Throwback Thursday: Behind convent doors

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment. Today, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on June 22nd, 2016 and has been revised.

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My Life in the Convent
By Margaret Lisle Shepherd
Book and Bible House, 1946, 258 pages

Protestant books examining alleged abuse in Roman Catholic convents proliferated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these books were written by ex-nuns. Catholic spokespersons naturally categorized these books as “Puritan pornography” meant to appeal to prurient interests and accused the authors of fraud.

Margaret Lisle Shepherd

An example of the genre is “My Life in the Convent” written by Margaret Lisle Shepherd (aka Sister Magdalene Adelaide), first published in 1892. As an English girl living in India, Shepherd learns from her dying mother that her deceased father was a Catholic priest. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so years later, after she has returned to England, Shepherd herself succumbs to the advances of a determined priest. Father Egan abandons his vocation and the two enter into a common-law marriage, which produces a baby girl. Egan eventually regrets his decision and abandons his family to resume his religious calling. With no means of support, Shepherd turns to thievery. She is apprehended, but it’s too late for the baby who dies from the effects of malnutrition. After a few detours, Shepherd ends up at the penitential Convent of St. Arno’s Court in Bristol, England. It’s already a difficult existence for the contrite nuns, but Shepherd describes how priests “ministering” at the convent occasionally take advantage of their charges. After two years at the convent, Shepherd discovers a Protestant Bible and is shocked to discover the many differences between Scripture and Catholicism and decides to leave. She is given sanctuary by Salvation Army ministers and accepts Jesus Christ as her Savior. She journeys to Canada and the United States, giving her testimony on the Protestant lecture circuit and assisting Christian charitable organizations.

The book’s epilogue circumspectly alludes to the Loyal Women of American Liberty, which Shepherd founded in Boston in 1888. The LWAL was a semi-secret patriotic society which promoted nativism and Protestantism. An internet search of Shepherd and the LWAL revealed Chicago newspaper articles of the period alleging Shepherd’s “deceit and immorality” regarding her account of her previous years, leading to her resignation from the organization in 1891. She wrote this book as an answer to her growing number of Catholic and Catholic-friendly critics. Shepherd continued on the lecture circuit, but faced mounting opposition from Catholic groups. She was arrested in Columbus, Ohio in 1902 on charges of selling “lewd and obscene” books, disorderly conduct, and inciting to riot. All charges were dropped when she agreed to leave the city. Shepherd subsequently traveled to Australia where she continued her lectures on Romanism, but soon found herself sick with cancer. Returning to the U.S., she died alone and penniless in a Detroit hospital in 1903 at the age of 43.

Reprints of “My Life in the Convent” were made available for many years. My 1946 edition was published by Book and Bible House owned by L. J. King, a passionate Protestant nativist. This book may have been slightly scandalous, “adults only,” reading in 1892, but it’s certainly tamer than what we read in newspapers today about pedophile priests.

With the number of Catholic nuns rapidly declining since the 1960s, convents are becoming increasingly few and far between. But were some nuns scandalously abused and mistreated over the centuries as this book and many others claimed? There’s no doubt. The church’s mandatory celibacy discipline for its priests and nuns couldn’t erase their sexuality. Refer to the excellent “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by prize-winning, German historian, Hubert Wolf. Wolf used documentation from the vaults of the Vatican’s very own Office of the Holy Inquisition (the name was changed to the much more PR-friendly “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office”) for his research. See here for my review. For other verifiable examples of clerical turpitude one need only recall the headlines over the last thirty years dealing with predatory pedophile priests and the subsequent cover-up by the church hierarchy.

At my Catholic grammar school, I was taught by members of the Sisters of Mercy who lived in a convent adjacent to the school. I was very curious about those women who wore stiff, uncomfortable medieval habits and lived together in a strict community with hardly any connection to family. They wore wedding rings as a sign that they were virginal brides of Christ. People point to peculiarities of extreme religious sects, but is there anything more cultish than a convent full of nuns? These women were attempting to merit their salvation through great personal sacrifice and pious religious devotion. But in nine years of schooling, the sisters never once mentioned to us the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone as taught in God’s Word. Instead, they taught us the Catholic formula of salvation through the sacraments administered by the priests followed by obedience to the Ten Commandments (impossible!) and church rules. It was all about ritual, formalism, and religious legalism.

The nuns were not happy women. We students saw a side of them that our parents and adult parishioners were not privy to. There is no peace in religious striving. No one can possibly obey the Ten Commandments. The Law only condemns us as the sinners we are. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith alone. He paid the penalty for your sins and He’s waiting for you to receive Him as Savior.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” – Revelation 3:20

Note from 2021: Emboldened by the #MeToo Movement, many nuns have come forward to report being abused by priests. Watch a 10-minute PBS video on the topic here.

28 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Behind convent doors

  1. Hi Tom, yes, I remember reading some books authored by former priests and nuns in my early years of being a Christian. Our province of Quebec has a long and checkered legacy of totalitarian like control over the general populace that has largely backfired over the last thirty years or so. It’s a most difficult minefield to manoeuvre through, both as a priest or nun or even as a common Catholic and I do not envy them. I’ve met a couple of sincere priests over the years that seemed to manage the mental maneuvering that is required to walk with Jesus, but that was more in the line with “in spite of” rather than “because of”. Of course, our own broad Protestant history is also not without numerous off ramps of humanistic endeavours to gain power and control either. Like the story of Margaret Shepherd illustrates, there are many sad stories to be told. Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bruce. Yup, there were/are many disturbing/revolting movements and events in “Protestant” church history, including the current NAR cult, but the RCC’s mandatory celibacy rule for clergy had particularly evil consequences.
      I have read several testimonies of ex-priests who confessed that they had genuinely accepted Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone while still priests. But their position was untenable and they eventually had to leave because of the RCC’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

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      1. I agree, sooner or later the doctrine has to be dealt with and “overlooking” the mainstays of the system in place, can only be maintained for so long. I can’t help but feel sorry for some of them though, because of the indoctrination of fear that I believe sustains their sacramental system.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had a “personal crisis” when, as still a Catholic, I was reading the New Testament for the first time and was shocked by the irreconcilable differences between God’s Word and RC-ism. The crisis must be 100X for a priest who is totally invested in the RC system.

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  2. Thanks Tom, that book sounds like very interesting reading. In recent times I have come across a support group in England for children of priests. There are so many of them! Very often their fathers hurtfully choose to ignore their very existence but with the advent of DNA testing that has become more difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. The scandal of priests fathering children has been completely overshadowed by the pedophile priest scandal. I recall the younger priests at my childhood enjoying the attention and hugs of the older teen girls.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David. I imagine this was quite a “problem” back in the day when there were a lot more convents, Catholic schools, priests, and trusting, credulous Catholic young women. Besides the errors of the Catholic gospel was the evil discipline of mandatory celibacy for Catholic religious. It didn’t take a genius to anticipate the “fallout” from such a system.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mandy. It’s difficult to consider the very large number of credulous, trusting young women who entered convents over the centuries only to become fish in a barrel for predators. Not to mention the false gospel they were taught.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It disgusts me that these priests have no moral or ethical conscience to think that what they were/are doing is wrong and that Holy God will absolve them for what they have done/are doing. I am a cynic, I admit it. Even if they would have been taught the true gospel, who would believe it when the religious leaders have acted in such a depraved manner? I don’t know how it is for you, but for me, one of the hardest truths for unbelievers to accept is that God is Father because the males they have met in their lives have been absolutely horrible. I have spoken with unbelievers who are grew up in the RCC but because of priests being called father cannot and will not accept that God is Father. It is just so, so, so sad. There is NO shortage of issues and abuses in the Protestant world so I am not throwing stones at one side only!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yup, there’s soooo many nominal Catholics and ex-Catholics who are turned off completely to anything spiritual because of their disgust for the RCC. There’s no denying that some individual Protestant leaders and ministers have fallen into deep sin (maybe unsaved) and have misled and abused trusting souls, but the entire RC system is corrupt from top to bottom.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post Tom, so glad that nun found the truth.
    I liken these priests, including Armenian priests, to Pharasees full of dead men’s bones. All their piety comes from outward adornments and religious rituals, phoney holiness that deceives folks.
    I don’t think we’ll ever know the utter darkness at the core of these religions. But the worst crime in my eyes is bestowing a false security of salvation, “blessing” dead men even as they’ve met their Maker and see it was all a lie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lisa Beth. The sum of all of the abuse of priestcraft over the centuries is beyond our comprehension. Yes, the worst crime was/is the foisting of the false gospel of works righteousness upon trusting souls.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Will read this shortly; answering your question: Weather in SoCal is sunny at 82 F and will be projected to be high of 88; cooler so much than the last two days where it was super hot! But not as cool as ROC. We do need the rain that you guys got!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad it cooled down for you. Not a hot summer in ROC. I’m guessing we turned on the AC around 30 days all summer, and a few days we could have easily gone without, like last night.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t think I ever read any such books before. I remember reading this boook review when you shared it a few years back (but not the time when you first posted the review I believe). You are right its probably more tame now that we know more of the sexual predators and sexual frustration in hardcore legalism and double life…sigh. Thanks for this review and neat to see you point to the Gospel!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, brother! These books published back in the 19th and early-20th centuries were just tips of the iceberg as the subsequent revelations about church-run residences in Ireland and Canada have shown.

      RE: the sexual predators and sexual frustration in hardcore legalism and double life

      Good way of putting it. The RCC created a monster by imposing celibacy,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup, the general public dismissed these 19th century “convent escape narrative” books as anti-Catholic fantasy but the well-documented scandals of the past 30 years eclipse them.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “The nuns were not happy women. We students saw a side of them that our parents and adult parishioners were not privy to.” That’s true.

    The nuns who taught at my grammar school were called the “Daughters of Wisdom”. The affiliated church was St. Mary Gate of Heaven. It’s a miracle that we all came out of RC.

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    1. Hmm. Daughters of Wisdom. I had never heard of that order. I googled it and I see it was founded by “saint” Louis-Marie de Montfort. I definitely recognize that he name. He took Mariolatry to the next level. I imagine you got a lot of Marian devotions from those nuns.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was very “Mary” centered. I had to have learned it in my RC religious education as a child although I don’t remember the details . My devotion to Mary really increased during the time I was in the Catholic Charismatic renewal as an adult.

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