Influencing Novices--Difficulty of convincing Persons from the United States--Tale of the Bishop in the City--The Bishop in the Convent--The Prisoners in the Cells--Practice in Singing--Narratives--Jane Ray's Hymns--The Superior's best Trick.

IT was considered a great duty to exert ourselves to influence novices in favour of the Roman Catholic religion; and different nuns were, at different times, charged to do what they could, by conversation, to make favourable impressions on the minds of some, who were particularly indicated to us by the Superior. I often heard it remarked, that those who were influenced with the greatest difficulty, were young ladies from the United States; and on some of those, great exertions were made. Cases in which citizens of the States were said to have been converted to the Roman Catholic faith, were sometimes spoken of, and always as if they were considered highly important.

The Bishop, as we were told, was on the public square, on the day of an execution, when, as he said, a stranger looked at him in some peculiar manner, which made him confidently believe God intended to have him converted by his means. When he went home, he wrote a letter for him, and the next day found him again in the same place, and gave him the letter, which led to his becoming a Roman Catholic. This man, it was added, proved to be a citizen of the States.

The Bishop, as I have remarked, was not very dignified on all occasions, and sometimes acted in such a manner as would not have appeared well in public. One day I saw him preparing for mass; and because he had some difficulty in getting on his robe, showed evident signs of anger. One of the nuns remarked: "The Bishop is going to perform a passionate mass." Some of the others exclaimed: "Are you not ashamed to speak so of my lord?" And she was rewarded with a penance.

But it might be hoped that the Bishop would be free from the crimes of which I have declared so many priests to have been guilty. I am far from entertaining such charitable opinions of him; and I had good reasons, after a time. I was often required to sleep on a sofa, in the room of the present Superior, as I may have already mentioned. One night, not long after I was first introduced there, for that purpose, and within the first twelve months of my wearing the veil, having retired as usual, at about half-past nine, not long after we had got into bed, the alarm-bell from without, which hangs over the Superior's bed, was rung. She told me to see who was there; and going down, I heard the signal given, which I have before mentioned, a peculiar kind of hissing sound made through the teeth. I answered with a low, "Hum-hum;" and then opened the door. It was Bishop Lartique, the present Bishop of Montreal. He said to me, "Are you a Novice or a Received?" meaning a Received nun. I answered a "Received"

He then requested me to conduct him to the Superior's room, which I did. He went to the bed, drew the curtains behind him, and I lay down again upon the sofa, until morning, when the Superior called me, at an early hour, about daylight, and directed me to show him the door, to which I conducted him, and he took his departure.

I continued to visit the cellar frequently, to carry up coal for the fires, without any thing more than a general impression that there were two nuns somewhere imprisoned in it. One day while there on my usual errand, I saw a nun standing on the right of the cellar, in front of one of the cell doors I had before observed; she was apparently engaged with something within. This attracted my attention. The door appeared to close in a small recess, and was fastened with a stout iron bolt on the outside, the end of which was secured by being let into a hole in the stone-work which formed the posts. The door, which was of wood, was sunk a few inches beyond the stone-work, which rose and formed an arch overhead. Above the bolt was a small window supplied with a fine grating, which swung open, a small bolt having been removed from it, on the outside. The nun I had observed seemed to be whispering with some person within, through the little window: but I hastened to get my coal, and left the cellar, presuming that was the prison. When I visited the place again, being alone, I ventured to the spot, determined to learn the truth, presuming that the imprisoned nuns, of whom the Superior had told me on my admission, were confined there. I spoke at the window where I had seen the nun standing, and heard a voice reply in a whisper. The aperture was so small, and the place so dark, that I could see nobody; but I learnt that a poor wretch was confined there a prisoner. I feared that I might be discovered, and after a few words, which I thought could do no harm, I withdrew.

My curiosity was now alive, to learn every thing I could about so mysterious a subject. I made a few inquiries of Saint Xavier, who only informed me that they were punished for refusing to obey the Superior, Bishop, and Priests. I afterward found that the other nuns were acquainted with the fact I had just discovered. All I could learn, however, was, that the prisoner in the cell whom I had spoken with, and another in the cell just beyond, had been confined there several years without having been taken out; but their names, connexions, offences, and every thing else relating to them, I could never learn, and am still as ignorant of as ever. Some conjectured that they had refused to comply with some of the rules of the Convent or requisitions of the Superior; others, that they were heiresses whose property was desired for the Convent, and who would not consent to sign deeds of it. Some of the nuns informed me, that the severest of their sufferings arose from fear of supernatural beings.

I often spoke with one of them in passing near their cells, when on errands in the cellar, but never ventured to stop long, or to press my inquiries very far. Besides, I found her reserved, and little disposed to converse freely, a thing I could not wonder at when I considered her situation, and the characters of persons around her. She spoke like a woman in feeble health, and of broken spirits. I occasionally saw other nuns speaking to them, particularly at meal-times, when they were regularly furnished with food, which was such as we ourselves ate.

Their cells were occasionally cleaned, and then the doors were opened. I never looked into them but was informed that the ground was their only floor. I presumed that they were furnished with straw to lie upon, as I always saw a quantity of old straw scattered about that part of the cellar, after the cells had been cleansed. I once inquired of one of them, whether they could converse together, and she replied that they could, through a small opening between their cells which I could not see.

I once inquired of the one I spoke with in passing, whether she wanted any thing, and she replied, "Tell Jane Ray I want to see her a moment if she can slip away." When I went up I took an opportunity to deliver my message to Jane, who concerted with me a signal to be used in future, in case a similar request should be made through me. This was a sly wink at her with one eye, accompanied with a slight toss of my head. She then sought an opportunity to visit the cellar, and was soon able to hold an interview with the poor prisoners, without being noticed by any one but myself. I afterward learnt that mad Jane Ray was not so mad, but she could feel for those miserable beings, and carry through measures for their comfort. She would often visit them with sympathizing words, and, when necessary, conceal part of her food while at table, and secretly convey it into their dungeons. Sometimes we would combine for such an object; and I have repeatedly aided her in thus obtaining a larger supply of food than they had been able; to obtain from others.

I frequently thought of the two nuns confined in the cells, and occasionally heard something said about them, but very little. Whenever I visited the cellar, and thought it safe, I went up to the first of them and spoke a word or two, and usually got some brief reply, without ascertaining that any particular change took place with either of them. The one with whom alone I ever conversed, spoke English perfectly well, and French I thought as well. I supposed she must have been well educated, for I could not tell which was her native language. I remember that she frequently used these words when I wished to say more to her, and which alone showed that she was constantly afraid of punishment: "Oh, there's somebody coming---do go away!" I have been told that the other prisoner also spoke English.

It was impossible for me to form any certain opinion about the size or appearance of those two miserable creatures, for their cells were perfectly dark, and I never caught the slightest glimpse even of their faces. It is probable they were women not above the middle size, and my reason for this presumption is the following: I was sometimes appointed to lay out the clean clothes for all the nuns in the Convent on Saturday evening and was always directed to lay by two suits for the prisoners. Particular orders were given to select the largest sized garments for several tall nuns; but nothing of the kind was ever said in relation to the clothes for those in the cells.

I had not been long a veiled nun, before I requested of the Superior permission to confess to the "Saint Bon Pasteur," (Holy Good Shepherd,) that is, the mysterious and nameless nun whom I had heard of while a novice. I knew of several others who had confessed to her at different times, and of some who had sent their clothes to be touched by her when they were sick; and I felt a desire to unburden my heart of certain things, which I was loath to acknowledge to the Superior, or any of the priests.

The Superior made me wait a little, until she could ascertain whether the "Saint Bon Pasteur" was ready to admit me; and after a time returned, and told me to enter the old nuns' room. That apartment has twelve beds, arranged like the berths of a ship, by threes; and as each is broad enough to receive two persons, twenty-four may be lodged there, which was about the number of old nuns in the Convent during most of my stay in it. Near an opposite corner of the apartment was a large glass case, with no appearance of a door, or other opening, in any part of it; and in that case stood the venerable nun, in the dress of the community, with her thick veil spread over her face, so as to conceal it entirely. She was standing, for the place did not allow room for sitting, and moved a little, which was the only sign of life, as she did not speak. I fell upon my knees before her, and began to confess some of my imperfections, which lay heavy upon my mind, imploring her aid and intercession, that I might be delivered from them. She appeared to listen to me with patience, but still never returned a word in reply. I became much affected as I went on, and at length began to weep bitterly; and when I withdrew, was in tears. It seemed to me that my heart was remarkably relieved after this exercise, and all the requests I had made, I found, as I believed, strictly fulfilled. I often, afterward, visited the old nuns' room for the same purpose, and with similar results, so that my belief in the sanctity of the nameless nun, and my regard for her intercession, were unbounded.

What is remarkable, though I repeatedly was sent into that room to dust it, or to put it in order, I remarked that the glass case was vacant, and no signs were to be found either of the nun or of the way by which she had left it; so that a solemn conclusion rested upon my mind, that she had gone on one of her frequent visits to heaven.

A priest would sometimes come in the daytime to teach us to sing, and this was done with some parade or stir, as if it were considered, or meant to be considered, as a thing of importance. The instructions, however, were entirely repetitions of the words and tunes, nothing being taught even of the first principles of the science. It appeared to me, that although hymns alone were sung, the exercise was chiefly designed for our amusement, to raise our spirits a little, which were apt to become depressed. Mad Jane Ray certainly usually treated the whole thing as a matter of sport, and often excited those of us who understood English to a great degree of mirth. She had a very fine voice, which was so powerful as generally to be heard above the rest. Sometimes she would be silent when the other nuns began; and the Superior would often call out, "Jane Ray, you don't sing!" She always had some trifling excuse ready, and commonly appeared unwilling to join the rest.

After being urged or commanded by the Superior, she would then strike up some English song, or profane parody, which was rendered ten times more ridiculous by the ignorance of the Lady Superior and the majority of the nuns. I cannot help laughing now when I remember how she used to stand with perfect composure and sing,

"I wish I was married and nothing to rue,

With plenty of money and nothing to do."

"Jane Ray, you don't sing right," the Superior would exclaim. "Oh," she would reply, with perfect coolness," that is the English for,

"Seigneur Dieu de clémence,

Reçois ce grand pécheur;"

and, as sung by her, a person ignorant of the language would naturally be imposed upon. It was extremely difficult for me to conceal my laughter. I have always had greater exertion to make in repressing it than most other persons; and mad Jane Ray often took advantage of this.

Saturday evening usually brought with it much unpleasant work for some of us. We received the Sacrament every Sunday; and in preparation for it, on Saturday evening we asked pardon of the Superior and of each other for the scandal we had caused them since we last received the Sacrament, and then asked the Superior's permission to receive it on the following day. She inquired of each nun who necessarily asked her permission, whether she, naming her as Saint somebody, had concealed any sin that should hinder her receiving it; and if the answer was in the negative, she granted her permission.

On Saturdays we were catechised by a priest, being assembled in a community-room. He sat on the right of the door in a chair. He often, told us stories, and frequently enlarged on the duty of enticing novices into the nunnery. "Do you not feel happy," he would say, "now that you are safer out of the world, and sure of heaven? But remember how many poor people are yet in the world. Every novice you influence to take the black veil, will add to your honour in heaven. Tell them how happy you are."

The Superior played one trick while I was in the Convent, which always passed for one of the most admirable she ever carried into execution. We were pretty good judges in a case of this kind, for, as may be presumed, we were rendered familiar with the arts of deception under so accomplished a teacher.

There was an ornament on hand in the nunnery, of an extraordinary kind, which was prized at ten pounds; but it had been made and exposed to view so long, that it became damaged and quite unsaleable. We were one day visited by an old priest from the country, who was evidently somewhat intoxicated; and as he withdrew to go to his lodgings, in the Seminary, where the country priests often stay, the Superior conceived a plan for disposing of the old ornament. "Come," said she, "we will send it to the old priest, and swear he has bought it!"

We all approved of the ingenious device, for it evidently might be classed among the pious frauds we had so often had recommended to us both by precept and example; and the ornament was sent to him the next morning, as his property when paid for. He soon came into the Convent, and expressed the greatest surprise that he had been charged with purchasing such a thing, for which he had no need and no desire.

The Superior heard his declaration with patience, but politely insisted that it was a fair bargain; and we then surrounded the old priest, with the strongest assertions that such was the fact, and that nobody would ever have thought of his purchasing it unless he had expressly engaged to take it. The poor old man was entirely put down. He was certain of the truth; but what could he do to resist or disprove a direct falsehood pronounced by the Superior of a Convent, and sworn to by all her holy nuns? He finally expressed his conviction that we were right: he was compelled to pay his money.

Back to Main Menu