pass along the street can see no part of the nunnery except the silver points on the roof. The top of this fence is also finished with long iron spikes. Every thing around the building seems expressly arranged to keep the inmates in, and intruders out. In fact it would be nearly impossible for any one to gain a forcible or clandestine admittance to any part of the establishment. There are several gates in the fence, how many I do not know, but the front gate opens on St. Ann Street. Over each of the gates hangs a bell, connected with the bells in the rooms of the Superior and Abbesses, which ring whenever the gate is opened. There is always a guard of two men at each gate, who walk up and down with guns upon their shoulders. While attempting to give a brief description of this building, I may as well say that it is constructed with non-conductors between the walls, so that the ringing of a bell, or the loudest shriek, could not be heard from one room to the other. The reader will please bear this in mind, as the reason for the precaution will appear in the course of my narrative.
The priest, who met us as we left the boat, conducted us to the front door and rang the bell. Soon a lady appeared, who drew a slide in the middle of the door, exposing one pane of glass. Through this she looked, to see who was there, and when satisfied on this point, opened the door. Here let me remark, that since I left the nunnery, I have heard of another class of people who find it convenient to have a slide in their door; and if I am not very much mistaken, the character of the two houses, or rather the people who live in them, are very much alike, whether they are nunneries of private families, Catholics or Protestants. Honest people have no need of a slide in the door, and where there is so much precaution, may we not suppose that something behind the curtain imperatively calls for it? It is an old adage, but true notwithstanding, that "where there is concealment, there must be something wrong."
In the hall opposite the front door were two other doors, with a considerable space between them. The right hand door was opened by the door-tender, and we entered a room furnished in the plainest manner, but every thing was neat, and in perfect order. Instead of chairs, on two sides of the room a long bench was fastened to the sides of the house. They were neither painted, nor cushioned, but were very white, as was also the floor, on which there was no carpet. Beside the door stood a basin of holy water, and directly opposite, an image of the Saviour extended on the cross which they call a crucifix.
Here we were left a few moments, then the door-keeper came back, and asked us if we would like to see the Black Cloisters; and if so, to follow her. She led us back into the hall, and in the space between the two doors that I mentioned, she unlocked a bar, and pulling it down, touched a spring, and immediately a little square door slid back into the ceiling. Across this door, or window or whatever they called it, were strong bars of iron about one inch apart. Through this aperture we were allowed to look, and a sad sight met my eyes. As many as fifty disconsolate looking ladies were sitting there, who were called Black Nuns, because they were preparing to take the Black Veil. They were all dressed in black, a black cap on the head, and a white bandage drawn across the forehead, to which another was attached, that passed under the chin. These bandages they always wore, and were not allowed to lay aside. They sat, each one with a book in her hand, motionless as so many statues. Not a finger did they move, not an eye was raised, but they sat gazing upon the page before them as intently as though life itself depended upon it. Our guide informed us that they were studying the [footnote] Black Book preparatory to taking the Black Veil and entering the Cloister. This book was quite a curiosity. It was very large, with a white cover, and around the edge a black border about an inch wide.
[Footnote: "The Black Book, or Praxis Sacra Romance Inquisitionis, is always the model for that which is to succeed it. This book is a large manuscript volume, in folio, and is carefully preserved by the head of the Inquisition. It is called Libro Nero, the Black Book, because it has a cover of that color; or, as an inquisitor explained to me, Libro Necro, which, in the Greek language, signifies 'The book of the dead.'
"In this book is the criminal code, with all the punishments for every supposed crime; also the mode of conducting the trial, so as to elicit the guilt of the accused; and the manner of receiving accusations. I had this book in my hand on one occasion, and read therein the proceedings relative to my own case; and I moreover saw in this same volume some very astounding particulars; for example, in the list of punishments I read concerning the bit, or as it is called by us THE MORDACCHIA, which is a very simple contrivance to confine the tongue, and compress it between two cylinders composed of iron and wood and furnished with spikes. This horrible instrument not only wounds the tongue and occasions excessive pain, but also, from the swelling it produces; frequently places the sufferer in danger of suffocation. This torture is generally had recourse to in cases considered as blasphemy against God, the Virgin, the Saints, or the Pope. So that according to the Inquisition, it is as great a crime to speak disparagingly of a pope, who may be a very detestable character, as to blaspheme the holy name of God. Be that as it may, this torture has been in use till the present period; and, to say nothing of the exhibitions of this nature which were displayed in Romanga, in the time of Gregory 16th., by the Inquisitor Ancarani—in Umbria by Stefanelli, Salva, and others, we may admire the inquisitorial seal of Cardinal Feretti, the cousin of his present holiness, who condescended more than once to employ these means when he was bishop of Rieti and Fermo." Dealings with the Inquisition, by the Rev. Giacinto Achilli D. D., late Prior and Visitor of the Dominican Order, Head Professor of Theology and Vicar of the master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace, etc., etc., page 81.]
Our curiosity being satisfied as far as possible, we returned to the side room, where we waited long for the lady Superior. When at length she came, she turned to me first, as I sat next the door, and asked me if I had anything to show in proof of my former good character. I gave her my card; she looked at it, and led me to the other side of the room. The same question was asked of every girl in turn, when it was found that only four beside myself had cards of good behavior. The other six presented cards which she said were for bad behavior. They were all placed together on the other side of the room; and as the Superior was about to lead them away, one of them came towards us saying that she did not wish to stay with those girls, she would rather go with us. The Superior drew her back, and replied, "No, child; you cannot go with those good girls; you would soon learn them some of your naughty ways. If you will do wrong, you must take the consequences." Then, seeing that the child really felt very bad, she said, in a kinder tone, "When you learn to do right, you shall be allowed to go with good girls, but not before." I pitied the poor child, and for a long time I hoped to see her come to our room; but she never came. They were all led off together, and that was the last I ever saw of any of them.
I was taken, with the other four girls, to a room on the second floor. Here we found five cribs, one for each of us, in which we slept. Our food was brought to us regularly, consisting of one thin slice of fine wheat bread for each of us, and a small cup of milk. It was only in the morning, however, that the milk was allowed us, and for dinner and supper we had a slice of bread and a cup of water. This was not half enough to satisfy our hunger; but we could have no more. For myself I can say that I was hungry all the time, and I know the others were also; but we could not say so to each other. We were in that room together five weeks, yet not one word passed between us. We did sometimes smile, or shake our heads, or make some little sign, though even this was prohibited, but we never ventured to speak. We were forbidden to do so, on pain of severe punishment; and I believe we were watched all the time, and kept there, for a trial of our obedience. We were employed in peeling a soft kind of wood for beds, and filling the ticks with it. We were directed to make our own beds, keep our room in the most perfect order, and all our work in the middle of the floor. The Superior came up every morning to see that we were thoroughly washed, and every Saturday she was very particular to have our clothes and bed linen all changed. As every convenience was provided in our rooms or the closets adjoining, we were not obliged to go out for anything, and for five weeks I did not go out of that room.
My bed was then brought from Quebec, and we were moved to a large square room, with four beds in it, only two of which were occupied. We were then sent to the kitchen, where in future, we were to be employed in cleaning sauce, scouring knives and forks, and such work as we were able to do. As we grew older, our tasks were increased with our strength. I had no regular employment, but was called upon to do any of the drudgery that was to be done about the house. The Superior came to the kitchen every morning after prayers and told us what to do through the day. Then, in her presence we were allowed five minutes conversation, a priest also being present. For the rest of the day we kept a profound silence, not a word being spoken by any of us unless in answer to a question from some of our superiors.
In one part of the building there was a school for young ladies, who were instructed in the various branches of education usually taught in Catholic schools. Many of the scholars boarded at the nunnery, and all the cooking and washing was done in the kitchen. We also did the cooking for the saloons in Montreal. If this did not keep us employed, there were corn brooms and brushes to make, and thus every moment was fully occupied. Not a moment of leisure, no rest, no recreation, but hard labor, and the still more laborious religious exercises, filled up the time. It was sometimes very annoying to me to devote so many hours to mere external forms; for I felt, even when very young, that they were of little worth. But it was a severe trial to our temper to make so many pies, cakes, puddings, and all kinds of rich food, which we were never allowed to taste. The priests, superiors, and the scholars had every luxury they desired; but the nuns, who prepared all their choice dainties, were never permitted to taste anything but bread and water. I am well aware that this statement will seem incredible, and that many will doubt the truth of it; but I repeat it: the nuns in the Grey Nunnery, or at least those in the kitchen with me, were allowed no food except bread and water, or, in case of illness, water gruel.
The Grey Nunnery is said to be an orphan's home, and no effort is spared to make visitors believe that this is the real character of the house. I suppose it is true that one part of it is devoted to this purpose; at least my Superior informed me that many children were kept there; and to those apartments visitors are freely admitted, but never to that part occupied by the nuns. We were never allowed to communicate with people from the world, nor with the children. In fact, during all the time I was there, I never saw one of them, nor did I ever enter the rooms where they were.
In the ladies' school there were three hundred scholars, and in our part of the house two hundred and fifty nuns, besides the children who belonged to the nunnery. Add to these the abbesses, superiors, priests, and bishop, and one will readily imagine that the work for such a family was no trifling affair.
In this nunnery the Bishop was the highest authority, and everything was under his direction, unless the Pope's Nuncio, or some other high church functionary was present. I sometimes saw one whom they called the Archbishop, who was treated with great deference by the priests, and even by the Bishop himself.
The Holy Mother, or Lady Superior, has power over all who have taken or are preparing to take the veil. Under her other superiors or abbesses are appointed over the various departments, whose duty it is to look after the nuns and novices, and the children in training for nuns. The most rigid espionage is kept up throughout the whole establishment; and if any of these superiors or abbesses fail to do the duty assigned them, they are more severely punished than the nuns. Whenever the Lady Superior is absent the punishments are assigned by one of the priests. Of these there were a large number in the nunnery; and whenever we chanced to meet one of them, as we sometimes did when going about the house, or whenever one of them entered the kitchen, we must immediately fall upon our knees. No matter what we were doing, however busily employed, or however inconvenient it might be, every thing must be left or set aside, that this senseless ceremony might be performed. The priest must be honored, and woe to the poor nun who failed to move with sufficient alacrity; no punishment short of death itself was thought too severe for such criminal neglect. Sometimes it would happen that I would be engaged in some employment with my back to the door, and not observe the entrance of a priest until the general movement around me would arrest my attention; then I would hasten to "make my manners," as the ceremony was called; but all too late. I had been remiss in duty, and no excuse would avail, no apology be accepted, no forgiveness granted; the dreaded punishment must come.
While the nuns are thus severely treated, the priests, and the Holy Mother live a very easy life, and have all the privileges they wish. So far as the things of this world are concerned, they seem to enjoy themselves very well. But I have sometimes wondered if conscience did not give them occasionally, an unpleasant twinge; and from some things I have seen, I believe, that with many of them, this is the fact. They may try to put far from them all thoughts of a judgment to come, yet I do believe that their slumbers are sometimes disturbed by fearful forebodings of a just retribution which may, after all, be in store for them. But whatever trouble of mind they may have, they do not allow it to interfere with their worldly pleasures, and expensive luxuries. They have money enough, go when, and where they please, eat the richest food and drink the choicest wines. In short, if sensual enjoyment was the chief end of their existence, I do not know how they could act otherwise. The Abbesses are sometimes allowed to go out, but not unless they have a pass from one of the priests, and if, at any time, they have reason to suspect that some one is discontented, they will not allow any one to go out of the building without a careful attendant.
My Superior here, as in the White Nunnery, was very kind to me. I sometimes feared she would share the fate of Father Darity, for she had a kind heart, and was guilty of many benevolent acts, which, if known, would have subjected her to very serious consequences. I became so much attached to her, that my fears for her were always alarmed when she called me her good little girl, or used any such endearing expression. The sequel of my story will show that my fears were not unfounded; but let me not anticipate. Sorrows will thicken fast enough, if we do not hasten them.
I lived with this Superior one year before I was consecrated, and it was, comparatively, a happy season. I was never punished unless it was to save me from less merciful hands; and then I would be shut up in a closet, or some such simple thing. The other four girls who occupied the room with me, were consecrated at the same time.
The Bishop came to our room early one morning, and took us to the chapel. At the door we were made to kneel, and then crawl on our hands and knees to the altar, where sat a man, who we were told, was the Archbishop. Two little boys came up from under the altar, with the vesper lamp to burn incense. I suppose they were young Apostles, for they looked very much like those we had seen at the White Nunnery, and were dressed in the same manner. The Bishop turned his back, and they threw incense on his head and shoulders, until he was surrounded by a cloud of smoke. He bowed his head, smote upon his breast, and repeated something in latin, or some other language, that we did not understand. We were told to follow his example, and did so, as nearly as possible. This ceremony over, the Bishop told us to go up on to the altar on our knees, and when this feat was performed to his satisfaction, he placed a crown of thorns upon each of our heads. These crowns were made of bands of some firm material, which passed over the head and around the forehead. On the inside thorns were fastened, with the points downward, so that a very slight pressure would cause them to pierce the skin. This I suppose is intended to imitate the crown of thorns which our Saviour wore upon the cross. But what will it avail them to imitate the crucifixion and the crown of thorns, while justice and mercy are so entirely neglected? What will it avail to place a crown of thorns upon a child's head, or to bid her kneel before the image of the Saviour, or travel up stairs on her knees, while the way of salvation by Christ is never explained to her; while of real religion, holiness of heart, and purity of life she is as ignorant as the most benighted, degraded heathen? Is it rational to suppose that the mere act of repeating a prayer can heal the wounded spirit, or give peace to a troubled conscience? Can the most cruel penance remove the sense of guilt, or whisper hope to the desponding soul? Ah, no! I have tried it long enough to speak with absolute certainty. For years I practiced these senseless mummeries, and if there were any virtue, in them, I should, most certainly have discovered it. But I know full well, and my reader knows that they cannot satisfy the restless yearnings of the immortal mind. They may delude the vulgar, but they cannot dispel the darkness of the tomb, they cannot lead a soul to Christ.
On leaving the chapel after the ceremony, I found a new Superior, waiting for us at the door to conduct us to our rooms. We were all very much surprised at this, but she informed us that our old Superior died that morning, that she was already buried, and she had come to take her place. I could not believe this story, for she came to us as usual that morning, appeared in usual health, though always very pale, and made no complaint, or exhibited any signs of illness. She told us in her kind and pleasant way that we were to be consecrated, gave us a few words of advice, but said nothing about leaving us, and I do not believe she even thought of such a thing. Little did I think, when she left us, that I was never to see her again. But so it was. In just two hours and a half from that time, we were told that she was dead and buried, and another filled her place! A probable story, truly! I wonder if they thought we believed it! But whether we did or not, that was all we could ever know about it. No allusion was ever made to the subject, and nuns are not allowed to ask questions. However excited we might feel, no information could we seek as to the manner of her death. Whether she died by disease, or by the hand of violence; whether her gentle spirit peacefully winged its way to the bosom of its God, or was hastily driven forth upon the dagger's point, whether some kind friend closed her eyes in death, and decently robed her cold limbs for the grave, or whether torn upon the agonizing rack, whether she is left to moulder away in some dungeon's gloom, or thrown into the quickly consuming fire, we could never know. These, and many other questions that might have been asked, will never be answered until the last great day, when the grave shall give up its dead, and, the prison disclose its secrets.
After the consecration we were separated, and only one of the girls remained with me. The others I never saw again. We were put into a large room, where were three beds, one large and two small ones. In the large bed the Superior slept, while I occupied one of the small beds and the other little nun the other. Our new Superior was very strict, and we were severely punished for the least trifle—such, for instance, as making a noise, either in our own room or in the kitchen. We might not even smile, or make motions to each other, or look in each other's face. We must keep our eyes on our work or on the floor, in token of humility. To look a person full in the face was considered an unpardonable act of boldness. On retiring for the night we were required to lie perfectly motionless. We might not move a hand or foot, or even a finger. At twelve the bell rang for prayers, when we must rise, kneel by our beds, and repeat prayers until the second bell, when we again retired to rest. On cold winter nights these midnight prayers were a most cruel penance. It did seem as though I should freeze to death. But live or die, the prayers must be said, and the Superior was always there to see that we were not remiss in duty. If she slept at all I am sure it must have been with one eye open, for she saw everything. But if I obeyed in this thing, I found it impossible to lie as still as they required; I would move when I was asleep without knowing it. This of course could not be allowed, and for many weeks I was strapped down to my bed every night, until I could sleep without the movement of a muscle. I was very anxious to do as nearly right as possible, for I thought if they saw that I strove with all my might to obey, they would perhaps excuse me if I did fail to conquer impossibilities. In this, however, I was disappointed; and I at length became weary of trying to do right, for they would inflict severe punishments for the most trifling accident. In fact, if I give anything like a correct account of my convent life, it will be little else than a history of punishments. Pains, trials, prayers, and mortifications filled up the time. Penance was the rule, to escape it the exception.
I neglected at the proper time to state what name was given me when I took the veil; I may therefore as well say in this place that my convent name was Sister Agnes.
CONFESSION AND SORROW OF NO AVAIL.
It was a part of my business to wait upon the priests in their rooms, carry them water, clean towels, wine-glasses, or anything they needed. When entering a priest's room it was customary for a child to knock twice, an adult four times, and a priest three times. This rule I was very careful to observe. Whenever a priest opened the door I was required to courtesy, and fall upon my knees; but if it was opened by one of the waiters this ceremony was omitted. These waiters were the boys I have before mentioned, called apostles. It was also a part of my business to wait upon them, carry them clean frocks, etc.
One day I was carrying a pitcher of water to one of the priests, and it being very heavy, it required both my hands and nearly all my strength to keep it upright. On reaching the door, however, I attempted to hold it with one hand (as I dare not set it down), while I rapped with the other. In so doing I chanced to spill a little water on the floor. Just at that moment the door was opened by the priest himself, and when he saw the water he was very angry. He caught me by the arm and asked what punishment he should inflict upon me for being so careless. I attempted to explain how it happened, told him it was an accident, that I was very sorry, and would try to be more careful in future. But I might as well have said that I was glad, and would do so again, for my confession, sorrow, and promises of future obedience were entirely thrown away, and might as well have been kept for some one who could appreciate the feeling that prompted them.
He immediately led me out of his room, it being on the second floor, and down into the back yard. Here, in the centre of the gravel walk, was a grate where they put down coal. This grate he raised and bade me go down. I obeyed, and descending a few steps found myself in a coal cellar, the floor being covered with it for some feet in depth. On this we walked some two rods, perhaps, when the priest stopped, and with a shovel that stood near cleared away the coal and lifted a trap door. Through this we descended four or five steps, and proceeded along a dark, narrow passage, so low we could not stand erect, and the atmosphere so cold and damp it produced the most uncomfortable sensations. By the light of a small lantern which the priest carried in his hand, I was enabled to observe on each side the passage small doors, a few feet apart, as far as I could see. Some of them were open, others shut, and the key upon the outside. In each of these doors there was a small opening, with iron bars across it, through which the prisoner received food, if allowed to have any. One of these doors I was directed to enter, which I did with some difficulty, the place being so low, and I was trembling with cold and fear. The priest crawled in after me and tied me to the back part of the cell, leaving me there in midnight darkness, and locking the door after him. I could hear on all sides, as it seemed to me, the sobs, groans, and shrieks of other prisoners, some of whom prayed earnestly for death to release them from their sufferings.
For twenty-four hours I was left to bear as I best could the pains and terrors of cold, hunger, darkness, and fatigue. I could neither sit or lie down, and every one knows how very painful it is to stand upon the feet a long time, even when the position can be slightly changed; how much more so when no change can be effected, but the same set of muscles kept continually on the stretch for the space of twenty-four hours! Moreover, I knew not how long I should be kept there. The other prisoners, whose agonizing cries fell upon my ears, were evidently suffering all the horrors of starvation. Was I to meet a fate like this? Were those terrible sufferings in reserve for me? How could I endure them? And then came the thought so often present with me while in the convent, "If there is a God in heaven, why does He permit such things? What have I done that I should become the victim of such cruelty? God of mercy!" I involuntarily exclaimed, "save me from this terrible death."
My prayer was heard, my petition granted. At the close of twenty-four hours, the Lady Superior came and released me from my prison, told me to go to the priest and ask his forgiveness, and then go to my work in the kitchen. I was very faint and weak from my long fast, and I resolved never to offend again. I verily thought I could be careful enough to escape another such punishment. But I had not been in the kitchen one hour, when I chanced to let a plate fall upon the floor. It was in no way injured, but I had broken the rules by making a noise, and the Superior immediately reported me to the priest. He soon appeared with his bunch of keys and a dark lantern in his hand. He took me by the ear which he pinched till he brought tears to my eyes, saying, "You don't try to do well, and I'll make you suffer the consequences." I did not reply, for I had learned that to answer a priest, or seek to vindicate myself, or even to explain how things came to be so, was in itself a crime, to be severely punished. However unjust their treatment, or whatever my feelings might be, I knew it was better to suffer in silence.
Unlocking a door that opened out of the kitchen, and still keeping hold of my ear, he led me into a dark, gloomy hall, with black walls, and opening a door on the right, he bade me enter. This room was lighted by a candle, and around the sides, large iron hooks with heavy chains attached to them, were driven into the wall. At the back part of the room, he opened the door, and bade me enter a small closet. He then put a large iron ring over my head, and pressed it down upon my shoulders. Heavy weights were placed in my hands, and I was told to stand up straight, and hold them fifteen minutes. This I could not do. Had my life depended upon the effort, I could not have stood erect, with those weights in my hands. The priest, however, did not reprove me. Perhaps he saw that I exerted all my strength to obey, for he took out his watch, and slowly counted the minutes as they passed. Ere a third part of the time expired, he was obliged to release me, for the blood gushed from my nose and mouth, and I began to feel faint and dizzy. The irons were removed, and the blood ceased to flow.
I was then taken to another room, lighted like the other, but it was damp and cold, and pervaded by a strong, fetid, and very offensive odor. The floor was of wood, and badly stained with blood. At least, I thought it was blood, but there was not light enough to enable me to say positively what it was. In the middle of the room, stood two long tables, on each of which, lay a corpse, covered with a white cloth. The priest led me to these tables, removed the cloth and bade me look upon the face of the dead. They were very much emaciated, and the features, even in death, bore the impress of terrible suffering. We stood there a few moments, when he again led me back to his own room. He then asked me what I thought of what I had seen. Having taken no food for more than twenty-four hours, I replied, "I am so hungry, I can think of nothing else." "How would you. like to eat those dead bodies?" he asked. "I would starve, Sir, before I would do it," I replied. "Would you?" said he, with a slight sneer. "Yes indeed," I exclaimed, striving to suppress my indignant feelings. "What! eat the flesh of a corpse? You do not mean it. I would starve to death first!" Frightened at my own temerity in speaking so boldly, I involuntarily raised my eye. The peculiar smile upon his face actually chilled my blood with terror. He did not, however, seem to notice me, but said, "Do not be too sure; I have seen others quite as sure as you are, yet they were glad to do it to save their lives; and remember," he added significantly, "you will do it too if you are not careful." He then ordered me to return to the kitchen.
At ten o'clock in the morning, the nuns had a slice of bread and cup of water; but, as I had been fasting, they gave me a bowl of gruel, composed of indian meal and water, with a little salt. A poor dinner this, for a hungry person, but I could have no more. At eleven, we went to mass in the chapel as usual. It was our custom to have mass every day, and I have been told that this is true of all Romish establishments. Returning to my work in the kitchen, I again resolved that I would be so careful, that, in future they should have no cause for complaint For two days I succeeded. Yes, for two whole days, I escaped punishment. This I notice as somewhat remarkable, because I was generally punished every day, and sometimes two or three times in a day.
On the third morning, I was dusting the furniture in the room occupied by the priest above mentioned, who treated me so cruelly. The floor being uncarpeted, in moving the chairs I chanced to make a slight noise, although I did my best to avoid it. He immediately sprang to his feet, exclaiming, "You careless dog! What did you do that for?" Then taking me by the arms, he gave me a hard shake, saying, "Have I not told you that you would be punished, if you made a noise? But I see how it is with you; your mind is on the world, and you think more of that, than you do of the convent. But I shall punish you until you do your duty better." He concluded this choice speech by telling me to "march down stairs." Of course, I obeyed, and he followed me, striking me on the head at every step, with a book he held in his hand. I thought to escape some of the blows, and hastened along, but all in vain; he kept near me and drove me before him into the priests sitting-room. He then sent for three more priests, to decide upon my punishment. A long consultation they held upon "this serious business," as I sneeringly thought it, but the result was serious in good earnest, I assure you. For the heinous offence of making a slight noise I was to have dry peas bound upon my knees, and then be made to crawl to St. Patrick's church, through an underground passage, and back again. This church was situated on a hill, a little more than a quarter of a mile from the convent. Between the two buildings, an under-ground passage had been constructed, just large enough to allow a person to crawl through it on the hands and knees. It was so low, and narrow, that it was impossible either to rise, or turn around; once within that passage there was no escape, but to go on to the end. They allowed me five hours to go and return; and to prove that I had really been there, I was to make a cross, and two straight lines, with a bit of chalk, upon a black-board that I should find at the end.
O, the intolerable agonies I endured on that terrible pathway! Any description that I can give, will fail to convey the least idea of the misery of those long five hours. It may, perchance, seem a very simple mode of punishment, but let any one just try it, and they will be convinced that it was no trifling thing. At the end, I found myself in a cellar under the church, where there was light enough to enable me to find the board and the chalk. I made the mark according to orders, and then looked around for some means of escape. Alas! There was none to be found. Strong iron bars firmly secured the only door, and a very slight examination convinced me that my case was utterly hopeless. I then tried to remove the peas from my swollen, bleeding limbs, but this, too, I found impossible. They were evidently fastened by a practised hand; and I was, at length, compelled to believe that I must return as I came. I did return; but O, how, many times I gave up in despair, and thought I could go no further! How many times did I stretch myself on the cold stones, in such bitter agony, that I could have welcomed death as a friend and deliverer! What would I not have given for one glass of cold water, or even for a breath of fresh air! My limbs seemed on fire, and while great drops of perspiration fell from my face, my throat and tongue were literally parched with thirst. But the end came at last, and I found the priest waiting for me at the entrance. He seemed very angry, and said, "You have been gone over your time. There was no need of it; you could have returned sooner if you had chosen to do so, and now, I shall punish you again, for being gone so long." At first, his reproaches grieved me, for I had done my best to please him, and I did so long for one word of sympathy, it seemed for a moment, as though my heart would break. Had he then spoken one kind word to me, or manifested the least compassion for my sufferings, I could have forgiven the past, and obeyed him with feelings of love and gratitude for the future. Yes, I would have done anything for that man, if I could have felt that he had the least pity for me; but when he said he should punish me again, my heart turned to stone. Every tender emotion vanished, and a fierce hatred, a burning indignation, and thirst for revenge, took possession of my soul.