Home > Called Out of Darkness(5)

Called Out of Darkness(5)
Author: Anne Rice

Before I move on in time, let me deal with school.

Chapter Four

I started the first grade in St. Alphonsus School on St. Andrew Street and Constance in the neighborhood called the Irish Channel. This was a world away from our home on St. Charles Avenue and Philip Street, but only because the five blocks between us took one through the beautiful mansions of the Garden District, from the noise of St. Charles Avenue, to the treeless sun-baked streets of the working-class neighborhood where some of my ancestors had been born. The Irish Channel was at that time still a blue-collar-class neighborhood and the Catholic schools that educated the children were large parish schools.

There were two separate grade schools, as one originally had been for the children of German immigrants and the other was for the children of the Irish, but by my time, immigrant distinctions were largely submerged and how parents made the choice of schools and religious orders I didn't know.

I only knew that I was going to St. Alphonsus, staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, and that my two aunts were both Sisters of Mercy, and that this was our school. My mother had gone there, in the very same building, many years before.

The uniforms were simple: any kind of white cotton blouse, and any kind of navy blue skirt. Everyone wore brown string shoes. The children of the parish were entirely too poor to have any fancier uniform than this. Prim little girls had navy blue sweaters and pleated skirts. Poorer children wore what they had. Everybody was supposed to have a blue beanie. If you didn't have a beanie on your head, you weren't supposed to go into church. No woman with an uncovered head ever went into church. And no man went in without taking off his hat.

The boys had nothing to do with our world. They were in their own schools, staffed, it seemed to me, by much harsher and rougher sisters who slapped them often in an endless struggle to make them behave. We caught glimpses of them and their fearsome teachers when we assembled for church.

At a distance, they seemed loud and noisy and disruptive, and infinitely more rambunctious than girls.

We were a classroom of forty little girls with a young teacher, Sister Mary Hyacinth, and the first thing I did when I was introduced to this sister, was tell this sister that my name was Anne.

Up until that time I'd been called Howard Allen, which was in fact my name. I had been named after my father, Howard, and after my mother, as her maiden name was Allen, and each of her daughters carried that name as well.

My parents had insisted on this startlingly unusual name for me even when the baptizing priest objected that there was no St. Howard, and insisted that the name Frances be added, as there was a St. Frances indeed. But I never knew as a little girl that I had the name of Frances, any more than I knew that I'd been born on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, a saint I came to love more than any other saint.

What I did know was that my parents thought the male name of Howard was going to be a great asset to me, and they also believed that I was going to do great things.

I hated it. Children on my block had always objected vigorously to this name. "That's a boy's name." I didn't like the sound of it. If it had been Mark Antonio, or Celestino, I might have loved it. Sidney, Valentino, Louis Philippe, any name of that sort, I might have tolerated. But Howard Allen was the ugliest, most confusing, jarring and burdensome name imaginable, and I parked it at the door. I walked away from it into the name of Anne.

My mother went along with it. If she wants to be called Anne, she said, then call her Anne. Sister Hyacinth was amused. And later on at recess, when I told my sister Alice, who was always called Suzie, that I wanted to be Anne, she started calling me Anne. This was a highly influential moment. If my sister had made war on this name, the war might have been won. But she accepted it with a near eerie wisdom and thenceforth called me Anne until she died.

Every now and then over the years, she'd slip and call me Howard Allen but it was never intentional, and probably she wasn't even aware of it, and I didn't mark it either.

But that recess where I encountered her in the alien school yard and she addressed me as Anne was decisive.

As for the building and the yard, they seemed ancient.

The highly polished steps in the school building were so old that they were worn concave and the nail heads were slightly raised though still sunk deep in the waxed wood. The stairs had beautifully carved banisters. As for the yard it was vast, sprawling, and plain with nothing much that I recall except a fig tree at one end surrounded by benches, and a chain-link fence along the street. There was an overhang under which we could play during the rain. And through the windows we could peep secretively into the sisters' dining room where they were ranged down a long table, saying their Grace Before Meals with folded hands, or actually eating their meal.

To see a sister eat her meal in those days was something that wasn't supposed to happen. Nuns went everywhere by twos, they did not drive automobiles, and they never ate or drank in public at all. So this peeping in the windows was quick when it happened, and all I recall were shadowy shapes.

Let me take this opportunity to say something about the nuns of this era. I went through four years with the Sisters of Mercy in this building. And later I went through four years with the Sisters of Mercy at Holy Name of Jesus School uptown. All these nuns, except for Sister Hyacinth, were older women, and they worked almost unbelievably hard. Some of them were ancient; all were extremely self-sacrificing with lives completely devoted to teaching; they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They wore heavy ornate black habits, with extraordinarily stiff white wimples, and negotiated every gesture and task in spite of voluminous deep black sleeves. They lived their whole lives in the convent buildings. If they had vacations I knew nothing about them.

And if they possessed anything for themselves I never saw any evidence of it. It was understood by us that they lived as celibate and dedicated religious because their work for God required this, and they were perceived as Brides of Christ in their purity and single-minded devotion. Their names tended to be otherworldly: Sister Annunciata; Sister Bernard; Sister Damien; Sister Francesca; Sister Beatrice; Sister Therese Marie.

Later in high school, I was immeasurably helped and guided by members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

These were younger women, highly educated, and extremely refined. They were from the North. And I remember them as extraordinarily patient with my eccentricities, rebelliousness, and general determination to be a great person, rather than a good student. These nuns were also extremely kind to my sister Alice, who, though she had a genius IQ, did poorly in school. They even sent her to a state competition in history, in which she placed second. And normally, a student as poor as my sister would never have been given such an opportunity.

They saw her abilities and they valued her for them. And when my sister placed high in that competition, she was overjoyed.

I remember particularly Sister Caroline, and the principal, Sister Caroleen.

All nuns of these years were exquisitely dressed. Almost every order had its distinctive soft fine black wool robes and its own particular and elaborate headdress. They were decidedly medieval in appearance, and effortlessly grand.

Even the Little Sisters of the Poor, who dressed somewhat more simply than others, wore beautiful white caps with ruf-fled edges, and lovely loose-hooded black mantles.

All nuns covered their hair entirely. And usually their necks were covered as well.

I recall them as an ebullient people, intensely interested in their charges and as having great authority. In sum, they educated the Catholics of my generation - male and female in the highly complex teachings of the Catholic Church, and they taught not only grade school but high school. The Dominican sisters taught college.

There were teaching brothers and teaching priests, most notably the Jesuits, but the nuns staffed the countless parish schools of the country, and to them fell the responsibility for thousands of Catholic minds. When I look back on it, I have only the deepest respect for their remarkable self-discipline and the difficult life that they had chosen, and their full commitment to it. The example they set for me was one of independence and strength, because even though they weren't so friendly to my independence and strength, they were remarkable women themselves.

There are great stories to be written about these nuns - about how their various orders were formed, and how these orders often fought with the male hierarchy of the church to gain the freedom to minister directly to the people, at times when the hierarchy wanted to put these sisters in cloisters and keep them out of the active world.

The brilliant historian Diarmaid McCulloch writes a good deal about this in his huge and comprehensive work, The Reformation. And no doubt there are many other books written, and to be written. Recently, the author Kenneth Briggs published a book called Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. But Mr. Briggs' work covers a period of church history after Vatican II, and a time when I was estranged from the church, and a long way from the period I'm describing here.

As a child, I wasn't aware of the battles the great mother superiors had fought in past centuries; or of the strange tension that existed between powerful nuns and male clergy.

I wasn't aware of the tension that had sometimes existed between great female saints and male clergy - except, of course, for the tragic story of Joan of Arc. The interplay of nuns and priests appeared seamless to me in my childhood, a world shared by male and female religious. And one cannot exag-gerate the striking power of the nuns of those years.

In this realm in which I'd been brought up, being a nun or a priest was deemed to be much better than being married or being single. It was understood that a dedicated, and celibate, nun or priest could come to understand things mystically that no nonvirginal person could aspire to grasp.

We were privileged to have two aunts that were nuns, and we were keenly aware of it. Sister Mary Immaculate, Aunt Anna Mae, was my father's sister, and she was a nurse. In fact, I believe that she was the superintendent of nurses at Mercy Hospital for many years. We saw her often because she lived all her life in New Orleans, and she died in Mercy Hospital in the 1970s. Only after her death did I hear that she had gone blind when she was a child, and had promised to become a nun if her sight was restored. After the restoration she made good on her promise. She had an especially beautiful smile, this aunt, and that's perhaps why I still connect the basket of flowers with her name.

Our older aunt, Sister Mary Liguori, Aunt Helen, was my grandmother's sister, and the last of thirteen children.

Her field was education and she spent most of her life in Bethesda, Maryland. When Aunt Helen came to town, we were bathed, dressed up, and sent to visit her, and I remember being much in awe of her, of her seriousness and her directness. She lived until the 1990s, and died in her sleep, during noon Mass, in the infirmary of Mercy Hospital. That my young son, Christopher, born in 1978, had come to know Aunt Helen, even briefly, was a great joy to me.

As children, we were proud, too, of the fact that my father had received his exceptional education in the Redemptorist Seminary at Kirkwood, Missouri, because he had wanted to become a priest. As far as I know, no one ever criticized my father for his decision not to become a priest, and he was a deeply devoted Catholic all his life. He belonged to an organization called the Holy Name Men, one of many such organizations in the parish, and he went out on Sundays with our uncle Cecil Murphy to visit the elderly and care for the needy of the parish. Over the years, my father told me several different stories as to why he didn't become a priest. One thing is certain: his education by the Redemptorist Fathers changed the entire course of his life. He was one of nine children who had grown up in one half of a double house one block from the river and its noisy railroad tracks. And he came home from the seminary a well-spoken, well-educated man.

Both priests and nuns were the guardian angels of my Catholic childhood. And they were, in the main, gentle with the girls, as I've indicated, though we did now and then glimpse them being quite ferocious with the boys. I can't look back on those times without feeling a special reverence for those in religious life; and happily, I remember how beautifully visible they were in the Catholic city of New Orleans, nuns in pairs, riding free on the streetcars and buses, and the priests often wearing their full-length black cassocks, with large rosaries hanging from their broad leather belts.

I felt a special kinship for the Redemptorist Fathers. They had educated my father. And they were our priests. They were passionate in their sermons, and frequently their sermons were events. I remember being riveted by the description of how the Romans had martyred a young male saint. And I recall the passionate anti-Communist words spoken from the pulpit. I don't know how many priests there were in our parish, except there were a great number and they were always busy, coming and going from the rectory on Constance Street, saying Masses in two giant churches and in one nearby chapel, and hearing Confessions from an enormous body of parishioners on Friday nights. I remember names like Father McCarthy, Father O'Connoll, Father Flynn, Father Greenberg, Father Steffens, Father Baudry, Father Dillenbeck, Father Toups. I don't remember anyone ever calling a priest by his first name in those days. And I never heard the slightest word of scandal regarding these men. In fact, it's almost impossible to believe there was any scandal. And perhaps in those days, in that parish, there was not.

Let me return now to that first school building.

There were two lush and lovely gardens attached to this property, one on either side of the main building, and we did often pass through one of these gardens to go into the music room. The other was the nuns' garden, and that was a matter for peeping again.

I have one special and radiant memory connected to the garden by the music room. We were passing there one day, perhaps to go to sing in preparation for a school pageant, when we came upon a group of older girls who were gathered there because they were making a "Retreat." Now a Retreat is a period of a few days during which one remains totally silent, and prays and listens to sermons on religious matters; there were closed Retreats at Retreat Houses to which Catholics went where they remained under strict rules of silence both day and night. And there were open Retreats which we made at some point during the school year.

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