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Recalling bittersweet memories of life as a religious

By Mary Bergan Blanchard
1st Books, 376 pages, $21.25


When I opened this book, I did so with a question: Does the world need another memoir about growing up Catholic or Nun’s Story revisited? Read on for the answer.

Mary Bergan was like thousands of Catholic girls growing up in the 1940s and ’50s who were fascinated, bewitched even, by nuns. “Mysterious,” she called them, and they were. I grew up virtually next door to our large parish convent. The Dominicans were our teachers, playground supervisors and disciplinarians by day, but by 4 p.m. they had retreated behind their tall fence and disappeared inside their imposing three-story red brick edifice. If we did see them outside of school hours it was only in pairs, and they merely nodded, if they acknowledged us at all. Nevertheless, like Mary, many of us wanted to be them.

We played “sister” in our tea towel veils and even through high school entertained thoughts of entering. In my case, my religion teacher, priest-principal, the one who had suspended me from religion class my senior year because I was the possessor of a petition to excuse senior girls from wearing uniforms for the last month, minced no words in telling me I was not cut out for religious life. (Wise man.) That was that for me (except I did go on to receive the religion department award that year).

One Mary Bergan, however, was not dissuaded even though her family, especially her father, expressed grave reservations about her vocation. Nevertheless, she spent 20 years as a Sister of Mercy. She recalls her decision to enter: “If I entered the convent, I would belong to God. ... I was under no illusions what it would cost me to have no family, but I’d never have this opportunity again. I knew myself. If I were going at all, I couldn’t wait four years.”

She would also “belong” to the community and for those 20 years tried to bend her will to its expectations. “All congregations work on the principle of blind obedience, that God could make good come from anything one was told to do. ... He would give the religious grace to do it.”

What no one could foresee at this time, however, was the grace that was visited on the church with the Second Vatican Council at the same time that the struggle for civil rights and social justice were clashing with more established religious and social values.

By this time, Mary Bergan was Sr. Irene, who, responding to her graces, was beginning to question the efficacy of “blind obedience” and who furthermore believed that the church, religious communities, and religious women and men had a powerful calling to work for social justice.

Inspired years earlier by her mother who gave up her seat on a crowded Albany bus to a young pregnant black woman, then chatted amiably with her about motherhood and child-rearing -- “treating her like a person” -- Mary poses over and over the question, “Wasn’t it our job to do something about it [discrimination] besides sit in the chapel and pray?”

The community leaders “who believed convents needed stability, order and routine continued to appoint conservative superiors who could keep an even keel,” she said. “I don’t think the sisters realized what was happening out there. ... Was anyone paying attention?”

Over time, habits starched just so and medieval rules seemed irrelevant. But also about this time, Rome had begun encouraging religious communities to consider foreign missions, and Mary/Sr. Irene was one of four selected to live and work in Beirut, Lebanon, “under the protection of the Pontifical Mission Society.”

Expecting fewer restrictions, more freedom, a real apostolate, what she found was the exact opposite, a pressure-cooker microcosm of all she had begun to find wanting in religious life. The political situation in the Middle East in the mid-’60s contributed to the stifling atmosphere, but most of her frustrations came from her companion sisters’ passivity as to their role there and to the Pontifical Mission’s patriarchy. “I had never been so lonely in my life. I was washed out, desolate, drained. I was bone tired, tired of restraint, of living under a surface, of hoping for change. Tired of getting up every morning and putting on an acceptable self the same way I put on my habit. Tired of being told to keep my opinions to myself. Tired of pushing for new attitudes that no one wanted but me. My ideas were at odds with everyone’s. A situation that would forever be.”

Irene felt that the Pontifical Mission, which even intercepted their mail, was working against them, hoping they would go home. They did, by evacuation before any meaningful work had been accomplished.

The mission in Beirut was not all that was over. That was the watershed that forced Sr. Irene to face her future and make some decisions. “The shenanigans of the Pontifical Mission in Beirut had dealt a blow to my vocation, and my zing had evaporated.” One of her first steps upon returning to the States was to compose a 13-page letter to her community outlining her opinions about all aspects of religious life from vows to the future of the order. Foremost among her concerns was the stifling nature of conformity.

It was her former boyfriend who gave her the idea to ask for a leave of absence to have time to live a secular life and re-evaluate her vocation. She worked with the disadvantaged in Boston and never went back.

At first, the title of the book is a little off-putting. The frame narrative for Bergan Blanchard’s story is the death of her mother for whom she would deliver the eulogy. OK. It is also a eulogy, of course, for herself as a religious, a bittersweet experience, but one for which she was grateful and felt blessed. Still a bit trite, I thought. Then I saw it as a eulogy to religious life in general, which everyone acknowledges is disappearing as we once knew it. With the average age of religious nearing 70, every community is exploring ways to adapt to new realities.

Finally, if Lebanon was a microcosm of the frustrations of religious life in the ’60s, then religious life as Mary Bergan experienced it is not unlike what many of us are encountering within the church today, particularly under this pontificate. Is this eulogy to religious life a precursor to a lamentation for the institutional church as we know it? As she wrote in her declaration to the community, “The sister who could best find peace within the community was the conformist. She was not the ‘disturber of settled ideas.’ We cannot afford to perpetuate this error.” Neither can the church.

Early on in the book, Mary’s best friend and soul mate in the community, Edna, chided her to “Read a book. All life’s experiences are laid out in books,” she said. “If you want to find out about life, read a good novel.”

If you want an understanding of life in religious communities from the late ’40s to late ’60s, written with immediacy and poignancy, read this book.

Judith Bromberg is a regular book reviewer for NCR. Her e-mail address is jabromberg@sprintmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000