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Behind the Convent Walls
Lifting the Veil of Abuse
The golden, autumn sunlight glistened upon the dewy morning grass as I walked upon the less trodden path. Before my eyes the heart-shaped leaves of the Sweet Birch fell gently at my feet as I took one step after another just as I had done so many times each morning before this one. Today though was not the same as those other days since it would be the last time that I would ever walk the convent grounds, and gaze up towards the bell tower of the little chapel with walls built of stone.
While waiting for my parents to come and take me home, I wanted one last time to go for a walk wearing my navy blue habit; the habit that I could not wait to receive the day I became a novice. With tears streaming down my face, I was in complete and total perplexity as to how the sisters who were supposed to be my family could play such mind games with me; one moment leading me to believe I would be moving on to the next stage of religious life, and the next minute having me leave forever. I had no warning from the Mother Superior, and yet here I was having to leave the convent without any say in the matter.
With my white veil swaying in the breeze, and Rosary beads swinging at my side I tightly grasped the crucifix within the palm of my hand as I struggled to pray a "Hail Mary," with each labored breath. The isolation and abandonment that I felt was surreal; I could not believe that the same women who first welcomed me with beaming smiles and open arms could treat me with such wickedness and coldness; that my religious life journey was coming to an end. My whole world collapsed before my very eyes, and the vocation that meant everything to me was abruptly taken away from me in an instant.
This was not my first time in religious life, and yet the second time around the wounds cut incredibly deeper because I knew that I was done with the vocation forever. I no longer could or desired to endure any more abuse by the hands of nuns; I would not allow myself to be treated in such a way anymore. God does not condone abuse of any kind, and it is never acceptable to be treated in such a way by anyone, especially not by religious sisters.
When I entered into the second community the vocation director looked me straight in the eyes and assured me that they were different than the other sisters who she referred to as the “secular sisters,” who have lost their way in the Church, and that I would not have to worry about ever experiencing what I did in the former community ever again. But the truth of the matter is that the abuse did happen again, except this time it was occurring in what the Catholic world would consider a more traditional community; a community where I was assured this type of thing would never take place. There was definitely a significantly less amount of liturgical abuses in the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) Community, but as for the personal and purposeful harm that was inflicted upon me, it did not make an ounce of difference in comparison to the sisters belonging to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) Community.
How did I get here? I entered the religious life to give my life entirely to Christ, and to become His Bride; that was my true desire. I wanted to authentically live out my calling to the religious life. It was all or nothing. I was eagerly awaiting the day to give my forever “yes” to Him for all of eternity as a consecrated religious sister. I wanted nothing else in this world, but to belong completely to Christ. I was a second year novice, and recently had been given by my novice mistress my apostolic assignment, a new summer habit, and told that when I returned to the Motherhouse after my time at our other convent, I would be requesting to make my first vows.
I could not wait to return to the Cathedral-Basilica for my apostolate. As a postulant I was there for three months, and working in a parish for the Pastor was incredibly amazing, and the long days invigorated me. I was filled with such a zeal for reaching out to and caring for other souls. I could not get enough of it. I was counting down the days to be back in a parish again, and meeting more parishioners, especially those in the nearby senior residences. They were long and tiring days, but I would not have traded that time for anything else in this world.
It was also at this time that I began to imagine the beauty of my wedding to the Beloved Bridegroom; my pastor, other priests, and my family would be there at the Mass where I would receive the black veil, and profess my vows. We were permitted to add to our vows, and I desired to profess chastity, poverty, obedience and the offering of my vocation for the sanctification of priests. I would sit in the Chapel before the Blessed Sacrament and see that special day in my mind; picturing the flowers and hymns that I would choose for the glorious occasion, and walking up the aisle to give myself wholly to Christ as His Spouse. I was so overcome with joy thinking about the splendor of it all, that I could never have been prepared for what was to come next in my life.
It was over the course of a little more than two years that gradually more and more each day the tension continuously built up between my novice mistress and me. There was a constant fear and anxiety that enveloped my being due to a never-ending verbal, psychological, and emotional beating that I received from someone who was supposed to be my 'spiritual mother.' There were so many times I would tremble during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass knowing that she was waiting to “pounce.” If the flame of a candle was not high enough, if I dared to fulfill a priest’s request as to how to set up the sacred vessels or vestments different from how we were trained to set them up, if Father wanted a Votive Mass instead of the Mass that Sister chose for the morning, or if he gave a homily she did not like, I knew I would face her wrath. When I would be cleaning up after Mass I would see her come in and close the sacristy door, and I knew the barrage of insults was coming my way.
On sweltering, hot days when we prayed the Rosary after Adoration and Vespers in the Chapel, there were times as I was kneeling I would begin to become dizzy and black out while gazing at the Sacred Host upon the altar. I would cling onto the pew in front of me to keep myself from falling, and then push myself back up onto my seat in the pew. I was told by my novice mistress to keep kneeling and if I felt that dizzy then to just faint in the Chapel, but under no circumstances could I sit instead of kneeling because that was not the custom of the community.
Another time I had a 102 fever, and although I was dizzy and felt that I would be sick I was forced to continue to work as the sacristan. I remember lighting the candles on the altar and in the rest of the sanctuary, and praying to God to not let me faint in front of everyone before Mass that day. The only reason I was eventually given permission to rest was because I almost collapsed during Mass in my pew. My novice mistress told me I brought attention to myself by sitting down during the Mass parts when we were supposed to stand, and that I embarrassed her. After only three days and finally being taken to Urgent Care and told by the doctor to rest for a week since I had influenza, my novice mistress came storming into my room while slamming open the door, and told me to get up and that I was needed in the Chapel. According to her the Mother Superior said I rested enough. I was still dizzy and did not feel all right, but under obedience went back to my sacristy work, again offering my suffering to the Lord.
Bruised, battered, and broken from my experience, religious life became a living hell for me, and the best version of myself began to disappear with every scourging that I received from my tormentor. I remember the times when no one else would be in the Chapel and I would simply imagine myself at the foot of the Cross and prostrate in the center aisle before the Tabernacle because I had nothing left within me; my soul was tired. I gave everything to Him.
It was for love alone that I first began the journey to become a religious sister and continued to walk willingly in the blood-stained footsteps of Christ towards Calvary. Each day as my novice mistress vehemently chided, belittled, mocked, and gaslighted me, I daily offered up my suffering to Christ and for the sanctification of Catholic priests as I knew that it was a gift that enabled me to become closer and closer to Him. I could not bring myself to surrender my vocation, and I continued to tolerate the abuse up until the last day.
There were so many times I questioned whether it was real; could a religious sister truly be that evil? Was she really targeting me and purposely making my life unbearable every single day? The answer is yes, she was truly and really being cruel to me, which was confirmed by her right before I walked out the door forever. As we sat on the couch in the formation house, she could not make eye contact with me, and held her head downward.
My novice mistress told me that for the past two years she went after me and that it was not my imagination. She admitted how she lost control when she was around me. Then in a low whisper she murmured how simply being in my presence caused her to go after me, but she did not know what compelled her to act in such a way, but that she could not stop. Sister then started gently weeping and begged me for my forgiveness; that I needed to forgive her, and to pray for her because she was not well.
The pain and suffering that women like myself have endured at the hands of other women who are supposed to be living as witnesses of Christ in the world as His Brides is simply shocking and appalling. There seems to be no accountability set in place for women religious who wrongfully use their authority as a position of power to abuse other women in their community. Only "members who are carefully prepared and who, not impeded by other duties, can carry out this function fruitfully and in a stable manner are to be placed in charge of the formation of novices." (CIC, 649, §3) Instead of young sisters being cared for and being formed gradually to lead correctly the life by their novice mistress (CIC, 652, §1) they are treated as if they joined the military.
I tried my best to hold up a shield of armor with my greatest defense to protect myself, and put up a "good fight" to save my vocation because I gave up my entire life to follow Christ. I was in survival mode. With every smile I choked back a hundred tears as I continued to run the race, in the midst of the turbulent storm, towards the finish line; where I had the hope to one day give my"fiat" to my Beloved Spouse.
The fact though is that because of woman religious and their abuse of authority within the convent walls, I lost my vocation to the religious life. I never got to make it to the altar to say, “I do,” to the Beloved of my heart. And I know that I am not the only one since I have heard and read testimonies from other women abused in religious life both online, and through a ministry that I co-lead for former religious, which includes women who have been abused in the convent. It is unnerving how similar our stories are to one another, and that they are from the present time as well as from before the Second Vatican Council. Abuse in religious life is not a new issue; it is one that has been swept under the rug for far too long.
Someone may ask how is it that any woman after experiencing such an incredible amount of suffering in religious life can remain a practicing Catholic or even Catholic at all? There are several answers for me that answer such a question.
My first response is because it is not the Church founded by Jesus Christ that has inflicted the injury, but humanity that has caused the incredible hurt. It is Satan who has harmed me in the spiritual battle that exists between "good" and "evil." God is not to blame for the fall of mankind, but rather the first sin of man. It is by the sin of pride committed by our first parents that permitted turmoil and suffering to enter into the world. The earth became the Devil's playground. This was never God's plan, but God permitted it to happen.
We only see one side of the tapestry, and only God can see the entire masterpiece, so it is impossible for us to know His Divine plan. Knowing such a truth, however, does not remove the wounds and scars left behind by the traumatic experience. It is by our pain and suffering that Christ has allowed us to be united to Him for the salvation of souls, especially the souls of His priests. Sin and darkness cannot triumph. The gates of hell will not prevail against His Kingdom because the victory of Christ has already been won. (Mt 16:18)
I also could never walk away from the faith because at every single Catholic Mass I know, believe, and understand that a miracle is taking place by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that the same sacrifice that took place at Calvary is being re-presented upon the altar (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1366). Christ appears to me in a tiny, white host hidden before my eyes, and I am able to receive Him really and truly. Once we know the truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist how can we leave it behind?
I am truly thankful in words that I can hardly describe, for my pastor, who without any hesitation was there for me in my time of sorrow and grief right before I had to leave the convent and when I returned to the secular world. I remember feeling such heartache when my fate in the community was so uncertain, and when I was being ostracized by the Mother Superior and my novice mistress. I hadn’t been permitted to have any kind of spiritual direction or even write a letter to a priest. And I was harassed before and after Confession by my novice mistress warning me that she knew I was talking about her in the Confessional, and making her look bad. Sister timed me in the Confessional. I was provided with the opportunity during my last retreat there to schedule spiritual direction with the priest, who was the retreat master, but since my novice mistress was in charge of the scheduling, and would have seen my name, I was too afraid of retaliation by her to meet with Father.
Two days before my departure I remember during my morning walk looking upward, and asking God to please send a priest to help me, that I needed a priest. The same afternoon during recreation my novice mistress came to me and with a bitter and angry tone said, “One of your priests is here.” God answered my heartfelt and desperate prayer. It took everything I had to not burst into tears when I opened the door to see my pastor sitting there; I could not believe my eyes. God did not just send any priest to me, he sent my pastor, the shepherd of my soul. I knew it was no coincidence that my pastor, who I had not seen or spoken to since my home visit the year before, was now present before me at the convent.
When I left the convent it was difficult for me to go to Mass on the first Sunday, but I wanted to be at my parish surrounded by my parish family and our priests. I sat there in the last pew with tears gushing down my face, and my chopped up hair hidden by a hat hoping that no one could see the terrible agony that I was in at that moment. I could not believe I was back in my parish, not in the way how I had imagined it as a professed sister wearing a veil and habit. After Mass my pastor led me back into the Church, and we talked for awhile. Father sincerely cared about me in a way that I knew for two years that my novice mistress never cared about me. As difficult as it was for me to even be inside of a Catholic Church why would I punish myself for the sins of another and keep myself away from Jesus and His Church?
Before we pray that more women accept the invitation to become a laborer in the vineyard, we need to pray first for a reform in many convents. I encourage more women to come forward and to share their stories, not to "attack" the religious life or religious sisters, but to expose the truth about the abuse that many women experience in the convent before they ultimately end up having to leave. Let us help bring forth a positive and fruitful change in religious life, so that it can be the admirable and resplendent vocation that the Lord intends it to be for women who give up everything to follow Him.