While visiting Québec City last week for the Fêtes de la nouvelle France, we were wandering through Place Royale surrounded by early Québec re-enactors in period pantaloons, rough linen shirts and tricorne hats with conspicuous cell phones hanging from their beautiful woven sashes. Surrounded by countless camcorder-bearing tourists visiting for the Fêtes, the International Fireworks Expo at Montmorency and the sheer beauty of this ancient outcrop in the middle of the St Lawrence River, they were demonstrating early craft skills associated with agrarian and river life. Early Québecois music played somewhere in the distance, a mixture of ribec, galician pipes and fiddle, when suddenly a small flock of elderly nuns strolled by in their beautiful off-white habits smiling broadly at us. I had not seen such a sight in years and I was inundated with memories of an earlier Vermont, my own Catholic upbringing and the extraordinary impact of nuns on our own state.
Jeanne Mance School of Nursing, Fanny Allen Hospital, Bishop Degoesbriand Hospital, Trinity College, the cloistered convent in Williston, Mater Christi School, Rice High School, Christ the King, Sacre Coeur in Newport and countless other reminders of the benevolence and good works of Vermont’s large population of sisters. These institutions and more were started and managed by the various orders whose sole mission was charitable works. Others were started by priests, but staffed by nuns.
There was in all this a commitment to good works and community, seemingly subsumed now in today’s culture of consumerism. Young woman facing poor prospects for marriage or worse, the fear of an abusive one filled with hard work, often sought refuge in a convent where they might enjoy the safety of a sisterhood, even as they faced the daunting task of helping others in need.
Vermonters of all faiths owe a great deal to the many orders of nuns who have been an important part of the fabric of our state, the Benedictines, the Ursulines, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sisters of Providence, Atonement Sisters, Daughters of the Holy Spirit, Sisters of St. Joseph and The Hospitallers of St. Joseph. While the male hierarchy of the Church struggles with their own misdeeds, a steep decline in their own numbers and the rise in orthodoxy that puts them at odds with many in their own flock, we can all be grateful for their female counterparts and for their simple good works of faith.
So often in life it is what we do rather than what we say that makes all the difference. Our children become who we are, not who we tell them to be. The exemplary life stands in stark contrast to the proffered life of harsh sermons, canon law, black and white orthodoxies and commandments.
Throughout the volatile history of the Catholic Church, nuns from many religious communities have suffered the edicts, politics and even retribution of the Church’s male hierarchy, getting their spiritual sustenance from helping others in need: raising orphan children, helping young men and woman in trouble find their way back into society, teaching, nursing and caring for the ill or infirm, tending the dying, feeding and caring for the poor.
There have been many leaders among the sisters themselves who have served Vermonters in government leadership positions, as college heads and hospital managers. The Bishop Degoesbriand and Fanny Allen hospitals were staffed largely by the Hospitallers of St. Joseph. Trinity College, whose early mission was to help young woman off the farm or from factory families become educated and have an economic choice beyond the first proposal of marriage was staffed largely by the Sisters of Mercy. And always behind these leaders, there were countless nuns whose only residual image might be a gentle smile, the beautiful habits of their particular order and the countless good works they have done in their community of faith.
In the temptation in the desert, Christ rejects the gifts of mystery power and authority in favor of the exemplary life and free will – a lesson not lost on the extraordinary nuns who have woven so much into the fabric of Vermont for 150 years. To simply care for someone without judging them is a great gift. We owe them much.
August 8, 2006