I left the convent nine years after I had entered as an 18-year-old, and three months after I had taken my final vows. Yes, final vows does mean final, and just ninety days before leaving for good I had taken a solemn vow to live the rest of my life as a nun. The life I led in the convent, and how I got to the office of the Mother Superior that night to sign the papers releasing me from this ill-fitting promise I will describe in more detail some other day. This is a short version. Actually, there are two versions of this story. One is the story I would have told in all sincerity at the time. The other is the one I think now is informed with a modicum at least of somewhat rueful self-knowledge.
I had joined the Maryknoll Sisters, an American missionery order, with the idea that it was a kind of life-time Catholic Peace Corp. In the world outside the walls of our idyllic retreat in Westchester in upstate New York, Pope John XXIII was creating havoc with what so many had assumed was the unchangeable tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Out went the Latin Mass, and in we came with our guitars and folk songs. I avidly read the pope’s encyclicals, along with the writings of intellectual rebel theologicans. Consequently, I spent most of my time as a Maryknoll sister with a coterie of other young sisters fighting the Establishment. The Establishment fought back by assigning me to the bakery, the sewing room, the pantry, to clerical work, and for two exciting years to the publicity department where I was the chief presenter on a weekly children’s religious show on NBC. After six years, I was sent to earn a degree to equip me as a primary school teacher. I was not asked. Just told. It was an ill-suited choice for me, but I was too much of a trouble-maker to be trained as a doctor or sent to study a dangerous subject like psychology or philosophy. And I was kept safely in New York, rather than sent to work in an underdeveloped country, which is what I had come to Maryknoll for.
But the outside world was beginning to intrude. In America, Martin Luther King was galvinizing the civil rights movement, and the protests against the Vietnam war were beginning. Drugs and hippies and free sex had not yet penetrated our walls but many of us were convinced that we of the younger generation were at the cutting edge of world-wide renewal. The older generations, both inside and outside the convent, feared we were at the cutting edge of outright revolution.
The young sisters agitated to get out of our old-fashioned habits that covered us from head to toe, and inch by inch our garments were shortened, our arms and heads uncovered, a discrete calf and ankle shown to the world. We were sent to live in houses in the slums of the Bronx in New York, and Paterson and Hoboken in New Jersey. The regular trips into New York City to record the TV show introduced me to a dynamic world of committed people who often were not even Christian, let along practicing Catholics. Most of the NBC television staff were New York Jewish intellectual types who could not fathom what a group of young, intelligent, vibrant young women were doing locked away as nuns, however modern we thought we were.
The speed of change was either too fast or too slow, but by the score, young sisters began to leave. I convinced myself that if I were to continue the true work to which Maryknoll was dedicated, I too had to leave the convent. I did not think I was rebelling against a life without sex, a life of poverty, or of daily unrelenting discipline. I was rebelling against what I thought – and still think – was the demand for idiotic obedience. But I gave myself high marks for moral integrity, and thought all my own motives were selfless.
Which is how one day in September I went to the Mother Superior’s office and asked her to petition Rome on my behalf to be released from my vows. She had no choice but to do so, but not saying a word, she closed her face and turned her back on me. I left the room.
Three weeks later the permission had come through. Later, Rome began to deny these requests. How long I would have stayed if I had not been given permission to leave is a matter of conjecture. Maryknoll or the Church had no legal right to demand that anyone remain, but for many, the moral authority of the Church was so great that they would never have considered going against it. I do know I would not have remained there forever.
In the event, I was in the Mother Superior’s office at eight o’clock that September evening. She placed the papers in front of me to sign. Inexplicably, I broke down in violent sobs. I fled the office and sat in the back of the choir stall of the chapel. I guess I was saying good bye to an impossible dream. Whatever I was doing through my tears, I wasn’t considering changing my mind. Eventually I regained my composure, returned to the office and signed my departure papers. Then I walked downstairs, caught a taxi to the train station, and went back to New York City.
I thought I had left the convent, and indeed I had. But psychologically I thought of myself as an ex-nun for several years. I was 27 years old but terrifyingly naive and innocent. Gradually Maryknoll receded and become a part of my childhood. Today I rarely tell people I used to be a nun. Not because it is something of which I am ashamed or embarrassed, but because it is misunderstood by so many, and I am no longer the compliant, believing, innocent young woman who left the convent that night more than 40 years ago.