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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


This is my mother's mind boggling story, told in her own words. Someone asked me, after yesterday's post, how I knew her story. She always told us, when we were little, why she couldn't stand to see a child humiliated, or struck, or belittled. She told us a million times why she couldn't eat cream of wheat (not included in this telling) and why she loved dolls and wanted us to always feel proud in the clothes we were wearing. None of what she tells here was news to me. I've known since I can remember.

Judging from the reaction to the story, not very many other people did know.

Grab your coffee. Get a hanky.
When one thinks of children today it's easy to picture family dinners, outings at the neighborhood park and photo albums full of memories. Dorothy had none of those.
Born in Hannibal, Mo., she was dropped off at the orphanage, along with her brother and sister, by their father when she was not quite four. Dorothy's mother had died of tuberculosis, and her father couldn't care for the children. Dorothy, too, developed "consumption" as it was called then, which left her crippled.

There's one picture of her as a little girl.

One.

She is smiling in the photo, but what followed soon after that picture was taken was anything but idyllic.

But you wouldn't know that today. Dorothy is a beacon of light in an often dark world, who leaned on her faith together through tough times and harbors no ill will toward anyone.

She married Earl in 1947, and according to Dorothy the couple enjoyed a wonderful life. "I don't feel sorry for myself, because I had a wonderful marriage, I really did," Dorothy said. "My husband was wonderful to me. September the 15th we were married 60 years. He died Easter Sunday."

As a mother, with no true role model to guide her, she raised two children, and according to her son, did so admirably. "She was an excellent mother, very loving, and could not stand to see a kid get hit. Any kid, anywhere. And she can make an amazing coconut cream pie."


Dorthy speaks:


"I was born in Hannibal, and I had a brother and a sister. I'm the middle guy. Our mother died when my sister was not quite six, and I was not quite four. My brother was 18 months. And our dad put my sister and my brother in the orphanage the week after mother died. They didn't put me in the orphanage right away because I had tuberculosis. See, my mother died with consumption, and I was the only one that got the tuberculosis, and I got it in my hip. So I always walked with a limp. They had to make sure I was free of TB.

They found out my grandma was taking me with her, my dad’s mother, and she didn't know where he was either. And she was gonna take me with her to Louisiana, was where she was gonna move to. And then the Catholic side of my family -my dad wasn't Catholic, my mother was - they found that out and they didn't want me with the Protestants. Plus the fact that they said our mother always wanted us to be raised together, the three of us. So I was put in the orphanage too, then. I was not quite four years old.

The thing I remember is you came up a big flight of steps, and up at the top stood this Sister Erharta. She was called Sister Superior. And that I can remember. She says, "Well, well, well, well, well." And I remember crying like everything. They got my sister, and I remember she stayed with me, but after that I don't remember a thing 'til I started going to school when I was 5 years old. We went to school in the orphanage.

We got up at 5:30 every morning, and you made your bed. And you had a job you had to do, like mine was to clean the steps, and you did that, and you got in line to go the chapel at five minutes to six, and we had morning Mass at 6 o'clock, and then we went down to breakfast.

We went to school, all four grades had one teacher. If you missed a word in spelling, or missed a question in geography, you had to stand for supper. You didn't get any supper. They ate, and you stood over in a place while everybody ate. And if the poor kids wet the bed they didn't get any supper either. That was their punishment. I felt sorry for the kids that wet the bed.

I remember one time we had a nun, sister Lucia, she was cruel as she could be. She was in charge of the girls. And every Saturday, she said whether you needed it or not, it was "payday", and she'd give you a whipping. Until the kids started talking about it and then she quit.

But with me, we three didn't have anybody that came to see us, except an aunt that came up to see us from Hannibal maybe twice a year, and so I always, as I grew older, felt that the reason we were picked on so much is because it was to show the other kids, "Stay in line, or this is what happens." And there was another girl, Kathleen, she just passed away last week, and she was treated that way, too. (My mother's best friend, who was like a sister to her, died the day after my father's funeral.)

It just seemed like this was the way it went. One time Sister Lucia said, “... now don't tell the boys, but they're gonna have to scrub the floors today. The girls won't have to scrub," and we were all delighted. And she said, "Don't tell the boys."
So my job was to go out after you dried the dishes and lay the tea towels out on the grass, if the sun was shining, to dry. And Frances Lambert went with me, and her brother came along, Earl. And Frances said, "Hey Earl, you boys are gonna have to scrub the floor." And I said "Frances, you weren't supposed to tell that." He ran up the stairs and Sister Lucia was standing at the top of the stairs, and he said, "Is that true we're gonna have to scrub the floors?" She said, “Who told you?” And he said, "Dorothy." And I didn't, but he wouldn't tell on his sister.

And she got me, and I told her, "I did not tell him. His sister told him." She made me take my hands this way (she had to clasp her hands together and put them under her chin), and she put them under my chin and she hit me in the mouth. (repeatedly) And when she was done my lip was even with my nose. Great big cuts. And then, so the other nuns didn't see it, she wrapped a great big tea towel around me and told the other nuns, well, she told them what I had done, supposedly, and the other nuns said, "Dorothy, you always got your big mouth open, can't you ever keep it shut?" And I stood in the basement with that towel around my mouth 'til suppertime. I didn't get any dinner because my lip was so sore, she didn't want anybody to see it. Nobody knew.

My brother one time, he was always in trouble. He was mischievous. He was accused of stealing someone's fountain pen. And he said he didn't do it. And he was locked in what was called a trunk room. The nuns all had trunks. It was a long room, and they put there trunks in there. There was no window. They'd come down every now and then and let him go to the toilet. And they brought him down a plate to eat for dinner, but then he didn't get any supper. And they did that for a whole week. And then that boy found his fountain pen, and they said, "Well, that's for something you did other times and didn't get caught."

So you were really just isolated from everybody, you know? I didn't even know streets had names until I was ready to go down to grade school, in the fourth grade.

You just couldn't believe that one nun ... Sister Erharda, she ruled the roost. She came into the kitchen every day and told what we would have to eat for the day. She controlled what kinds of clothes we wore. She was like a dictator. She used to call me an ungrateful wretch. "You ungrateful wretch." And I never knew what I was supposed to be doing. You're just a kid, you know? But if you did something wrong ...

I found that praying was a source of help that I felt. That was my only safety was to be able to pray and hope that things would turn for the better. No one ever gave you a hug.

I guess I was about 14 and these two nuns had their arms around each other, dancing around the drain in the laundry floor. And I stood there, and all of a sudden they looked at me and they grabbed me and said, "We're being transferred." They were that happy about it.

I hate to tell my last name, because the nuns would say it like it was the dirtiest word in the world. "You might know it's a ______ again. Ohhhhhhh, the big mouth _______ got her big mouth open again." To this day, I hate to tell anyone my name is ________.

My mother had an aunt that lived in California, and I think I was about nine years old. And that Christmas she sent my sister and I a doll. It was a little girl doll. Oh, I just thought it was the most beautiful thing. Mine had a green dress and my sister's had a lavender dress. We each had a drawer where we kept our private things, and I'd go down and look at that doll, and put it away again.

Every year they had a picnic to raise money for the orphanage. And my sister, I guess she wanted to be in good with the nuns, she gave her doll to the Sister Superior for the picnic. They changed the dress and put tissue paper on it and were gonna sell chances on it. Well I was just sick, cause I knew I couldn't keep that doll, and I just agonized about it. After she told me what she did I could've just killed her. So I went down very reluctantly and got my doll, came up and said, "Sister Superior, here's my doll." She said, "It's about time."

When Sister Erharda died, in '39 (my mother would have been 17 years old)then we got a new Superior, Sister Ignatius. And I mean to tell you it was just as different as night and day. She was just ... I really loved her. She was so understanding, she would listen to you if you had a complaint. And little by little, I bet within a year and a half, the only nun that had been there under Sister Erhahrda, was the cook. All the rest had been changed, and they went by (Sister Ignatius') rule. And it was altogether different.

And people thought that this was a wonderful, wonderful place. I've had friends, when I tell 'em some of the stuff that happened to us, say, "Oh we just thought that was the most loving place. You kids were so happy." We weren't.

But nobody would believe that."



Honestly, as sad and awful as this all is, it is the tip of the iceberg of what happened to my mother and all those other children, day after day, year in and year out. Always on guard for the back of a hand at an imagined slight, the wrong glance, never knowing when the next beating would come or why, "hoping that it wouldn't" as she told me just yesterday, "but knowing that it would."

Sorry for the very long post. But I've always felt, as many of her recent callers have expressed, that it is a long overdue truth that needed to be told.

31 comments:

Andrea said...

Wow. It makes me so sad that so many children had to go through that hell.

And sad that your mom's family didn't take the kids in, but preferred that they go to an orphanage.

The amazing part is what a beautiful, indomitable spirit your mother has, that rather than turn her experience into anger at the world and her own children, she instead treated you with the utmost kindness, dignity & respect.

There is a special place in heaven for people like your mother!

Jenny said...

I'm truly inspired by her words. You can really feel that she went through so much.... And did something with herself... instead of falling apart....

I had the chills while reading the post, but especially when I read of the second Mother Superior. My nephew is named Ignatius. Ignatius Jay the IV to be exact... And we aren't Catholic, on his moms side, but I hope he does something great someday....

I think I may cry now... Ok. I'll be looking forward to more.

Anonymous said...

wow-I did not expect to read this sad and disturbing story. Thank you for sharing...your mother is a strong woman to have survived that kind of childhood. God love her! Let us pray for all the helpless children who are mistreated and abuse.

Gretchen said...

Wow is right, how sad. Sad that any child is treated like that, but worse that NUNS would do it. To me, that's a bit of scandal in itself. Like the movie The Magdalene Sisters.

Did your mother have any concerns/problems when you decided to become a nun? It's wonderful how she stayed so strong and full of faith.

Thank you for sharing.

God bless,
Gretchen
www.simonpeters.org

Debbie said...

Thank you for sharing your mother's story, Sister. I've always been baffled and saddened by mean nun stories--how and why they became that way. There's a special place in heaven for your mother. RIP.

Anonymous said...

Sister,
I am a Social Worker who thought she had almost heard it all. I cannot believe what I just read. I hurt for you mother and others who went through what she did. How does the clergy forget how Jesus loves the little children?

Your mother is a remarkable woman, with an amazing capacity for forgiveness, as you already know. My prayers are with her.

Terry Nelson said...

I feel so bad for your mom but I'm so glad she found happiness with your dad - thanks for the story.

Anonymous said...

WOW! I hurt all over reading this story. Time to open that door and debunk some myths, huh? Never fear telling the truth because it does indeed set one free.
What a truly remarkable person your Mom is, and remarkable that she and you were so open to your vocation...Blessings to you both.

Sarah said...

Thanks for sharing Sister. I pray that we all have the faith and courage to forgive as your mother did. She sounds an amazing woman. God bless you both.

Maria said...

Dear Sister,

Oh my... your mother sounds like an incredibly strong and amazing woman. It's so disheartening to read her story, but in the end she prevailed and obviously found some happiness in the end.

It's shameful that all those children had to live through such a hellish exisitence. I really don't understand how such cruel and awful things can happen, especially to those so young and helpless.

My mother grew up with the orphans-- she wasn't an orphan, although at times she felt like one because she was raised by her aunt instead of her parents who lived around the block. She, too, has a long story to tell. I often wonder if I'll ever get the whole story. My great aunt used to work for the sisters at the orphanage. Mom has never said there were any horror stories such as what your mother lived through, but I can't imagine it was a very happy place either.

Thank you for sharing this. And tonight, I'll remember our mothers in our prayers.

Anonymous said...

I once met a man, that I think may have been in the same orphanage with your mom. He was from Mo. as well. We met in the ER, both waiting for hours to see the doctor. He had been put in an orphanage by his father after his mother had died of TB. I believe he had siblings, but I can't remember exactly. I do remember that he ran away at an early age 14 or 15 and was living on the streets. He stole a car and drove two towns over to a party. Mind you this took several hours in the Mo. winter. He was arrested while sleeping in the stolen car. When he told the officers his name at the jail, they laughed and through him in the cell with an "old drunk" as they called his new roommate. Come to find out, it was his dad. They had the same name. At his trial he was given the option to join the military or serve 5 years in jail. He joined the Navy and fought in the Pacific. I think he may have been at Pearl Harbor. He too had moved through all the pain of his upbringing and become a very loving person of deep faith. I was so deeply reminded of this man while reading your post...he was such an inspiration to me as a young women looking to overcome my own mother's abusive behavior.
Thank you and God Bless!
-Alison

Anonymous said...

Can you tell me if your online store is non-profit? Does it benefit a religious order......any religious order?

Anonymous said...

I think there must be a special place in that "other place" for those nuns who forgot how to love. Thank you for sharing this family story. My grandfather and his brothers and sisters had equally disturbing upbringings in foster homes. I've always thought I would love to be a Sister running an orphanage and have it overflowing with the love that kids nowadays don't seem to get in our society. Let's pray that God can open that door, and that I will become a Sister who will truly mirror His love to the likes of these blessed children, who all deserve so much better.

Anonymous said...

What strikes me most about your story/your mother's story is how much love and admire your mother and see her as a real person. It's wonderful that she shared this story with you as you were growing up so that you could understand her. Too many parents shield their children from the truth, and as a result, children often don't really see their parents as real people.
It makes me realize how important it is to tell our stories to our children, even if they are painful.
Thank you so much for your gift.

Karen said...

Thank you for sharing this story. Your mother is such an inspiring and strong woman! How blessed that she got through such a horrible time of her childhood and was able to come out of it with a loving and beautiful attitude!

Anonymous said...

All:

This blog is a parody!

Its premise and the stories on it are not true.

FishBulb500 said...

How sad, to grow up without anyone to comfort you or love you! It's amazing what people have to endure. Your mother is an inspiration!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Theresa said...

Anonymous,

It is not a parody. The stories are true. And the blogger is in fact a nun.

Well, sort of. At least she's not NOT a nun. Some of the time.

She stays in character.

Thanks, Sister.

RadioPie said...

Give your mother a big hug for me - she truly is a strong and wonderful woman!

My mother lived for many years with an undiagnosed mental disorder and my father went through years of substance abuse. They divorced when I was 13.

I always thought my childhood was one of the hardest anyone could have to go through, but reading your mother's story makes me thankful for the things that I did have, and has helped me put my life in perspective.

I am happy that she shared her story and I thank you for posting it.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet your Dad was an amazing person too--someday tell us his story, OK? blessings

RosieC said...

Sister,

Do you think your mother's ability to get through this may have been due, in part, to her own mother praying for her from Heaven?

Caroline said...
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Anonymous said...

I am not a person who forgives easily. God is still working on me. So I can't help thinking, if everyone goes to purgatory, and nuns and clergy are held to a higher accountabliity, then God already has His plan for child abusers of this catagory.
Truely, Sister, I am sorry for what your mother and the other children endured. I am also sure He has special rewards for them.

Anonymous said...

It's wonderful that you became a sister after hearing about those terrible sisters. Thank you for being a good one.

Lawrence said...

I went to Catholic Grade School in Mo., in the 1950's, and we had one mean Nun, and one psychopath Nun--but we also had some good, kind, caring Nuns, and our Monsignor was WONDERFUL!!! He made all the difference. But I got backhanded across the mouth several times by the mean Nun for minor offences... like talking in line coming back from Mass... things like that. But we darn sure learned our Math and Science, Geography and English! The kids from the Catholic School were always a year ahead of the kids in the Public Schools when it came to School work.

Kradcliffe said...

I am impressed that your mother's faith survived the experience.

Tienne said...

I'm so heartsick to hear what your mother and those other children went through. I just don't know how anyone can be so cruel to a child. We don't want to think about these things, but you're right; it's a truth that needs to be told.

God Bless, Sister.

bill7tx said...

Your mother is going straight to heaven. She has already had all the Purgatory she would ever need, and then some, in this life.

Leigh said...

Oh Sister…
I’m on a blog sabbatical this summer…Just decided to try to live life a little more and write about it less... But I still peruse your site and I must say… I was moved to tears by your mother’s story.

I am not surprised by it, however. My late mother-in-law, who spent some time in a convent as a young woman, made thinly veiled references as to how maniacal and cold-hearted some of the nuns could be. It’s not surprising that many adults, once under the care of these miserable women, became distrustful of Catholicism and of their faith in God altogether. I believe the phrase “recovering Catholic” came into vogue as a result of all the misery created, at least in part, by the nuns entrusted with the care of children.

And yet, some of these children emerged stronger, perhaps all the more loving. Maybe it is because they experienced evil on such an intimate level that it left an indelible mark on how not to treat other people. It’s a mystery why some people have the ability to extrapolate good from the worst of circumstances and others simply repeat the wrongdoing.

You also have to wonder what was going through some of the nuns’ heads. Did they think that they were just showing “tough love”? Or were they just so miserable, overworked, and under recognized that they couldn’t think straight? Worse yet, were some of them just bona fide bitches (Sorry Sister MM but I gather you’ve heard the word) who had absolutely no business in their chosen vocation? Did they ever once stop to think that their boss/husband couldn’t possibly condone such behavior? You are right when you say the whole thing is mind boggling.

Bottom line, the Church owns this—just like it owns the sex abuse scandals of recent years. What an imperfect family our beloved Catholic Church is! As with any family, however, you don’t just up and leave. You stay and find your niche; hopefully you make it better where you can. But in the end, you stay because no matter how scarred and flawed it may be, you can never replace your family. Apparently, both you and your mom seem pretty clear on this point.

Bless you and your sweet mother.