Preparations to become a Novice in the Black Nunnery--Entrance--Occupations of The Novices--The Apartments to which they had Access--First Interview with Jane Ray--Reverence for the Superior--Her Reliques--The Holy Good Shepherd, or nameless Nun--Confession of Novices.

AT length I determined to become a Black nun, and called upon one of the oldest priests in the Seminary, to whom I made known my intention. The old priest to whom I applied was Father Rocque. He is still alive. He was at that time the oldest priest in the Seminary, and carried the Bon Dieu (Good God,) as the. sacramental wafer is called. When going to administer it in any country place, he used to ride with a man before him, who rang a bell as a signal. When the Canadians heard it, whose habitations he passed, they would come and prostrate themselves to the earth, worshipping it as God. He was a man of great age, and wore large curls, so that he somewhat resembled his predecessor, Father Roue. He was at that time at the head of the Seminary. This institution is a large edifice, situated near the Congregational and Black Nunneries, being on the east side of Notre Dame Street. It is the general rendezvous and centre of all the priests in the District of Montreal, and, I have been told, supplies all the country with priests as far down as Three Rivers, which place, I believe, is under the charge of the Seminary of Quebec. About one hundred and fifty priests are connected with that of Montreal, as every small place has one priest, and a number of larger ones have two.

Father Rocque promised to converse with the Superior of the Convent, and proposed my calling again at the end of two weeks, at which time I visited the Seminary again, and was introduced by him to the Superior of the Black Nunnery. She told me she must make some inquiries, before she could give me a decided answer; and proposed to me to take up my abode a few days at the house of a French family in St. Lawrence suburbs, a distant part of the city. Here I remained about a fortnight; during which time I formed some acquaintance with the family, particularly with the mistress of the house, who was a devoted Papist, and had a high respect for the Superior, with whom she stood on good terms.

At length, on Saturday morning about ten o'clock, I called and was admitted into the Black Nunnery, as a novice, much to my satisfaction, for I had a high idea of a life in a Convent, secluded, as I supposed the inmates to be, from the world and all its evil influences, and assured of everlasting happiness in heaven. The Superior received me, and conducted me into a large room, where the novices, (who are called in French Postulantes,) were assembled, and engaged in their customary occupation of sewing.

Here were about forty of them, and they were collected in groups in different parts of the room, chiefly near the windows; but in each group was found one of the veiled nuns of the Convent, whose abode was in the interior apartments, to which no novice was to be admitted. As we entered, the Superior informed the assembly that a new novice had come, and she desired any present who might have known me in the world to signify it. Two Miss Fougnees, and a Miss Howard, from Vermont, who had been my fellow-pupils in the Congregational Nunnery, immediately recognised me. I was then placed in one of the groups, at a distance from them, and furnished by a nun called Sainte Clotilde, with materials to make a kind of purse, such as the priests use to carry the consecrated wafer in, when they go to administer the sacrament to the sick. I well remember my feelings at that time, sitting among a number of strangers, and expecting with painful anxiety the arrival of the dinner hour. Then, as I knew, ceremonies were to be performed, for which I was but ill prepared, as I had not yet heard the rules by which I was to be governed, and knew nothing of the forms to be repeated in the daily exercises, except the creed in Latin, and that imperfectly. This was during the time of recreation, as it is called. The only recreation there allowed, however, is that of the mind, and of this there is but little. We were kept at work, and permitted to speak with each other only on such subjects as relate to the Convent, and all in the hearing of the old nuns who sat by us. We proceeded to dinner in couples, and ate in silence while a lecture was read.

The novices had access to only eight of the apartments of the Convent; and whatever else we wished to know, we could only conjecture. The sleeping room was in the second story, at the end of the western wing. The beds were placed in rows, without curtains or any thing else to obstruct the view; and in one corner was a small room partitioned off, in which was the bed of the night-watch, that is, the old nun that was appointed to oversee us for the night. In each side of the partition were two holes through which she could look out upon us whenever she pleased. Her bed was a little raised above the level of the others. There was a lamp hung in the middle of our chamber, which showed every thing to her distinctly; and as she had no light in her little room, we never could perceive whether she was awake or asleep. As we knew that the slightest deviation from the rules would expose us to her observation, as well as to that of our companions, in whom it was a virtue to betray one another's faults, as well as to confess our own, I felt myself under a continual exposure to suffer what I disliked, and had my mind occupied in thinking of what I was to do next, and what I must avoid.

I soon learned the rules and ceremonies we had to regard, which were many; and we had to be very particular in their observance. We were employed in different kinds of work while I was a novice. The most beautiful specimen of the nuns' manufacture which I saw, was a rich carpet made of fine worsted, which had been begun before my acquaintance with the Convent, and was finished while I was there. This was sent as a present to the King of England, as an expression of gratitude for the money annually received from the government. It was about forty yards in length, and very handsome. We were ignorant of the amount of money thus received. The Convent of Grey Nuns has also received funds from the government, though on some account or other, had not for several years.

I was sitting by a window at one time, with a girl named Jane M'Coy, when one of the old nuns came up and spoke to us in a tone of liveliness and kindness which seemed strange, in a place where every thing appeared so cold and reserved. Some remark which she made was evidently intended to cheer and encourage me, and made me think that she felt some interest in me. I do not recollect what she said, but I remember it gave me pleasure. I also remember that her manner struck me singularly. She was rather old for a nun, that is, probably thirty; her figure large, her face wrinkled, and her dress careless. She seemed also to be under less restraint than the others, and this, I afterward found, was the case. She sometimes even set the rules at defiance. She would speak aloud when silence was required, and sometimes walk about when she ought to have kept her place: she would even say and do things on purpose to make us laugh; and although often blamed for her conduct, had her offences frequently passed over, when others would have been punished with penances.

I learnt that this woman had always been singular. She never would consent to take a saint's name on receiving the veil, and had always been known by her own, which was Jane Ray. Her irregularities were found to be numerous, and penances were of so little use in governing her, that she was pitied by some, who thought her partially insane. She was therefore commonly spoken of as mad Jane Ray; and when she committed a fault, it was often apologized for by the Superior or other nuns, on the ground that she did not know what she did

The occupations of a novice in the Black Nunnery are not such as some of my readers may suppose. They are not employed in studying the higher branches of education; they are not offered any advantages for restoring their minds, or polishing their manners; they are not taught even reading, writing, or arithmetic; much less any of the more advanced branches of knowledge. My time was chiefly employed, at first, in work and prayers. It is true, during the last year I studied a great deal, and was required to work but very little; but it was the study of prayers in French and Latin, which I had merely to commit to memory, to prepare for the easy repetition of them on my reception, and after I should be admitted as a nun.

Among the wonderful events which had happened in the Convent, that of the sudden conversion of a gay young lady of the city into a nun, appeared to me one of the most remarkable. The story which I first heard, while a novice, made a deep impression upon my mind. It was nearly as follows:

The daughter of a wealthy citizen of Montreal was passing the church of Bon Secours, one evening, on her way to a ball, when she was suddenly thrown down upon the steps or near the door, and received a severe shock. She was taken up, and removed first, I think, into the church, but soon into the Black Nunnery, which she soon determined to join as a nun; instead, however, of being required to pass through a long novitiate, (which usually occupies about two years and a half, and is abridged only where the character is peculiarly exemplary and devout,) she was permitted to take the veil without delay; being declared by God to a priest to be in a state of sanctity. The meaning of this expression is, that she was a real saint, and already in a great measure raised above the world and its influences, and incapable of sinning, possessing the power of intercession, and being a proper object to be addressed in prayer. This remarkable individual I was further informed was still in the Convent, though I never was allowed to see her; she did not mingle with the other nuns, either at work, worship, or meals; for she had no need of food, and not only her soul, but her body, was in heaven a great part of the time. What added, if possible, to the reverence and mysterious awe with which I thought of her, was the fact I learned, that she had no name. The titles used in speaking of her were, the holy saint, reverend mother, or saint bon pasteur, (the holy good shepherd.)

It is wonderful that we could have carried out reverence for the Superior as far as we did, although it was the direct tendency of many instructions and regulations, indeed of the whole system to permit, even to foster a superstitious regard for her. One of us was occasionally called into her room, to cut her nails, or dress her hair; and we would often collect the clippings, and distribute them to each other, or preserve them with the utmost care. I once picked up all the stray hairs I could find, after combing her head, bound them together, and kept them for some time, until she told me I was not worthy to possess things so sacred. Jane M'Coy and I were once sent to alter a dress for the Superior. I gathered up all the bits of thread, made a little bag, and put them into it for safe preservation. This I wore a tong time around my neck, so long, indeed, that I wore out a number of strings, which, I remember, I replaced with new ones. I believed it to possess the power of removing pain, and often prayed to it to cure the toothache, &c. Jane Ray some times professed to outgo us all in devotion to the Superior, and would pick up the feathers alter making her bed. These she would distribute among us, saying, "When the Superior dies, reliques will begin to grow scarce, and you had better supply yourselves in season." Then she would treat the whole matter in some way to turn it into ridicule. Equally contradictory would she appear, when occasionally she would obtain leave from the Superior to tell her dreams. With a serious face, which sometimes imposed upon all of us, and made us half believe she was in a perfect state of sanctity, she would narrate in French some unaccountable vision which she said she had enjoyed. Then turning round, would say, "There are some who do not understand me; you all ought to be informed." And then she would say something totally different in English, which put us to the greatest agony for fear of laughing. Sometimes she would say that she expected to be Superior herself, one of these days, and other things which I have not room to repeat.

While I was in the Congregational Nunnery, I had gone to the parish church whenever I was to confess; for although the nuns had a private confession-room in the building, the boarders were taken in parties through the streets on different days by some of the nuns, to confess in the church; but in the Black Nunnery, as we had a chapel and priests attending in the confessionals, we never left the building.

Our confessions there as novices, were always performed in one way so that it may be sufficient to describe a single case. Those of us who were to confess at a particular time, took our places on our knees near the confessional-box, and after having repeated a number of prayers, prescribed in our books, came up one at a time and kneeled beside a fine wooden lattice-work, which entirely separated the confessor from us, yet permitted us to place our faces almost to his ear, and nearly concealed his countenance from view, even when so near. I recollect how the priests used to recline their heads on one side, and often covered their faces with their handkerchiefs, while they heard me confess my sins, and put questions to me, which were often of the most improper and even revolting nature, naming crimes both unthought of and inhuman. Still, strange as it may seem, I was persuaded to believe that all this was their duty, or at least that it was done without sin.

Veiled nuns would often appear in the chapel at confession; though, as I understood, they generally confessed in private. Of the plan of their confession-rooms I had no information; but I supposed the ceremony to be conducted much on the same plan as in the chapel and in the church, viz. with a lattice interposed between the confessor and the confessing.

Punishments were sometimes resorted to, while I was a novice, though. but seldom. The first time I ever saw a gag, was one day when a young novice had done something to offend the Superior. This girl I always had compassion for; because she was very young, and an orphan. The Superior sent for a gag and expressed her regret at being compelled by the bad conduct of the child, to proceed to such a punishment; after which she put it into her mouth, so far as to keep it open, and then let it remain some time before she took it out. There was a leathern strap fastened to each end, and buckled to the back part of the head

Back to Main Menu