Manufacture of Bread, and Wax Candles, carried on in the Convent--Superstitions--Scapularies--Virgin Mary's pincushion--House--The Bishop's power over fire--My Instructions to Novices--Jane Ray--Vacillation of feelings.

LARGE quantities of bread are made in the Black Nunnery every week, for besides what is necessary to feed the nuns, many of the poor are supplied. When a priest wishes to give a loaf of bread to a poor person, be gives him an order, which is presented at the Convent. The making of bread is therefore one of the most laborious employments in the Institution.

The manufacture of wax candles was another important branch of business in the nunnery. It was carried on in a small room, on the first floor, thence called the Ciergerie or wax-room; cierge being the French word for a wax candle. I was sometimes sent to read the daily lecture and catechism to the nuns employed there, but found it a very unpleasant task, as the smell rising from the melted wax gave me a sickness at the stomach. The employment was considered rather unhealthy, and those were assigned to it, who had the strongest constitutions. The nuns who were more commonly employed in that room, were Sainte Maria, Sainte Catharine, Sainte Charlotte, Saint Francis, Sainte Hyacinthe, Saint Hypolite, and others. But with these, as with other persons in the Convent, I was never allowed to speak, except under circumstances before mentioned. I was sent to read, and was not allowed even to answer the most trivial question, if one were asked me. Should a nun say, "what o'clock is it?" I never should have dared to reply, but was required to report her to the Superior.

Much stress was laid on the sainte scapulaire, or holy scapulary. This is a small band of cloth or silk, formed and wrought in a particular manner, to be tied around the neck, by two strings, fastened to the ends. I have made many of them having been sometimes set to make them in the Convent. On one side is worked a kind of double cross, (thus, XX) and on the other I. H. S., the meaning of which I do not exactly know. Such a band is called a scapulary, and many miracles are attributed to its power. Children on first receiving the communion are often presented with scapularies, which they are taught to regard with great reverence. We were told of the wonders effected by their means, in the addresses made to us, by priests at catechism or lectures. I will repeat one or two of the stories which occur to me.

A Roman Catholic, servant woman, who had concealed some of her sins at confession, acted so hypocritical a part as to make her mistress believe her a devote or a strict observer of her duty. She even imposed upon her confessor, to such a degree, that he gave her a scapulary. After he had given it, however, one of the saints in heaven informed him in a vision, that the holy scapulary must not remain on the neck of so great a sinner; and that it must be restored to the church. She lay down that night with the scapulary round her throat; but in the morning was found dead, with her head cut off, and the scapulary was discovered in the church. The belief was, that the devil could not endure to have so holy a thing on one of his servants, and had pulled so hard to get it off, as to draw the silken thread with which it was tied, through her neck; after which by some divine power it was restored to the church.

Another story was as follows. A poor Roman Catholic was once taken prisoner by the heretics. He had a sainte scapulaire on his neck, when God seeing him in the midst of his foes, took it from his neck by a miracle, and held it up in the air above the throng of heretics; more than one hundred of whom were converted, by seeing it thus supernaturally suspended.

I had been informed by the Superior, on my first admission as a nun, that there was a subterraneous passage, leading from the cellar of our Convent, into that of the Congregational Nunnery; but, though I had so often visited the cellar, I had never seen it. One day, after I had been received three or four months, I was sent to walk through it on my knees with another nun, as a penance. This, and other penances, were sometimes put upon us by the priests, without any reason assigned. The common way, indeed, was to tell us of the sin for which penance was imposed, but we were left many times to conjecture. Now and then the priests would inform us at a subsequent confession, when he happened to recollect something about it, as I thought, and not because he reflected, or cared much about the subject.

The nun who was with me led me through the cellar, passing to the right of the secret burying-place, and showed me the door of the subterraneous passage, which was at the extremity towards the Congregational Nunnery. The reasons why I had not noticed it before, I presume were, that it was made to shut close and even with the wall; and all that part of the cellar was whitewashed. The door, which is of wood, and square, opens with a latch into a passage, about four feet and a half high. We immediately got upon our knees, commenced saying the prayers required, and began to move slowly along the dark and narrow passage. It may be fifty or sixty feet in length; when we reached the end, we opened a door, and found ourselves in the cellar of the Congregational Nunnery, at some distance from the outer wall; for the covered way is carried in towards the middle of the cellar by two low partitions covered at the top. By the side of the door, was placed a list of names of the Black nuns, with a slide, that might be drawn over any of them. We covered our names in this manner, as evidence of having performed the duty assigned us; and then returned backwards on our knees, by the way we had come. This penance I repeatedly performed afterwards; and by this way, as I have occasion elsewhere to mention, nuns from the Congregational Nunnery, sometimes entered our Convent for worse purposes.

We were frequently assured, that miracles are still performed; and pains were taken to impress us deeply on this subject. The Superior often spoke to us of the Virgin Mary's pincushion, the remains of which, it is pretended, are preserved in the Convent, though it has crumbled quite to dust. We regarded this relic with such veneration, that we were afraid even to look at it, and we often heard the following story related, when the subject was introduced:--

A priest in Jerusalem once had a vision, in which he was informed that the house in which the Virgin had lived, should be removed from its foundations, and transported to a distance. He did not think the communication was from God, and therefore disregarded it; but the house was soon after missed, which convinced him that the vision was true, and he was told where the house might be found. A picture of the house is preserved in the Nunnery, and was sometimes shown us. There are also wax figures of Joseph sawing wood; and Jesus, as a child, picking up the chips. We were taught to sing a little song relating to this, the chorus of which I remember:

"Saint Joseph charpentier,

Petit Jesus ramassait les copeaux

Pour fair bouillir la marmite"

"St. Joseph was a carpenter,

Little Jesus collected chips

To make the pot boil."

I began to speak of miracles and I recollect a story of one, about a family in Italy saved from shipwreck by a priest who were in consequence converted and had two sons honoured with the priest's office.

I had heard, before I entered the Convent, about a great fire which destroyed a number of houses in the Quebec suburbs, and which some said the Bishop extinguished with holy water. I once heard a Catholic and a Protestant disputing on this subject, and when I went to the Congregational Nunnery, I sometimes heard the children, alluding to the same story, say at an alarm of fire, "Is it a Catholic fire? Then why does not the Bishop run?"

Among the topics on which the Bishop addressed the nuns in the Convent, this was one. He told us the story one day, and said he could have sooner interfered and stopped the flames, but that at last, finding they were about to destroy too many Catholic houses, he threw holy water on the fire, and extinguished it. I believed this, and also thought that he was able to put out any fire, but that he never did it, except when inspired. The holy water which the Bishop has consecrated, was considered much more efficacious, than any blessed by a common priest; and this it was which was used in the Convent in sprinkling our beds. It had virtue in it, to keep off any evil spirits.

Now that I was a nun, I was occasionally sent to read lectures to the novices, as other nuns had been while I was a novice. There were but few of us; who were thought capable of reading English well enough, and therefore, I was more frequently sent than I might otherwise have been. The Superior often said to me, as I was going among the novices:

"Try to convert them--save their souls--you know you will have a higher place in heaven for every one you convert."

For whatever reason, Mad Jane Ray seemed to take great delight in crossing and provoking the Superior and old nuns; and often she would cause an interruption when it was most inconvenient and displeasing to them. The preservation of silence was insisted upon most rigidly, and penances of such a nature were imposed for breaking it, that it was a constant source of uneasiness with me, to know that I might infringe the rules in so many ways and that inattention might at any moment subject me to something very unpleasant. During the periods of meditation, therefore, and those of lecture, work, and repose, I kept a strict guard upon myself, to escape penances, as well as to avoid sin; and the silence of the other nuns, convinced me that they were equally watchful, and from the same motives.

My feelings, however, varied at different times, and so did those of many, if not all my companions, excepting the older ones, who took their turns in watching us. We sometimes felt disposed for gaiety, and threw off all ideas that talking was sinful, even when forbidden by the rules of the Convent. And even when I felt that I might perhaps be doing wrong, I reflected that confession, and certainly penance, would soon wipe off the guilt.

I may remark here, that I ere long found out several things, important to be known, to a person living under such rules. One of these was, that it was mach better to confess to a priest a sin committed against the rules, because he would not require one of the penances I most disliked, viz.: those which exposed me to the observation of the nuns, or which demanded self-debasement before them like begging their pardon, kissing the floor, or the Superior's feet, &c., and, besides, he as a confessor was said to be bound to secrecy, and could not inform the Superior against me. My conscience being as effectually unburthened by my confession to the priest as I had been taught to believe, I therefore preferred not to tell my sins to any one else; and this course I found was preferred by others for the same good reasons.

To Jane Ray, however, it sometimes appeared to be a matter of perfect indifference, who knew her violations of rule, or to what penances she exposed herself. Often and often, while perfect silence prevailed among the nuns, at meditation or while nothing was to be heard except the voice of the reader appointed for the day, no matter whose life or writings were presented for our contemplations Jane would break forth with some remark or question, that would attract general attention, and often cause a long and total interruption. Sometimes she would make some harmless remark or inquiry aloud, as if through mere inadvertency, and then her loud and well known voice, so strongly associated with every thing singular and ridiculous would arrest the attention of us all, and generally incline us to smile, and even force us to laugh. The Superior would then usually utter some hasty remonstrance, and many a time I have heard her pronounce some penance upon her; but Jane had ever some apology ready, or some reply calculated to irritate still farther, or to prove to every one, that no punishment would be effectual on her. Sometimes this singular woman would appear to be actuated by opposite feelings and motives; for although she usually delighted in drawing others into difficulty, and has thrown many a severe penance even upon her greatest favourites, on other occasions she appeared totally regardless of consequences herself, and preferred to take all the blame, anxious only to shield others.

I have repeatedly known her to break silence in the community, as if she had no object, or none beyond that of causing disturbance, or exciting a smile, and as soon as it was noticed, exclaim: "Say it's me, say it's me!" Sometimes she would even expose herself to punishments in place of another who was guilty; and thus I found it difficult fully to understand her. In some cases she seemed decidedly out of her wits, as the Superior and priests commonly preferred to represent her; but generally I saw in her what prevented me from accounting her insane.

Among her most common tricks were such as these: She gave me the name of the "Devout English Reader," because I was often appointed to make the lecture to the English girls; and sometimes, after taking a seat near me, under pretence of deafness, would whisper it in my hearing, because she knew my want of self-command when excited to laughter. Thus she often exposed me to penances for a breach of decorum, and set me to biting my lips, to avoid laughing outright in the midst of a solemn lecture. "Oh! you devout English Reader!" would sometimes come upon me suddenly from her lips, with something in it so ludicrous that I had to exert myself to the utmost to avoid observation.

This came so often at one time, that I grew uneasy, and told her I must confess it, to unburden my conscience; I had not done so before, because she would complain of me, for giving way to temptation. Sometimes she would pass behind us as we stood at dinner ready to sit down, and softly moving back our chairs, leave us to fall down upon the floor. This she repeatedly has done; and while we were laughing together, she would spring forward, kneel to the superior, and beg her pardon and a penance.

Back to Main Menu