The nun who couldn't say no


Nun praying

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 priest visiting the home only one time, and he left, saying to my mother: You go back to that marriage bed, and make sure you don't leave it!

My sister left the convent at the age of 46. The world had little respect for her qualifications, and she spent some time working in the kitchen of a privileged boys school, among other things. She finally worked her way into a job that acknowledged her intelligence, qualifications and gifts.

When she was 62, she died from an aggressive brain tumour. The Sisters were keen for Mary Mackillop to bestow on her the third miracle needed for her canonisation, but it was not to be.

When asking about my sister's untimely death, friends and acquaintances tended to express relief that she wasn't leaving any children behind. I suppose that my sister's lack of children might be a relief for the theoretical children that she never had. However, it was somewhat of a tragedy for the actual person who moved from place to place throughout her life, with many friends, but no real ties. 

Danielle said to me once that she finally decided to leave the convent, not because of the need for a man and children, but for the desire for a home — something she had not had since the age of 14.

My sister expressed to me, before she died, the notion that the brain tumour from which she was suffering, and would soon die, was somehow connected with her lifetime inability to say no to people.

As the tumour progressed, she lost her balance, her ability to find words, and, eventually, her ability to care for herself. She was unable to speak, to give herself a drink of water, or even to move herself even minimally in her nursing-home bed.

Finally, she was left with the one word. Ironically, it was yes ... yes ... yes.

Philomena van Rijswijk

Philomena van Rijswijk is a poet, novelist and story-writer living in Tasmania. Her most well-known novel, The World as a Clockface, was published by Penguin. Her poems and short stories have been published in collections and literary journals in Australia, Ireland and India.

Topic tags: Philomena van Rijswijk



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for this article.

Jim Jones | 12 August 2015  

This account rings many bells for me. The main difference is that at 78 I have no children, loose ties with married 'friends' and have slowly been learning over the years that an informed 'no' is so much healthier than a compliant 'yes'. The best 'no' I ever said was the day I left the convent which had destroyed me with its psychologically abusive practices Thank you for this article.

Judy Lawson | 12 August 2015  

Danielle's story is one of many. Almost 50 years ago I said no. My birth certificate said I was 28; a psychologist would have judged me 15, despite university and professional qualifications. Where I got the courage to say "no" is one of the great mysteries of my life.

Frank | 12 August 2015  

Thanks for this article Philomena: bare, suggestive and moving.

steve sinn | 12 August 2015  

Thank you, Philomena. An article written with a clear eye and a warm heart and told with a sister's love. In some ways it is extremely sad. Your sister would not be the first person from a dysfunctional family to seek refuge in the religious life. Sadly, it appears that life did not nurture her as a person. I have this thing about patho-Christianity which sees a vocation, or the ordinary Christian life, as being based on a sort of Divine Queen's Regulations administered by superiors who are like mindless Regimental Sergeant Majors. That breaks rather than makes people. Your sister, like Judy Lawson, realised that this was not real religion but its exact antithesis. In the rest of her life she attempted to become the real, full, wonderful person she basically was. I see her as little sort of a heroine. I cannot believe that her life was in vain and have the real sense that she is at peace and experiencing a joy she may never have experienced in this life.

Edward Fido | 12 August 2015  

Correction. I meant "little short of a heroine". My apologies.

Edward Fido | 12 August 2015  

I knew your beautiful Sister, Philomena. She was an exceptionally loving and, much-loved, person. I also remember her sense of humour and how she often laughed. She, certainly, loved you and your Family and she often spoke of you.

Denise | 15 August 2015  

Hi PHIL. We all loved 'Daisy' dearly. She was an inspiration to know and spend time with. Often think of her, especially around her birthday. What a brave person she was.

Joan | 15 August 2015  

I was one of 'Daisy's' Profession group and she was certainly a joy to each of us. Sadly, we did not know much about each other's backgrounds and accepted each other as we were back in 1966. Our experiences and memories of formation and religious life vary - not all bad. I have good memories and humorous stories to tell of our times together, and I wouldn't want people to believe that these years were detrimental to our growth as persons. I have admiration for the women who entered and eventually came to the realisation that it was not where they were meant to be or where they would reach their full potential. I have a photo of Danielle in front of me as I write this. I know you are at peace, the peace you so longed for in life. Thank you, Danielle, for being such a delightful member of our group and thank you, Philomena, for your writing of this article about your sister.

Marie | 16 August 2015  

Thanks for writing this :)

Paul | 21 September 2015  

Thank you for writing this. I am sure it is a healing for many people. Your sister sounds very wise; from what you write she clearly knew what her body was telling her. When the impulse to speak our hearts gets negated by our head, by a mental process that suppresses what is naturally there to say, I have no doubt it has a compounding effect on the body that eventually has a physical outplay. The contemporary philosopher Serge Benhayon posits that brain tumors stem from an ability to communicate but not fully express ourselves. The fact that she connected to what was happening for her suggests that a lot of healing and reflection on her life took place before she died and that to me is the miracle-- the relationship she had with her body and soul. Your fullness of expression in this piece of writing, and the deep love you have for her, means that her healing continues through your words, because what you have expressed here is very possibly what she felt she couldn’t during her life time. What a gift to give your sister, one that transcends this seemingly finite life.

Rebecca Baldwin | 25 September 2015  

I too was in a "RELIGIOUS ORDER"? When will the Old Mens Club simply admit TRUTH and say it was a CULT? In every moment 24/7 it never had Jesus as a real guy in our lives. I left and for a month i lived in Kings Park Perth with the Aboriginals as I was given $12. One for each mate of Jesus. I found him there in the community of outcasts the Aboriginals. It was basic hold my hand mate. The Madi Gra Liturgies do nothing for myself. I sometimes see them in the Cathedrals and think He's hiding somewhere OR like Elvis he's left the building? Ours was a CULT. So many Suicides, mental exhaustion, people kicked out literally by a filthy Monsignor who became Bishop as a reward for destroying great Women and Men, ALL IN THE NAME OF MY MATE JESUS. Thanks all the old dears in the Old Mens Club. My "Church" is gone. I'm NOT bitter just like your sister I simply chose the road that said Heaven not the other Hell St.

Francis Douglas | 27 October 2015  


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up