In Praise of Nuns

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Sr Gabriel and Sr Dorothy at 1979 Matric Farewell – two amazing women!

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!’

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Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

12 thoughts

  1. I was a pupil at the Assumption Convent in Grahamstown from 1964 to 1966.
    I loved my time there and enjoyed being librarian in my last year. Was there really a passage in which to hide during local wars?
    I loved Sister Aquinas whose family came from the area.
    I was Diana White in those days.

  2. Aaaah Sr Dorothy was my principle at Trinity High school in Port Elizabeth. What an inspirational woman. As tiny as she was, she would have grown Matric boys following her every command! !!!

    1. Sister Dorothy was my favorite… She set a fine example of equality. I loved her respect for all… A quiet strength that plays an important role in my life…. I would love to meet up with her again.

  3. Very well written and is this the same Sister Bernard I spent two years with in Std 6 in 1956/7? Strange she became so deaf herself because I had to repeat the standard due to my lack of concentration which unfortunately wasn’t the case. At 19 it was discovered I had no hearing in my left ear which was a birth defect and runs in our family and the right ear I could get by but not in a class situation. The ENT specialist was absolutely amazed it wasn’t picked up as a child at school. I did have many happy years at convent from Sub B especially the sports field in the afternoons.

  4. beautifully written poor Sister Bernard she was so deaf but loved her library as much as her collection of newspapers. However, I loved sister Gabriel she was my home room teacher for Std 9 and 10 had Sister Dottie for English! loved my days at Holy Rosary

  5. Janet, thanks so much for sharing this with us. I moved to the Convent in Std 2 after my Afrikaans teacher threw one too many bunches of keys at me. My Dad had been stood outside the door of the classroom trying to see why I was terrified to go to school. He walked in, picked up my suitcase, and took me straight over to St Josephs. I started at HRC in Std 6. The nuns were my rock right through my schooling, and I honestly don’t know I would have coped without them. Their love and patience got me through some horrible times. I loved Sr Bernard and spent hours in the library with her. She had no shades of grey so one knew exactly where one stood. Sr Dorothy was so kind, and a wonderful sense of humour, she taught me to laugh at myself. Sr Edmund’s reliable and wise answers guided me through my questions of faith. Looking back, I can only be grateful for the influence these amazing women had on my life.

  6. Thank you for a brilliant post.
    I attended a convent school for a couple of years & absolutely agree with you! Some of them were quite terrifying to me at 7 years old… My favourite nun was called Sister Agnes & I would often chat with her in my break time. My Mum & I re-visited the convent years ago, & at aged 91 Sister Agnes was still as wonderful & learning Russian 🙂

  7. Aw Janet, they were amazing women and you told your story so beautifully. I did not know that you were not able to have children and am so sorry, but you have used your life to working for animals and looking after others. xxx Convent girls forever <3 Don't you love my Avatar, Welcome Home to the Eastern Cape

  8. Thank you for sharing this. I really enjoyed it. The bit that I loved the most was your picture of Sr. M Bernard. How well I remember that finger. I had it daily in her maths class at HRC. God Bless you. Denise Wilshire

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