On reading Tales out of School: Recollections of Ex-Covent-School Girls, published by the Pastoral Research Centre Trust two thoughts occurred to me: a. that you only realise how important something is when it is no longer there and b. you shouldn’t trust everything you read in the newspapers. They are clichés, obviously, but they matter.
These recollections of 40 women, who attended convent schools between the 1930s and the 1970s in response to a letter to The Tablet of 18 February 2012, make fascinating reading – but as historical documents. This is because almost all the convent schools they describe have either closed altogether or have been taken over by lay Catholic management and staff, so have changed their status. My own old school is a case in point; once a convent boarding school it is now a day Catholic school. The nuns have long gone.
In the 1960s and 70s the teaching orders began to shrink as vocations dried up. This means that Catholic girls growing up today no longer have the opportunity to grow in their Faith under the influence and example of dedicated lives. Many of the ex-convent girls who relate their experiences in these pages echo one woman who, writing of the Sisters of Notre Dame, states, “I remember them now with profound gratitude, admiration and respect.”
Another contributor wrote, “Some of the Sisters had a strong influence on me – I asked one Sister whose life was spent scrubbing and polishing the endless corridors if she minded all the work and she replied that her prayer was her work and she was lucky to be able to spend so much time in the company of the Lord. I think this was the best religious lesson I learnt.”
Faith is caught before it is taught. Almost all who have had the privilege of being educated in convents remember nuns whose lives, regarded as peculiar or frustrated in the media and by today’s secular society, were ones of fulfilment, vigour and purpose. Generally, these contributors recalled schools that were small enough for each pupil to “feel wanted, appreciated and loved [by the Sisters] for what we were.” Again, a contributor echoed others when she wrote that she “owed a great deal to the Sisters…for their example and encouragement in developing in every student a sense of vocation and commitment.”
Not all the respondents to the letter in The Tablet had a happy experience or kept their Faith. But most did or returned to it after a period of lapsation. These ex-convent girls evoke a world of the Penny Catechism, saints’ lives, school retreats, processions, high standards of personal behaviour, holy pictures and regular chapel. “It was not considered odd to suggest to one’s friends, after drinking the government-provided milk that we should go into the chapel for a few minutes”, wrote one woman. Another wistfully mentioned her memories of “the glorious Latin language and plainchant music of the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei of a sung Mass.”
Reading these memories it is clear that it is a matter of regret that this world has gone for good. Such lives of generosity and self-sacrifice, with the example they offer, are irreplaceable. “Nuns in general have been seriously underrated”, wrote one woman. I heartily concur.