Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The nun who couldn't say no

  • 12 August 2015

My sister — let's call her Danielle — left home when she was 14. She donned a serge box-pleat uniform and felt hat and entered the juniorate, which was situated in a grand sandstone mansion on the Gladesville River.

The juniorate was run by an order of Catholic sisters, to which many of my mother's relations belonged. It was a type of boarding school, but more than a boarding school, for it was a means by which the Church attracted young people who felt they had a vocation. In repayment for an education, the young people were streamed into the convent, monastery or seminary.

Our family life was fraught with conflict between our parents, centred on their mutual inability to cope with my father's serious mental illness (he was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia). Throughout the early years of her childhood, my sister was made my mother's intimate confidante. This was a time of anguish for Mum, about both her marriage and a series of tragic miscarriages.

When my sister was six, my older brother came along, followed by myself and my younger brother. My older brother was six years old when Danielle left home. Up until that time, she had been a kind of mother to us. My brother, now 60 years of age, still says he has not recovered from the trauma of having his main emotional support taken from him.

The church proceeded to separate our sister from our family. For many years, we were allowed to visit her only once every three months. After her Intermediate, to become a Postulant and, later, a Novice, my sister did not set foot in the family home until she was in her 20s. She made her Final Vows at the age of 19. The older nuns called her 'a flower that the Lord plucked early'.

If I had suggested to my parents that I marry at the age of 14, my mother would have recommended that I have my head examined. However, at 14, with the encouragement of the nuns and priests, my sister made a decision that would alter the course of her entire life, and that of her parents and siblings.

Clearly, she had left home at the age of 14 because our home life was untenable. The church, however, provided little support for my father in his mental illness, or my mother, who was unable to cope with her abusive marriage. I recall a