During my recent visit to America, I watched a delightful comedy with my hosts called The Trouble with Angels. Made in 1966, it starred a young Hayley Mills, who plays Mary Clancy, a tearaway, troubled orphan sent to a Catholic convent school.
St Francis Academy is presided over by a redoubtable Reverend Mother, a role beautifully portrayed by Rosalind Russell. Mary teams up with a tractable sidekick, Rachel, to flout the system, initiating all kinds of comic mayhem with her catchphrase, “I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea!” They explore the nuns’ quarters, smoke cigars and cause a full-scale evacuation. They make a “death mask” of one of their classmates from plaster of Paris which they can’t remove and, by absenting themselves from swimming classes for three years, almost drown in the compulsory test at the end, forcing a religious in full habit to dive into the pool to save them.
There is a kind of verisimilitude inasmuch as the particular characteristics and the eccentricities of the Sisters are the stuff of their jokes because they don’t really see them as people. Their view is the adolescent’s solipsistic one of outraged resentment towards anyone who wields authority. They see their rebellion as original and brilliant but are always caught out.
As a piece of cultural history, it is fascinating. The Sisters are in full veils and habits. The girls dress modestly and cover their heads when entering the chapel. They resent the “Quiet Sunday” imposed on them by the Sisters’ rule, but they kneel in the chapel and pray without the least sign of regarding this as an unreasonable imposition. They go on family pilgrimages during the holidays. Piety is still the norm. Looking for something to plug a gap in a broken window through which the snow is coming in, Mary reluctantly concludes she can’t use her magazine with a picture of Paul VI on the cover and sighs, “Oh well, I guess It will have to be Burt Lancaster”, as she chooses another.
Reverend Mother’s alternative sanctions and forbearance force Mary to glimpse a far more complex person than the demonised one she projected on to her. Exasperated by Mary’s latest stunt, Reverend Mother calls her guardian in to receive her expulsion. But on finding him with his young secretary on his arm, she relents, to Mary’s surprise.
Sternly admonishing Mary for mimicking another Sister’s heavy German accent, Reverend Mother tells her of how the Sister was tortured during the war for being in the Resistance. She breaks off, overcome with tears of sympathy for what she is describing and turns towards the statue of Our Lady. Helping Mary’s ham-fisted sidekick Rachel to make a cocktail dress, Reverend Mother suddenly reveals that she was a couturier in Paris and dreamt of opening her own fashion house. “How could you bear to give up your dream?” asks Mary. “I found something better,” is the simple reply.
The denouement comes when the class is graduating. Resplendent in white dresses with bouquets of red roses, the girls are told the names of the girls who have chosen to stay to join the convent. The second name read out is that of the rebel Mary. Despite their foibles and customs, she has glimpsed the fulfilment in self-gift and the peace the Sisters have. This conquers her resistance to the sacrifices required.
I saw the film after spending a week retreat-giving in a convent rather like the one in the film: a vast stately building set in beautiful grounds. It housed hundreds of Sisters when they still needed a novitiate and a motherhouse. Now there remain a few dozen Sisters, all in their 70s and above. They wear trouser suits and refuse to use titles like “Sister” or “Father”. There are scented candles and sausages on Fridays. Some Sisters have the “Nuns on the Bus” slogan on their office doors.
The magnificent chapel looks like some alien came in and stole the sanctuary, leaving a coffee table behind. There are pictures of Oscar Romero, but none of Our Lady. And it occurred to me that a rebellion against so many traditional externals of religious life doesn’t look like such a scathingly brilliant idea as it obviously did in the 1960s if it hasn’t convinced anyone to join you.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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