Monday, May 13, 2013


(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.)


Sarah J. Richardson, Life in the Grey Nunnery at Montreal, ed. Edward P. Hood (1857; LibriVox recording, read by Brendan Stallard, 2011.)

This story began to surface when an escaped nun attempted to explain to her Protestant hosts the reason for her constant nervousness. At the behest of these persons that she told the story of her sufferings to, this former nun dictated the account here told, and it was published in 1857. Only after she married would the Subject of this narrative consent to share the story at large, so much did she fear her ‘relentless persecutors’: the Roman Catholic priests.

In Montreal during this period, “no one can assist a runaway nun with impunity if caught in the act.” Only on her third attempt did this nun, after fifteen years or so of confinement, privations, abuse, and torture, make a lasting escape. Sarah J. Richardson (her married name) was never a nun by choice. She was made one by force. The priests who bought her named her Sister Agnes.

This woman’s story unfolds like so. Wanting to give his six year old girl a better life, an ignorant, drunkard father puts her in the ‘care’ of priests in return for $100.00. Thus, at that tender age does the girl’s ‘history of punishments’ begin. At the White Nunnery, little girls are very strictly treated. As the captive soon found out, forgetting to close a door softly enough can get you a cat-of-nine-tails upon the head and shoulders. The girls are never permitted to speak to one another, may not turn in their beds during the nite, and get fifteen minutes of recreation per day. The terrors they are subjected to cause some of them to have fits and to become sick, which their scanty diet helps to remedy but little. They are not permitted to receive visitors, have to fast every third day, and are made to endure ‘nothing but toil and self-denial.’ Believing as they are told, that the priests know all their thoughts, they quickly learn to confess, obey, and fear. “Can the world of woe itself furnish deceit of a darker dye?”

At age ten, the Subject is sent to the Grey Nunnery at Montreal, which is the place, or prison, most of the narrative is occupied to describe. Once at this nunnery, she is brought into a room where a coffin is waiting. The presence of the coffin seems to signify that the priests will now kill her, a thought that makes her feel that she might die of fear before they do it. It turns out that she is made to lie down in that coffin during a ceremony meant to illustrate her death to the world. Imagine being in that coffin, reader, at the age of ten with Roman priests muttering over you in the Latin tongue. Sounds like a scene from The Exorcist or something. In this nunnery, the girls must do hard labor, with but little food for support and strength, all the while fearing the priests as much as they fear the devil himself. And no wonder. After spilling a little water, for example, the Subject is locked in a scary room for twenty-four hours in a standing posture, notwithstanding her confession of sorrow. From this grim vantage point, she can hear the shrieking of others because of their own punishments, and some of them praying for death instead of life.

In the context of her first, arduous escape into the world, the Subject asks, “Is it strange that I felt that life was hardly worth preserving?” When she is betrayed into the hands of the priests, she questions ‘the justice of the Power that rules the world.’ Then she sinks even lower, and begins to doubt the existence of that Power. “Why were my prayers and tears disregarded?” she moans. “What have I done to deserve a life of misery?” she asks. Upon her return, she is told to choose one punishment out of the following three: consignment to the ‘fasting room’ where decomposing corpses are; consignment to the ‘lime room’ with its noxious vapors and bottomless pit; or consignment to the ‘cell’ where devices of terror and torture-traps are kept. She ends up in the third room. Once locked in there to consider what her fate might be, in comes a priest masquerading as the devil in order to terrify her. This episode occasions one of the most valuable revelations to the girl. The devil has the key to the room, she reasons, which can only mean that he and the priests are in league together. An acceptable deduction for the girl to make! (She knows that the devil and the priest are the same person.) After five days and nites without food and water, the girl, now, not surprisingly, is nearly dead. The bitter part of death being now past, continued life disappoints her extremely. A Mother Superior (herself under fear) revivifies her with bread and wine concealed for the purpose. “The nun who was found guilty of showing mercy to a fellow sufferer was sure to find none for herself.” We are urged to conceive at this point, “the state of that community where humanity is a crime, where mercy is considered a weakness of which one should be ashamed.” Imagine wanting to extend mercy, but having to restrain yourself for fear of being found out, sent away, and replaced by someone cruel. What a terrible tyranny to live under! And just like what happens in gulags (they still exist), the prisoners learn to turn on each other to score points with superiors. 

The abominations related in this narrative are so numerous as to be nearly numberless. For what a priest interprets as a cross look, a crown of thorns is pressed upon the girl’s head. She must wear it for six hours, during which time she is made to work while the blood drips down. That’s just one horror story picked out of my notes at random. During her second escape, seeking refuge from house to house (seven to nine miles apart), she is, one can easily believe, ‘cold, hungry, almost sick, and entirely friendless.’ The storm raining down upon her head sounds like ‘the last convulsive sound of a broken heart.’ The prospect of freedom nerves her onward, however, and she, ‘a friendless wanderer,’ makes it to Vermont where she finally finds kindness and affection in a Brainard home before she is caught the second time. The punishments for that escape, including over a week of starvation, nearly kill her. She is promised, in addition, a whole year of daily punishments for this last revolt. 

Some time before these punishments are accomplished, I think, she escapes the final time, makes it all the way to Massachusetts thanks to connexions made by Protestant Orangemen, and hides out there long enough to begin a new life and even marry. Thus, the ‘dull, dreary, and monotonous life’ that is ‘varied only by pain and privations’ is at an end, though the young woman continues through the whole of the rest of her days in a worrisome, agitated state. She remains always on the lookout, in fear of the Roman Catholic priests whose hearts ‘feel no sympathy for human woe’ and their ‘system of bigotry, cruelty, and hatred, which they call religion.’

Such is my summary that fails to do justice to the terrifying account that I have just listened to. Life in the Grey Nunnery at Montreal is disturbing to listen to but riveting all the way. And so it will be gotten through in short order by those who begin to listen to it, I think. The voice of Brendan Stallard, moreover, is suitably somber and soft-spoken. The evils that this woman was made to suffer are so vividly told that the book left me wiped out at the end, though I was hoping for more information about her post-convent life. I have read many of Poe’s horror stories, like The Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial. Even stories like those are less horrific than ‘the fearful outrage…upon humanity’ related by this woman. Imagine, even the most talented writer of horror could not dream up anything to equal the actual horrors of Roman Catholic contrivance. This may beg the question to some, ‘Is the story true?’ In spite of all the digging that I did, I could find no decisive answer. Some persons in the story are named, but not fully. And the central character in the affair is something of a mystery herself. But most persons, including the Subject, had to be left unnamed in order to dodge the wrath of Rome. This seems like justification enough for these omissions. What might bestow credibility to the woman’s testimony are answers to questions like these: Did a nun, in that day or in some other, have to lie down in a coffin for consecration to her office? Do the coffins of nuns follow them to their postings? Was this nunnery ever guarded by men with guns? Answers to the negative would be discrediting to some degree. Answers to the positive would not prove enough. Around the year 2000, some journalists attempted a reception into a Roman Catholic institution in Quebec. I recall seeing that on television. While I can’t remember the means by which this place was guarded, it was an impenetrable fortress for sure, and those persistent journalists were kept out of there. This contemporary incident lends credit to the 19th century narrative. The author makes it clear that it was not unusual, in that day, for a nun to be seen walking unassisted along the street. It was the normalcy of this that facilitated one of her escapes. This nuance is also to the narrative’s credit, for all nuns being as closely guarded as the Subject was just won’t stand up to a scrutiny of history.

What about some of the things that she claims to have witnessed or suffered in this nunnery? Did she really see a woman being tortured on the medieval-style rack, for instance? This claim sounds fantastic, true. But that Roman priests used such a torture device is a fact of history. Why not in 19th century Canada? Is the raping of boys not a form of torture? Who will dare to answer no to this question? Roman Catholic priests are still torturing, then, maybe in your own city, town, village, or hamlet. If victims were not regularly coming forward with evidence of having been raped by priests in the 20th century, it might be plausible that a more decent, civilized priesthood existed in the 19th century than the vile one portrayed by the Subject. The sins and crimes among priests today furnish ample reason to believe that there is much truth, maybe whole truth, in this woman’s harrowing story. Furthermore, in light of the Roman Catholic pedophilia cover-up, what this woman says about the duplicity of priests is entirely believable. They will say or do almost anything, will they not, to discredit testimonies to their evil deeds? May the rumor that this story is a piece of fiction not be a lie concocted by the Roman Catholic Establishment?
A duplicitous person is one who practices deception by pretending to feel or act one way while feeling or doing the opposite. Members of the Roman Catholic clergy pretend to be torn up about pedophilia in their ranks, and they pretend that everything is being done to stop the abuse. They shuffle their guilty associates around the world when they should be turning them over and confessing all that they know. This is proof that their sympathy for victims is a sham. They are, just as they were in Sarah J. Richardson’s day, ‘vile, unscrupulous, hypocritical pretenders.’ And the Pope obviously wants it that way, for he makes no effort to bring justice to his pedophile brethren and their enablers. The Pope is the chief enabler, for he will not discipline his priests. The Subject’s assessment is sound: A kind heart in a priest, for the Roman Catholic Church, is a cardinal sin. Some nuns, too, are more cross than kind. The book is right about that, just as my own sisters allege. They had nuns for teachers in the 1960’s. But nuns are wicked mostly because this conduct runs downhill from the priests.

What about the story’s literary style? What can this tell us? It is difficult to believe that this young, uneducated woman, so soon after her final escape, would have been capable of speaking like so: “Can the world of woe itself furnish deceit of a darker dye?” This is poetic prose of a high order. This woman might have been particularly gifted. This is possible. But suppose that she was not. It would have been acceptable and normal for the editor she dictated her story to, to suggest, with her consent, apt expressions with which to add color and emotion to plain facts. Puritan pastors, for instance, embellished in that way, the ‘Captivity Narratives’ that they helped their suffering brethren to compose. ‘Ghost writers’ provide the same service today, which does not lessen the truthfulness of a memoir. 

Suppose that Life in the Grey Nunnery at Montreal is nothing more than an invention posing as a chronicle. Yet the Roman Catholic Priesthood has been guilty, at some time in its history, even in our own day, of sins and crimes at least as vicious as those charged against it here. I’m not saying that this is a work of fiction. In consideration of what we already know about the Roman Church, it is believable enough. Because of the research into Roman Catholicism that I have already done, my belief in this story exceeds my doubt. The ‘Convent Horror Story,’ like the ‘Puritan Captivity Narrative,’ is, indeed, a genre of literature. But then so are ‘Letters’ and ‘Remains.’ The fact that this story is categorized under a certain genre does not mean that its contents are untrue. There are enough stories of convent horror to constitute a genre. Maybe this is so, not because of a dishonest, concerted aim to disgrace the Roman Catholic Church, but because the Roman Catholic Priesthood is guilty of the atrocities alleged against it. Maybe the complainants, in publishing their testimonies, had one chief goal in mind: to spare unsuspecting people from similar treatment. What about the ‘pedophile priest’ scandal of our own day? Could a genre be created out of that, do you think? Does the genre not exist already? It does, and some of the stories are so well uncovered and documented that only the most Popish of idolaters dare deny their legitimacy. Will those stories be believed a century or two from now? Or will they be doubted while the priests are occupied with new perversions?

The Subject relates the appalling abuse that the priests put upon her in very great detail. Can we believe her claim, that as bad as all of that was, yet there were some evil deeds that modesty forbade her to testify of? Well, imagine a Roman priest raping an altar boy, and then ask yourself this question: What will a perverted priest not do? And consider, too, that a religious woman in the 19th century is not likely to put into print an entirely ‘tell-all’ book.

If justice counted for something in this country, we would not forgive evils like pedophilia just because they are done under cover of religion. We would pursue justice in the religious quarter with more zeal than we do anywhere else because religion claims to be more upright and honorable than the rest of the world. Be not deceived into supposing that convents and the like are not dens of iniquity still. If priests are perpetrating pedophilia in more open places than convents, what, think you, must be happening behind the fences and doors of Romish institutions that no outsider may look into?  

Content: A (Upsetting, engaging religious narrative.)
    Style: A (Active and vivid.)
    Tone: A (Somber and sympathetic.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
                      B: an average book: let it go.
                      C: read only if you have to.

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