Nuns: An Endangered Species?

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The Abbess was of noble blood

Catholic Sisters of Mercy; four biological sisters.The nun on the right was the closest Anne Frandi-Coory came to a mother figure; her face is the one she remembers as an infant in a Catholic Orphanage nursery. (see ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’)

But early took the veil and hood

Ere upon life she cast a look

Or knew the world that she forsook

Fair too she was, and kind had been

As she was fair, but ne’er had seen

For her a timid lover sigh

Nor knew the influence of her eye

Love, to her ear, was but a name

Combined with vanity and shame

Her hopes, her fears, her joys, were all

Bounded within the cloister wall:

The deadliest sin her mind could reach

Was of monastic rule the breach;

And her ambition’s highest aim

To emulate St Hilda’s fame

For this she gave her ample dower,

To raise the convent’s eastern tower;

For this, with carving rare and quaint,

She decked the chapel of the saint,

And gave the relic-shrine of cost,

With ivories and gems embost.

The poor her convent’s bounty blest,

The pilgrim in its halls found rest.

Black was her garb, her rigid rule

Reformed on Benedictine school;

Her cheek was pale, her form was spare;

Vigils, and penitence austere,

Had early quenched the life of youth,

But gentle was the dame in Sooth

From: Sir Walter Scott, ‘Marmion’, The Immolation of Constance De Beverley

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My mother was a defeated nun and a defeated mother. She entered a convent to escape the inescapable: LIFE.  (See Previous Post: My Mother Was A Catholic Nun. 

For hundreds of years, young women and girls have been entering convents for various reasons.  Fathers and other patriarchs sent unmarriageable or unmanageable daughters into a cloistered life. Daughters whose mothers had died were also sentenced to life imprisonment, with or without their consent.

“A Drama of Science, Faith and Love”

Even Galileo, that illustrious 17th Century  scientist, and devout Catholic, confined his eldest daughter from the age of thirteen (1616)  to San Matteo convent in Arcetri.  His daughter, Virgina was deemed unmarriageable because her father had never married her mother, the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice. Virginia (Sister Maria Celeste) lived out her life in poverty and seclusion in the convent (Order of St Clare) , as did her younger sister, Livia. Unlike Virginia, very little is heard from, or about, the “silent and strange” Livia.   Virginia  lost all her teeth by age 27  because of her lack of a nutritious diet.  It is worth reading  ‘Galileo’s Daughter’ by Dava Sobel, a gifted author, for more on these remarkable lives.  We know so much about Galileo and Virginia because of the correspondence between the two.  Ms Sobel also covers the horror of Galileo’s life and his banishment to house arrest in Ravenna, at the hands of the Holy Inquisition headed by Pope Paul V.

The Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri, was exiled from his beloved Florence in the early 14th Century by Pope Boniface Vlll (Cardinal Caetani), with support from the French.  Dante’s only daughter, Antonia, was confined to a convent in Ravenna where he was living at the time in 1320.  Antonia took the name Sister Beatrice, the name of Dante’s beloved.

In this day and age, the numbers of young Catholic women wishing to give up their freedom “for God” is dwindling.

What is worrying is that sexual harassment and abuse from priests and bishops continues, particularly in third world countries.  Rape is common because the clergy believe these nuns to be free from aids, unlike prostitutes. If the nuns’ abuse is uncovered, or they become pregnant, they are the ones to be thrown out onto the roads.

(See previous post  ‘Kiss of Betrayal’)

In an extreme case of double standards, always rife in the catholic Church, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Arizona was excommunicated because she approved an emergency abortion last year to save the life of a critically ill young patient.  Imagine the hundreds of  sexually abused girls and boys who could have been spared lives of misery, if paedophile priests had been excommunicated and reported to police, instead of being shifted around from parish to parish?

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From the pen of  The Ethical Nag The Vatican has now launched an “apostolic visitation,” or investigation, of every one of America’s 60,000 religious sisters, accused with having what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls “a feminist spirit” and “a secular mentality”. At a time when the male leadership can be blamed for bringing the church to a state of global crisis, even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have come under attack from these men.

Not surprisingly, the appeal of joining a Catholic religious order as a career choice is plummeting. Fewer than 4% of North American Catholic women have even considered becoming a nun, according to 2008 data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. And that’s less than half the number compared to just five years earlier.

And no wonder. Dr. Tina Beattie, who teaches Catholic Studies at Roehampton University in the U.K., gives far more disturbing examples of how the Vatican treats its nuns.  For example:

“In 2001, senior leaders of women’s religious orders presented evidence to Rome of the widespread rape and abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, with a particular problem in Africa which has no cultural tradition of celibacy, and where the threat of HIV and Aids means that priests are more likely to prefer sex with nuns than with prostitutes. The Vatican acknowledged the problem and there was a brief flurry of media interest, but this is a scandal which has disappeared without a trace.”

I don’t know whether any Mercy nuns were sexually abused by Catholic clergy when I was a child  in their care, but I well remember the awe and deference the nuns exhibited in the presence of priests, bishops, and cardinals.  Once I understood the hypocrisy and double standard encouraged by the Church’s teachings, I found these displays sickening.

-Anne Frandi-Coory 3 February 2011

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