I started out in 1968 Assumption Convent in Grahamstown, South Africa (German nuns) and then from September 1968 to 1979 I was at Holy Rosary Convent in Port Elizabeth (Irish nuns). Those of us educated at convent schools have mixed memories of nuns. Some of them were scary – those nuns did everything from pummel you with their tiny little fists to whack you on your hands with the metal side of wooden rulers. Others were kind and extremely good teachers. However you felt about then, those nuns live on within us in some form for the rest of our lives.
In 1997, two weeks after I got married, I was rushed to St Georges Hospital for an emergency hysterectomy. St Georges was a former Catholic hospital run by nuns but when I was there it had become a private hospital. I was devastated at this hysterectomy because I had grown up an only child and had parents and grandparents who died when I was young. The thought of having no children was just too much to bear. I had had no time to come to terms with it as I was admitted hours after I was diagnosed. Two nuns visited me in hospital every day and they to a large extent helped me to come to terms with it. Not in a religious sense but as fellow childless women. One of them was very old and I noticed that she always appeared around visiting time – three times a day. It was only then I realised that her purpose in coming then was to talk to my Irish husband, who came from the same area of Ireland she did. One day he did not visit me and I saw her face fall and she looked utterly crestfallen. I asked her why she came to South Africa. She said ‘to save heathen souls’. I said to her ‘do you think you succeeded?’ and she said ‘not really’. It was only then I realised that she had come from a poor family with many children, to devote her life to God and his work in a strange far-away country. She had probably never been back to Ireland and she would die on African soil. That was why she relished a small connection to Ireland so much. After a nun told me when I was very young that animals don’t have souls and don’t go to heaven I have never been particularly religious but that nun in the hospital had such an impact on me.
I have never forgotten her. Even Mother Theresa had a crisis of faith. How hard it must have been for the child in the family chosen to devote his or her life to God to say goodbye to all they knew. And many of them were massacred in uprisings in the Belgian Congo as it was known then. I had an uncle who was a Brother in Johannesburg and an aunt who was a nun in the USA. I am sure they never got to go home again. What brave women they were in many ways.
Speaking of brave women…I should mention here that the convent school I attended was the first multi-racial school in apartheid South Africa. The nuns decided to open the school to children of all races and nothing the apartheid government tried to do to stop this would make them change their minds. Quite simply, they felt they answered to a higher power. The school was closed by the authorities. They reopened it. We were banned from the local swimming baths and tennis courts. They just ignored it. There were police and journalists outside the gates every morning. They told us not to look at the cameras. The black pupils were bullied and attacked on the way to school. The nuns told them to come in civilian clothes and put their uniforms on once they were inside the gates. And in the end, the government gave in. This was in the late 70s so it was when apartheid still had an iron grip on the country. A whole system was defeated by a few small determined nuns.
Incidentally my favourite nun at Holy Rosary Convent was Sr Bernard. She dressed in a full habit no matter how hot the weather – right up to the chin and around her face even when it was 42 degrees in the shade. Her job was to look after the library, including censoring all the naughty bits out of the library books. She used to hold up her bent arthritic finger and say ‘I want your lines to be THIS straight!’