e-mail us


73 who left convent speak out

By Marie Therese Gass
Sieben Hill, P.O. Box 243, Clakamas OR 97015,
500 pages, $30


Just before settling in to write this review I was reading “Prison Diaries” by Gwen and Dorothy Hennessey (NCR, Jan. 25), about women who are natural sisters and members of the Franciscan sisterhood. The women spent six months incarcerated for their protest at the School of the Americas.

Gwen’s reaction to some petty prison procedure was to compare it to the convent. “I felt like I was back in the novitiate again with all the rules.”

If one thing glared at me from the pages of unCONVENTional WOMEN (as the author likes to visualize her title) it was “the rules.” Throughout the book, in a variety of ways, the rules cropped up, rules that to an outsider like me, as well as to many of the women in this book, seemed foolish and petty, such as requesting permission to throw away an old toothbrush or being required to take a certain, often circuitous, route through the motherhouse.

In this book, Marie Therese Gass compiles reactions she received from 73 former women religious to some 212 questions that included reasons for entering, reasons for leaving and the nature of their experiences in religious life. Topics touched on range from their altered relationship to their own family, to health care, to the “chapter of faults,” refectory practices and “particular friendships” to name just a few.

Included in the book is the entire questionnaire, along with a glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar. Not everyone answered every question, but what Gass delivers is a profile of convent life that spans 50 years. One participant entered the convent in 1933; the last to leave did so in 1985. The duration of their commitments ranged from a few months to more than 30 years.

Though some women vented some long pent-up anger in these pages, this book is anything but a pity party. In the first place, many relayed fond memories and positive experiences, not least of which was getting a first-rate education and “meeting some excellent women who became friends and mentors, some of whom are still strong friends.” The spirituality of religious life and the belief that they were living God’s will for them were also positive reflections. When asked if she was glad she had been a nun, many responded in the affirmative:

“It deepened my contemplative spirit.”

“I learned so much about people and myself.”

“It made me a fighter for what the church can become.”

Whatever their warm memories may be, remaining in the convent was not right for these 73 women and over 100,000 of their peers. In 1965 the sister population in the United States peaked at 186,944. By 1995, their ranks had been decimated to 86,000 women living the religious life. “Three major factors,” declares Gass, “seemed to have been operative: natural attrition or the deaths of elderly members, an increased exodus of dissatisfied members and a greatly decreasing entrance rate for new members.” The second factor, obviously, is what drives this book.

A few respondents hinted that had they known what they were in for, they might not have taken the first step. However the privacy and secrecy of convent practices were such that even relatives, aunts or sisters could not share the inner workings of religious life with naive aspirants. Furthermore, some of these practices seem to be the antithesis of Christian behavior, much less a lifestyle among women dedicated to loving and serving God in community. Many reported constant humiliations. Shunning was experienced or witnessed by others; and, of course, there was the proliferation of those ridiculous rules. “Common sense seemed to have vanished forever,” said one. Convent pecking orders rankled some. Superiors who played favorites, cliques, petty nonsense and unnecessary suffering were remembered by numerous others. “I disliked being treated like a child,” summed up the sentiments of several.

But the matter about which these women had the most to say, the longest responses and the most outpouring, concerned their leaving. Gass divides the departures into the decades of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I counted 70 versions of the same story, each pain-filled in its own way. Those who left in the ’50s through early ’70s, for example, had to do so in secret, without saying goodbye and were forbidden to contact their friends still in the convent for a specified period of time ranging from one year to never. The later leave-takings were less repressive as departing sisters were encouraged to feel that they were still part of the larger community.

Many orders have staged homecoming weekends during which all community members, past and present, come together to pray and celebrate. This practice got mixed reviews from the panel, some citing awkwardness or forced frivolity, others grateful for its healing effect and the sense of being “welcomed home.”

Few would disagree that life behind convent walls has always been intriguing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but especially to us lifelong Catholics who were educated by nuns we knew but really didn’t know. According to Gass’ book, this mystique was artfully crafted by the institution. Some of the respondents hinted that they kind of enjoyed basking in it; most, however, resented it horribly. This book, nonetheless, will answer a lot of your questions.

Obviously religious life is a human institution and so, not perfect. But for all its flaws, foibles and failures, I, for one, am happy it exists and has endured. Further, I am grateful for conscientious rule-breakers, in or out, such as Gwen and Dorothy Hennessey, courageous visionaries like Teresa Kane, prophets named Joan Chittister and Thea Bowman, and all the religious women I have known and loved who have risked and given much to make church and world a better place.

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002