My Teenaged Stint in the Convent
I was 14 years old. Not pregnant or a nun. Yet, still made to live with the Sisters of Saint Francis in Syracuse, N.Y.
For many of us, reflecting back on our middle school years doesn’t elicit the warmest of fuzzies. This is compounded when part of those years was spent living in a convent. I speak from experience.
But, wait, I’m getting ahead of the story.
As I’ve shared before, my dad was a career U.S. Army officer. One of his duty assignments was to attend graduate school full-time at Syracuse University in New York. During that period, we rented a house from a college professor who was on a one-year sabbatical. My sisters and I attended a local Catholic school -- Holy Cross. We arrived in sixth, seventh (me) and eighth grade.
We didn’t live in Syracuse for long, but it was ample enough to: 1. Experience more snow in a single year than I have in a combined lifetime and, 2. Develop my first, though unrequited, crush on the dreamy, seventh-grade heart-throb, Bob Renaud. I almost got a coveted kiss from him once in a “Spin the Bottle” game, but the bottle kept pointing at his buddy (who, unfortunately for both of us, resembled a young Mr. Spock) sitting next to him instead.
Upon arriving in Syracuse, we had no idea where or what my dad’s subsequent assignment would be. Later, we found out it was Heidelberg, Germany. In those years, you couldn’t relocate your family to Germany unless you had what was called “concurrent housing” – meaning military housing was available to move into. So the plan became that my dad would go ahead of us, and we’d follow once a house had been designated.
Since my older sister was getting ready to enter high school, my parents wanted her to be in Germany for her first day of her freshman year. Conveniently, we had some close family friends that were already stationed in Heidelberg, and they suggested that my dad and older sister live with them until housing became available for the rest of us. So, off to the land of beer and bratwurst my dad and older sister went.
The rest of the family, to include our schnauzer -- Carson (we got him at our former duty station -- Fort Carson, Col. -- thus the name) would stay behind in Syracuse for awhile longer. Unfortunately though, we had to look for new lodging since the professor’s European sabbatical had ended.
My mom tried valiantly to find an apartment, but leasing managers were wary of us due to our dog and because of their unfamiliarity with military families needing short-term leases. Complicating matters was the fact that we had no idea how much longer we’d have to stay in Syracuse -– days, weeks or months? (Recognize that this was long before the era of the Residence Inn and extended-stay kind of places that are readily available now.)
Holy Cross was kept abreast of our situation because we could potentially leave on a moment’s notice, and, in turn, required an altered tuition payment plan. Our principal, Sister Julienne, was extremely supportive, so much so that she proposed we move into their spacious convent, next door to the school.
At that point, my mom had run out of options, so she gratefully accepted Sister Julienne’s incredibly generous (I know now) offer. My sister and I were not nearly as enamored of Sister Julienne’s hospitality.
The notion that we’d be living in a convent (!) with our principal and teachers (!) -- all habit-wearing nuns (!) -- was met with every ugly form of teenage indignation. After a futile attempt at a mutiny, my sister and I relinquished ourselves to the social suicide we were about to commit.
We knew we were ruined. And I knew that my shot at one day becoming the future Mrs. Bob Renaud was officially over.
We moved into the convent a couple of days later. We were housed in a winged addition and each assigned a spartan, yet comfortable room with a private bathroom, which the three of us shared. A curious detail I recall is that the medicine cabinet held only one item and it was a bottle of the popular-at-the-time Love’s Baby Soft. (The perfume with the ironic tag line, “Because innocence is sexier than you think.” Proof that even nuns fall prey to suggestive marketing campaigns???)
My sister and I didn’t tell anyone about our new digs, not even our closest friends. Much to our dismay, the secret lasted less than a day. At dismissal, my teacher and new housemate -- Sister Florian, said, “See you at home, Beth.” A No. 2 pencil to the eye would have been more humane.
Her words froze me. I prayed no one had heard her comment. Especially Bob.
But they all heard and soon, the grand inquisition began. At first, I tried to act coy and evasive but finally realized the gig was up, so I just came clean. Light ribbing ensued –- “See you tomorrow, Sister Beth Ann” and, “Promise to not hit my knuckles with a ruler if you get mad at me,” etc. But amazingly, my classmates weren’t appalled. They were mostly intrigued.
After all, the nuns were enigmas -- mysterious and intimidating creatures whose extracurricular activities we merely hypothesized over. It was surreal to think that now, my sister and I were living in their midst and seeing them in their native habitat sans habits. It required tremendous self-discipline not to gawk, especially at night, when they donned their housecoats and slippers and exposed their hair.
We also prepared and ate meals with them. We were assigned convent chores. We worshiped together in the house chapel that was off the living room. We watched TV with them in their recreation room -- each nun had her own Lazy Boy recliner, all lined up side-by-side. They even shared their stash of World’s Finest chocolate bars (annual school fundraiser) with us.
Our classmates couldn’t get enough of our insider knowledge. As a result, our stock actually ended up skyrocketing. Strangely, our peers almost seemed jealous that we got to live in the convent. Certainly, it was not the outcome we had originally anticipated.
Before long, everyone grew comfortable with our new way of life, and it became a non-issue. The nuns felt like extended family to us, even though my sister and I never relinquished our healthy fear of them. I think it had something to do with their habits.
One day, when we were at school, a painter had come to the convent for interior work. He accidentally let our dog out of the house. In turn, Carson vanished overnight, wound up getting hit by a car, nearly died and required extensive surgery followed by a full-body cast.
Like us, the sisters were all dog-lovers. In fact, they had a black Lab named Mandy and before that a Doberman named Danny Boy. They were as upset over Carson’s accident as we were. Sister Conrad, who was retired from teaching, somewhat frail, and the elder of the convent, spent most of her days housebound. She loved Carson and welcomed the opportunity to become his primary caregiver when we all were at school.
I still remember leaving in the mornings and seeing Sister Conrad bent over him in her full-length habit with her rosary swinging, hand-feeding him buttered toast. After, she would fluff up his pillows and perch him high up facing the bay window so he’d have an optimal view of the street’s daily happenings. She was such a sweet, gentle lady, and Carson had her wrapped around his little paw.
Another cherished memory I have is of the night, toward the end of our stay, when the sisters let me have a slumber party at the convent. A bunch of my girlfriends came over, and we pitched sleeping bags in the living room (right next to the adjoining chapel) and giggled and acted goofy well into the wee hours. And the nuns didn’t shush us down (or throw erasers at us -- just kidding) once. That night, we even broke out a Ouija board -- which in hindsight, might have been a bit sacrilege.
In total, my mom, sister and I ended up living in the convent for nearly five months. Five months! Over the years, I have gotten a lot of mileage telling tales of my convent stint. After all, the only girls thought to ever live in convents are pregnant teens, which certainly wasn’t our case.
However, what started as a lesson in humility ... I now look back on with awe and reverence. The caring of the convent took an incredible team effort. Everyone did their part and contributed to the household. And they did so without complaint, and with enthusiasm and purpose. The convent was that well-oiled machine we always hear about.
In fact, I sometimes fantasize about trading in my current housemates for a few good nuns. That way, instead of wiping crumbs off the counter (after unsuccessfully nagging my husband and children to do so), I would only be wiping crumbs off my face. In my recliner. World's Finest chocolate bar in hand. Enjoying a spotless house. Ahhhhhh.
For five months I experienced the benefits of being part of a winning and productive team. But, alas, I was too young to appreciate it then. Now that I am a wife and mother, I realize that my own mom must have been in heaven. Quite frankly, knowing what I know now, I’m kind of surprised she didn’t abandon us for her "sister wives" and blame it on Divine Intervention.