Behind convent doors

My Life in the ConventMYL
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” and accused the authors of fraud.

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 reports 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 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. I only hope she had genuinely accepted Christ as her Savior.

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 quite tame by 2016 standards.

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 through faith 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. 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

Mother Angelica, Catholic icon, dies at 92

Catholic apologists love to point to the wide diversity within Protestantism with itsMA large number of denominations and a growing number of non-denominational churches. But while evangelical Christians might disagree on many secondary doctrinal issues, we are united in our belief in the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Unfortunately, several of the mainline Protestant denominations slipped into apostasy and unbelief long ago.

Catholicism likes to present itself as the “one true church,” united in faith behind the pope but the reality is quite different. Catholic belief ranges the full spectrum from the super-liberal to the  ultra-traditionalist. The vast majority of Catholics (76%) do not attend mandatory weekly mass or yearly confession (88%).

Speaking of Catholic traditionalists, I see that Mother Mary Angelica (aka Rita Rizzo) passed away yesterday, Easter Sunday, at the age of 92. She was the driving force in the creation of the EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) Catholic media conglomerate. Her pithy, no-nonsense commentary attracted a devoted following among conservative Catholics. There is little doubt that her admirers will soon be petitioning the church hierarchy to begin the process to elevate Mother Angelica to sainthood.

Many uninformed evangelical Christians might take a quick look at the life of Mother Angelica and conclude, “Of course this woman was a devoted Christian. Despite her quirky and unbiblical Catholic distinctives, she obviously loved the Lord and devoted her entire life to Him.”

Unfortunately, the “gospel” taught by Mother Angelica was not the Good News of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. She believed, like all traditional Catholics do, that salvation is by baptism and by participating in the church’s other sacraments and by obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules. She had an especially strong devotion to Mary and believed that Mary’s intercession was vital to salvation. Most people will remember her for leading the praying of the rosary to Mary on EWTN broadcasts. However, Mother Angelica also supported her church’s position that people of all religious faiths could be saved if they “followed the light they were given” and “lived good upright lives.”

Through her media empire, Mother Angelica has led many away from the genuine Gospel of grace through faith to a gospel of sacramental grace and merit earned by “good” works. Catholics are being misled from following the narrow way of Jesus Christ as the only hope of salvation and have, instead, been given a wide-is-the-way religion which mentions God, Jesus, faith, and grace but is actually one of the false, works-righteousness religions going back to Cain.

 

Doubt

Doubt (2008)doubt

Directed by John Patrick Shanley and starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the no-nonsense principal of a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx in 1964. The stern, ice-blooded nun exacts swift discipline on the children without a drop of charity. Young Sister James (Adams), a sweet-hearted, new teacher at the school, has yet to become hardened and embittered by her circumstances.

A new priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman), arrives at the parish and Sister Aloysius takes an immediate dislike to his liberal ways. When Sister James confides to Sister Aloysius that she suspects Flynn is sexually abusing a twelve-year-old male student, the principal sets a determined course to have the priest removed from the parish.

This is a riveting film from start  to finish. Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Davis all give outstanding, Oscar-nominated performances. Shanley’s fine script also received an Oscar nomination. Did Flynn actually molest the boy? The audience is left guessing. What about the priest’s pride in his long fingernails? Absolutely twisted! Actually, the notions of celibate nuns in convents and celibate priests in rectories are beyond creepy. Christians point to the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as being cults but is there a religious practice more cultish than a convent full of virgin women? Only social conditioning prevents such a practice from being seen as the outrageously aberrant arrangement that it is. And we’ve all been made aware of the damage done by “celibate” pedophile priests and the cover-up by the church hierarchy.

I was baptized as an infant into the Catholic church and attended parochial grammar and high school. I can personally attest to the frustration and unhappiness of the nuns, priests, and brothers who were supposed to be our guides and examples. Many of us who came in frequent contact with the Catholic clergy back in those days knew they were troubled souls. As I watched this film my heart broke for the victims of predatory clerics.

As a young adult I began reading the Bible and eventually abandoned the works-based religion of men and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. Catholicism gives lip service to grace and faith but ultimately it’s a works-based church which teaches justification before God comes through its sacraments and by obeying the Ten Commandments (impossible!).

I’m so grateful for the free gift of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone as taught by the Bible and Bible-believing, evangelical churches. This film brought to mind all the poor souls blinded by the legalism and empty ritualism of Catholicism. When Sister Aloysius cries out at the end of the movie that she doubts her  religion she voices the uncertainty and joylessness of everyone who attempts to merit their own salvation. Convents are now largely a thing of the past but Catholics are still attempting to earn their way to Heaven.

We all waste a lot of our time with mindless television shows and films. “Doubt” is a must-see. You can stream “Doubt” from Amazon for the price of a Starbucks coffee or order the DVD for the price of two cups.

180 Years Ago, Everyone Knew Her Name

Murder, Rape, and Torture in a Catholic Nunnery: Maria Monk’s Awful DisclosuresMRN Proven True
By Edward Hendrie
Great Mountain Publishing, 2015, 254 pages

I attended a Catholic parochial school for nine years where I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy. Every day I walked by the convent connected to the school and wondered about the mysterious building and the nuns who lived inside. What was their routine? How did they co-exist with their fellow sisters. In the school building we students were sometimes privy to unpleasant exchanges between the sisters.

Nuns and convents were such an integral part of Catholic parish culture back in those days that we didn’t even think twice about them. But is there anything more cultish than a large group of unmarried virgins living together as “brides of Christ” replete with wedding rings?

Convent escape narratives were quite popular in 19th and early 20th century Protestant literature. Ex-nuns reported blushingly-veiled accounts of abuse, torture, murder, unnatural affections, predatory nuns, predatory priests, and infanticide. Catholic spokespersons called the books “Puritan porn,” dismissing them completely as anti-Catholic fantasy. But given human nature and the mandatory celibacy of religious orders it’s certainly not surprising that abuses took place. Catholic apologists had no response to the 2015 non-fiction bestseller, “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal,” by distinguished German historian, Hubert Wolf, which documents murder and large-scale mischief in just one Italian convent in the 1850s. See my review here. Also, we’re all aware of the scandalous news reports of pedophile priests over the last twenty years. A number of Catholic dioceses and organizations have been bankrupted by payouts to victims.

One of the earliest and the most famous of the convent escape narratives was “The Awful Disclosure of Maria Monk: The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed,” published in 1836 and having the distinction of being the most-read book in America (besides the Bible) before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, selling a record 300,000 copies prior to 1860. The general public was outraged by Monk’s allegations of abuse, debauchery, murder, and infanticide within the walls of the Hotel-Dieu (a hospital) convent in Montreal. Catholic officials responded by mounting a determined attack on Monk’s testimony and character while Protestants defended her with equal tenacity. What was the truth?

In this book, attorney Edward Hendrie examines the published “evidence” from both sides of the controversy and concludes Monk’s story was factual. Obviously, after 180 years, there is no evidence remaining of Monk’s account other than the published testimonies of long-dead individuals who claimed they knew her. Hendrie draws some very reasonable conclusions based on the available facts. There is no doubt where his sympathies lie from the very first page but at least the book represents a balance to the widely accepted Catholic accounts of Monk in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

I occasionally wonder what happened to the nuns who taught at my school so many years ago. They entered the convent believing such an austere life would bring them closer to God. But the only way to God is by accepting Jesus Christ as Savior by faith. The institutionalized church borrowed the idea of unmarried virgins dedicated to deity and living together in convents from pagan Rome. See here.

A note to the reader: Mr. Hendrie has also written several books which advocate a conspiratorial view of Jews and the nation of Israel. Such material may be found in both Protestant hyper-fundamentalist and Catholic hyper-fundamentalist circles. I do not endorse or recommend those books.

20 Former Nuns Who Left Catholicism and Accepted Jesus Christ

The Truth Set Us Free: Twenty Former Nuns Tell Their Stories of God’s Amazing Gracedownload

By Richard Bennett

Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010, 237 pages

Richard Bennett, ex-Catholic priest and director of the Berean Beacon ministry, presents the testimonies of twenty former nuns who left behind the legalism and ritualism of Roman Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith. The personal accounts average only about eleven pages each so there’s not a lot of detail about Catholic theology but each testimony is a blessing.

When Christians refer to “cults” they usually have Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in mind but can there be a practice more “cultish” than a convent full of virgin women who believe they are married to Jesus Christ, replete with wedding rings? The inspiration for the Catholic convent was the convent of the vestal virgins of pagan Rome.

All of the twenty nuns joined their religious “orders” with high expectations, believing they were pleasing God by earning their salvation through self-denial and ritualism but they found no joy or contentment in the convent. All were introduced to the Word of God and were saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. These women gave up the only life they knew to follow Christ but what Christian can look back with regret at the corrupt things of this world when the glory of our Savior is before us?

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” – Philippians 3:7-9

I attended a Catholic grammar school back in the 1960s and was taught by nuns belonging to the Sisters of Mercy order. Our parents assumed the nuns were shining examples of love and contentment but we students witnessed those women as they really were; troubled souls who sometimes vented their frustration, anger, and cruelty on their charges. Sisters Imelda, Annunciata, Tarcisius, Gemma, Maryanne, and Virgina, whatever became of you? Were you somehow able to cut through through the legalism and ritualism you taught to us and find the Savior?

Convents are few and far between these days. The great majority of Catholics can’t even bother to attend mass on Sunday let alone take up a religious vocation. In 1965 there were 180,000 nuns in the United States but by 2006 there were only 67,000. By 2014 the number had dropped to 50,000.

Yup, convents were cultish but where’s Jesus in all this?

Forgotten Women in Conventsfwc

By Helen Conroy

Christ’s Mission, 1960

Protestant books examining alleged abuse in Roman Catholic convents proliferated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Forgotten Women in Convents” by ex-nun, Helen Conroy aka Sister Mary Ethel, was originally published in 1946 and was one of the last books of this once-popular genre. The 1960 edition I purchased several months ago was published by Christ’s Mission, a Protestant evangelization ministry to Roman Catholics, as part of a tidal wave of anti-Catholic literature that swept the nation leading up to the Kennedy-Nixon presidential election.

On the plus side, Conroy offers many valuable insights into how the Catholic church lured girls and young women into its nunneries and how it discouraged them from ever leaving. Evangelicals’ antennae go up if you mention the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses but is there anything more cultish than a Catholic convent? As Conroy points out, Catholicism adopted the idea of virgin women completely dedicated to God from pagan religions for its own purposes. Of course, extremely few Catholic women are joining convents these days and many of those who do will enjoy freedoms unimaginable to the nuns of Conroy’s era.

On the minus side – and this is a HUGE minus – Conroy never once alludes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Does she just assume her Protestant readers have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior? In her exodus from Rome did Conroy ever accept Christ? There’s no testimony of that being the case in this book. There’s quite a bit of criticism of Catholicism’s treatment of its nuns as being antithetical to American freedoms but there is no mention of how Catholic works-righteousness ritualism is opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In its surprisingly Christ-less approach “Forgotten Women in Convents” reminds me quite a bit of a very popular anti-Catholic bestseller from the same period, “American Freedom and Catholic Power” (1949) by atheist Paul Blanshard.

See my earlier blog for a list of “convent escape narratives.”

Nuns Gone Wild!

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandalnun

by Hubert Wolf

Knopf, 2015, 496 pages.

Protestant literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries abounded with “convent escape narratives,” first-hand accounts of abuse and debauchery in Roman Catholic convents as reported by ex-nuns. Naturally, the veracity of these reports was attacked by Catholic apologists who dismissed the books as “Puritan pornography.” Now we have “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal” by award-winning German historian, Hubert Wolf. From the archives of the Office of the Holy Inquisition, opened for the first time to scholars only as recently as 1998, Wolf gives us this tale of fraudulent mysticism, struggle for power, lesbianism, fornication, and murder all within the walls of this single Rome convent in the 1850s.

It’s ironic that the sheer vileness of what transpired in this convent from the pages of official Catholic sources far eclipses those Victorian-age, blushingly restrained and inexplicit Protestant accounts. Perhaps even more interesting than the nuns’ tawdry behavior is how the scandal was used as a pawn by competing factions within the Catholic church at the time; Dominicans vs. Jesuits, Modernists vs. New Scholastics. A few reviewers gave this book low grades complaining it was too dry. Perhaps from the title they were hoping for something a bit more bawdy? Quite the contrary, I found “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio” to be an extremely well-written, well-researched history. Very rare is a history book that presents such a complex subject in such a readable, illuminating fashion.

Traditionalist Catholics may be offended by the revelations of what transpired behind the convent walls of Sant’Ambrogio and by the subsequent political machinations both inside and outside of the Vatican. There’s no doubt that similar diabolical debaucheries took place in countless other Catholic convents and rectories (and bishops’ palaces and at the Vatican) throughout the ages fueled by the church’s unnatural rule of celibacy for its clergy. Reports of pedophile priests abusing children have been in the headlines for the last twenty years.

After Christianity was adopted as the state religion by the Roman Empire the church quickly became institutionalized and “faith” for most of its members meant adherence to religious ritual and legalism. In general, Catholics are taught salvation is through the administration of the seven sacraments, all tightly controlled by the clergy, and by obeying the Ten Commandments and church rules. Asceticism became the rule for many of the religious orders leading to expressions of fanatical mysticism of the type exhibited by the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio. In contrast, God’s Word tells us salvation is only by the grace of God through simple faith in Jesus Christ.

Below are some of the previously mentioned Protestant accounts of convent abuse. Most are available through Amazon.com as reprints.

* Six Months in a Convent, or the Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed, Who Was Under the Influence of the Roman Catholics About Two Years, and an Inmate … Nearly Six Months, in the Years 1831-2 (1835) by Rebecca Theresa Reed

* The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a 51yypECGPVLNovice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal (1836) by Maria Monk

* The testimony of an escaped novice from the Sisterhood of St. Joseph, Emmettsburg, Maryland: the mother-house of the Sisters of charity in the United States (1855) by Josephine M. Bunkley

* Life in the Grey Nunnery at Montreal: An authentic narrative of the horrors, mysteries, and cruelties of convent life by Sarah J. Richardson, an escaped nun (1857) by Sarah J. Richardson

* Personal Experience of Roman Catholicism with Incidents of Convent Life (1864) by Eliza Smith Richardson

* The Mysteries of the Neapolitan Convents: With a Brief Sketch of the Early Life of the Authoress (1867) by Enrichetta Caracciolo

* Almost a Nun (1868) by Julia McNair Wright

* The Convent Horror: Twenty-one Years in the Dungeon, Eight Feet Long, Six Feet Wide from Official Records (1869) by Barbara Ubryk

* The Veil Lifted or The Romance and Reality of Convent Life (1869) by Eliza Smith Richardson

* The Way Out; or, Rescued from a Convent (1877) by Justin D. Fulton

* My life in the convent: Or, the marvelous personal experiences of Margaret L. Shepherd, consecrated penitent of the Arno’s Court Convent, Bristol, England (1892) by Margaret Lisle Shepherd

* Convent Cruelties: Or How Girls Become the Brides of Christ (1912) by Henry A. Sullivan

* Behind Convent Bars (1912) by William Lloyd Clark

* Convent Life Unveiled: The Trials and Persecutions of Edith O’Gorman (otherwise known as Sister Theresa de Chantal) (1913) by Edith O’Gorman

* The Escaped Nun: The Story of Her Life (1913) by Margaret Mary Moult

* The Martryr in Black – The Saddest Bride on Earth: Twenty Years of Convent Life of “Sister Justina, O.S.B.” (1913) by Anna M. Lowry

* Rome’s Awful Persecutions of Anna M. Lowry (1914) by Anna M. Lowry

* Convent cruelties, or, My life in a convent: A providential delivery from Rome’s convent slave pens; a sensational experience (1919) by Helen Barnouski Jackson

* My Convent Life (1928) by Flora Tillman

* Convent Secrets or An Autobiography of a Former Nun (1932) by Gertrude Frances Healy

* Forgotten Women in Convents (1946) by Helen Conroy (Sister Mary Ethel)

More recent books which detail convent abuse:

* The Light in the Window (2005) by June Goulding

* Rock Me Gently: A True Story of a Convent Childhood (2006) by Judith Kelly

* Childhood Interrupted: Growing Up Under the Cruel Regime of the Sisters of Mercy (2006) by Kathleen O’Malley

* Suffer the Little Children: The Harrowing True Story of a Girl’s Brutal Convent Upbringing (2010) by Frances Reilly

* Children of the Poor Clares: The Collusion between Church and State that Betrayed Thousands of Children in Ireland’s Industrial Schools (2012) by Heather Laskey and Mavis Arnold