staircase, seldom used, which leads into the fourth community-room, in the first story. Following the passage just mentioned, you enter by a door–
3d. A little sitting-room, furnished in the following manner: with chairs, a sofa, on the north side, covered with a red-figured cover and fringe, a table in the middle, commonly bearing one or two books, an inkstand, pens, &c. At one corner is a little projection into the room, caused by a staircase leading from above to the floor below, without any communication with the second story. This room has a door opening upon a staircase leading down to the yard, on the opposite side of which is a gate opening into the cross street. By this way the physician is admitted, except when he comes later than usual. When he comes in, he usually sits a little while, until a nun goes into the adjoining nuns’ sick-room, to see if all is ready, and returns to admit him. After prescribing for the patients he goes no farther, but returns by the way he enters; and these two are the only rooms into which he is ever admitted, except the public hospital.
4th. The nuns’ sick-room adjoins the little sitting-room on the east, and has, I think, four windows towards the north, with beds ranged in two rows from end to end, and a few more between them, near the opposite extremity. The door from the sitting-room swings to the left, and behind it is a table, while a glass case, to the right, contains a wax figure of the infant Saviour, with several sheep. Near the northeastern corner of this room are two doors, one of which opens into a long and narrow passage leading to the head of the great staircase that conducts to the cross street. By this passage the physician sometimes finds his way to the sick-room, when he comes later than usual. He rings the bell at the gate, which I was told had a concealed pull, known only to him and the priests, proceeds up-stairs and through the passage, rapping three times at the door of the sick-room, which is opened by a nun in attendance, after she has given one rap in reply. When he has visited his patients, and prescribed for them, he returns by the same way.
5th. Next beyond this sick-room, is a large unoccupied apartment, half divided by two partial partitions, which leave an open space in the middle. Here some of the old nuns commonly sit in the day-time.
6th. A door from this apartment opens into another not appropriated to any particular use, but containing a table, where medicines are sometimes prepared by an old nun, who is usually found there. Passing through this room, you enter a passage with doors on its four sides: that on the left, which is kept fastened on the inside, leads to the staircase and gate; that in front, to private sick-rooms soon to be described.
7th. That on the right leads to another, appropriated to nuns suffering with the most loathsome disease. There were usually a number of straw mattresses, in that room, as I well knew, having helped to carry them in after the yard-man had filled them. A door beyond enters into a store- room, which extends also beyond this apartment. On the right, another door opens into another passage; crossing which, you enter by a door–
8th. A room with a bed and screen in one corner, on which nuns were laid to be examined before their introduction into the sick-room last mentioned. Another door, opposite the former, opens into a passage, in which is a staircase leading down.
9th. Beyond this is a spare-room, sometimes used to store apples, boxes of different things, &c.
10th. Returning now to the passage which opens on one side upon the stairs to the gate, we enter the only remaining door, which leads into an apartment usually occupied by some of the old nuns, and frequently by the Superior.
11th, and 12th. Beyond this are two more sick-rooms, in one of which those nuns stay who are waiting their accouchment, and in the other, those who have passed it.
13th. The next is a small sitting-room, where a priest waits to baptize the infants previous to their murder. A passage leads from this room, on the left, by the doors of two succeeding apartments, neither of which have I ever entered.
14th. The first of them is the “holy retreat,” or room occupied by the priests, while suffering the penalty of their licentiousness.
15th. The other is a sitting-room, to which they have access. Beyond these the passage leads to two rooms, containing closets for the storage of various articles, and two others where persons are received who come on business.
The public hospitals succeed, and extend a considerable distance, I believe, to the extremity of the building. By a public entrance in that part, priests often come into the nunnery; and I have often seen some of them thereabouts, who must have entered by that way. Indeed, priests often get into the “holy retreat” without exposing themselves to the view of persons in other parts of the Convent, and have been first known to be there, by the yard-man being sent to the Seminary for their clothes.
The Congregational Nunnery was founded by a nun called Sister Bourgeoise. She taught a school in Montreal, and left property for the foundation of a Convent. Her body is buried, and her heart is kept, under the nunnery, in an iron chest, which has been shown to me, with the assurance that it continues in perfect preservation, although she has been dead more than one hundred and fifty years. In the chapel is the following inscription: “Soeur Bourgeoise, Fondatrice du Couvent”– Sister Bourgeoise, Founder of the Convent.
Nothing was more common than for the Superior to step hastily into our community-rooms, while numbers of us were assembled there, and hastily communicate her wishes in words like these:–
“Here are the parents of such a novice: come with me, and bear me out in this story.” She would then mention the outlines of a tissue of falsehoods, she had just invented, that we might be prepared to fabricate circumstances, and throw in whatever else might favor the deception. This was justified, and indeed most highly commended, by the system of faith in which we were instructed.
It was a common remark made at the initiation of a new nun into the Black nun department, that is, to receive the black veil, that the introduction of another novice into the Convent as a veiled nun, caused the introduction of a veiled nun into heaven as a saint, which was on account of the singular disappearance of some of the older nuns at the entrance of new ones!
To witness the scenes which often occurred between us and strangers, would have struck a person very powerfully, if he had known how truth was set at naught. The Superior, with a serious and dignified air, and a pleasant voice and aspect, would commence a recital of things most favorable to the character of the absent novice, and representing her as equally fond of her situation, and beloved by the other inmates. The tale told by the Superior, whatever it was, however unheard before, might have been any of her statements, was then attested by us, who, in every way we could think of, endeavored to confirm her declarations, beyond the reach of doubt.
Sometimes the Superior would intrust the management of such a case to some of the nuns, whether to habituate us to the practice in which she was so highly accomplished, or to relieve herself of what would have been a serious burden to most other persons, or to ascertain whether she could depend upon us, or all together, I cannot tell. Often, however, have I seen her throw open a door, and say, in a hurried manner, “Who can tell the best story?”
One point, on which we received frequent and particular, instructions was, the nature of falsehoods. On this subject I have heard many a speech, I had almost said many a sermon; and I was led to believe that it was one of great importance, one on which it was a duty to be well informed, as well as to act. “What!” exclaimed a priest one day–“what, a nun of your age, and not know the difference between a wicked and a religious lie!”
He then went on, as had been done many times previously in my hearing, to show the essential difference between the two different kinds of falsehoods. A lie told merely for the injury of another, for our own interest alone, or for no object at all, he painted as a sin worthy of penance. But a lie told for the good of the church or Convent, was meritorious, and of course the telling of it a duty. And of this class of lies there were many varieties and shades. This doctrine has been inculcated on me and my companions in the nunnery, more times than I can enumerate: and to say that it was generally received, would be to tell a part of the truth. We often saw the practice of it, and were frequently made to take part in it. Whenever anything which the Superior thought important, could be most conveniently accomplished by falsehood, she resorted to it without scruple.
There was a class of cases in which she more frequently relied on deception than any other.
The friends of the novices frequently applied at the Convent to see them, or at least to inquire after their welfare. It was common for them to be politely refused an interview, on some account or other, generally a mere pretext; and then the Superior usually sought to make as favorable an impression as possible on the visitors. Sometimes she would make up a story on the spot, and tell the strangers; requiring some of us to confirm it, in the most convincing way we could.
At other times she would prefer to make over to us the task of deceiving, and we were commended in proportion to our ingenuity and success.
Some nun usually showed her submission, by immediately stepping forward. She would then add, perhaps, that the parents of such a novice, whom she named, were in waiting, and it was necessary that they should be told such, and such, and such things. To perform so difficult a task well, was considered a difficult duty, and it was one of the most certain ways to gain the favour of the Superior. Whoever volunteered to make a story on the spot, was sent immediately to tell it, and the other nuns present were hurried off with her under strict injunctions to uphold her in every thing she might state. The Superior, as there was every reason to believe, on all such occasions, when she did not herself appear, hastened to the apartment adjoining that in which the nuns were going, there to listen through the thin partition, to hear whether all performed their parts aright. It was not uncommon for her to go rather further, when she wanted time to give such explanations as she could have desired. She would then enter abruptly, ask, “Who can tell a good story this morning?” and hurry us off without a moment’s delay, to do our best at a venture, without waiting for instructions. It would be curious, could a stranger from “the wicked world” outside the Convent witness such a scene. One of the nuns, who felt in a favourable humour to undertake the proposed task, would step promptly forward, and signify her readiness in the usual way: by a knowing wink of one eye, and slight toss of the head.
“Well go and do the best you can,” the superior would say; “and all the rest of you must mind and swear to it.” The latter part of the order, at least, was always performed; for in every such case, all the nuns present appeared as unanimous witnesses of everything that was uttered by the spokesman of the day.
We were constantly hearing it repeated, that we must never again look upon ourselves as our own; but must remember, that we were solemnly and irrevocably devoted to God. Whatever was required of us, we were called upon to yield under the most solemn considerations. I cannot speak on every particular with equal freedom: but I wish my readers clearly to understand the condition in which we were placed, and the means used to reduce us to what we had to submit to. Not only were we required to perform the several tasks imposed upon us at work, prayers, and penances, under the idea that we were performing solemn duties to our Maker, but every thing else which was required of us, we were constantly told, was something indispensable in his sight. The priests, we admitted were the servants of God, specially appointed by his authority, to teach us our duty, to absolve us from sin, and to lead us to heaven. Without their assistance, we had allowed we could never enjoy the favour of God; unless they administered the sacraments to us, we could not enjoy everlasting happiness. Having consented to acknowledge all this, we had no other objection to urge against admitting any other demand that might be made for or by them. If we thought an act ever so criminal, the Superior would tell us that the priests acted under the direct sanction of God, and _could not sin_. Of course, then, it could not be wrong to comply with any of their requests, because they could not demand any thing but what was right. On the contrary, to refuse to do any thing they asked, would necessarily be sinful. Such doctrines admitted, and such practices performed, it will not seem wonderful when I mention that we often felt something of their preposterous character.
Sometimes we took a pleasure in ridiculing some of the favourite themes of our teachers; and I recollect one subject particularly, which at one period afforded us repeated merriment. It may seem irreverent in me to give the account, but I do it to show how things of a solemn nature were sometimes treated in the Convent, by women bearing the title of saints. A Canadian Novice, who spoke very broken English, one day remarked that she was performing some duty “for the God.” This peculiar expression had something ridiculous to the ears of some of us; and it was soon repeated again and again, in application to various ceremonies which we had to perform. Mad Jane Ray seized upon it with avidity, and with her aid it soon took the place of a by-word in conversation, so that we were constantly reminding each other, that we were doing this and that thing, how trifling and unmeaning soever, “for the God.” Nor did we stop here: when the superior called upon us to bear witness to one of her religious lies, or to fabricate the most spurious one the time would admit; to save her the trouble, we were sure to be reminded, on our way to the strangers’ room, that we were doing it “for the God.” And so it was when other things were mentioned–every thing which belonged to our condition, was spoken of in similar terms.
I have hardly detained the reader long enough on the subject, to give him a just impression of the stress laid on confession. It is one of the great points to which our attention was constantly directed. We were directed to keep a strict and constant watch over our thoughts; to have continually before our minds the rules of the Convent, to compare the one with the other, remember every devotion, and tell all, even the smallest, at confession, either to the Superior or to the priest. My mind was thus kept in a continual state of activity, which proved very wearisome; and it required the constant exertion of our teachers, to keep us up to the practice they inculcated.
Another tale recurs to me, of those which were frequently told us to make us feel the importance of unreserved confession. A nun of our Convent, who had hidden some sin from her confessor, died suddenly, and without any one to confess her. Her sisters assembled to pray for the peace of her soul, when she appeared, and informed them, that it would be of no use, but rather troublesome to her, as her pardon was impossible. [Footnote: Since the first edition, I have found this tale related in a Romish book, as one of very ancient date. It was told to us as having taken place in our Convent.] The doctrine is, that prayers made for souls guilty of unconfessed sin, do but sink them deeper in hell; and this is the reason I have heard given for not praying for Protestants.
The authority of the priests in everything, and the enormity of every act which opposes it, were also impressed upon our minds, in various ways, by our teachers. A “Father” told us the following story one day at catechism.
A man once died who had failed to pay some money which the priest had asked of him; he was condemned to be burnt in purgatory until he should pay it but had permission to come back to this world, and take a human body to work in. He made his appearance therefore again on earth, and hired himself to a rich man as a labourer. He worked all day with the fire burning in him, unseen by other people; but while he was in bed that night, a girl in an adjoining room, perceiving the smell of brimstone, looked through a crack in the wall, and saw him covered with flames. She informed his master, who questioned him the next morning, and found that his hired man was secretly suffering the pains of purgatory, for neglecting to pay a certain sum of money to the priest. He, therefore furnished him the amount due; it was paid, and the servant went off immediately to heaven. The priest cannot forgive any debt due unto him, because it is the Lord’s estate.
While at confession, I was urged to hide nothing from the priest, and have been told by them, that they already knew what was in my heart, but would not tell, because it was necessary for me to confess it. I really believed that the priests were acquainted with my thoughts; and often stood in great awe of them. They often told me they had power to strike me dead at any moment.
Nuns with similar names–Squaw Nuns–First visit to the Cellar– Description of it–Shocking discovery there–Superior’s Instructions– Private Signal of the Priests–Books used in the Nunnery–Opinions expressed of the Bible–Specimens of what I know of the Scriptures.
I found that I had several namesakes among the nuns, for there were two others who already bore my new name, Saint Eustace. This was not a solitary case, for there were five Saint Marys, and three Saint Monros, besides two novices of that name. Of my namesakes I have little to say, for they resembled most of the nuns; being so much cut off from intercourse with me and the other sisters, that I never saw anything in them, nor learnt any thing about them, worth mentioning.
Several of my new companions were squaws, who had taken the veil at different times. They were from some of the Indian settlements in the country, but were not distinguishable by any striking habits of character from other nuns, and were generally not very different in their appearance when in their usual dress, and engaged in their customary occupations. It was evident, that they were treated with much kindness and lenity by the Superior and the old nuns; and this I discovered was done in order to render them as well contented and happy in their situation as possible. I should have attributed the motives for this partiality to their wishing that they might not influence others to keep away, had I not known they were, like ourselves, unable to exert such an influence. And therefore, I could not satisfy my own mind why this difference was made. Many of the Indians were remarkably devoted to the priests, believing every thing they were taught; and as it is represented to be not only a high honor, but a real advantage to a family, to have one of its members become a nun, Indian parents will often pay large sums of money for the admission of their daughters into a convent. The father of one of the squaws, I was told, paid to the Superior nearly her weight in silver on her reception, although he was obliged to sell nearly all his property to raise the money. This he did voluntarily, because he thought himself overpaid by having the advantage of her prayers, self-sacrifices, &c. for himself and the remainder of his family. The squaws sometimes served to amuse us; for when we were partially dispirited or gloomy, the Superior would occasionally send them to dress themselves in their Indian garments, which usually excited us to merriment.
Among the squaw nuns whom I particularly remember, was one of the Sainte Hypolites, not the one who figured in a dreadful scene, described in another part of this narrative, but a woman of a far more mild and humane character.
Three or four days after my reception, the Superior sent me into the cellar for coal; and after she had given me directions, I proceeded down a staircase, with a lamp in my hand. I soon found myself upon the bare earth, in a spacious place, so dark, that I could not at once distinguish its form, or size, but I observed that it had very solid stone walls, and was arched overhead, at no great elevation. Following my directions, I proceeded onward from the foot of the stairs, where appeared to be one end of the cellar. After walking about fifteen paces, I passed three small doors, on the right, fastened with large iron bolts on the outside, pushed into posts of stone-work, and each having a small opening above, covered with a fine grating, secured by a smaller bolt. On my left, were three similar doors, resembling these, and placed opposite them.
Beyond these, the space became broader; the doors evidently closed small compartments, projecting from the outer wall of the cellar. I soon stepped upon a wooden floor, on which were heaps of wool, coarse linen, and other articles, apparently deposited there for occasional use. I soon crossed the floor, and found the bare earth again under my feet.
A little farther on, I found the cellar again contracted in size, by a row of closets, or smaller compartments projecting on each side. These were closed by doors of a different description from the first, having a simple fastening, and no opening through them. Just beyond, on the left side, I passed a staircase leading up, and then three doors, much resembling those first described, standing opposite three more, on the other side of the cellar. Having passed these, I found the cellar enlarged as before, and here the earth appeared as if mixed with some whitish substance, which attracted my attention.
As I proceeded, I found the whiteness increase, until the surface looked almost like snow, and in a short time I observed before me, a hole dug so deep into the earth that I could perceive no bottom. I stopped to observe it.–It was circular, perhaps twelve or fifteen feet across; in the middle of the cellar, and unprotected by any kind of curb, so that one might easily have walked into it, in the dark.
The white substance which I had observed, was spread all over the surface around it; and lay in such quantities on all sides, that it seemed as if a great deal of it must have been thrown into the hole. It immediately occurred to me that the white substance was lime, and that this must be the place where the infants were buried, after being murdered, as the Superior had informed me. I knew that lime is often used by Roman Catholics in burying-places; and in this way I accounted for its being scattered about the spot in such quantities.
This was a shocking thought to me; but I can hardly tell how it affected me, as I had already been prepared to expect dreadful things in the Convent, and had undergone trials which prevented me from feeling as I should formerly have done in similar circumstances.
I passed the spot, therefore, with distressing thoughts, it is true, about the little corpses, which might be in that secret burying-place, but with recollections also of the declarations which I had heard, about the favor done their souls by sending them straight to heaven, and the necessary virtue accompanying all the actions of the priests.
Whether I noticed them or not, at the time, there is a window or two on each, nearly against the hole, in at which are sometimes thrown articles brought to them from without, for the use of the Convent. Through the windows on my right, which opens into the yard, towards the cross street, lime is received from carts; and I then saw a large heap of it near the place.
Passing the hole, I came to a spot where was another projection on each side, with three cells like those I first described.–Beyond them, in another broad part of the cellar, were heaps of vegetables, and other things, on the right; and on the left I found the charcoal I was in search of. This was placed in a heap against the wall, as I might then have observed, near a small high window, like the rest, at which it is thrown in. Beyond this spot, at a short distance, the cellar terminated.
The top quite to that point, is arched overhead, though at different heights, for the earth on the bottom is uneven, and in some places several feet higher than in others.
Not liking to be alone in so spacious and gloomy a part of the Convent, especially after the discovery I had made, I hastened to fill my basket with coal, and to return.
Here then I was, in a place which I had considered as the nearest imitation of heaven to be found on earth, among a society where deeds were constantly perpetrated, which I had believed to be most criminal, and I had now found the place in which harmless infants were unfeelingly thrown out of sight, after being murdered.
And yet, such is the power of instruction and example, although not satisfied, as many around me seemed to be, that all was righteous and proper, I sometimes was half inclined to believe it, for the priests could do no sin, and this was done by priests.
Among the first instructions I received from the Superior, were such as prepared me to admit priests into the nunnery from the street at irregular hours. It is no secret, that priests enter and go out; but if they were to be watched by any person in St. Paul’s street all day long, no irregularity might he suspected; and they might be supposed to visit the Convent for the performance of religious ceremonies merely.
But if a person was near the gate at midnight, he might sometimes form a different opinion; for when a stray priest is shut out of the Seminary, or is otherwise put to the need of seeking a lodging, he is always sure of being admitted to the black nunnery. Nobody but a priest or the physician can ring the bell at the sick-room door; much less can any others gain admittance. The pull of the bell is entirely concealed, somewhere on the outside of the gate, I have been told.
He makes himself known as a priest by a peculiar kind of hissing sound, made by the tongue against the teeth, while they are kept closed, and the lips open. The nun within, who delays to open the door, until informed what kind of an applicant is there, immediately recognizes the signal, and replies with two inarticulate sounds, such as are often used instead of yes, with the mouth closed.
The Superior seemed to consider this part of my instructions quite important, and taught me the signals. I had often occasion to use them; I have been repeatedly called to the door, in the night, while watching in a sick room, and on reaching it, heard the short hissing sound I have mentioned; then, according to my standing orders, unfastened the door, admitted the priest, who was at liberty to go where he pleased. I will name Mr. Bierze, from St. Denis.
The books used in the nunnery, at least such as I recollect of them, were the following. Most of these are lecture books, or such as are used by the daily readers, while we were at work, and meals. These were all furnished by the Superior, out of her library, to which we never had access. She was informed when we had done with one book, and then exchanged it for such another as she pleased to select.
Le Miroir du Chretien (Christian Mirror), History of Rome, History of the Church, Life of Soeur Bourgeoise, (the founder of the Convent), in two volumes, L’Ange Conducteur (the Guardian Angel), L’Ange Chretien (the Christian Angel), Les Vies des Saints (Lives of Saints), in several volumes, Dialogues, a volume consisting of conversations between a Protestant Doctor, called Dr. D. and a Catholic gentleman, on the articles of faith, in which, after much ingenious reasoning, the former was confuted. One large book, the name of which I have forgotten, occupied us nine or ten months at our lectures, night and morning. L’Instruction de la Jeunesse (the Instruction of Youth), containing much about Convents, and the education of persons in the world, with a great deal on confessions, &c. Examen de la Conscience, (Examination of Conscience), is a book frequently used.
I may here remark, that I never saw a Bible in the Convent from the day I entered as a novice, until that on which I effected my escape. The Catholic New Testament, commonly called the Evangile, was read to us about three or four times a year. The Superior directed the reader what passage to select; but we never had it in our hands to read when we pleased. I often heard the Protestant Bible spoken of in bitter terms, as a most dangerous book, and one which never ought to be in the hands of common people.
Manufacture of Bread and Wax Candles carried on in the Convent– Superstitions–Scapularies–Virgin Mary’s pincushion–Her House–The Bishop’s power over fire–My Instructions to Novices–Jane Ray– Vacillation of feelings.
Large quantities of bread are made in the Black Nunnery every week, for besides what is necessary to feed the nuns, many of the poor are supplied. When a priest wishes to give a loaf of bread to a poor person, he gives him an order, which is presented at the Convent. The making of bread is therefore one of the most laborious employments in the Institution.
The manufacture of wax candles was another important branch of business in the nunnery. It was carried on in a small room, on the first floor, thence called the Ciergerie, or wax-room; _cierge_ being the French word for a _wax candle_. I was sometimes sent to read the daily lecture and catechism to the nuns employed there, but found it a very unpleasant task, as the smell rising from the melted wax gave me a sickness at the stomach. The employment was considered rather unhealthy, and those were assigned to it who had the strongest constitutions. The nuns who were more commonly employed in that room, were Sainte Marie, Sainte Catharine, Sainte Charlotte, Sainte Francis, Sainte Hyacinthe, Sainte Hypolite, and others. But with these, as with other persons in the Convent, I was never allowed to speak, except under circumstances before mentioned. I was sent to read, and was not allowed even to answer the most trivial question, if one were asked me. Should a nun say, “what o’clock is it?” I never should have dared to reply, but was required to report her to the Superior.
Much stress was laid on the _sainte scapulaire_, or, holy scapulary. This is a small band of cloth or silk, formed and wrought in a peculiar manner, to be tied around the neck by two strings, fastened to the ends. I have made many of them, having been sometimes set to make them in the Convent. On one side is worked a kind of double cross, (thus, XX) and on the other I. II. S., the meaning of which I do not exactly know. Such a band is called a scapulary, and many miracles are attributed to its power. Children on first receiving the communion are often presented with scapularies, which they are taught to regard with great reverence. We were told of the wonders effected by their means, in the addresses made to us, by priests at catechism or lectures. I will repeat one or two of the stories which occur to me.
A Roman Catholic servant woman, who had concealed some of her sins at confession, acted so hypocritical a part as to make her mistress believe her a _decote_, or a strict observer of her duty. She even imposed upon her confessor, to such a degree, that he gave her a scapulary. After he had given it, however, one of the saints in heaven informed him in a vision, that the holy scapulary must not remain on the neck of so great a sinner; and that it must be restored to the church. She lay down that night with the scapulary round her throat, but in the morning was found dead, with her head cut off, and the scapulary was discovered in the church. The belief was, that the devil could not endure to have so holy a thing on one of his servants, and had pulled so hard to get it off, as to draw the silken thread with which it was tied, through her neck; after which, by some divine power it was restored to the church.
Another story was as follows. A poor Roman Catholic was once taken prisoner by the heretics. He had a _sainte scapulaire_ on his neck, when God seeing him in the midst of his foes, took it from his neck by a miracle, and held it up in the air above the throng of heretics; more than one hundred of whom were converted, by seeing it thus supernaturally suspended.
I had been informed by the Superior, on my first admission as a nun, that there was a subterraneous passage, leading from the cellar of our Convent into that of the Congregational Nunnery; but, though I had so often visited the cellar, I had never seen it. One day, after I had been received three or four months, I was sent to walk through it upon my knees with another nun, as a penance. This, and other penances, were sometimes put upon us by the priests, without any reason assigned. The common way, indeed, was to tell us of the sin for which a penance was imposed, but we were left many times to conjecture. Now and then the priests would inform us at a subsequent confession, when he happened to recollect something about it, as I thought, and not because he reflected, or cared much about the subject.
The nun who was with me led me through the cellar, passing to the right of the secret burying place, and showed me the door of the subterraneous passage, which was at the extremity towards the Congregational Nunnery. The reasons why I had not noticed it before, I presume, were that it was made to shut close and even with the wall, and all that part of the cellar was whitewashed. The door, which is of wood, and square, opens with a latch into a passage, about four feet and a half high. We immediately got upon our knees, commenced saying the prayers required, and began to move slowly along the dark and narrow passage. It may be fifty or sixty feet in length; when we reached the end, we opened a door, and found ourselves in the cellar of the Congregational Nunnery, at some distance from the outer wall; for the covered way is carried in towards the middle of the cellar by two low partitions covered at the top. By the side of the door, was placed a list of names of the Black nuns, with a slide, that might be drawn over any of them. We covered our names in this manner, as evidence of having performed the duty assigned us; and then returned backwards on our knees, by the way we had come. This penance I repeatedly performed afterwards; and by this way, as I have occasion elsewhere to mention, nuns from the Congregational Nunnery, sometimes entered our Convent for worse purposes.
We were frequently assured, that miracles are still performed; and pains were taken to impress us deeply on this subject. The Superior often spoke to us of the Virgin Mary’s pincushion, the remains of which it is pretended are preserved in the Convent, though it has crumbled quite to dust. We regarded this relic with such veneration, that we were afraid even to look at it, and we often heard the following story related, when the subject was introduced.
A priest in Jerusalem once had a vision, in which he was informed that the house in which the Virgin had lived, should be removed from its foundations, and transported to a distance. He did not think the communication was from God, and therefore disregarded it; but the house was soon after missed, which convinced him that the vision was true, and he told where the house might be found. A picture of the house is preserved in the Nunnery, and was sometimes shown us. There are also wax figures of Joseph sawing wood, and Jesus as a child, picking up the chips. We were taught to sing a little song relating to this, the chorus of which I remember.
“Saint Joseph charpentier,
Petit Jesus ramassait les copeaux Pour fair bouillir la marmite.”
St. Joseph was a carpenter, little Jesus collected chips to make the pot boil.
I began to speak of miracles, and I recollect a story of one, about a family in Italy saved from shipwreck by a priest, who were in consequence converted and had two sons honoured with the priest’s office.
I had heard before I entered the Convent, about a great fire which destroyed a number of houses in the Quebec suburbs, and which some said the Bishop extinguished with holy water. I once heard a Catholic and a Protestant disputing on this subject, and when I went to the Congregational Nunnery, I sometimes heard the children, alluding to the same story, say at an alarm of fire, “Is it a Catholic fire? Then why does not the Bishop run?”
Among the topics on which the bishop addressed the nuns in the Convent this was one. He told us the story one day, and said he could have sooner interfered and stopped the flames, but that at last, finding they were about to destroy too many Catholic houses, he threw holy water on the fire, and extinguished it. I believed this, and also thought that he was able to put out any fire, but that he never did it, except when inspired.
The holy water which the Bishop had consecrated, was considered much more efficacious, than any blessed by a common priest; and this it was which was used in the Convent in sprinkling our beds. It had virtue in it, to keep off any evil spirits.
Now that I was a nun, I was occasionally sent to read lectures to the novices, as other nuns had been while I was a novice. There were but few of us, who were thought capable of reading English well enough, and therefore, I was more frequently sent than I might otherwise have been. The Superior often said to me, as I was going among the novices:
“Try to convert them–save their souls–you know you will have a higher place in heaven for every one you convert.”
For whatever reason, Mad Jane Ray seemed to take great delight in crossing and provoking the Superior and old nuns; and often she would cause an interruption when it was most inconvenient and displeasing to them. The preservation of silence was insisted upon most rigidly, and penances of such a nature were imposed for breaking it, that it was a constant source of uneasiness with me, to know that I might infringe the rules in so many ways, and that inattention might at any moment subject me to something very unpleasant. During the periods of meditation, therefore, and those of lecture, work, and repose, I kept a strict guard upon myself, to escape penances, as well as to avoid sin; and the silence of the other nuns, convinced me that they were equally watchful, and from the same motives.
My feelings, however, varied at different times, and so did those of many, if not all my companions, excepting the older ones, who took their turns in watching us. We sometimes felt disposed for gaiety, and threw off all ideas that talking was sinful, even when forbidden by the rules of the Convent. And even when I felt that I might perhaps be doing wrong, I reflected that confession, and certainly penance, would soon wipe off the guilt.
I may remark here, that I ere long found out several things, important to be known, to a person living under such rules. One of these was, that it was much better to confess to a priest, a sin committed against the rules, because he would not require one of the penances I most disliked, viz.: those which exposed of me to the observation of the nuns, or which demanded self-debasement before them, like begging their pardon, kissing the floor, or the Superior’s feet, &c., and, besides, he as a confessor was said to be bound to secrecy, and could not inform the Superior against me. My conscience being as effectually unburthened by my confession to the priest, as I had been taught to believe, I therefore preferred not to tell my sins to any one else; and this course I found was preferred by others for the same good reasons.
To Jane Ray, however, it sometimes appeared to be a matter of perfect indifference, who knew her violations of rule, or to what penances she exposed herself.
Often and often, while perfect silence prevailed among the nuns, at meditation, or while nothing was to be heard except the voice of the reader appointed for the day, no matter whose life or writings were presented for our contemplations, Jane would break forth with some remark or question, that would attract general attention, and often cause a long and total interruption. Sometimes she would make some harmless remark or inquiry aloud, as if through mere inadvertency, and then her well-known voice, so strongly associated with every thing singular and ridiculous, would arrest the attention of us all, and generally incline us to smile, and even force us to laugh. The Superior would then usually utter some hasty remonstrance, and many a time have I heard her pronounce some penance upon her; but Jane had ever some apology ready, or some reply calculated to irritate still farther, or to prove to every one, that no punishment would be effectual on her. Sometimes this singular woman would appear to be actuated by opposite feelings and motives; for although she usually delighted in drawing others into difficulty, and has thrown many a severe penance even upon her greatest favourites; on other occasions she appeared totally regardless of consequences herself, and preferred to take all the blame, anxious only to shield others.
I have repeatedly known her to break silence in the community, as if she had no object, or none beyond that of causing disturbance, or exciting a smile, and as soon as it was noticed, exclaim: “Say it’s me, say it’s me!”
Sometimes she would even expose herself to punishments in place of another who was guilty; and thus I found it difficult fully to understand her. In some cases she seemed decidedly out of her wits, as the Superior and priests commonly preferred to represent her; but generally I saw in her what prevented me from accounting her insane.
Among her most common tricks were such as these: She gave me the name of the “Devout English Reader,” because I was often appointed to make the lecture to the English girls; and sometimes, after taking a seat near me, under pretence of deafness, would whisper it in my hearing, because she knew my want of self-command when excited to laughter. Thus she often exposed me to penances for a breach of decorum, and set me to biting my lips, to avoid laughing outright in the midst of a solemn lecture. “Oh! you devout English Reader!” would sometimes come upon me suddenly from her lips, with something in it so ludicrous that I had to exert myself to the utmost to avoid observation.
This came so often at one time, that I grew uneasy, and told her I must confess it, to unburden my conscience; I had not done so before, because she would complain of me, for giving way to temptation.
Sometimes she would pass behind us as we stood at dinner ready to sit down, and softly moving back our chairs, leave us to fall down upon the floor. This she repeatedly has done; and While we were laughing together, she would spring forward, kneel to the Superior, and beg her pardon and a penance.
Alarming Order from the Superior–Proceed to execute it–Scene in an upper Room–Sentence of Death, and Murder–My own distress–Reports made to friends of St. Francis.
But I must now come to one deed, in which I had some part, and which I look back upon with greater horror and pain, than any occurrences in the Convent, in which I was not the principal sufferer. It is not necessary for me to attempt to excuse myself in this or any other case. Those who have any disposition to judge fairly, will exercise their own judgment in making allowances for me, under the fear and force, the commands and examples, around me. I, therefore, shall confine myself, as usual, to the simple narrative of facts. The time was about five months after I took the veil; the weather was cool, perhaps in September or October. One day, the Superior sent for me and several other nuns, to receive her commands at a particular room. We found the Bishop and some priests with her; and speaking in an unusual tone of fierceness and authority, she said, “Go to the room for the Examination of Conscience, and drag Saint Francis up-stairs.” Nothing more was necessary than this unusual command, with the tone and manner which, accompanied it, to excite in me most gloomy anticipation. It did not strike me as strange, that St. Francis should be in the room to which the Superior directed us. It was an apartment to which we were often sent to prepare for the communion, and to which we voluntarily went, whenever we felt the compunctions which our ignorance of duty, and the misinstructions we received, inclined us to seek relief from self-reproach. Indeed, I had seen her there a little before. What terrified me was, first, the Superior’s angry manner, second, the expression she used, being a French term, whose [illegible] we had learnt in the Convent, and whose meaning is rather softened when translated into _drag_; third, the place to which we were directed to take the interesting young nun, and the persons assembled there as I supposed to condemn her. My fears were such, concerning the fate that awaited her, and my horror at the idea that she was in some way to be sacrificed, that I would have given any thing to be allowed to stay where I was. But I feared the consequence of disobeying the Superior, and proceeded with the rest towards the room for the examination of conscience.
The room to which we were to proceed from that, was in the second story, and the place of many a scene of a shameful nature. It is sufficient for me to say, after what I have said in other parts of this book, that things had there occurred which made me regard the place with the greatest disgust Saint Francis had appeared melancholy for some time. I well knew that she had cause, for she had been repeatedly subject to trials which I need not name–our common lot. When we reached the room where we had been bidden to seek her, I entered the door, my companions standing behind me, as the place was so small as hardly to hold five persons at a time. The young nun was standing alone near the middle of the room; she was probably about twenty, with light hair, blue eyes, and a very fair complexion. I spoke to her in a compassionate voice, but at the same time with such a decided manner, that she comprehended my full meaning–
“Saint Francis, we are sent for you.”
Several others spoke kindly to her, but two addressed her very harshly. The poor creature turned round with a look of meekness, and without expressing any unwillingness or fear, without even speaking a word, resigned herself to our hands. The tears came into my eyes. I had not a moment’s doubt that she considered her fate as sealed, and was already beyond the fear of death. She was conducted, or rather hurried to the staircase, which was near by, and then seized by her limbs and clothes, and in fact almost dragged up-stairs, in the sense the Superior had intended. I laid my own hands upon her–I took hold of her too,–more gentle indeed than some of the rest; yet I encouraged and assisted them in carrying her. I could not avoid it. My refusal would not have saved her, nor prevented her being carried up; it would only have exposed me to some severe punishment, as I believed some of my companions, would have seized the first opportunity to complain of me.
All the way up the staircase, Saint Francis spoke not a word, nor made the slightest resistance. When we entered with her the room to which she was ordered, my heart sank within me. The Bishop, the Lady Superior, and five priests, viz. Bonin, Richards, Savage, and two others, I now ascertained, were assembled for her trial, on some charge of great importance.
When we had brought our prisoner before them, Father Richards began to question her, and she made ready but calm replies. I cannot pretend to give a connected account of what ensued: my feelings were wrought up to such a pitch, that I knew not what I did, nor what to do. I was under a terrible apprehension that, if I betrayed my feelings which almost overcame me, I should fall under the displeasure of the cold-blooded persecutors of my poor innocent sister; and this fear on the one hand, with the distress I felt for her on the other, rendered me almost frantic. As soon as I entered the room, I had stepped into a corner, on the left of the entrance, where I might partially support myself, by leaning against the wall, between the door and window. This support was all that prevented me from falling to the floor, for the confusion of my thoughts was so great, that only a few of the words I heard spoken on either side made any lasting impression upon me. I felt as if struck with some insupportable blow; and death would not have been more frightful to me. I am inclined to the belief, that Father Richards wished to shield the poor prisoner from the severity of her fate, by drawing from her expressions that might bear a favorable construction. He asked her, among other things, if she was not sorry for what she had been overheard to say, (for she had been betrayed by one of the nuns,) and if she would not prefer confinement in the cells, to the punishment which was threatened her. But the Bishop soon interrupted him, and it was easy to perceive, that he considered her fate as sealed, and was determined she should not escape. In reply to some of the questions put to her, she was silent; to others I heard her voice reply that she did not repent of words she had uttered, though they had been reported by some of the nuns who had heard them; that she still wished to escape from the Convent; and that she had firmly resolved to resist every attempt to compel her to the commission of crimes which she detested. She added, that she would rather die than cause the murder of harmless babes.
“That is enough, finish her!” said the Bishop.
Two nuns instantly fell upon the young woman, and in obedience to directions, given by the Superior, prepared to execute her sentence.
She still maintained all the calmness and submission of a lamb. Some of those who took part in this transaction, I believe, were as unwilling as myself; but of others I can safely say, that I believe they delighted in it. Their conduct certainly exhibited a most blood-thirsty spirit. But, above all others present, and above all human fiends I ever saw, I think Sainte Hypolite was the most diabolical. She engaged in the horrid task with all alacrity, and assumed from choice the most revolting parts to be performed. She seized a gag, forced it into the mouth of the poor nun, and when it was fixed between her extended jaws, so as to keep them open at their greatest possible distance, took hold of the straps fastened at each end of the stick, crossed them behind the helpless head of the victim, and drew them tight through the loop prepared, as a fastening.
The bed which had always stood in one part of the room, still remained there; though the screen, which had usually been placed before it, and was made of thick muslin, with only a crevice through which a person behind might look out, had been folded up on its hinges in the form of a W, and placed in a corner. On the bed the prisoner was laid with her face upward, and then bound with cords, so that she could not move. In an instant another bed was thrown upon her. One of the priests, named Bonin, sprung like a fury first upon it, and stamped upon it, with all his force. He was speedily followed by the nuns, until there were as many upon the bed as could find room, and all did what they could, not only to smother, but to bruise her. Some stood up and jumped upon the poor girl with their feet, some with their knees, and others in different ways seemed to seek how they might best beat the breath out of her body, and mangle it, without coming in direct contact with it, or seeing the effects of their violence. During this time, my feelings were almost too strong to be endured. I felt stupefied, and was scarcely conscious of what I did. Still, fear for myself remained in a sufficient degree to induce me to some exertion, and I attempted to talk to those who stood next, partly that I might have an excuse for turning away from the dreadful scene.
After the lapse of fifteen or twenty minutes, and when it was presumed that the sufferer had been smothered, and crushed to death, Father Bonin and the nuns ceased to trample upon her, and stepped from the bed. All was motionless and silent beneath it.
They then began to laugh at such inhuman thoughts as occurred to some of them, rallying each other in the most unfeeling manner, and ridiculing me for the feelings which I in vain endeavoured to conceal. They alluded to the resignation of our murdered companion, and one of them tauntingly said, “She would have made a good Catholic martyr.” After spending some moments in such conversation, one of them asked if the corpse should be removed. The Superior said it had better remain a little while. After waiting a short time longer, the feather-bed was taken off, the cords unloosed, and the body taken by the nuns and dragged down stairs. I was informed that it was taken into the cellar, and thrown unceremoniously into the hole which I have already described, covered with a great quantity of lime, and afterwards sprinkled with a liquid, of the properties and name of which I am ignorant. This liquid I have seen poured into the hole from large bottles, after the necks were broken off, and have heard that it is used in France to prevent the effluvia rising from cemeteries.
I did not soon recover from the shock caused by this scene; indeed it still recurs to me, with most gloomy impressions. The next day there was a melancholy aspect over everything, and recreation time passed in the dullest manner; scarcely anything was said above a whisper.
I never heard much said afterward about Saint Francis.
I spoke with one of the nuns, a few words, one day, but we were all cautioned not to expose ourselves very far, and could not place much reliance in each other. The murdered nun had been brought to her shocking end through the treachery of one of our number, in whom she confided.
I never knew with certainty who had reported her remarks to the Superior, but suspicion fastened on one, and I never could regard her but with detestation.
I was more inclined to blame her than some of those employed in the execution; for there could have been no necessity for the betrayal of her feelings. We all knew how to avoid exposing each other.
I was often sent by the Superior to overhear what was said by novices and nuns: when they seemed to shun her, she would say, “Go and listen, they are speaking English;” and though I obeyed her, I never informed her against them. If I wished to clear my conscience, I would go to a priest, and confess, knowing that he dared not communicate what I said to any person, and that he would not impose as heavy penances as the Superior.
We were always at liberty to choose another confessor when we had any sin to confess, which we were unwilling to tell one to whom we should otherwise have gone.
Not long after the murder just related, a young woman came to the nunnery, and asked for permission to see Saint Francis. It was my former friend, with whom I had been an assistant teacher, Miss Louise Bousquet, of St. Denis. From this, I supposed the murdered nun might have come from that town, or its vicinity. The only answer returned to the inquiry was, that Saint Francis was dead.
Some time afterward, some of St. Francis’ friends called to inquire after her, and they were told that she had died a glorious death; and further told, that she made some heavenly expressions, which were repeated in order to satisfy her friends.
Description of the Room of the Three States, and the pictures in it– Jane Ray ridiculing Priests–Their criminal Treatment of us at Confession–Jane Ray’s Tricks with the Nuns’ Aprons, Handkerchiefs, and Nightgowns–Apples.
The pictures in the room of the Three States were large, and painted by some artist who understood how to make horrible ones. They appeared to be stuck to the walls. The light is admitted from small and high windows, which are curtained, and is rather faint, so as to make every thing look gloomy. The story told us was, that they were painted by an artist to whom God had given power to represent things exactly they are in heaven, hell, and purgatory.
In heaven, the picture of which hangs on one side of the apartment, multitudes of nuns and priests are put in the highest places, with the Virgin Mary at the head, St. Peter and other saints far above the great numbers of good Catholics of other classes, who were crowded in below.
In purgatory are multitudes of people; and in one part, called “_The place of lambs_,” are infants who died unbaptized. “_The place of darkness_,” is that part of purgatory in which adults are collected; and there they are surrounded with flames, waiting to be delivered by the prayers of the living.
In hell, the picture of which, and that of purgatory, were on the wall opposite that of heaven, the human faces were the most horrible that can be imagined. Persons of different descriptions were represented, with the most distorted features, ghastly complexions, and every variety of dreadful expression; some with wild beasts gnawing at their heads, others furiously biting the iron bars which kept them in, with looks which could not fail to make a spectator shudder.
I could hardly persuade myself that the figures were not living, and the impression they made on my feelings was powerful. I was often shown the place where nuns go who break their vows, as a warning. It is the hottest place in hell, and worse, in every point of view, even than that to which Protestants are assigned; because they are not so much to be blamed, as we were sometimes assured, as their ministers and the Bible, by which they are perverted.
Whenever I was shut in that room, as I was several times, I prayed for “les ames des fideles trepasses:” the souls of those faithful ones who have long been in purgatory, and have no relations living to pray for them.
My feelings were often of the most painful description, while I remained alone with those frightful pictures.
Jane Ray was once put in, and uttered the most dreadful shrieks. Some of the old nuns proposed to the Superior to have her gagged: “No” she replied; “go and let out that devil, she makes me sin more than all the rest.”
Jane could not endure the place; and she afterward gave names to many of the worst figures in the pictures. On catechism-days she would take a seat behind a cupboard-door, where the priest could not see her, while she faced the nuns, and would make us laugh. “You are not so attentive to your lesson as you used to be,” he would begin to say, while we were endeavouring to suppress our laughter.
Jane would then hold up the first letter of some priest’s name, whom she had before compared with one of the faces in “hell,” and look so that we could hardly preserve our gravity. I remember she named the wretch who was biting at the bars of hell, with a serpent gnawing his head, with chains and padlocks on, Father Dufresne; and she would say–“Does not he look like him, when he comes in to Catechism with his long solemn face, and begins his speeches with, ‘My children, my hope is, you have lived very devout lives?'”
The first time I went to confession after taking the veil, I found abundant evidence that the priests did not treat even that ceremony, which is called a solemn sacrament, with respect enough to lay aside the detestable and shameless character they so often showed on other occasions. The confessor sometimes sat in the room of examination of conscience, and sometimes in the Superior’s room, and always alone, except the nun who was confessing. He had a common chair placed in the middle of the floor, and instead of being placed behind a grate, or lattice, as in the chapel, had nothing before or around him. There were no spectators to observe him, and of course any such thing would have been unnecessary.
A number of nuns usually confessed on the same day, but only one could be admitted into the room at the time. They took their places just without the door, on their knees, and went through the preparation prescribed by the rules of confession; repeating certain prayers, which always occupy a considerable time. When one was ready, she rose from her knees, entered, and closed the door behind her; and no other one even dared touch the latch until she came out.
I shall not tell what was transacted at such times, under the pretence of confessing, and receiving absolution from sin: far more guilt was often incurred than pardoned; and crimes of a deep die were committed, while trifling irregularities, in childish ceremonies, were treated as serious offences. I cannot persuade myself to speak plainly on such a subject, as I must offend the virtuous ear. I can only say, that suspicion cannot do any injustice to the priests, because their sins cannot be exaggerated.
Some idea may be formed of the manner in which even such women as many of my sister nuns were regarded the confessors, when I state, that there was often a contest among us, to avoid entering the apartment as long as we could, endeavouring to make each other go first, as that was what most of us dreaded.
During the long and tedious days, which filled up the time between the occurrences I have mentioned, nothing, or little took place to keep up our spirits. We were fatigued in body with labour, or with sitting, debilitated by the long continuance of our religious exercises, and depressed in feelings by our miserable and hopeless condition. Nothing but the humors of mad Jane Ray, could rouse us for a moment from our languor and melancholy.
To mention all her devices, would require more room than is here allowed, and a memory of almost all her words and actions for years. I had early become a favourite with her, and had opportunity to learn more of her character than most of the other nuns. As this may be best learnt from hearing what she did, I will here recount a few of her tricks, just as they happen to present themselves to my memory, without regard to the order of time.
She one day, in an unaccountable humour, sprinkled the floor plentifully with holy water, which brought upon her a severe lecture from the Superior, as might have been expected. The Superior said it was a heinous offence; she had wasted holy water enough to save many souls from purgatory; and what would they not give for it! She then ordered Jane to sit in the middle of the floor, and when the priest came, he was informed of her offence. Instead, however, of imposing one of those penances to which she had often been subjected, but with so little effect, he said to her, “Go to your place, Jane; we forgive you for this time.”
I was once set to iron aprons with Jane; aprons and pocket-handkerchiefs are the only articles of dress which are ever ironed in the Convent. As soon as we were alone, she remarked, “Well, we are free from the rules, while we are at this work;” and although she knew she had no reason for saying so, she began to sing, and I soon joined her, and thus we spent the time, while we were at work, to the neglect of the prayers we ought to have said.
We had no idea that we were in danger of being overheard, but it happened that the Superior was overhead all the time, with several nuns, who were preparing for confession: she came down and said, “How is this?” Jane Ray coolly replied, that we had employed our time in singing hymns, and referred to me. I was afraid to confirm so direct a falsehood, in order to deceive the Superior, though I had often told more injurious ones of her fabrication, or at her orders, and said very little in reply to Jane’s request.
The Superior plainly saw the trick that was attempted, and ordered us both to the room for the examination of conscience, where we remained till night, without a mouthful to eat. The time was not, however, unoccupied; I received such a lecture from Jane, as I have very seldom heard, and she was so angry with me that we did not speak to each other for two weeks.
At length she found something to complain of against me, had me subjected to a penance, which led to our begging each other’s pardon, and we became perfectly satisfied, reconciled, and as good friends as ever.
One of the most disgusting penances we ever had to submit to, was that of drinking the water in which the Superior had washed her feet. Nobody could ever laugh at this penance except Jane Ray. She would pretend to comfort us, by saying, she was sure it was better than mere plain, clear water.
Some of the tricks which I remember, were played by Jane with nuns’ clothes. It was a rule that the oldest aprons in use should go to the youngest received, and the old nuns were to wear all the new ones. On four different occasions, Jane stole into the sleeping-room at night, and unobserved by the watch, changed a great part of the aprons, placing them by the beds of nuns to whom they did not belong. The consequence was, that in the morning they dressed themselves in such haste, as never to discover the mistakes they made, until they were all ranged at prayers; and then the ridiculous appearance which many of them cut, disturbed the long devotions. I laugh so easily, that on such occasions, I usually incurred a full share of penances, I generally, however, got a new apron, when Jane played this trick; for it was part of her object, to give the best aprons to her favourites, and put off the ragged ones on some of the old nuns whom she most hated.
Jane once lost her pocket-handkerchief. The penance for such an offence is, to go without any for five weeks. For this she had no relish, and requested me to pick one from some of the nuns on the way up-stairs. I succeeded in getting two: this Jane said was one too many; and she thought it dangerous for either of us to keep it, lest a search should be made. Very soon the two nuns were complaining that they had lost their handkerchiefs, and wondering what could have become of them, as they were sure that they had been careful. Jane seized an opportunity, and slipped one into a straw bed, where it remained until the bed was emptied to be filled with new straw.
As the winter was coming on, one year, she complained to me that we were not as well supplied with warm night-clothes as two of the nuns she named, whom she said she “abominated.” She soon after found means to get possession of their fine warm flannel nightgowns, one of which she gave to me, while the other she put on at bed time. She presumed the owners would have a secret search for them; and in the morning hid them in the stove, after the fire had gone out, which was kindled a little before the hour of rising, and then suffered to burn down.
This she did every morning, taking them out at night, through the winter. The poor nuns who owned the garments were afraid to complain of their loss, lest they should have some penance laid on them, and nothing was ever said about them. When the weather began to grow warm in the spring Jane returned the nightgowns to the beds of the nuns, from whom she had borrowed them, and they were probably as much surprised to find them again, as they had before been at losing them.
Jane once found an opportunity to fill her apron with a quantity of fine apples, called _fameuses_, which came in her way, and, hastening up to the sleeping-room, hid them under my bed. Then, coming down, she informed me, and we agreed to apply for leave to make our elevens, as it is called. The meaning of this is, to repeat a certain round of prayers, for nine days in succession, to some saint we choose to address for assistance, in becoming more charitable, affectionate or something else. We easily obtained permission, and hastened up-stairs to begin our nine days’ feast on the apples; when, much to our surprise, they had all been taken away, and there was no way to avoid the disagreeable fate we had brought upon ourselves. Jane therefore began to search the beds of the other nuns; but not finding any trace of the apples, she became doubly vexed and stuck pins in those which belonged to her enemies.
When bedtime came, they were much scratched in getting in bed, which made them break silence, and that subjected them to penances.
Jane Ray’s Tricks continued–The Broomstick Ghost–Sleep-walking–Salted Cider–Changing Beds–Objects of some of her Tricks–Feigned Humility– Alarm–Treatment of a new Nun–A nun made by stratagem.
One night, Jane, who had been sweeping the sleeping-room, for a penance, dressed up the broom-stick, when she had completed her work, with a white cloth on the end, so tied as to resemble an old woman dressed in white, with long arms sticking out. This she stuck through a broken pane of glass, and placed it so that it appeared to be looking in at the window, by the font of holy water. There it remained until the nuns came up to bed. The first who stopped at the font, to dip her finger in, caught a glimpse of the singular object, and started with terror. The next was equally terrified, as she approached, and the next and the next.
We all believed in ghosts; and it was not wonderful that such an object should cause alarm, especially as it was but a short time after the death of one of the nuns. Thus they went on, each getting a fright in turn, yet all afraid to speak. At length, one more alarmed, or with less presence of mind than the rest, exclaimed, “Oh, mon Dieu! Je ne me coucherais pas!” When the night-watch called out, “Who’s that?” she confessed she had broken silence, but pointed at the cause; and then, all the nuns assembling at a distance from the window, Jane offered to advance boldly, and ascertain the nature of the apparition, which they thought a most resolute intention. We all stood looking on, when she stepped to the window, drew in the broomstick, and showed us the ridiculous puppet, which had alarmed so many superstitious fears.
Some of her greatest feats she performed as a sleep walker. Whether she ever walked in her sleep or not, I am unable with certainty, to say. She however often imposed upon the Superior and old nuns, by making them think so, when I knew she did not; and yet, I cannot positively say that she always did. I have remarked, that one of the old nuns was always placed in our sleeping-room at night, to watch us. Sometimes she would be inattentive, and sometimes fall into a doze. Jane Ray often seized such times to rise from her bed, and walk about, occasionally seizing one of the nuns in bed, in order to frighten her. This she generally affected; and many times we have all been awakened, by screams of terror. In our alarm, some of us frequently broke silence, and gave occasion to the Superior to lay us under penances. Many tunes, however, we escaped with a mere reprimand, while Jane usually received expressions of compassion:–“Poor creature! she would not do so if she were in perfect possession of her reason.” And Jane displayed her customary artfulness, in keeping up the false impression. As soon as she perceived that the old nun was likely to observe her, she would throw her arms about, or appear unconscious of what she was doing, falling upon a bed, or standing stock-still, until exertions had been made to rouse her from her supposed lethargy.
We were once allowed to drink cider at dinner, which was quite an extraordinary favour. Jane, however, on account of her negligence of all work, was denied the privilege, which she much resented. The next day when dinner arrived, we began to taste our new drink, but it was so salt we could not swallow it. Those of us who at first discovered it, were, as usual, afraid to speak; but we set down our cups, and looked round, till the others made the same discovery, which they all soon did, and most of them in the same manner. Some, however, at length, taken by surprise, uttered some ludicrous exclamation, on tasting the salted cider, and then an old nun, looking cross, would cry out:–
“Ah! tu casses la silence!” (Ah! you’ve broken silence.)
And thus we soon got a-laughing, beyond our power of suppressing it. At recreation, that day, the first question asked by many of us, was, “How did you like your cider?”
Jane Ray never had a fixed place to sleep in. When the weather began to grow warm in the spring, she usually pushed some bed out of its place, near a window, and put her own beside it; and when the winter approached, she would choose a spot near the stove, and occupy it with her bed, in spite of all remonstrance. We were all convinced that it was generally best to yield to her.
She was often set to work, in different ways; but, whenever she was dissatisfied with doing any thing, would devise some trick that would make the Superior, or old nuns, drive her off; and whenever any suspicion was expressed, of her being in her right mind, she would say, that she did not know what she was doing; that all the difficulty arose from her repeating prayers too much, which wearied and distracted her mind.
I was once directed to assist Jane Ray, in shifting the beds of the nuns. When we came to those of some of the sisters, whom she most disliked, she said, now we will pay them for some of the penances we have suffered on their account; and taking some thistles, she mixed them with the straw. At night, the first of them who got into bed, felt the thistles, and cried out. The night-watch exclaimed, as usual, “You are breaking silence there.” And then another screamed, as she was scratched by the thistles and another. The old nun then called on all who had broken silence to rise, and ordered them to sleep under their beds, as a penance, which they silently complied with. Jane and I afterward confessed, when it was all over, and took some trifling penance which the priest imposed.
Those nuns who fell most under the displeasure of mad Jane Ray, as I have intimated before, were those who had the reputation of being most ready to inform of the trifling faults of others and especially those who acted without any regard to honour, by disclosing what they had pretended to listen to in confidence. Several of the worst tempered “saints” she held in abhorrence; and I have heard her say, that such and such, she abominated. Many a trick did she play upon these, some of which were painful to them in their consequences, and a good number of them have never been traced to this day. Of all the nuns, however, none other was regarded by her with so much detestation as Saint Hypolite; for she was always believed to have betrayed Saint Francis, and to have caused her murder. She was looked upon by us as the voluntary cause of her death, and of the crime which those of us committed, who, unwillingly, took part in her execution. We, on the contrary, being under the worst of fears for ourselves, in case of refusing to obey our masters and mistress, thought ourselves chargeable with less guilt, as unwilling assistants in a scene, which it was impossible for us to prevent or delay. Jane has often spoken to me of the suspected informer, and always in terms of the greatest bitterness.
The Superior sometimes expressed commiseration for mad Jane Ray, but I never could tell whether she really believed her insane or not. I was always inclined to think that she was willing to put up with some of her tricks, because they served to divert our minds from the painful and depressing circumstances in which we were placed. I knew the Superior’s powers and habits of deception also, and that she would deceive us as willingly as any one else.
Sometimes she proposed to send Jane to St. Anne’s, a place near Quebec, celebrated for the pilgrimages made to it by persons differently afflicted. It is supposed that some peculiar virtue exists there, which will restore health to the sick; and I have heard stories told in corroboration of the common belief. Many lame and blind persons, with others, visit St. Anne’s every year, some of whom may be seen travelling on foot, and begging their food. The Superior would sometimes say that it was a pity that a woman like Jane Ray, capable of being so useful, should be unable to do her duties in consequence of a malady which she thought might be cured by a visit to St Anne’s.
Yet to St. Anne’s Jane never was sent, and her wild and various tricks continued as before. The rules of silence, which the others were so scrupulous in observing, she set at naught every hour; and as for other rules, she regarded them with as little respect when they stood in her way. She would now and then step out and stop the clock by which our exercises were regulated, and sometimes, in this manner, lengthened out our recreations till near twelve. At last the old nuns began to watch against such a trick, and would occasionally go out to see if the clock was going.
She once made a request that she might not eat with the other nuns, which was granted, as it seemed to proceed from a spirit of genuine humility, which made her regard herself as unworthy of our society.
It being most convenient, she was sent to the Superior’s table to make her meals after her; and it did not at first occur to the Superior, that Jane, in this manner, profited by the change, by getting much better food than the rest of us. Thus there seemed to be always something deeper than anybody at first suspected, at the bottom of everything she did.
She was once directed to sweep a community-room, under the sleeping- chamber. This office had before been assigned to the other nuns, as a penance; but the Superior, considering that Jane Ray did little or nothing, determined thus to furnish her with some employment.
She declared to us that she would not sweep it long, as we might soon be assured. It happened that the stove by which that community-room was warmed in the winter, had its pipe carried through the floor of our sleeping-chamber, and thence across it, in a direction opposite that in which the pipe of our stove was carried. It being then warm weather, the first-mentioned pipe had been taken down, and the hole left unstopped. After we had all retired to our beds, and while engaged in our silent prayers, we were suddenly alarmed by a bright blaze of fire, which burst from the hole in the floor, and threw sparks all around us. We thought the building was burning, and uttered cries of terror regardless of the penances, the fear of which generally kept us silent.
The utmost confusion prevailed; for although we had solemnly vowed never to flee from the Convent even if it was on fire, we were extremely alarmed, and could not repress our feelings. We soon learnt the cause, for the flames ceased in a moment or two, and it was found that mad Jane Ray, after sweeping a little in the room beneath, had stuck a quantity of wet powder on the end of her broom, thrust it up through the hole in the ceiling into our apartment, and with a lighted paper set it on fire.
The date of this alarm I must refer to a time soon after that of the election riots, for I recollect that she found means to get possession of some of the powder which was prepared at that time, for an emergency to which some thought the Convent was exposed.
She once asked for pen and paper, and when the Superior told her that if she wrote to her friends she must see it, she replied, that it was for no such purpose; she wanted to write her confession, and thus make it once for all. She wrote it, handed it to the priest, and he gave it to the Superior, who read it to us. It was full of offences which she had never committed, evidently written to throw ridicule on confessions, and one of the most ludicrous productions I ever saw.
Our bedsteads were made with narrow boards laid across them, on which the beds were laid. One day, while we were in the bedchamber together, she proposed that we should misplace these boards. This was done, so that at night nearly a dozen nuns fell down upon the floor on getting into bed. A good deal of confusion naturally ensued, but the authors were not discovered. I was so conscience-stricken, however, that a week afterward, while we examined our consciences together, I told her I must confess the sin the next day. She replied, “Do as you like, but you will be sorry for it.”
The next day, when we came before the Superior, I was just going to kneel and confess, when Jane, almost without giving me time to shut the door, threw herself at the Superior’s feet, and confessed the trick, and a penance was immediately laid on me for the sin I had concealed.
There was an old nun, who was a famous talker, whom used to call La Mere, (Mother). One night, Jane Ray got up, and secretly changed the caps of several of the nuns, and hers among the rest. In the morning there was great confusion, and such a scene as seldom occurred. She was severely blamed by La Mere, having been informed against by some of the nuns; and at last became so much enraged, that she attacked the old woman, and even took her by the throat. La Mere called on all present to come to her assistance, and several nuns interfered. Jane seized the opportunity afforded in the confusion to beat some of her worst enemies quite severely, and afterwards said, that she had intended to kill some of the rascally informers.
For a time Jane made us laugh so much at prayers, that the Superior forbade her going down with us to morning prayers, and she took the opportunity to sleep in the morning. When this was found out, she was forbidden to get into her bed again after leaving it, and then she would creep under it and take a nap on the floor. This she told us of one day, but threatened us if we ever betrayed her. At length, she was missed at breakfast, as she would sometimes oversleep herself, and the Superior began to be more strict, and always inquired, in the morning whether Jane Ray was in her place. When the question was general, none of us answered; but when it was addressed to some nun near her by name, as, “Saint Eustace, is Jane Ray in her place?” then we had to reply.
Of all the scenes that occurred during my stay in the Convent, there was none which excited the delight of Jane more than one which took place in the chapel one day at mass, though I never had any particular reason to suppose that she had brought it about.
Some person, unknown to me to this day, had put some substance or other, of a most nauseous smell, into the hat of a little boy, who attended at the altar, and he, without observing the trick, put it upon his head. In the midst of the ceremonies he approached some of the nuns, who were almost suffocated with the odour; and as he occasionally moved from place to place some of them began to beckon to him to stand further off, and to hold their noses, with looks of disgust. The boy was quite unconscious of the cause of the difficulty, and paid them no attention; but the confusion soon became so great, through the distress of some, and the laughing of others, that the Superior noticed the circumstance, and beckoned to the boy to withdraw. All attempts, however, to engage us in any work, prayer, or meditation, were found ineffectual. Whenever the circumstances in the chapel came to mind, we would laugh out. We had got into such a state, that we could not easily restrain ourselves. The Superior, yielding to necessity, allowed us recreation for the whole day.
The Superior used sometimes to send Jane to instruct the novices in their English prayers. She would proceed to her task with all seriousness; but sometimes chose the most ridiculous, as well as irreverent passages, from songs, and other things, which she had before somewhere learnt, which would set us, who understood her, laughing. One of her rhymes, I recollect, began with:
“The Lord of love, look from above, Upon this turkey hen.”
Jane for a time slept opposite me, and often in the night would rise, unobserved, and slip into my bed, to talk with me, which she did in a low whisper, and return again with equal caution.
She would tell me of the tricks she had played, and such as she meditated, and sometimes make me laugh so loud, that I had much to do in the morning with begging pardons, and doing penances.
One winter’s day, she was sent to light a fire; but after she had done so, remarked privately to some of us: “My fingers were too cold–you’ll see if I do it again.” The next day, there was a great stir in the house, because it was said that mad Jane Ray had been seized with a fit while making a fire, and she was taken up apparently insensible, and conveyed to her bed. She complained to me, who visited her in the course of the day, that she was likely to starve, as food was denied her; and I was persuaded to pin a stocking under my dress, and secretly put food into it from the table. This I afterward carried to her and relieved her wants.
One of the things which I blamed Jane most for, was a disposition to quarrel with any nun who seemed to be winning the favour of the Superior. She would never rest until she had brought such a one into some difficulty.
We were allowed but little soap; and Jane, when she found her supply nearly gone, would take the first piece she could find. One day there was a general search made for a large piece that was missed; when, soon after I had been searched, Jane Ray passed me and slipped it into my pocket; she was soon after searched herself and then secretly came for it again.
While I recall these particulars of our nunnery, and refer so often to the conduct and language of one of the nuns, I cannot speak of some things which I believed or suspected, on account of my want of sufficient knowledge. But it is a pity you have not Jane Ray for a witness; she knows many things of which I am ignorant. She must he in possession of facts that should be known. Her long residence in the Convent, her habits of roaming about it, and of observing every thing, must have made her acquainted with things which would be heard with interest. I always felt as if she knew everything. She would often go and listen, or look through the cracks into the Superior’s room, while any of the priests were closeted with her, and sometimes would come and tell me what she witnessed. I felt myself bound to confess in such cases, and always did so.
She knew, however, that I only told it to the priest or to the Superior, and without mentioning the name of my informant, which I was at liberty to withhold, so that she was not found out. I often said to her, “Don’t tell me, Jane, for I must confess it.” She would reply:
“It is better for you to confess it than for me.” I thus became, even against my will, informed of scenes, supposed by the actors of them to be secret.
Jane Ray once persuaded me to accompany her into the Superior’s room, to hide with her under the sofa, and await the appearance of a visitor whom she expected, that we might overhear what passed between them. We had been long concealed, when the Superior came in alone and sat for some time, when fearing she might detect us in the stillness which prevailed, we began to repent of our temerity. At length however, she suddenly withdrew, and thus afforded us a welcome opportunity to escape.
I was passing one day through a part of the cellar, where I had not often occasion to go, when the toe of my shoe hit something. I tripped and fell down. I rose again, and holding my lamp to see what had caused my fall, I found an iron ring, fastened to a small square trapdoor. This I had the curiosity to raise, and saw four or five steps leading down, but there was not light enough to see more, and I feared to be noticed by somebody and reported to the Superior; so closing the door again, I left the spot. At first, I could not imagine the use for such a passage; but it afterward occurred to me, that this might open to the subterranean passage to the Seminary, for I never before could account for the appearance of many of the priests, who often appeared and disappeared among us, particularly at night, when I knew the gates were closed. They could, as I now saw, come up to the door of the Superior’s room at any hour, then up the stairs into our sleeping-room, or where they chose. And often they were in our beds before us.
I afterward ascertained that my conjectures were correct, and that a secret communication was kept up, in this manner, between the two institutions, at the end towards Notre Dame-street, at a considerable depth under ground. I often afterward, met priests in the cellar, when sent there for coal and other articles, as they had to pass up and down the common cellar stairs on their way.
My wearisome daily prayers and labours, my pain of body, and depression of mind which were so much increased by penances I had suffered, and those which I constantly feared, and the feelings of shame, remorse, and horror, which sometimes arose, brought me into a state which I cannot describe.
In the first place, my frame was enfeebled by the uneasy postures I was required to keep for so long a time during prayers. This alone I thought was sufficient to undermine my health and destroy my life. An hour and a half every morning I had to sit on the floor of the community-room, with my feet under me, my body bent forward, and my head hanging on one side –in a posture expressive of great humility, it is true, but very fatiguing to keep for such an unreasonable length of time. Often I found it impossible to avoid falling asleep in this posture, which I could do without detection, by bending a little lower than usually. The signal to rise, or the noise made by the rising of the other nuns, then woke me, and I got up with the rest unobserved.
Before we took the posture just described, we had to kneel for a long time without bending the body, keeping quite erect, with the exception of the knees only, with the hands together before the breast. This I found the most distressing attitude for me, and never assumed it without feeling a sharp pain in my chest, which I often thought would soon lead me to my grave–that is, to the great common receptacle for the dead, under the chapel. And this upright kneeling posture we were obliged to resume as soon as we rose from the half-sitting posture first mentioned; so that I usually felt myself exhausted and near to fainting before the conclusion of morning services.
I found the meditations extremely tedious, and often did I sink into sleep while we were all seated in silence on the floor. When required to tell my meditations, as it was thought to be of no great importance what we said, I sometimes found I had nothing to tell but a dream, and told that, which passed off very well.
Jane Ray appeared to be troubled still more than myself with wandering thoughts; and when blamed for them, would reply, “I begin very well; but directly I begin to think of some old friend of mine, and my thoughts go a-wandering from one country to another.”
Sometimes I confessed my falling asleep; and often the priests have talked to me about the sin of sleeping in time of meditation. At last, one of them proposed to me to prick myself with a pin, which I have often done, and so roused myself for a time.
My close confinement in the Convent, and the want of opportunities to breathe the open air, might have proved more injurious to me than they did, had I not employed a part of my time in more active labours than those of sewing, &c., to which I was chiefly confined. I took part occasionally in some of the heavy work, as washing, &c.
The events which I am now to relate, occurred about five months after my admission into the Convent as a nun; but I cannot fix the time with precision, as I know not of any thing which took place in the world about the same period. The circumstance I clearly remember; but, as I have elsewhere remarked, we were not accustomed to keep any account of time.
Information was given to us one day, that another novice was to be admitted among us; and we were required to remember and mention her often in our prayers, that she might have faithfulness in the service of her holy spouse. No information was given us concerning her beyond this fact: not a word about her age, name, or nation. On all similar occasions the same course was pursued, and all that the nuns ever learnt concerning one another was what they might discover by being together, and which usually amounted to little or nothing.
When the day of her admission arrived, though I did not witness the ceremony in the chapel, it was a gratification to us all on one account, because we were all released from labour, and enjoyed a great recreation-day.
Our new sister, when she was introduced to the “holy” society of us “saints,” proved to be young, of about the middle size, and very good- looking for a Canadian; for I soon ascertained that she was one of my own countrywomen. The Canadian females are generally not handsome. I never learnt her name, nor any thing of her history. She had chosen Saint Martin for her nun name. She was admitted in the morning, and appeared melancholy all day. This I observed was always the case; and the remarks made by others, led me to believe that they, and all they had seen, had felt sad and miserable for a longer or shorter time. Even the Superior, as it may be recollected, confessed to me that she had experienced the same feelings when she was received. When bedtime arrived, she proceeded to the chamber with the rest of us, and was assigned a bed on the side of the room opposite my own, and a little beyond. The nuns were all soon in bed, the usual silence ensued, and I was making my customary mental prayer and composing myself to sleep, when I heard the most piercing and heart-rending shrieks proceed from our new comrade. Every nun seemed to rise as if by one impulse, for no one could hear such sounds, especially in such total silence, without being greatly excited. A general noise succeeded, for many voices spoke together, uttering cries of surprise, compassion, or fear. It was in vain for the night-watch to expect silence: for once we forgot rules and penances, and gave vent to our feelings, and she could do nothing but call for the Superior. Strange as it may seem, mad Jane Ray, who found an opportunity to make herself heard for an instant, uttered an exclamation in English, which so far from expressing any sympathy for the sufferer, seemed to betray feelings hardened to the last degree against conscience and shame. This caused a laugh among some of those who understood her, and had become hardened to their own trials, and of course in a great measure to those of others.
I heard a man’s voice mingled with the cries and shrieks of the nun. Father Quiblier, of the Seminary, I had felt confident, was in the Superior’s room at the time when we retired; and several of the nuns afterward assured me that it was he. The Superior soon made her appearance, and in a harsh manner commanded silence. I heard her threaten gagging her, and then say, “You are no better than anybody else, and if you do not obey, you shall be sent to the cells.”
One young girl was taken into the Convent during my abode there, under peculiar circumstances. I was acquainted with the whole affair, as I was employed to act a part in it.
Among the novices, was a young lady of about seventeen, the daughter of an old rich Canadian. She had been remarkable for nothing that I know of except the liveliness of her disposition. The Superior once expressed to us a wish to have her take the veil, though the girl herself had never had any such intention, that I knew of. Why the Superior wished to receive her, I could only conjecture. One reason might have been, that she expected to receive a considerable sum from her father. She was, however, strongly desirous of having the girl in our community, and one day said: “Let us take her in by a trick, and tell the old man she felt too humble to take the veil in public.”
Our plans then being laid, the unsuspecting girl was induced by us, in sport, as we told her, and made her believe, to put on such a splendid robe as I had worn on my admission, and to pass through some of the ceremonies of taking the veil. After this, she was seriously informed, that she was considered as having entered the Convent in earnest, and must henceforth bury herself to the world, as she would never be allowed to leave it. We put on her a nun’s dress, though she wept, and refused, and expressed the greatest repugnance. The Superior threatened, and promised, and flattered, by turns, until the poor girl had to submit; but her appearance long showed that she was a nun only by compulsion.
In obedience to the directions of the Superior, we exerted ourselves to make her contented, especially when she was first received, when we got round her, and told her we had felt so for a time, but having since become acquainted with the happiness of a nun’s life, were perfectly content and would never be willing to leave the Convent. An exception seemed to be made in her favor, in one respect: for I believe no criminal attempt was made upon her, until she had been some time an inmate of the nunnery.
Soon after her reception, or rather her forcible entry into the Convent, her father called to make inquiry about his daughter. The Superior first spoke with him herself, and then called us to repeat her plausible story, which I did with accuracy. If I had wished to say any thing else, I never should have dared.
We told the foolish old man, that his daughter, whom we all loved, had long desired to become a Nun, but had been too humble to wish to appear before spectators, and had, at her own desire, been favored with a private admission into the community.
The benefit conferred upon himself and his family, by this act of self- consecration I reminded him, must be truly great and valuable; as every family which furnishes a priest, or a nun, is justly looked upon as receiving the peculiar favor of heaven on that account. The old Canadian firmly believed every word I was forced to tell him, took the event as a great blessing, and expressed the greatest readiness to pay more than the customary fee to the Convent. After the interview, he withdrew, promising soon to return and pay a handsome sum to the convent, which he performed with all despatch, and the greatest cheerfulness. The poor girl never heard that her father had taken the trouble to call to see her, much less did she know any thing of the imposition passed upon him. She remained in the Convent when I left it.
The youngest girl who ever took the veil of our sisterhood, was only fourteen years of age, and considered very pious. She lived but a short time. I was told that she was ill-treated by the priests, and believe her death was in consequence.
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 favor 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 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 Lartigue, 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 anything 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 sank a few inches beyond the stone-work, rose and formed an arch overhead. Above the bolt was a 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 everything 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 mealtimes, 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 anything, 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 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 the 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 A 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; I 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 clemence,
Recois ce grand pecheur;'”
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 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 from 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 enticing novices into the nunnery. “Do you not feel” he would say, “now that you are safely out of the world, sure of heaven? But remember how many poor people are yet in the world. Every novice you influence to 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