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A cheerfulness of nuns



I spent the morning yesterday with a gaggle of nuns, a tumult of nuns, a cheerfulness of nuns. I bet there were 40 of them although I did not count.

nunsThey were all sorts of ages although there were only two or three who were undeniably younger than me, which made me wonder quietly about their future as an order; but on the other hand you never met so many older women with young hearts and supple minds as this particular hullabaloo of nuns.

Over the course of the morning I heard many interesting and sad and funny and piercing stories from this wonderment of nuns, this intensity of nuns, this insistence of nuns, but the story that stays with me this morning is the nun who talked to me about the 50, count them 50, years she spent as a kindergarten teacher, in four schools, two of them quite rural, one quite urban, and one, she said, in the furthest outskirts of the city, the place where immigrants and migrants and really poor people live, the place where the bus route ends, the sort of place where streets have numbers instead of names.

I was only there for a year, filling in for someone, she said, but I remember at the end of the year the children gave me all sorts of food as parting gifts — jams their mums made, and fish their dads had smoked, and goat meat, and pears, and a rooster.

I remember that rooster particularly, because he was a recalcitrant creature, and we parted ways soon after we met, with no love lost on either side. I say this who has taken vows to celebrate the holy in every living thing, but there are some limits to what you can take with equanimity.

It was at that school, she said, that I got into a habit I kept up for the rest of my days as a kindergarten teacher. It started because a little boy came to class with a note pinned to his shirt. The note was from his dad and it said that the boy didn't speak much American but he was a very good boy, a tender boy, a bright boy, and if I would just let him sit in class and absorb the American, he would pretty soon soak it up, he was a sponge of a boy that way, and they would all work at home to learn American better, in fact the rule of the house now was that they would only speak American in the house, and no more Estonian, although you could still go out in the yard and speak Estonian if you really had to.

Indeed that boy was a sponge, continued the nun, and within weeks you would never have known that American was not his native tongue, but something about the note pinned on his shirt gave me an idea.


"The children wore those notes with such pride. They would stand up straight and stick their bony chests out, and they would finger the note reverently like it was Holy Scripture."


All children in kindergarten are thrilled and terrified in those first days and weeks, and these kids in particular were even more so, because many of them were from other countries and languages, so I got into the habit of pinning a note to their shirts when they went home.

For the first two weeks I sent every child home with a note, and then we went to a weekly note, a custom we kept up for the rest of the year. When we went to the weekly note the notes became more businesslike, talking about school events and that sort of thing, but for the first two weeks I concentrated on talking about the child himself or herself. 

I would write notes saying things like this boy has the brightest happiest most engaging smile I have ever seen, or this girl is the most avid eager reader I have ever met, or this boy is wonderfully kind to the shyest children in class. That sort of thing.

And the children wore those notes with such pride, she said. They would stand up straight and stick their bony chests out as I knelt to pin the note to their shirts, and then they would finger the note reverently like it was Holy Scripture, which in a real sense it was, you know?

So when you ask me what I miss most about being a teacher, it's pinning those notes on those wonderful holy children. That's what I miss the most. I still have a box of the safety pins I used for those notes and I open the box sometimes and riffle through the pins and remember. A subtle form of meditative prayer, like saying the Rosary, it seems to me. Don't you think so?

And I said, yes, Sister, I do. Yes.



Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle was the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and a prolific writer. He died in 2017.

Main image: kajojak, Flickr CC

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, religious life, Catholic Church, religion, nuns



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Existing comments

What a beautiful story... what a beautiful nun... Hmm.. the nuns that I remember from my childhood I remember because they were crabby, or conservative, or - from my point of view at the time - too strict. I know that this is the selective memory of childhood. But the nuns that I've met in my adult years - to a person... Wow.. what a formidable force of love, justice and change! Stronger people I am yet to meet!

DeC | 06 July 2016  


Lisa | 06 July 2016  

A very moving story. The notes epitomise what every teacher should do... really connect with the students in her care!

Rosalie Jones | 06 July 2016  

Meanwhile Vatican notes for chests: Last week, the National Catholic Reporter broke the news that the Loretto Sisters were being summoned to Rome for a face-to-face dialogue regarding "areas of concern" in their adherence to church teaching and way of living religious life. NCR and GSR have since learned that the Vatican has requested some manner of clarification from 15 U.S. communities.

Father John George | 06 July 2016  

There was a little book back a "few" years called "I Am Lovable and Capable".it described how each of us has a note "pinned " to us saying just that , but how each day someone or something by certain actions tears off a little bit of that note until at the end of the day we are feeling not very lovable or capable. It would be great to believe that like the teacher Brian wrote about there are still people who work to build affirmation in all people with whom they come in contact .

Celia | 06 July 2016  

Brian you missed the obvious in your introduction. It is the term "murder of crows" or "murder of nuns"! Glad you had good childhood experience with them. Many can actually relate to the first commentators experience of them. There were so many who should never have joined the Orders, but poverty and family religious fervour were forces beyond their control. Then there were the cranky and belligerent ones who were in the nursing profession. Lots of women recall there unhappy birthing experiences with these 'nuns'. Maybe that is why there are such fewer numbers. Certainly not better or more important women than those who are single or married and not living in religious community. No matter what the religious propaganda puts forward.

Rare | 06 July 2016  

Was I just ones of the lucky ones? I don't think so. I was taught by the best teachers . They happened to be religious sisters. I know septuagenarian sisters who are still working in the service of others , namely with refugees , disabled and the unemployed. I am truly over nun , brother and priest bashing. Comments uttered about cranky , cruel nuns , lazy brothers and wayward priests leave me cold. I wonder about the motives of the "bashers". There were grumpy , stern lay nurses and educators too.. Just ask a few of my friends who attended state run facilities.

Celia | 06 July 2016  

I went to primary school at the very western end of the Railway track. Heading due west from Brisbane. The Brown Josephites arrived on the Flying Flea. [the local steam train] it was hot as hell and they wore long habits and hobnail boots. Mum would bounce in to say the NUNS were back to start the School year. I was lucky I learnt the JOY of my life MUSIC. It was with a stick and a penny [I still have] a CRACK ON THE KNUCKLES and forced back tears.. how it ever become LOVE? I got 99% for a Music Exam and a whack on the legs for not getting 100%. The rough Bushie kids were in uniform and that was it. Today I had a visit from my Primary school Nun, she taught me 61 years ago Her writing can only be hers. Still a mind like Einstein at his best. She asks about every living soul we knew. The old hot habit left to become white and then dresses.... all has changed except her mind for detail. The last time we met a few years ago I lost a button on my shirt. This time she said "Have you used self-threading needles? I bought you a packet"... I got married in W.A. and asked the Matron of the St.John of God Hospital to be Best Man? She was my best Mate so she got permission. LOL. Not too many guys can say their best man was the Matron / a NUN.

Francis | 06 July 2016  

Hi Brian I keep a folder on my iPad named Brian Doyle. I am just about to add this article to the many others of your writings I have gathered over the years. Thank you again.

John Casey | 06 July 2016  

kindergarten is such a magical place; how privileged are those who have been kindergarten teachers.

Ann Laidlaw | 06 July 2016