Where are all the nuns? What happened to those benevolent, selfless sisters of mercy and compassion? How did they go so quickly from this black-and-white force of thousands to an occasional sighting here or there, usually near an airplane bound for Latin America?
When I was in grade school, the sisters were ubiquitous (you learn words like that when you’re taught by nuns), wielded great power and commanded respect.
We were like clay in their carefully scrubbed, pink hands. We were delivered to them at our most impressionable and they embraced us with confidence.
They fed us, protected us, taught us.
They tended to our wounds, both physical and spiritual.
They tried to explain God.
They dispensed drugs and discipline in equal measure. If provoked, they pinched, scratched and used their rulers as paddles. The acted quickly and confidently, without worry that some mom would bust through the schoolhouse doors to complain about Little Johnny’s red knuckles or reddened cheeks.
That just didn’t happen. That would be like challenging Jesus.
He was married to the nuns, you know. That’s how they explained their vows to remain celibate and serve the church.
Of course Jesus, as channeled through the local priest, was the final word on all important matters — from the hymn choices for Christmas mass to whether Petey Hanrahan should be expelled for scratching a curse word on the bathroom stall.
When you play out the logic, it made no sense to challenge a nun. She was just carrying out orders from her higher-ups and they were really really high up.
The mandate was clear to me: Listen to the nuns, obey the priest and get ready for First Communion. At the time, it all made perfect sense.
Until Sister Alverna came into the picture.
I first became leery during a game of “Red Rover.”
Sister Alverna had been one of the few sisters to join us playing recess games, like “Red Rover.” To play, we would lock arms to help form a human chain and dare someone from the other team to run at us to try to break through.
Usually, all went well as the chain held and the challenger from the other team fell to the grass in defeat. But, once in awhile, one of the bigger boys would break through, sometimes by running right at Sister Alverna.
In games past, she just guffawed and played on. But something eventually changed. One afternoon, she snarled and tried to slap the boy on the back. Another time, we thought we heard her curse. Yet another time, she stepped on a boy when he fell to the ground in front of her.
She eventually just stopped playing.
At about the same time, she began to accuse us of poking fun at her or plotting against her. Sometimes she would ask why we were laughing when we hadn’t been.
One afternoon during a question and answer period, I used the word “persecution” in my reply. She accused me of saying “prostitution” to turn a serious religion lesson into a joke.
One day in geography class, she talked for at least a half hour about the attributes of a priest she had met on a missionary trip. Then, she insisted we use our class time to cut out, color and paste together paper crucifixes. They were designed to slide on to Baby Ruth candy bars to be handed out by the handsome priest to poor kids in Nicaragua.
The crucifixes took weeks.
To this day, I’m convinced I still cannot pick out Uruguay on a globe because of that lost class time.
Atop all this, Sister Alverna began telling odd stories. They got more and more bizarre.
There were tales of priests and nuns doing good deeds that took outrageous, improbable turns. It was as if everyone she met had the power to perform miracles.
Like the Bible, the stories could be gruesome. One that I’ll never forget — let’s call it Billy and the Body of Christ — popped up as we were being warned about the dos and don’ts of taking Holy Communion.
Billy was our bad example, Sister Alverna’s cautionary tale.
It goes like this.
Billy transferred to the Catholic school from public school, where he had already been a bit of an outcast.
With greasy hair and a leather jacket, he liked to carry a comb that worked like a switchblade. He scared little kids with it.
Like most who transferred in, Billy was expected to convert to Catholicism, to go through the rituals, including First Communion. Well, he was much older than the other prospective communion recipients, and he scoffed at the lectures from the nuns about the sacrament.
He didn’t believe that the tiny little round host could be turned into the body of Christ. He wanted to prove the nuns wrong.
So, he came up with a plan — Sister Alverna lowered her voice to an almost inaudible level in telling this part — to steal the host instead of swallowing it. And, he pulled it off, slipping the consecrated wafer into his jacket and sneaking it home to his basement.
There, in an underground room with no windows, he had a hammer, a hacksaw and a chisel. He tried all three on the white round host, but, perplexingly, could not break or crack the wafer. Angry now, he stomped the host repeatedly with his hobnail boots, the kind, according to Sister Alverna, that the Nazis wore.
A speck of blood appeared. Then more. As Billy bent to inspect the trickle of red, the blood began to run faster, then gush.
Billy was found the next day.
He had drowned.
I remember being so scared that I drank, like, three glasses of water after communion, worried about letting even a tiny crumb of Jesus escape my lips.
Only later, after about our 10th or 11th communion, did we kids start to question the story. Soon, we lumped it into the batch of exaggerations and rantings that were now coming almost daily from Sister Alverna.
Not sure how long it took after the Billy story for Sister Alverna to disappear. If I recall correctly, the other nuns said she had been rewarded for her years of service with an assignment to a mission by the sea. I hoped they hooked her up with the handsome priest she liked to talk about.
I didn’t believe she went to any beautiful mission, though.
I developed a theory about her disappearance. It also can be used to explain the dearth of nuns in general. I recite this theory with the same confidence and ardor that Sister Alverna told us about Billy and the basement.
I think Jesus got tired of the alimony payments. He used Alverna as a test case; he called for a hearing.
God, of course, had to recuse himself because he couldn’t remain unbiased toward his only son. The most senior saints appointed a tribunal of dead rabbis. God had told the angels the Jews were dependable, fair-minded and good with money.
The tribunal offered Sister Alverna a settlement: A couple years hard labor in Limbo followed by a piece of heaven where she was the ultimate Red Rover player and competed only against young priests.
As the women’s liberation movement hit America and feminism flourished, the other nuns jumped at the chance to get out of those itchy habits. The rabbi tribunal got very busy.
Nowadays, you’ll see lots of volunteers at Catholic schools but not so many nuns. The ones you do see are not always recognizable. They’ve been able to negotiate their way out of the starchy clothing and wacky headpieces.
But do they still marry Jesus?
I guess that’s a tricky question. From my research, some nuns insist that’s the case, calling it a “mystical marriage,” and others say that’s just hogwash.
Maybe, like Sister Alverna’s stories, none of this is really ever black and white.
See what I did there.
Which reminds me of a joke I imagine Sister Alverna telling.
Sister: What’s black and white and red all over.
Me: A newspaper.
How about a groom in a blender?
Sister: No, it’s the nun who tried to give Billy CPR in the bloody basement.
Me: Sorry, just like when I was little, I don’t Bolivia, sister.
Sister: OK, have it Uruguay.
Me: Ha. I would. But, because of you, I still can’t find it on a map.