It’s been six weeks since I last posted a story about the convent. Back on December 6, I wrote that in the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission where I discovered “just how human nuns could be and were.”
On that mission, even as I rebelled against a superior whom I was unable to respect, I castigated myself for being judgmental. Ultimately, I despised myself for my own flaws and left the convent. But that’s in the future. For now let’s spend some time in Seneca.
As background, you need to know that at the Mount, or motherhouse, in Atchison, Kansas, I’d worked in the laundry each Monday and Tuesday. As novices and postulants, we young nuns not only washed the bed sheets but also the undergarments of the nuns. Each garment was labeled with the initials of the nun to whom it belonged. My initials were DR3. That is, I was the third living nun with the initials DR.
Nuns wore two undergarments: a half-slip and a torso muslin. The voluminous blue or khaki cotton half-slip buttoned at the waistband. The one-piece, muslin torso garment went from shoulders to mid-thighs. It buttoned up the front and was separated at the bottom for easy use of the toilet. The garment was unbleached, loose-fitting, and short-sleeved.
On an enormous industrial mangle, four novices ironed the sheets. In another room, three novices worked at smaller, individual mangles or ironing boxes. Each lifted a five-feet-long, handled, rectangular cover; placed a half-slip on the padded ironing table; and then brought down the cover to press the slip.
Thus, the nuns wore ironed slips. But the one-piece torso garment remained un-ironed and wrinkled. That garment was ironed only for the mother superior. Doing so was a sign of the respect in which the nuns held her.
As the youngest scholastic in Seneca, I did the mission laundry. The first time I descended to the basement, the scholastic who’d done the laundry the year before followed me downstairs.
“Sister Innocence,” she said, “be sure and iron Sister Mary—’s muslin.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked.
“She likes all her underwear ironed. So I did them for her last year.”
“But that’s done only for Mother Alfred.”
“Well, Sister Mary— wants her muslin ironed so you do it.”
“No. I don’t.”
My words flummoxed Sister Mary Jude. “But you have to. She expects it,” she stammered.
“She not our mother superior and I’m not doing it.”
In the weeks and months ahead, I discovered that the Seneca superior considered herself the grande dame of the convent. During recreation each evening as we all gathered around a large rectangular table, she sat at its end with two other nuns—one who taught English in high school and one who taught seventh and eighth grade. The superior seemed to think that these two matched her in intelligence and learning. They formed a formidable clique.
The three of them spent recreation talking about books and history as the rest of us—I think there were about thirteen nuns at Seneca that year—chatted, crocheted, knitted, and played chess or tic-tac-toe. Periodically, when I’d hear one of the three laugh derisively, I’d glance toward the head of the table and note their condescending smiles and superior airs.
That’s when I really began to judge and that was truly the beginning of the end for even then I chastised myself. Yet I still continued to rebel.
Next week, we'll return to Seneca and I'll share the soft-boiled-egg battle-of-wills with you.