My Writing Life with Nuns

This article is about the awakening of the writing impulse, focusing on my unusual relationship with the mother superior of the convent boarding school I attended in the early 1960’s. My experiences there laid the groundwork for my much later exploration of Thomas Merton and the time I spent in a Trappistine monastery, the two events which led to the writing of the novel, CONSOLATIONS.

Mother Geraldine was my first writing mentor.

ibm selectricShe was the mother superior of Marydale School, a “Home for Wayward Girls” run by Sisters of the Good Shepherd. At age 14, I had the good fortune of becoming one of her charges. She was an inspired monarch and a ruthless commander. A lift of her left eyebrow could stop me in my tracks. The Big G, as we called her, inhabited the moment with the focus of an athlete about to win the Olympic gold. She could have led an army across the Alps with no problem and little fuss.

Mother Geraldine knew I was a writer before I did. She watched me busily fill small spiral notebooks as I made my relentless way through the school’s small library (there was not much else to do but read). After the Literature section, I devoured the ten shelves of Religion and Spirituality until I had to start requesting books from the Indianapolis city library which she surprisingly gave me permission to do.

Marydale was a safe haven but I didn’t know what a safe haven was, so it took me a while to recognize and much longer to value. My fate was sealed the day I brought a pint of Seagram’s 7 to school in a milk carton and passed it around the cafeteria table. I was expelled, made a ward of the court (my mother washed her hands of me) and “sentenced” to Marydale.

Life in the Convent School

I was assigned Number 19 and a bed in a large dormitory, told to write the number on all my clothes including my socks.

My first morning I was awakened by bright lights overhead and a loud invocation. “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, to you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve! To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.”

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A tall, square-faced nun pulled off my covers and, barely opening her lips, said in a quiet and threatening voice, “Make your bed.” I jumped up, sloppily pulled up the blanket and the spread, and started walking toward the bathroom.

Mother Geraldine stepped in front of me.

“You’re last in line. Take your cup and toothbrush and wait over there.” She pointed to a far corner where the line had already formed. “Bed check in 5 minutes, Mass in 10 minutes, chores at 7:45.” She paused and held my frozen face in her stare. “No eye contact during the Grand Silence.”

“Ok,” I said.

“That’s ‘Yes, Mother.’”

“You’re not my mother.”

“That will be two demerits, Missy.” She turned on her heel and strode away.

Between 6:30 am and 9:00 pm, every single waking moment of my mostly silent existence was scheduled: chores, meals, prayers, classes, mass, and two study hall periods of 90 minutes. We all moved as a unit and the doors were locked—so it was not possible to get off by yourself. I spent my ‘free’ time in the library.

One afternoon I fell upon a small book, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. I was enthralled by its devotional beauty. From there I devoured the spiritual classics, most of which I did not understand but which thrilled me. My favorites were Dark Night of the Soul, The Interior Castle, and Introduction to the Devout Life. I read every volume on those ten shelves, including Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, but the devotional works remained my favorite.

I began to keep a journal in the small spiral red notebooks I bought at Saturday store. I wrote down the passages I loved and longed to understand. One I remember: If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark. (Dark Night of the Soul)

I also started to watch Mother Geraldine closely. She fascinated me and I wanted to figure out how to get her approval. Except for a handful of ‘do gooders,’ few girls ever approached her as she presided over meals or study hall. I studied the ones that did. The first thing I noticed was the formality required to gain an audience with her. If approached casually, Mother would withhold eye contact and wave her hand in dismissal. I didn’t want that to happen to me. Finally I was ready to

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give it a try. I decided to ask for permission to use my Saturday store money to buy a book of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

At the next evening meal, I waited until she rang the recreation bell, a signal that everyone was seated and served and so talking was allowed. I pushed my chair back and walked toward Mother who was seated at the large desk reading. I was careful to center myself directly in front of her—I knew I would not be acknowledged if I approached from the side. I stopped about eight feet in front of her. Without lifting her head, she nodded. I resumed walking until I was about a foot from the edge of the desk. I waited. She looked up and gave me full eye contact—those piercing eyes! I lost my balance and forgot what I was going to say.

Desperate not to be dismissed, I mumbled, “Mother, may I ask permission for something?”

“What is it?”

“Can I use my store money to buy a book?”

“Store money is for shampoo, soap and the like,” she said, lifting her eyebrow.

“Yes, Mother. Well, I already have a lot of shampoo and everything.”

“What is the book?” she asked.

“It’s…it’s,” I stuttered. I couldn’t remember! “It’s a poetry book.”

“Write down the complete title and give it to Sister Marie,” she said. “Keep your store money. I’ll request it from the public library.”

Her lips pulled backed into what I thought was a slight smile.

“Thank you, Mother,” I said.

Her eyes widened and she returned to her book.

Not long after that I was appointed Assistant Group Leader and given key privileges. My job was to count the 25 girls in my sophomore class whenever we changed locations, from the school building to the study hall or from the dining hall to the gym. But first the presiding nun would give me the ring of keys and I would run ahead and open the door. Key privileges meant you had arrived at the top of the pecking order.

One evening after study hall, Mother Geraldine crooked her finger at me. I followed into her office.

“You’ve been reading a lot, haven’t you?”

Was I in trouble for reading? Her face lit up in a smile and then got serious again. “I’m taking you off kitchen duty and assigning you a new charge. Meet me in the dining hall after breakfast tomorrow, and I will show you. Now, get going.”

The next morning, with Sr. Marie’s permission, I stayed back after breakfast and waited. The dining hall had emptied and everyone had gone to their charges. Had she forgotten? Or had I misunderstood? Then there she was at the entrance, giving me the nod. I followed her to the back of the hall which yesterday had been an empty corner. Now stood a desk and table with a duplication machine on it (This is 1963). On the desk were several legal sized blue stencils and an IBM selectric typewriter. She turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “Starting tomorrow, you will write and compile the monthly school newspaper. Sister Leonard will review the articles after I approve your list of topics. Make 200 copies.”

I panicked.

“What are we going to name it and how long is it supposed to be? What kind of articles should be in it?”

“This is your charge so that’s your job to decide.”

“Yes, Mother.”

It took me a day to figure out how to use the correcting fluid on the stencils and almost a week before I could run the paper through the Gestetner without ink blobbing out on everything—but I had no problem coming up with a list of articles. The first issue of the Marydale Gazette was printed

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in two columns and covered both sides of two pages. The main article was about a recent Gold Star outing which had been an all-day boat ride on a nearby lake. Another was a poem I wrote about St. John of the Cross. I don’t remember the others but I do recall that Sister Leonard hardly edited the articles. I learned later that the copies were sent out to parents, benefactors, and social service agencies.

One afternoon in gym class, a couple of girls made cutting comments about my new status.

“Here comes Miss Holier-than-Thou. I guess she’s gotten too smart to scrub floors like the rest of us.”

“She’s in love with the Big G.”

It was partly true. Mother Geraldine had singled me out and it was obvious that I adored her. Since I’d started the paper, which I was allowed to work on for an hour each morning and four hours on Saturday, I lived in a kind of daze, oblivious to my surroundings or activities that were not related to writing or reading or praying. While waiting in line, I wrote articles or jotted down ideas for new articles. After the second issue, I asked for and got some new lettering stencils so I could make fancy headlines. Mother also gave me a book called Introduction to Reporting. I tried, with zero success, to use the inverted pyramid structure in my articles.


In the fall of my junior year, Mother Geraldine gave me a catalog and an application for St. Mary of the Woods College. “Fill this out and give it to me by Friday. You also need to sign up for the SAT test. Here’s the information,” she said simply. College? With what money was I going to college? And what was an SAT test? But by this time, I had learned that pretty much anything was possible with Mother, so I smiled and said thank you.

That afternoon I pored through the catalog, excitedly underlining and putting stars by the courses I wanted to take, mostly journalism and writing courses. Two months

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later she drove me to Butler University on a Saturday morning to take the SAT. It was a disaster: I didn’t know much math—there was no other class but basic arithmetic taught at Marydale. My total score was barely 800 but Mother said not to worry.

That spring I received a letter saying I was accepted on probation provided I maintained a 2.5 average for the first two terms. I didn’t know what a 2.5 average was but I was in! Another letter arrived a month later saying I had been given a full financial scholarship that included tuition, room, and board. Years later I learned that the money came from one of Marydale’s benefactors, Dr. Woden, the dentist who used to drill on our teeth every month. At the next Visiting Sunday, I told my mom—and her new husband Charlie—the news. Her reaction was simply: “What are you going to college for?”

”Because Mother Geraldine said it was a good idea,” was my only answer.

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