accomplished a teacher.
There was an ornament on hand in the nunnery, of an extraordinary kind, which was prized at ten pounds; but it had been made and exposed to view so long, that it became damaged and quite unsaleable. We were one day visited by an old priest from the country, who was evidently somewhat intoxicated; and as he withdrew to go to his lodgings, in the Seminary, where the country priests often stay, the Superior conceived a plan for disposing of the old ornament. “Come,” said she, “we will send it to the old priest, and swear he has bought it!”
We all approved of the ingenious device, for it evidently might be classed among the pious frauds we had so often had recommended to us both by precept and example; and the ornament was sent to him the next morning, as his property when paid for. He soon came to the Convent, and expressed the greatest surprise that he had been charged with purchasing such a thing, for which he had no need and no desire.
The Superior heard this declaration with patience, but politely insisted that it was a fair bargain; and we then surrounded the old priest, with the strongest assertions that such was the fact, and that nobody would ever have thought of his purchasing it unless he had expressly engaged to take it. The poor old man was entirely put down. He was certain of the truth: but what could he do: resist or disprove a direct falsehood pronounced by the Superior of a Convent, and sworn to by all her holy nuns? He finally expressed his conviction that we were right: he was compelled to pay his money.
Frequency of the Priests’ Visits to the Nunnery–Their Freedom and Crimes–Difficulty of learning their Names–Their Holy Retreat– Objections in our minds–Means used to counteract Conscience–Ingenious Arguments.
Some of the priests from the Seminary were in the nunnery every day and night, and often several at a time. I have seen nearly all of them at different times, though there are about one hundred and fifty in the district of Montreal. There was a difference in their conduct; though I believe every one of them was guilty of licentiousness; while not one did I ever see who maintained a character any way becoming the profession of a priest. Some were gross and degraded in a degree which few of my readers can ever have imagined; and I should be unwilling to offend the eye, and corrupt the heart of any one, by an account of their words and actions. Few imaginations can conceive deeds so abominable as they practised, and often required of some of the poor women, under the fear of severe punishments, and even of death. I do not hesitate to say with the strongest confidence, that although some of the nuns became lost to every sentiment of virtue and honour, especially one from the Congregational Nunnery whom I have before mentioned, Saint Patrick, the greater part of them loathed the practices to which they were compelled to submit by the Superior and priests, who kept them under so dreadful a bondage.
Some of the priests whom I saw I never knew by name, and the names of others I did not learn for a time, and at last only by accident.
They were always called “Mon pere,” my father; but sometimes, when they had purchased something in the ornament-room, they would give their real names, with directions where it should be sent. Many names, thus learnt, and in other ways, were whispered about from nun to nun, and became pretty generally known. Several of the priests, some of us had seen before we entered the Convent.
Many things of which I speak, from the nature of the case, must necessarily rest chiefly upon my own word, until further evidence can be obtained: but there are some facts for which I can appeal to the knowledge of others. It is commonly known in Montreal that some of the priests occasionally withdraw from their customary employments, and are not to be seen for some time, it being understood that they have retired for religious study, meditation and devotion, for the improvement of their hearts. Sometimes they are thus withdrawn from the world for weeks: but there is no fixed period.
This was a fact I knew before I took the veil; for it is a frequent subject of remark, that such or such a Father is on a “holy retreat.” This is a term which conveys the idea of a religious seclusion from the world for sacred purposes. On the re-appearance of the priest after such a period, in the church or the streets, it is natural to feel a peculiar impression of his devout character–an impression very different from that conveyed to the mind of one who knows matters as they really are. Suspicions have been indulged by some in Canada on this subject, and facts are known by at least a few. I am able to speak from personal knowledge: for I have been a nun of Soeur Bourgeoise.
The priests are liable, by their dissolute habits, to occasional attacks of disease, which render it necessary, or at least prudent, to submit to medical treatment.
In the Black Nunnery they find private accommodations, for they are free to enter one of the private hospitals whenever they please; which is a room set apart on purpose for the accommodation of the priests, and is called a retreat-room. But an excuse is necessary to blind the public, and this they find is the pretence that they make of being in a “Holy Retreat.” Many such cases I have known; and I can mention the names of priests who have been confined in this Holy Retreat. They are very carefully attended by the Superior and old nuns, and their diet mostly consists of vegetable soups, &c., with but little meat, and that fresh. I have seen an instrument of surgery laying upon the table in that holy room, which is used only for particular purposes.
Father Tabeau, a Roman priest, was on one of his holy retreats about the time when I left the nunnery. There are sometimes a number confined there at the same time. The victims of these priests frequently share the same fate.
I have often reflected how grievously I had been deceived in my opinion of a nun’s condition! All the holiness of their lives, I now saw, was merely pretended. The appearance of sanctity and heavenly mindedness which they had shown among us novices, I found was only a disguise to conceal such practices as would not be tolerated in any decent society in the world; and as for peace and joy like that of heaven, which I had expected to find among them, I learnt too well that they did not exist there.
The only way in which such thoughts were counteracted, was by the constant instructions given us by the Superior and priests, to regard every doubt as a mortal sin. Other faults we might have, as we were told over and over again, which, though worthy of penances, were far less sinful than these. For a nun to doubt that she was doing her duty in fulfilling her vows and oaths, was a heinous offence, and we were exhorted always to suppress our doubts, to confess them without reserve, and cheerfully to submit to severe penances on account of them, as the only means of mortifying our evil dispositions, and resisting the temptations of the devil. Thus we learnt in a good degree to resist our minds and consciences, when we felt the first rising of a question about the duty of doing any thing required of us.
To enforce this upon us, they employed various means. Some of the most striking stories told us at catechism by the priests, were designed for this end. One of these, I will repeat. One day, as a priest assured us who was hearing us say the catechism on Saturday afternoon, as one Monsieur —-, a well-known citizen of Montreal, was walking near the cathedral, he saw Satan giving orders to numerous evil spirits who had assembled around him. Being afraid of being seen, and yet wishing to observe what was done, he hid himself where he could observe all that passed. Satan despatched his devils to different parts of the city, with directions to do their best for him; and they returned in a short time, bringing in reports of their success in leading persons of different classes to the commission of various sins, which they thought would be agreeable to their master. Satan, however, expressed his dissatisfaction, and ordered them out again; but just then a spirit from the Black Nunnery came, who had not been seen before, and stated that he had been trying for seven years to persuade one of the nuns to doubt, and had just succeeded. Satan received the intelligence with the highest pleasure; and turning to the spirits around him, said: “You have not half done your work–he has done much more than all of you.”
In spite, however, of our instructions and warnings, our fears and penances, such doubts would intrude; and I have often indulged them for a time, and at length, yielding to the belief that I was wrong in giving place to them, would confess them, and undergo with cheerfulness such new penances as I was loaded with. Others too would occasionally entertain and privately express such doubts; though we all had been most solemnly warned by the cruel murder of Saint Francis. Occasionally some of the nuns would go further, and resist the restraints or punishments imposed upon them; and it was not uncommon to hear screams, sometimes of a most piercing and terrific kind, from nuns suffering under discipline.
Some of my readers may feel disposed to exclaim against me, for believing things, which will strike them as so monstrous and abominable. To such, I would say, without pretending to justify myself–You know little of the position in which I was placed: in the first place, ignorant of any other religions doctrines; and in the second, met at every moment by some ingenious argument, and the example of a large community, who received all the instructions of the priests as of undoubted truth, and practised upon them. Of the variety and speciousness of the arguments used, you cannot have any correct idea. They were often so ready with replies, examples, anecdotes and authorities, to enforce their doctrines, that it seemed to me they could never have learnt it all from books, but must have been taught by wicked spirits. Indeed, when I reflect upon their conversations, I am astonished at their art and address, and find it difficult to account for their subtlety and success in influencing my mind, and persuading me to anything they pleased. It seems to me, that hardly anybody would be safe in their hands. If you were to go to confession twice, I believe you would feel very differently from what you do now. They have such a way of avoiding one thing, and speaking of another, of affirming this, and doubting or disputing that, of quoting authorities, and speaking of wonders and miracles recently performed, in confirmation of what they teach, as familiarly known to persons whom they call by name, and whom they pretend to offer as witnesses, though they never give you an opportunity to speak with them–these, and many other means, they use in such away, that they always blinded my mind, and I should think, would blind the minds of others.
Treatment of young Infants in the Convent–Talking in Sleep–Amusements –Ceremonies at the public interment of deceased Nuns–Sudden disappearance of the Old Superior–Introduction of the new one– Superstition–Alarm of a Nun–Difficulty of Communication with other Nuns.
It will be recollected, that I was informed immediately after receiving the veil, that infants were occasionally murdered in the Convent. I was one day in the nuns’ private sick room, when I had an opportunity, unsought for, of witnessing deeds of such a nature. It was, perhaps, a month after the death of Saint Francis. Two little twin babes, the children of Sainte Catharine, were brought to a priest, who was in the room, for baptism. I was present while the ceremony was performed, with the Superior and several of the old nuns, whose names I never knew, they being called Ma tante, Aunt.
The priests took turns in attending to confession and catechism in the Convent, usually three months at a time, though sometimes longer periods. The priest then on duty was Father Larkin. He is a good-looking European, and has a brother who is a professor in the college. He baptized, and then put oil upon the heads of the infants, as is the custom after baptism. They were then taken, one after another, by one of the old nuns, in the presence of us all. She pressed her hand upon the mouth and nose of the first, so tight that it could not breathe, and in a few minutes, when the hand was removed, it was dead. She then took the other, and treated it in the same way. No sound was heard, and both the children were corpses. The greatest indifference was shown by all present during this operation; for all, as I well knew, were long accustomed to such scenes. The little bodies were then taken into the cellar, thrown into the pit I have mentioned, and covered with a quantity of lime.
I afterward saw another new-born infant treated in the same manner, in the same place; but the actors in the scene I choose not to name, nor the circumstances, as everything connected with it is of a peculiarly trying and painful nature to my own feelings.
These were the only instances of infanticide I witnessed; and it seemed to be merely owing to accident that I was then present. So far as I know, there were no pains taken to preserve secrecy on this subject; that is, I saw no attempt made to keep any of the inmates of the Convent in ignorance of the murder of children. On the contrary, others were told, as well as myself, on their first admission as veiled nuns, that all infants born in the place were baptized and killed, without loss of time; and I had been called to witness the murder of the three just mentioned, only because I happened to be in the room at the time.
That others were killed in the same manner during my stay in the nunnery, I am well assured.
How many there were I cannot tell, and having taken no account of those I heard of, I cannot speak with precision; I believe, however, that I learnt through nuns, that at least eighteen or twenty infants were smothered, and secretly buried in the cellar, while I was a nun.
One of the effects of the weariness of our bodies and minds, was our proneness to talk in our sleep. It was both ludicrous and painful to hear the nuns repeat their prayers in the course of the night, as they frequently did in their dreams. Required to keep our minds continually on the stretch, both in watching our conduct, in remembering the rules and our prayers, under the fear of the consequences of any neglect, when we closed our eyes in sleep, we often went over again the scenes of the day; and it was no uncommon thing for me to hear a nun repeat one or two of our long exercises in the dead of night. Sometimes, by the time she had finished, another, in a different part of the room, would happen to take a similar turn, and commence a similar recitation; and I have known cases in which several such unconscious exercises were performed, all within an hour or two.
We had now and then a recreation day, when we were relieved from our customary labor, and from all prayers except those for morning and evening. The greater part of our time was then occupied with different games, particularly backgammon and drafts, and in such conversation as did not relate to our past lives, and the outside of the Convent. Sometimes, however, our sports would be interrupted on such days by the entrance of one of the priests, who would come in and propose that his fete, the birth-day of his patron saint, should be kept by “the saints.” We saints!
Several nuns died at different times while I was in the Convent; how many I cannot say, but there was a considerable number: I might rather say, many in proportion to the number in the nunnery. The proportion of deaths I am sure was very large. There were always some in the nuns’ sick-rooms, and several interments took place in the chapel. When a Black nun is dead, the corpse is dressed as if living, and placed in the chapel in a sitting posture, within the railing round the altar, with a book in the hand, as if reading. Persons are then freely admitted from the street, and some of them kneel and pray before it. No particular notoriety is given, I believe, to this exhibition out of the Convent; but such a case usually excites some attention.
The living nuns are required to say prayers for the delivery of their deceased sister from purgatory, being informed, as in all other such cases, that if she is not there, and has no need of our intercession, our prayers are in no danger of being thrown away, as they will be set down to the account of some of our departed friends, or at least to that of the souls which have no acquaintances to pray for them.
It was customary for us occasionally to kneel before a dead nun thus seated in the chapel, and I have often performed that task. It was always painful, for the ghastly countenance being seen whenever I raised my eyes, and the feeling that the position and dress were entirely opposed to every idea of propriety in such a case, always made me melancholy.
The Superior sometimes left the Convent, and was absent for an hour, or several hours, at a time, but we never knew of it until she had returned, and were not informed where she had been. I one day had reason to presume that she had recently paid a visit to the priests’ farm, though I had no direct evidence that such was the fact. The priests’ farm is a fine tract of land belonging to the Seminary, a little distance from the city, near the Lachine road, with a large old- fashioned edifice upon it. I happened to be in the Superior’s room on the day alluded to, when she made some remark on the plainness and poverty of her furniture. I replied, that she was not proud, and could not be dissatisfied on that account; she answered–
“No; but if I was, how much superior is the furniture at the priests’ farm! the poorest room there is furnished better than the best of mine.”
I was one day mending the fire in the Superior’s room, when a priest was conversing with her on the scarcity of money; and I heard him say, that very little money was received by the priests for prayers, but that the principal part came with penances and absolutions.
One of the most remarkable and unaccountable things that happened in the Convent, was the disappearance of the old Superior. She had performed her customary part during the day, and had acted and appeared just as usual. She had shown no symptoms of ill health, met with no particular difficulty in conducting business, and no agitation, anxiety or gloom, had been noticed in her conduct. We had no reason to suppose that during that day she had expected anything particular to occur, any more than the rest of us. After the close of our customary labours, and evening lecture, she dismissed us to retire to bed, exactly in her usual manner. The next morning the bell rung we sprang from our bed, hurried on our clothes as usual, and proceeded to the community-room in double line, to commence the morning exercises. There, to our surprise, we found Bishop Lartigue; but the Superior was nowhere to be seen. The Bishop soon addressed us, instead of her, and informed us, that a lady near him, whom he presented to us, was now the Superior of the Convent, and enjoined upon us the same respect and obedience which we had paid to her predecessor.
The lady he introduced to us was one of our oldest nuns, Saint Du —-, a very large, fleshy woman, with swelled limbs, which rendered her very slow in walking, and often gave her great distress. Not a word was dropped from which we could conjecture the cause of this change, nor of the fate of the old Superior. I took the first opportunity to inquire of one of the nuns, whom I dared talk to, what had become of her; but I found them as ignorant as myself, though suspicious that she had been murdered by the orders of the Bishop. Never did I obtain any light on her mysterious disappearance. I am confident, however, that if the Bishop wished to get rid of her privately and by foul means, he had ample opportunities and power at his command. Jane Ray, as usual, could not allow such an occurrence to pass by without intimating her own suspicions more plainly than any other of the nuns would have dared to do. She spoke out one day, in the community-room, and said, “I’m going to have a hunt in the cellar for my old Superior.”
“Hush, Jane Ray!” exclaimed some of the nuns, “you’ll be punished.”
“My mother used to tell me,” replied Jane, “never to be afraid of the face of a man.”
It cannot be thought strange that we were superstitious. Some were more easily terrified than others, by unaccountable sights and sounds; but all of us believed in the power and occasional appearance of spirits, and were ready to look for them at almost any time. I have seen several instances of alarm caused by such superstition, and have experienced it myself more than once. I was one day sitting mending aprons, beside one of the old nuns, in a community-room, while the litanies were repeating; as I was very easy to laugh, Saint Ignace or Agnes, came in, walked up to her with much agitation, and began to whisper in her ear. She usually talked but little, and that made me more curious to know what was the matter with her. I overheard her say to the old nun, in much alarm, that in the cellar from which she had just returned, she had heard the most dreadful groans that ever came from any being. This was enough to give me uneasiness. I could not account for the appearance of an evil spirit in any part of the Convent, for I had been assured that the only one ever known there, was that of the nun who had died with an unconfessed sin, and that others were kept at a distance by the holy water that was rather profusely used in different parts of the nunnery. Still, I presumed that the sounds heard by Saint Ignace must have proceeded from some devil, and I felt great dread at the thought of visiting the cellar again. I determined to seek further information of the terrified nun; but when I addressed her on the subject, at recreation-time, the first opportunity I could find, she replied, that I was always trying to make her break silence, and walked off to another group in the room, so that I could obtain no satisfaction.
It is remarkable that in our nunnery, we were almost entirely cut off from the means of knowing anything, even of each other. There were many nuns whom I know nothing of to this day, after having been in the same rooms with them every day and night for many months. There was a nun, whom I supposed to be in the Convent, and whom I was anxious to learn something about from the time of my entrance as a novice; but I never was able to learn anything concerning her, not even whether she was in the nunnery or not, whether alive or dead. She was the daughter of a rich family, residing at Point aux Trembles, of whom I had heard my mother speak before I entered the Convent. The name of her family I think was Lafayette, and she was thought to be from Europe. She was known to have taken the black veil; but as I was not acquainted with the name of the Saint she had assumed, and I could not describe her in “the world,” all my inquiries and observations proved entirely in vain. I had heard before my entrance into the Convent, that one of the nuns had made her escape from it during the last war, and, once inquired about her of the Superior. She admitted that such was the fact; but I was never able to learn any particulars concerning her name, origin, or manner of escape.
Disappearance of Nuns–St. Pierre–Gags–My temporary Confinement in a Cell–The Cholera Season–How to avoid it–Occupation in the Convent during the Pestilence–Manufacture of Wax Candles–The Election Riots– Alarm among the Nuns–Preparations for defence–Penances.
I am unable to say how many nuns disappeared while I was in the Convent. There were several. One was a young lady called St. Pierre, I think, but am not certain of her name. There were two nuns by this name. I had known her as a novice with me. She had been a novice about two years and a half before I became one. She was rather large without being tall and had rather dark hair and eyes. She disappeared unaccountably, and nothing was said of her except what I heard in whispers from a few of the nuns, as we found moments when we could speak unobserved.
Some told me they thought she must have left the Convent; and I might have supposed so, had I not some time afterward found some of her things lying about, which she would, in such a case, doubtless have taken with her. I never had known any thing more of her than what I could observe or conjecture. I had always, however, the idea that her parents or friends were wealthy, for she sometimes received clothes and other things, which were very rich.
Another nun, named Saint Paul, died suddenly; but as in other cases, we knew so little, or rather were so entirely ignorant of the cause and circumstances that we could only conjecture; and being forbidden to converse freely on that or any other subject, thought but little about it. I have mentioned that a number of veiled nuns thus mysteriously disappeared during my residence among them. I cannot, perhaps, recall them all, but I am confident there were as many as five, and I think more. All that we knew in such cases was, that one of our number who had appeared as usual when last observed, was nowhere to be seen, and never was again. Mad Jane Ray, on several such occasions, would indulge in her bold, and, as we thought, dangerous remarks. She had intimated that some of those, who had been for a time in the Convent, were by some means removed to make way for new ones; and it was generally the fact, that the disappearance of one and the introduction of another into our community, were nearly at the same time. I have repeatedly heard Jane Ray say, with one of her significant looks, “When you appear, somebody else disappears!”
It is unpleasant enough to distress or torture one’s self; but there is something worse in being tormented by others, especially where they resort to force, and show a pleasure in compelling you, and leave you no hope of escape, or opportunity to resist. I had seen the gags repeatedly in use, and sometimes applied with a roughness which seemed rather inhuman; but it is one thing to see and another thing to feel. There were some of the old nuns who seemed to take pleasure in oppressing those who fell under their displeasure. They were ready to recommend or resort to compulsory measures, and ever ready to run for the gags. These were kept in one of the community-rooms, in a drawer between two closets; and there a stock of about fifty of them was always in deposite. Sometimes a number of nuns would prove refractory at a time; and I have seen battles commenced in which several appeared on both sides. The disobedient were, however, soon overpowered: and to prevent their screams from being heard beyond the walls, gagging commenced immediately. I have seen half a dozen lying, gagged and bound at once.
I have been subjected to the same state of involuntary silence more than once; for sometimes I became excited to a state of desperation by the measures used against me, and then conducted in a manner perhaps not less violent than some others. My hands had been tied behind me, and a gag put into my mouth, sometimes with such force and rudeness as to lacerate my lips and cause the blood to flow freely.
Treatment of this kind is apt to teach submission, and many times I have acquiesced under orders received, or wishes expressed, with a fear of a recurrence to some severe measures.
One day I had incurred the anger of the Superior in a greater degree than usual, and it was ordered that I should be taken to one of the cells. I was taken by some of the nuns, bound and gagged, carried down the stairs in the cellar, and laid upon the floor. Not long afterward I induced one of the nuns to request the Superior to come down and see me; and on making some acknowledgment I was released. I will, however, relate this story rather more in detail.
On that day I had been engaged with Jane Ray, in carrying into effect a plan of revenge upon another person, when I fell under the vindictive spirit of some of the old nuns, and suffered severely. The Superior ordered me to the cells, and a scene of violence commenced which I will not attempt to describe, nor the precise circumstances which led to it. Suffice it to say, that after exhausting my strength, by resisting as long as I could against several nuns, I had my hands drawn behind my back, a leathern band passed first round my thumbs, then round my hands, and then round my waist, and fastened. This was drawn so tight that it cut through the flesh of my thumbs, making wounds, the scars of which still remain. A gag was then forced into my mouth, not indeed so violently as it sometimes was, but roughly enough; after which I was taken by main force, and carried down into the cellar, across it almost to the opposite extremity, and brought to the last of the second range of cells on the left hand. The door was opened, and I was thrown in with violence, and left alone, the door being immediately closed and bolted on the outside. The bare ground was under me, cold and hard as if it had been beaten down even. I lay still, in the position in which I had fallen, as it would have been difficult for me to move, confined as I was, and exhausted by my exertions; and the shock of my fall, and my wretched state of desperation and fear, disinclined me from any further attempt. I was in almost total darkness, there being nothing perceptible except a slight glimmer of light which came in through the little window far above me.
How long I remained in that condition I can only conjecture. It seemed to me a long time, and must have been two or three hours. I did not move, expecting to die there, and in a state of distress which I cannot describe, from the tight bandage about my hands, and the gag holding my jaws apart at their greatest extension. I am confident I must have died before morning, if, as I then expected, I had been left there all night. By-and-by, however, the bolt was drawn, the door opened, and Jane Ray spoke to me in a tone of kindness. She had taken an opportunity to slip into the cellar unnoticed on purpose to see me. She unbound the gag, and took it out of my mouth, and told me she would do any thing to get me out of my dungeon. If she had had the bringing of me down, she would not have thrust me so brutally, and she would be revenged on those who had. She offered to throw herself upon her knees before the Superior and beg her forgiveness. To this I would not consent; but told her to ask the Superior to come to me, as I wished to speak to her. This I had no idea she would condescend to do; but Jane had not been gone long before the Superior came, and asked if I had repented in the sight of God for what I had done. I replied in the affirmative; and after a lecture of some length on the pain I had given the Virgin Mary by my conduct, she asked whether I was willing to ask pardon of all the nuns for the scandal I had caused them by my behaviour. To this I made no objection; and I was then released from my prison and my bonds, went up to the community- room, and kneeling before all the sisters in succession begged the forgiveness and prayers of each.
Among the marks which I still bear of the wounds received from penances and violence, are the scars left by the belt with which I repeatedly tortured myself, for the mortification of my spirit. These are most distinct on my side; for although the band, which was four or five inches in breadth, and extended round the waist, was stuck full of sharp iron points in all parts, it was sometimes crowded most against my side, by rocking in my chair, and the wounds were usually deeper there than anywhere else.
My thumbs were several times cut severely by the tight drawing of the band used to confine my arms, and the scars are still visible upon them.
The rough gagging which I several times endured wounded my lips very much; for it was common, in that operation, to thrust the gag hard against the teeth, and catch one or both the lips, which were sometimes cut. The object was to stop the screams made by the offender as soon as possible; and some of the old nuns delighted in tormenting us. A gag was once forced into my mouth which had a large splinter upon it, and this cut through my under lip, in front, leaving to this day a scar about half an inch long. The same lip was several times wounded, as well as the other; but one day worse than ever, when a narrow piece was cut off from the left side of it, by being pinched between the gag and the under fore-teeth; and this has left an inequality in it which is still very observable.
One of the most shocking stories I heard of events that had occurred in the nunnery before my acquaintance with it, was the following, which was told me by Jane. What is uncommon, I can fix the date when I heard it. It was on New-Year’s day, 1834. The ceremonies, customary in the early part of that day, had been performed; after mass, in the morning, the Superior had shaken hands with all the nuns, and given us her blessing, for she was said to have received power from heaven to do so only once a year, and then on the first day of the year. Besides this, cakes, raisins, &c. are distributed to the nuns on that day.
While in the community-room, I had taken a seat just within the cupboard-door, where I often found a partial shelter from observation with Jane, when a conversation incidentally began between us. Our practice often was, to take places there beside one of the old nuns, awaiting the time when she would go away for a little while and leave us partially screened from the observation of others. On that occasion, Jane and I were left for a time alone; when after some discourse on suicide, she remarked, that three nuns once killed themselves in the Convent. This happened, she said, not long after her reception, and I knew, therefore, that it was several years before, for she had been received a considerable time before I had become a novice. Three young ladies, she informed me, took the veil together, or very near the same time, I am not certain which. I know they have four robes in the Convent, to be worn during the ceremony of taking the veil; but I have never seen more than one of them used at a time.
Two of the new nuns were sisters, and the other their cousin. They had been received but a few days, when information was given one morning that they had been found dead in their beds, amid a profusion of blood. Jane Ray said, she saw their corpses, and that they appeared to have killed themselves, by opening veins in their arms with a knife they had obtained, and all had bled to death together. What was extraordinary, Jane Ray added, that she had heard no noise, and that she believed nobody had suspected that any thing was wrong during the night. Saint Hypolite, however, had stated, that she found them in the morning, after the other nuns had gone to prayers, lying lifeless in their beds.
For some reason or other, their death was not made public; but their bodies, instead of being exhibited in full dress in the chapel, and afterward interred with solemnity beneath it, were taken unceremoniously into the cellar, and thrown into the hole I have so often mentioned.
There were a few instances, and only a few, in which we knew any thing that was happening in the world; and even then our knowledge did not extend out of the city. I can recall but three occasions of this kind. Two of them were when the cholera prevailed in Montreal; and the other was the election riots. The appearance of the cholera, in both seasons of its ravages, gave us abundance of occupation. Indeed, we were more borne down by hard labor at those times, than ever before or afterward during my stay. The Pope had given early notice that the burning of wax candles would afford protection from the disease, because so long as any person continued to burn one, the Virgin Mary would intercede for him. No sooner, therefore, had the alarming disease made its appearance in Montreal, than a long wax candle was lighted in the Convent for each of the inmates, so that all parts of it in use were artificially illuminated day and night. Thus a great many candles were kept constantly burning, which were to be replaced from those manufactured by the nuns. But this was a trifle. The Pope’s message having been promulgated in the Grey Nunnery, the Congregational Nunnery, and to Catholics at large, through the pulpits, an extraordinary demand was created for wax candles, to supply which we were principally depended upon. All who could be employed in making them were therefore set at work, and I among the rest, assisted in different departments, and witnessed all.
Numbers of the nuns had been long familiar with the business; for a very considerable amount of wax had been annually manufactured in the Convent; but now the works were much extended, and other occupations in a great degree laid aside. Large quantities of wax were received in the building, which was said to have been imported from England; kettles were placed in some of the working-rooms, in which it was clarified by heat over coal fires, and when prepared, the process of dipping commenced. The wicks which were quite long, were placed hanging upon a reel, taken up and dipped in succession, until, after many slow revolutions of the reel, the candles were of the proper size. They were then taken to a part of the room where tables were prepared for rolling them smooth. This is done by passing a roller over them, until they became even and polished, after which they are laid by for sale. These processes caused a constant bustle in several of the rooms; and the melancholy reports from without, of the ravages of the cholera, with the uncertainty of what might be the result with us, notwithstanding the promised intercession of the Virgin, and the brilliant lights constantly burning in such numbers around us, impressed the scenes I used to witness very deeply on my mind. I had very little doubt myself of the strict truth of the story we had heard of the security conferred upon those who burnt candles, and yet I sometimes had serious fears arise in my mind. These thoughts, however, I did my utmost to regard as great sins, and evidences of my own want of faith.
It was during that period that I formed a partial acquaintance with several Grey nuns, who used to come frequently for supplies of candles for their Convent. I had no opportunity to converse with them, except so far as the purchase and sale of the articles they required. I became familiar with their countenances and appearances, but was unable to judge of their characters or feelings. Concerning the rules and habits prevailing in the Grey Nunnery; I therefore remained as ignorant as if I had been a thousand miles off; and they had no better opportunity to learn anything of us beyond what they could see around them in the room where the candles were sold.
We supplied the Congregational Nunnery also with wax candles, as I before remarked; and in both those institutions, it was understood a constant illumination was kept up. Citizens were also frequently running in to buy candles, in great and small quantities, so that the business of storekeeping was far more laborious than common.
We were confirmed in our faith in the intercession of the Virgin, when we found that we remained safe from the cholera; and it is a remarkable fact, that not one case of that disease existed in the nunnery, during either of the seasons in which it proved so fatal in the city.
When the election riots prevailed in Montreal, the city was thrown into general alarm; we heard some reports, from day to day, which made us anxious for ourselves. Nothing, however, gave me any serious thoughts until I saw uncommon movements in some parts of the nunnery, and ascertained, to my own satisfaction, that there was a large quantity of gunpowder stored in some secret place within the walls, and that some of it was removed, or prepared for use, under the direction of the Superior.
I have mentioned several penances, in different parts of this narrative, which we sometimes had to perform. There is a great variety of them; and, while some, though trifling in appearance, became very painful, by long endurance, or frequent repetition; others are severe in their nature, and would never be submitted to unless through fear of something worse, or a real belief in efficacy to remove guilt. I will mention here such as I recollect, which can be named without offending a virtuous ear; for some there were, which, although I have been compelled to submit to, either by misled conscience, or the fear of severe punishments, now that I am better able to judge of my duties, and at liberty to act, I would not mention or describe.
Kissing the floor, is a very common penance; kneeling and kissing the feet of the other nuns, is another: as are kneeling on hard peas, and walking with them in the shoes. We had repeatedly to walk on our knees through the subterranean passage, leading to the Congregational Nunnery; and sometimes to eat our meals with a rope round our necks. Sometimes we were fed only with such things as we most disliked. Garlic was given to me on this account, because I had a strong antipathy against it. Eels were repeatedly given to some of us, because we felt an unconquerable repugnance to them, on account of reports we had heard of their feeding on dead carcasses, in the river St. Lawrence. It was no uncommon thing for us to be required to drink the water in which the Superior had washed her feet. Sometimes we were required to brand ourselves with a hot iron, so as to leave scars; at other times to whip our naked flesh with several small rods, before a private altar, until we drew blood. I can assert, with the perfect knowledge of the fact, that many of the nuns bear the scars of these wounds.
One of our penances was to stand for a length of time, with our arms extended, in imitation of the Saviour on the cross. The _Chemin de la Croix_, or Road to the Cross, is, in fact, a penance, though it consists of a variety of prostrations, with the repetition of many prayers, occupying two or three hours. This we had to perform frequently, going into the chapel, and falling before each chapelle in succession, at each time commemorating some particular act or circumstance reported of the Saviour’s progress to the place of his crucifixion. Sometimes we were obliged to sleep on the floor in the winter, with nothing over us but a single sheet; and sometimes to chew a piece of window-glass to a fine powder, in the presence of the Superior.
We had sometimes to wear leathern belts stuck full of sharp metallic points round our waists, and the upper part of our arms, bound on so tight that they penetrated the flesh, and drew blood.
Some of the penances was so severe, that they seemed too much to be endured; and when they were imposed, the nuns who were to suffer them, sometimes showed the most violent repugnance. They would often resist, and still oftener express their opposition by exclamations and screams.
Never, however, was any noise heard from them, for a long time for there was a remedy always ready to be applied in cases of the kind. The gag which was put into the month of the unfortunate Saint Francis, had been brought from a place where there were forty or fifty others, of different shapes and sizes. These I have seen in their depository, which is a drawer between two closets, in one of the community-rooms. Whenever any loud noise was made, one of these instruments was demanded, and gagging commenced at once. I have known many, many instances, and sometimes five or six nuns gagged at once. Sometimes they would become so much excited before they could be bound and gagged, that considerable force was necessary to be exerted; and I have seen the blood flowing from months into which the gag had been thrust with violence.
Indeed I ought to know something on this department of nunnery discipline: I have had it tried upon myself, and I can bear witness that it is not only most humiliating and oppressive, but often extremely painful. The month is kept forced open, and the straining of the jaws at their utmost stretch, for a considerable time, is very distressing.
One of the worst punishments which I ever saw inflicted, was that with a cap; and yet some of the old nuns were permitted to inflict it at their pleasure. I have repeatedly known them to go for a cap, when one of our number had transgressed a rule, sometimes though it were a very unimportant one. These caps were kept in a cupboard in the old nuns’ room, whence they were brought when wanted.
They were small, made of a reddish looking leather, fitted closely to the head, and fastened under the chin with a kind of buckle. It was the common practice to tie the nun’s hands behind and gag her before the cap was put on, to prevent noise and resistance. I never saw it worn by any for one moment, without throwing them into severe sufferings. If permitted, they would scream in a most shocking manner; and they always writhed as much as their confinement would allow. I can speak from personal knowledge of this punishment, as I have endured it more than once; and yet I have no idea of the cause of the pain. I never examined one of the caps, nor saw the inside, for they are always brought and taken away quickly; but although the first sensation was that of coolness, it was hardly put on my head before a violent and indescribable sensation began, like that of a blister, only much more insupportable; and this continued until it was removed. It would produce such an acute pain as to throw us into convulsions, and I think no human being could endure it for an hour. After this punishment we felt its effects through the system for many days. Having once known what it was by experience, I held the cap in dread, and whenever I was condemned to suffer the punishment again, felt ready to do any thing to avoid it. But when tied and gagged, with the cap on my head again, I could only sink upon the floor, and roll about in anguish until it was taken off.
This was usually done in about ten minutes, sometimes less, but the pain always continued in my head for several days. I thought that it might take away a person’s reason if kept on a much longer time. If I had not been gagged, I am sure I should have uttered awful screams. I have felt the effects for a week. Sometimes fresh cabbage leaves were applied to my head to remove it. Having had no opportunity to examine my head, I cannot say more.
This punishment was occasionally resorted to for very trifling offences, such as washing the hands without permission; and it was generally applied on the spot, and before the other nuns in the community-room.
The Priests of the District of Montreal have free access to the Black Nunnery–Crimes committed and required by them–The Pope’s command to commit indecent Crimes–Characters of the Old and New Superiors–The timidity of the latter–I began to be employed in the Hospitals–Some account of them–Warning given me by a sick Nun–Penance by Hanging.
I have mentioned before, that the country, as far down as Three Rivers, is furnished with priests by the Seminary of Montreal; and that these hundred and fifty men are liable to be occasionally transferred from one station to another. Numbers of them are often to be seen in the streets of Montreal, as they may find a home in the Seminary.
They are considered as haying an equal right to enter the Black Nunnery whenever they please; and then, according to our oaths, they have complete control over the nuns. To name all the works of shame of which they are guilty in that retreat, would require much time and space, neither would it be necessary to the accomplishment of my object, which is, the publication of but some of their criminality to the world, and the development, in general terms, of scenes thus far carried on in secret within the walls of that Convent, where I was so long an inmate.
Secure against detection by the world, they never believed that an eyewitness would ever escape to tell of their crimes, and declare some of their names before the world; but the time has come, and some of their deeds of darkness must come to the day. I have seen in the nunnery, the priests from more, I presume, than a hundred country places, admitted for shameful and criminal purposes: from St. Charles, St. Denis, St. Mark’s St. Antoine, Chambly, Bertier, St. John’s, &c. &c.
How unexpected to them will be the disclosures I make! Shut up in a place from which there has been thought to be but one way of egress, and that the passage to the grave, they considered themselves safe in perpetrating crimes in our presence, and in making us share in their criminality as often as they chose, and conducted more shamelessly than even the brutes. These debauchees would come in without ceremony, concealing their names, both by night and by day, where the cries and pains of the injured innocence of their victims could never reach the world, for relief or redress for their wrongs; without remorse or shame, they would glory in torturing, in the most barbarous manner, the feelings of those under their power; telling us, at the same time, that this mortifying of the flesh was religion, and pleasing to God.
We were sometimes invited to put ourselves to voluntary sufferings in a variety of ways, not for a penance, but to show our devotion to God. A priest would sometimes say to us–
“Now, which of you have love enough for Jesus Christ to stick a pin through your cheeks?”
Some of us would signify our readiness, and immediately thrust one through up to the head. Sometimes he would propose that we should repeat the operation several times on the spot; and the cheeks of a number of nuns would be bloody.
There were other acts occasionally proposed and consented to, which I cannot name in a book. Such the Superior would sometimes command us to perform; many of them things not only useless, and unheard of, but loathsome and indecent in the highest possible degree. How they could ever have been invented I never could conceive. Things were done worse than the entire exposure of the person, though this was occasionally required of several at once, in the presence of priests.
The Superior of the Seminary would sometimes come and inform us, that he had received orders from the Pope, to request that those nuns who possessed the greatest devotion and faith, should be requested to perform some particular deeds, which he named or described in our presence, but of which no decent or moral person could ever endure to speak. I cannot repeat what would injure any ear, not debased to the lowest possible degree. I am bound by a regard to truth, however, to confess, that deluded women were found among us, who would comply with those requests.
There was a great difference between the characters of our old and new Superior, which soon became obvious. The former used to say she liked to walk, because it would prevent her from becoming corpulent. She was, therefore, very active, and constantly going about from one part of the nunnery to another, overseeing us at our various employments. I never saw in her any appearance of timidity: she seemed, on the contrary, bold and masculine, and sometimes much more than that, cruel and cold- blooded, in scenes calculated to overcome any common person. Such a character she had exhibited at the murder of Saint Francis.
The new Superior, on the other hand, was so heavy and lame, that she walked with much difficulty, and consequently exercised a less vigilant oversight of the nuns. She was also of a timid disposition, or else had been overcome by some great fright in her past life; for she was apt to become alarmed in the night, and never liked to be alone in the dark. She had long performed the part of an old nun, which is that of a spy upon the younger ones, and was well known to us in that character, under the name of Ste. Margarite. Soon after her promotion to the station of Superior, she appointed me to sleep in her apartment, and assigned me a sofa to lie upon. One night while, I was asleep, she suddenly threw herself upon me, and exclaimed in great alarm, “Oh! mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Qu’est que ca?” Oh, my God! my God! What is that? I jumped up and looked about the room, but saw nothing, and endeavoured to convince her that there was nothing extraordinary there. But she insisted that a ghost had come and held her bed-curtain, so that she could not draw it. I examined it, and found that the curtain had been caught by a pin in the valance, which had held it back; but it was impossible to tranquillize her for some time. She insisted on my sleeping with her the rest of the night, and I stretched myself across the foot of her bed, and slept there till morning.
During the last part of my stay in the Convent, I was often employed in attending in the hospitals. There are, as I have before mentioned, several apartments devoted to the sick, and there is a physician of Montreal, who attends as physician to the Convent. It must not be supposed, however, that he knows anything concerning the private hospitals. It is a fact of great importance to be distinctly understood, and constantly borne in mind, that he is never, under any circumstances, admitted into the private hospital-rooms. Of those he sees nothing more than any stranger whatever. He is limited to the care of those patients who are admitted from the city into the public hospital, and one of the nuns’ hospitals, and these he visits every day. Sick poor are received for charity by the institution, attended by some of the nuns, and often go away with the highest ideas of their charitable characters and holy lives. The physician himself might perhaps in some cases share in the delusion.
I frequently followed Dr. Nelson through the public hospital, at the direction of the Superior, with pen, ink, and paper in my hands, and wrote down the prescriptions which he ordered for the different patients. These were afterwards prepared and administered by the attendants. About a year before I left the Convent, I was first appointed to attend the private sick-rooms, and was frequently employed in that duty up to the day of my departure. Of course, I had opportunities to observe the number and classes of patients treated there; and in what I am to say on the subject, I appeal with perfect confidence to any true and competent witness to confirm, my words, whenever such a witness may appear.
It would be vain for any body who has merely visited the Convent from curiosity, or resided in it as a novice, to question my declarations. Such a person must necessarily be ignorant of even the existence of the private rooms, unless informed by some one else. Such rooms however, there are, and I could relate many things which have passed there during the hours I was employed in them, as I have stated.
One night I was called to sit up with an old nun, named Saint Clare, who, in going down-stairs, had dislocated a limb, and lay in a sick-room adjoining an hospital. She seemed to be a little out of her head a part of the time, but appeared to be quite in possession of her reason most of the night. It was easy to pretend that she was delirious; but I considered her as speaking the truth, though I felt reluctant to repeat what I heard her say, and excused myself from mentioning it even at confession, on the ground that the Superior thought her deranged.
What led her to some of the most remarkable parts of her conversation, was a motion I made, in the course of the night, to take the light out of her little room into the adjoining apartment, to look once more at the sick persons there. She begged me not to leave her a moment in the dark, for she could not bear it. “I have witnessed so many horrid scenes,” said she, “in this Convent, that I want somebody near me constantly, and must always have a light burning in my room. I cannot tell you,” she added, “what things I remember, for they would frighten you too much. What you have seen are nothing to them. Many a murder have I witnessed; many a nice young creature has been killed in this nunnery. I advise you to be very cautions–keep everything to yourself–there are many here ready to betray you.”
What it was that induced the old nun to express so much kindness to me I could not tell, unless she was frightened at the recollection of her own crimes, and those of others, and felt grateful for the care I took of her. She had been one of the night-watches, and never before showed me any particular kindness. She did not indeed go into detail concerning the transactions to which she alluded, but told me that some nuns had been murdered under great aggravations of cruelty, by being gagged, and left to starve in the cells, or having their flesh burnt off their bones with red-hot irons.
It was uncommon to find compunction expressed by any of the nuns. Habit renders us insensible to the sufferings of others, and careless about our own sins. I had become so hardened myself, that I find it difficult to rid myself of many of my former false principles and views of right and wrong.
I was one day set to wash some of the empty bottles from the cellar, which had contained the liquid that was poured into the cemetery there. A number of these had been brought from the corner where so many of them were always to be seen, and placed at the head of the cellar stairs, and there we were required to take them and wash them out. We poured in water and rinsed them; a few drops, which got upon our clothes, soon made holes in them. I think the liquid was called vitriol, or some such name; and I heard some persons say, that it would soon destroy the flesh, and even the bones of the dead. At another time, we were furnished with a little of the liquid, which was mixed with a quantity of water, and used in dying some cloth black, which was wanted at funerals in the chapels. Our hands were turned very black by being dipped in it, but a few drops of some other liquid were mixed with fresh water and given us to wash in, which left our skin of a bright red.
The bottles of which I spoke were made of very thick, dark-coloured glass, large at the bottom, and, from recollection, I should say held something less than a gallon.
I was once much shocked, on entering the room for the examination of conscience, at seeing a nun hanging by a cord from a ring in the ceiling, with her head downward. Her clothes had been tied round with a leathern strap, to keep them in their place, and then she had been fastened in that situation, with her head at some distance from the floor. Her face had a very unpleasant appearance, being dark-coloured and swollen by the rushing in of the blood; her hands were tied and her mouth stopped with a large gag. This nun proved to be no other than Jane Ray, who for some fault had been condemned to this punishment.
This was not, however, a solitary case; I heard of numbers who were “hung,” as it was called, at different times; and I saw Saint Hypolite and Saint Luke undergoing it. This was considered a most distressing punishment; and it was the only one which Jane Ray could not endure, of all she had tried.
Some of the nuns would allude to it in her presence, but it usually made her angry. It was probably practised in the same place while I was a novice; but I never heard or thought of such a thing in those days. Whenever we wished to enter the room for examination of conscience, we had to ask leave; and after some delay were permitted to go, but always under a strict charge to bend the head forward, and keep the eyes fixed upon the floor.
More visits to the imprisoned Nuns–Their fears–Others temporarily put into the Cells–Reliques–The Agnus Dei–The Priests’ private Hospital, or Holy Retreat–Secret Rooms in the Eastern Wing–Reports of Murders in the Convent–The Superior’s private Records–Number of Nuns in the Convent–Desire of Escape–Urgent reason for it–Plan–Deliberation– Attempt–Success.
I often seized an opportunity, when I safely could, to speak a cheering or friendly word to one of the poor prisoners, in passing their cells, on my errands in the cellars. For a time I supposed them to be sisters; but I afterward discovered that this was not the case. I found that they were always under the fear of suffering some punishment, in case they should be found talking with a person not commissioned to attend them. They would often ask, “Is not somebody coming?”
I could easily believe what I heard affirmed by others, that fear was the severest of their sufferings. Confined in the dark, in so gloomy a place, with the long and spacious arched cellar stretching off this way and that, visited now and then by a solitary nun, with whom they were afraid to speak their feelings, and with only the miserable society of each other; how gloomy thus to spend day after day, months, and even years, without any prospect of liberation, and liable every moment to any other fate to which the Bishop or Superior might condemn them! But these poor creatures must have known something of the horrors perpetrated in other parts of the building, and could not have been ignorant of the hole in the cellar, which was not far from their cells, and the use to which it was devoted. One of them told me, in confidence, she wished they could get out. They must also have been often disturbed in their sleep, if they ever did sleep, by the numerous priests who passed through the trapdoor at no great distance. To be subject to such trials for a single day would be dreadful; but these nuns had them to endure for years.
I often felt much compassion for them, and wished to see them released; but at other times, yielding to the doctrine perpetually taught us in the Convent, that our future happiness would be proportioned to the sufferings we had to undergo in this world, I would rest satisfied that their imprisonment was a real blessing to them. Others, I presume, participated with me in such feelings. One Sunday afternoon, after we had performed all our ceremonies, and were engaged as usual, at that time, with backgammon and other amusements, one of the young nuns exclaimed, “Oh, how headstrong are those wretches in the cells–they are as bad as the day they were first put in!”
This exclamation was made, as I supposed, in consequence of some recent conversation with them, as I knew her to be particularly acquainted with the older one.
Some of the vacant cells were occasionally used for temporary imprisonment. Three nuns were confined in them, to my knowledge, for disobedience to the Superior, as she called it. They did not join the rest in singing in the evening, being exhausted by the various exertions of the day. The Superior ordered them to sing, and as they did not comply, after her command had been twice repeated, she ordered them away to the cells.
They were immediately taken down into the cellar, placed in separate dungeons, and the doors shut and barred upon them. There they remained through that night, the following day, and second night, but were released in time to attend mass on the second morning.
The Superior used occasionally to show something in a glass box, which we were required to regard with the highest degree of reverence. It was made of wax, and called an Agnus Dei. She used to exhibit it to us when we were in a state of grace; that is, after confession and before sacrament. She said it had been blessed _in the very dish in which our Saviour had eaten_. It was brought from Rome. Every time we kissed it, or even looked at it, we were told it gave a hundred days release from purgatory to ourselves, or if we did not need it, to our next of kin in purgatory, if not a Protestant. If we had no such kinsman, the benefit was to go to the souls in purgatory not prayed for.
Jane Ray would sometimes say to me, “Let’s kiss it–some of our friends will thank us for it.”
I have been repeatedly employed in carrying dainties of different kinds to the little private room I have mentioned, next beyond the Superior’s sitting-room, in the second story, which the priests made their “_Holy Retreat_.” That room I never was allowed to enter. I could only go to the door with a waiter of refreshments, set it down upon a little stand near it, give three raps on the door, and then retire to a distance to await orders. When any thing was to be taken away, it was placed on the stand by the Superior, who then gave three raps for me, and closed the door.
The Bishop I saw at least once when he appeared worse for wine, or something of the kind. After partaking of some refreshments in the Convent, he sent for all the nuns, and, on our appearance, gave us his blessing, and put a piece of poundcake on the shoulder of each of us, in a manner which appeared singular and foolish.
There are three rooms in the Black Nunnery which I never entered. I had enjoyed much liberty, and had seen, as I supposed, all parts of the building, when one day I observed an old nun go to a corner of an apartment near the northern end of the western wing, push the end of her scissors into a crack in the panelled wall, and pull out a door. I was much surprised, because I had never conjectured that any door was there; and it appeared when I afterward examined the place, that no indication of it could be discovered on the closest scrutiny. I stepped forward to see what was within, and saw three rooms opening into each other; but the nun refused to admit me within the door, which she said led to rooms kept as depositories.
She herself entered and closed the door, so that I could not satisfy my curiosity; and no occasion presented itself. I always had a strong desire to know the use of these apartments: for I am sure they must have been designed for some purpose of which I was intentionally kept ignorant, otherwise they would never have remained unknown to me so long. Besides, the old nun evidently had some strong reasons for denying me admission, though she endeavoured to quiet my curiosity.
The Superior, after my admission into the Convent, had told me that I had access to every room in the building; and I had seen places which bore witness to the cruelties and the crimes committed under her commands or sanction; but here was a succession of rooms which had been concealed from me, and so constructed as if designed to be unknown to all but a few. I am sure that any person, who might be able to examine the wall in that place, would pronounce that secret door a surprising piece of work. I never saw any thing of the kind which appeared to me so ingenious and skilfully made. I told Jane Ray what I had seen, and she said, at once, “We will get in and see what is in there.” But I suppose she never found an opportunity.
I naturally felt a good deal of curiosity to learn whether such scenes, as I had witnessed in the death of Saint Francis, were common or rare, and took an opportunity to inquire of Jane Ray. Her reply was–
“Oh, yes; and there were many murdered while you was a novice, whom you heard nothing about.”
This was all I ever learnt on the subject; but although I was told nothing of the manner in which they were killed, I supposed it to be the same which I had seen practised, viz. by smothering.
I went into the Superior’s parlour one day for something, and found Jane Ray there alone, looking into a book with an appearance of interest. I asked her what it was, but she made some trifling answer, and laid it by, as if unwilling to let me take it. There are two bookcases in the room; one on the right as you enter the door, and the other opposite, near the window and sofa. The former contains the lecture-books and other printed volumes, the latter seemed to be filled with note and account books. I have often seen the keys in the bookcases while I have been dusting the furniture, and sometimes observed letters stuck up in the room; although I never looked into one, or thought of doing so, as we were under strict orders not to touch any of them, and the idea of sins and penances was always present with me.
Some time after the occasion mentioned, I was sent into the Superior’s room, with Jane, to arrange it; and as the same book was lying out of the case, she said “Come, let us look into it.” I immediately consented, and we opened it, and turned over several leaves. It was about a foot and a half long, as nearly as I can remember, a foot wide, and about two inches thick, though I cannot speak with particular precision, as Jane frightened me almost as soon as I touched it, by exclaiming, “There you have looked into it, and if you tell of me, I will of you.”
The thought of being subjected to a severe penance, which I had reason to apprehend, fluttered me very much; and although I tried to overcome my fears, I did not succeed very well. I reflected, however, that the sin was already committed, and that it would not be increased if I examined the book. I, therefore, looked a little at several pages, though I still felt a good deal of agitation. I saw, at once, that the volume was the record of the entrance of nuns and novices into the Convent, and of the births that had taken place in the Convent. Entries of the last description were made in a brief manner, on the following plan: I do not give the names or dates as real, but only to show the form of entering them.
Saint Mary delivered of a son, March 16,1834. Saint Clarice “daughter, April 2,”
Saint Matilda “daughter, April, 80,”
No mention was made in the book of the death of the children, though I well knew not one of them could be living at that time. Now I presume that the period the book embraced, was about two years, as several names near the beginning I knew; but I can form only a rough conjecture of the number of infants born, and murdered of course, records of which it contained. I suppose the book contained at least one hundred pages, that one fourth were written upon, and that each page contained fifteen distinct records. Several pages were devoted to the list of births. On this supposition there must have been a large number, which I can easily believe to have been born there in the course of two years.
What were the contents of the other books belonging to the same case with that which I looked into, I have no idea, having never dared to touch one of them; I believe, however, that Jane Ray was well acquainted with them, knowing, as I do, her intelligence and prying disposition. If she could be brought to give her testimony, she would doubtless unfold many curious particulars now unknown.
I am able, in consequence of a circumstance which appeared accidental, to state with confidence the exact number of persons in the Convent one day of the week in which I left it. This may be a point of some interest, as several secret deaths had occurred since my taking the veil, and many burials had been openly made in the chapel.
I was appointed, at the time mentioned, to lay out the covers for all the inmates of the Convent, including the nuns in the cells. These covers, as I have said before, were linen bands, to be bound around the knives, forks, spoons, and napkins, for eating. These were for all the nuns and novices, and amounted to two hundred and ten. As the number of novices was then about thirty, I know that there must have been at that time about one hundred and eighty veiled nuns.
I was occasionally troubled with a desire of escaping from the nunnery, and was much distressed whenever I felt so evil an imagination rise in my mind. I believed that it was a sin, and did not fail to confess at every opportunity, that I felt discontent. My confessors informed me that I was beset by an evil spirit, and urged me to pray against it. Still, however, every now and then, I would think, “Oh, if I could get out!”
At length one of the priests, to whom I had confessed this sin, informed me, for my comfort, that he had begun to pray to Saint Anthony, and hoped his intercession would, by-and-by, drive away the evil spirit. My desire of escape was partly excited by the fear of bringing an infant to the murderous hands of my companions, or of taking a potion whose violent effects I too well knew.
One evening, however, I found myself more filled with the desire of escape than ever; and what exertions I made to dismiss the thought, proved entirely unavailing. During evening prayers, I became quite occupied with it; and when the time for meditation arrived, instead of falling into a doze as I often did, although I was a good deal fatigued, I found no difficulty in keeping awake. When this exercise was over, and the other nuns were about to retire to the sleeping-room, my station being in the private sickroom for the night, I withdrew to my post, which was the little sitting-room adjoining it.
Here, then, I threw myself upon the sofa, and, being alone, reflected a few moments on the manner of escaping which had occurred to me. The physician had arrived a little before, at half-past eight; and I had now to accompany him, as usual, from bed to bed, with pen, ink, and paper, to write down his prescriptions for the direction of the old nun, who was to see them administered. What I wrote that evening, I cannot now recollect, as my mind was uncommonly agitated; but my customary way was to note down briefly his orders in this manner:
1 d salts, St. Matilde.
1 blister, St. Geneviere, &c. &c.
I remember that I wrote three such orders that evening, and then, having finished the rounds, I returned for a few minutes to the sitting-room.
There were two ways of access to the street from those rooms: first, the more direct, from the passage adjoining the sick-room, down stairs, through a door, into the nunnery-yard, and through a wicket-gate; that is the way by which the physician usually enters at night, and he is provided with a key for that purpose.
It would have been unsafe, however, for me to pass out that way, because a man is kept continually in the yard, near the gate, who sleeps at night in a small hut near the door, to escape whose observation would be impossible. My only hope, therefore, was, that I might gain my passage through the other way, to do which I must pass through the sick-room, then through a passage, or small room, usually occupied by an old nun; another passage and staircase leading down to the yard, and a large gate opening into the cross street. I had no liberty ever to go beyond the sick-room, and knew that several of the doors might be fastened. Still, I determined to try; although I have often since been astonished at my boldness in undertaking what would expose me to so many hazards of failure, and to severe punishment if found out.
It seemed as if I acted under some extraordinary impulse, which encouraged me to do what I should hardly at any other moment have thought of undertaking. I had sat but a short time upon the sofa, however, before I rose, with a desperate determination to make the experiment. I therefore walked hastily across the sick-room, passed into the nun’s room, walked by her in a great hurry, and almost without giving her time to speak or think, said–“A message!” and in an instant was through the door and in the next passage. I think there was another nun with her at the moment; and it is probable that my hurried manner, and prompt intimation that I was sent on a pressing mission, to the Superior, prevented them from entertaining any suspicion of my intention. Besides, I had the written orders of the physician in my hand, which may have tended to mislead them; and it was well known to some of the nuns, that I had twice left the Convent and returned from choice; so that I was probably more likely to be trusted to remain than many of the others.
The passage which I had now reached had several doors, with all which I was acquainted; that on the opposite side opened into a community-room, where I should probably have found some of the old inns at that hour, and they would certainly have stopped me. On the left, however, was a large door, both locked and barred; but I gave the door a sudden swing, that it might creak as little as possible, being of iron. Down the stairs I hurried, and making my way through the door into the yard, stepped across it unbarred the great gate, and was at liberty!
At liberty–Doubtful what to do–Found refuge for the night– Disappointment–My first day opt of the Convent–Solitude– Recollections, fears, and plans.
I have but a confused idea of the manner in which I got through some of the doors; several of them, I am confident, were fastened, and one or two I fastened behind me. [Footnote: Before leaving the nunnery grounds, I ran round the end of the building, stood a moment in hesitation whether I had not better return, then hastening back to the other side, ran to the gate, opened it, and went out.] But I was now in the street, and what was to be done next? I had got my liberty; but where should I go? It was dark, I was in great danger, go which way I would: and for a moment, I thought I had been unwise to leave the Convent. If I could return unobserved, would it not be better? But summoning resolution, I turned to the left, and ran some distance up the street; then reflecting that I had better take the opposite direction, I returned under the same Convent walls, and ran as fast down to St. Paul’s street, and turning up towards the north, exerted all my strength, and fled for my life. It was a cold evening, but I stopped for nothing, having recollected the house where I had been put to board for a short time, by the priest Roque, when prepared to enter the Convent as a novice, and resolved to seek a lodging there for the night. Thither I went. It seemed as if I flew rather than ran. It was by that time so dark, that I was able to see distinctly through the low windows by the light within; and had the pleasure to find that she was alone with her children. I therefore went boldly to the door, was received with readiness, and entered to take up my lodging there once more.
Here I changed my nun’s dress for one less likely to excite observation; and having received a few dollars in addition to make up the difference, I retired to rest, determined to rise early and take the morning steamboat for Quebec. I knew that my hostess was a friend of the Superior, as I have mentioned before, and presumed that it would not be long before she would give information against me. I knew, however, that she could not gain admittance to the Convent very early, and felt safe in remaining in the house through the night.
But after I had retired I found it impossible to sleep, and the night appeared very long. In the morning early, I requested that a son of the woman might accompany me to the steamboat, but learnt to my regret that it would not go before night. Fearing that I might fall into the hands of the priests, and be carried back to the nunnery, and not knowing where to go, I turned away, and determined to seek some retired spot immediately. I walked through a part of the city, and some distance on the Lachine road, when finding a solitary place, I seated myself in much distress of mind, fearful and anxious, beyond my power, of description. I could not think myself safe anywhere in the neighbourhood of Montreal; for the priests were numerous, and almost all the people were entirely devoted to them. They would be very desirous of finding me, and, as I believed, would make great exertions to get me again in their hands.
It was a pleasant spot where I now found myself; and as the weather was not uncomfortable in the daytime, I had nothing to trouble me except my recollections and fears. As for the want of food, that gave me not the slightest uneasiness, as I felt no inclination whatever to eat. The uncertainty and doubts I continually felt, kept me in a state of irresolution the whole day. What should I do? Where should I go? I had not a friend in the world to whom I could go with confidence; while my enemies were numerous, and, it seemed to me, all around me, and ready to seize me. I thought of my uncle, who lived at the distance of five miles; and sometimes I almost determined to set off immediately for his house. I had visited it often when a child, and had been received with the utmost kindness. I remembered that I had been a great favourite of his; but some considerations would arise which discouraged me from looking for safety in that direction. The steamboat was to depart in a few hours. I could venture to pass through the city once more by twilight; and if once arrived at Quebec, I should be at a great distance from the nunnery, in a large city, and among a larger proportion of Protestant inhabitants. Among them I might find friends, or, at least, some sort of protection; and I had no doubt that I could support myself by labor.
Then I thought again of the place I had left; the kindness and sympathy, small though they were, which I had found in some of my late companions in the Convent; the awful mortal sin I had committed in breaking my vows; and the terrible punishment I should receive if taken as a fugitive and carried back. If I should return voluntarily, and ask to be admitted again: what would the Superior say, how would she treat me? Should I be condemned to any very severe penance? Might I not, at least, escape death? But then there was one consideration that would now and then occur to me, which excited the strongest determination never to return. I was to become a mother, and the thought of witnessing the murder of my own child was more than I could bear.
Purgatory was doubtless my portion; and perhaps hell for ever–such a purgatory and hell as are painted in the Convent: but there was one hope for me yet.
I might confess all my deadly sins sometime before I died, and a Bishop could pardon the worst of them.
This was good Catholic doctrine, and I rested upon it with so much hope, that I was not quite driven to despair.
In reflections like these, I spent the whole day, afraid to stray from the secluded spot to which I had retreated, though at different times forming momentary plans to leave it, and go in various directions. I ate not a morsel of food, and yet felt no hunger. Had I been well provided, I could have tasted nothing in such a state of mind. The afternoon wasted away, the sun set, and darkness began to come on: I rose and set off again for the city. I passed along the streets unmolested by any one; and reached it a short time before the boat was ready to start.
Start for Quebec–Recognised–Disappointed again–Not permitted to land –Return to Montreal–Landed and passed through the city before day– Lachine Canal–Intended close of my life.
Soon after we left the shore, the captain, whom I had previously seen, appeared to recognise me.
He came up and inquired if I was not the daughter of my mother, mentioning her name. I had long been taught and accustomed to deceive; and it may be supposed that in such a case I did not hesitate to deny the truth, hoping that I might avoid being known, and fearing to be defeated in my object. He however persisted that he knew me, and said he must insist on my returning with him to Montreal, adding that I must not leave his boat to land at Quebec. I said but little to him, but intended to get on shore if possible, at the end of our journey–a thing I had no doubt I might effect.
When we reached Quebec, however I found, to my chagrin, that the ladies’ maid carefully locked the cabin-door while I was in, after the ladies had left it, who were six or eight in number.
I said little, and made no attempts to resist the restriction put upon me; but secretly cherished the hope of being able, by watching an opportunity, to slip on shore at tea-time, and lose myself among the streets of the city. Although a total stranger to Quebec, I longed to be at liberty there, as I thought I could soon place myself among persons who would secure me from the Catholics, each of whom I now looked upon as an enemy.
But I soon found that my last hopes were blighted: the maid, having received, as I presumed, strict orders from the captain, kept me closely confined, so that escape was impossible. I was distressed, it is true, to find myself in this condition; but I had already become accustomed to disappointments, and therefore perhaps sunk less under this new one, than I might otherwise have done. When the hour for departure arrived, I was therefore still confined in the steamboat, and it was not until we had left the shore that I was allowed to leave the cabin. The captain and others treated me with kindness in every respect, except that of permitting me to do what I most desired. I have sometimes suspected, that he had received notice of my escape from some of the priests, with a request to stop my flight, if I should go on board his boat. His wife is a Catholic, and this is the only way in which I can account for his conduct: still I have not sufficient knowledge of his motives and intentions to speak with entire confidence on the subject.
My time passed heavily on board of the steamboat, particularly on my passage up the river towards Montreal. My mind was too much agitated to allow me to sleep, for I was continually meditating on the scenes I had witnessed in the Convent, and anticipating with dread such as I had reason to think I might soon be called to pass through. I bought for a trifle while on board, I hardly know why, a small medallion with a head upon it, and the name of Robertson, which I hung on my neck. As I sat by day with nothing to do, I occasionally sunk into a doze for a few minutes, when I usually waked with a start from some frightful dream. Sometimes I thought I was running away from the priests, and closely pursued, and sometimes had no hope of escape. But the most distressing of my feelings were those I suffered in the course of the night. We stopped some time at Berthier, where a number of prisoners were taken on board, to be carried up the river; and this caused much confusion, and added to my painful reflections.
My mind became much agitated, worse than it had been before; and what between waking fears, and sleeping visions, I spent a most wretched night. Sometimes I thought the priests and nuns had me shut up in a dungeon; sometimes they were about to make away with me in a most cruel manner. Once I dreamed that I was in some house, and a coach came up to the door, into which I was to be put by force; and the man who seized me, and was putting me in, had no head.
When we reached Montreal on Saturday morning, it was not daylight; and the captain, landing, set off as I understood, to give my mother information that I was in his boat. He was gone a long time, which led me to conjecture that he might have found difficulty in speaking with her; but the delay proved very favourable to me, for perceiving that I was neither locked up nor watched, I hastened on shore, and pursued my way into the city. I felt happy at my escape: but what was I then to do? Whither could I go? Not to my mother: I was certain I could not remain long with her, without being known to the priests.
My friendlessness and utter helplessness, with the dread of being murdered in the Convent, added to thoughts of the shame which must await me if I lived a few months, made me take a desperate resolution, and I hurried to put it into effect.
My object was to reach the head of the Lachine Canal, which is near the St. Lawrence, beyond the extremity of the southern suburbs. I walked hastily along St. Paul’s street, and found all the houses still shut; then turning to the old Recollet Church, I reached Notre-Dame street, which I followed in the direction I wished to go.
The morning was chilly, as the season was somewhat advanced: but that was of no importance to me. Day had appeared, and I desired to accomplish the object on which I was now bent, before the light should much increase. I walked on, therefore, but the morning had broken bright before I arrived at the Canal; and then I found to my disappointment that two Canadians were at work on the hank, getting water, or doing something else.
I was by the great basin where the boats start, and near the large canal storehouse. I have not said what was my design; it was to drown myself.
Fearing the men would rescue me, I hesitated for some time, hoping they would retire: but finding that they did not, I grew impatient. I stood looking on the water; it was nearly on a level with the banks, which shelved away, as I could perceive, for some distance, there being no wind to disturb the surface. There was nothing in the sight which seemed frightful or even forbidding to me; I looked upon it as the means of the easiest death, and longed to be buried below. At length finding that the men were not likely to leave the place, I sprung from the bank, and was in an instant in the cold water. The shock was very severe. I felt a sharp freezing sensation run through me, which almost immediately rendered me insensible; and the last thing I can recollect was, that I was sinking in the midst of water almost as cold as ice, which wet my clothes, and covered me all over.
Awake among strangers–Dr. Robertson–Imprisoned as a vagrant– Introduction to my mother–Stay in her house–Removal from it to Mrs. McDonald’s–Return to my mother’s–Desire to get to New York– Arrangements for going.
How long I remained in the canal I knew not; but in about three minutes, as I conjectured, I felt a severe blow on my right side; and opening my eyes I saw myself surrounded by men, who talked a great deal, and expressed much anxiety and curiosity about me. They enquired of me my name, where I lived, and why I had thrown myself into the water: but I would not answer a word. The blow which I had felt, and which was probably the cause of bringing me for a few moments to my senses, I presume was caused by my falling, after I was rescued, upon the stones, which lay thickly scattered near the water. I remember that the persons around me continued to press me with questions, and that I still remained silent. Some of them having observed the little medallion on my neck, and being able to read, declared I was probably the daughter of Dr. Robertson, as it bore the name; but to this, I also gave no answer, and sunk again into a state of unconsciousness.
When my senses once more returned, I found myself lying in a bed covered up warm, in a house, and heard several persons talking of the mass, from which they had just returned. I could not imagine where I was, for my thoughts were not easily collected, and every thing seemed strange around me. Some of them, on account of the name on the little medallion, had sent to Dr. Robertson, to inform him that a young woman had been prevented from drowning herself in the basin, who had a portrait on her neck, with his family name stamped upon it; and he had sent word, that although she could be no relation of his, they had better bring her to his house, as he possibly might be able to learn who she was. Preparations were therefore made to conduct me thither; and I was soon in his house. This was about midday, or a little later.
The doctor endeavored to draw from me some confession of my family: but I refused; my feelings would not permit me to give him any satisfaction. He offered to send me to my home if I would tell him where I lived; but at length, thinking me unreasonable and obstinate, began to threaten to send me to jail.
In a short time I found that the latter measure was determined on, and I was soon put into the hands of the jailer, Captain Holland, and placed in a private room in his house.
I had formerly been acquainted with his children, but had such strong reasons for remaining unknown, that I hoped they would not recognise me; and, as we had not met for several years I flattered myself that such would be the case. It was, at first, as I had hoped; they saw me in the evening, but did not appear to suspect who I was. The next morning, however, one of them asked me if I were not sister of my brother, mentioning his name; and though I denied it, they all insisted that I must be, for the likeness, they said, was surprisingly strong. I still would not admit the truth; but requested they would send for the Rev. Mr. Esson, a Presbyterian clergyman in Montreal, saying I had something to say to him. He soon made his appearance and I gave him some account of myself and requested him to procure my release from confinement, as I thought there was no reason why I should be deprived of my liberty.
Contrary to my wishes, however, he went and informed my mother. An unhappy difference had existed between us for many years concerning which I would not speak, were it not necessary to allude to it to render some things intelligible which are important to my narrative. I am willing to bear much of the blame: for my drawing part of her pension had justly irritated her. I shall not attempt to justify or explain my own feelings with respect to my mother, whom I still regard at least in some degree as I ought. I will merely say, that I thought she indulged in partialities and antipathies in her family during my childhood; and that I attribute my entrance into the nunnery, and the misfortunes I have suffered, to my early estrangement from home, and my separation from the family. I had neither, seen her nor heard from her in several years; and I knew not whether she had even known of my entrance into the Convent, although I now learnt, that she still resided where she formerly did.
It was therefore with regret that I heard that my mother had been informed of my condition; and that I saw an Irishwoman, an acquaintance of hers, come to take me to the house. I had no doubt that she would think I had disgraced her, by being imprisoned, as well as by my attempt to drown myself; and what would be her feelings towards me, I could only conjecture.
I accompanied the woman to my mother’s, and found nearly such a reception as I had expected. Notwithstanding our mutual feelings were much as they had been, she wished me to stay with her, and kept me in one of her rooms for several weeks, and with the utmost privacy, fearing that my appearance would lead to questions, and that my imprisonment would become known. I soon satisfied myself that she knew little of what I had passed through, within the few past years; and did not think it prudent to inform her, for that would greatly have increased the risk of my being discovered by the priests. We were surrounded by those who went frequently to confession, and would have thought me a monster of wickedness, guilty of breaking the most solemn vows, and a fugitive from a retreat which is generally regarded there as a place of great sanctity, and almost like a gate to heaven. I well knew the ignorance and prejudices of the poor Canadians, and understood how such a person as myself must appear in their eyes. They felt as I formerly had, and would think it a service to religion, and to God, to betray the place of my concealment if by chance they should find, or even suspect it. As I had become in the eyes of Catholics, “a spouse of Jesus Christ,” by taking the veil, my leaving the Convent must appear to them a forsaking of the Saviour.
As things were, however, I remained for some time undisturbed. My brother, though he lived in the house, did not know of my being there for a fortnight.
When he learnt it, and came to see me, he expressed much kindness towards me: but I had not seen him for several years, and had seen so much evil, that I knew not what secret motives he might have, and thought it prudent to be reserved. I, therefore, communicated to him nothing of my history or intentions, and rather repulsed his advances. The truth is, I had been so long among nuns and priests, that I thought there was no sincerity or virtue on earth.
What were my mother’s wishes or intentions towards me, I was not informed: but I found afterwards, that she must have made arrangements to have me removed from her house, for one day a woman came to the door with a cariole, and on being admitted to see me, expressed herself in a friendly manner, spoke of the necessity of air and exercise for my health, and invited me to take a ride. I consented, supposing we should soon return: but when we reached St. Antoine suburbs, she drove up to a house which I had formerly heard to be some kind of refuge, stopped, and requested me to alight. My first thought was, that I should be exposed to certain detection, by some of the priests whom I presumed officiated there; as they had all known me in the nunnery. I could not avoid entering; but I resolved to feign sickness, hoping thus to be placed out of sight of the priests.
The result was according to my wishes: for I was taken to an upper room, which was used as an infirmary, and there permitted to remain. There were a large number of women in the house; and a Mrs. M’Donald, who has the management of it, had her daughters in the Ursuline Nunnery at Quebec, and her son in the college. The nature of the establishment I could not fully understand: but it seemed to me designed to become a nunnery at some future time.
I felt pretty safe in the house; so long as I was certain of remaining in the infirmary; for there was nobody there who had ever seen me before. But I resolved to avoid, if possible, ever making my appearance below, for I felt that I could not do it without hazard of discovery.
Among other appendages of a Convent which I observed in that place, was a confessional within the building, and I soon learnt, to my dismay, that Father Bonin, one of the murderers of Saint Francis, was in the habit of constant attendance as priest and confessor. The recollections which I often indulged in of scenes in the Hotel Dieu, gave me uneasiness and distress: but not knowing where to go to seek greater seclusion, I remained in the infirmary week after week, still affecting illness in the best manner I could. At length I found that I was suspected of playing off a deception with regard to the state of my health; and at the close of a few weeks, I became satisfied that I could not remain longer without making my appearance below stairs. I at length complied with the wishes I heard expressed, that I would go into the community-room, where those in health were accustomed to assemble to work, and then some of the women began to talk of my going to confession. I merely expressed unwillingness at first; but when they pressed the point, and began to insist, my fear of detection overcame every other feeling, and I plainly declared that I would not go. This led to an altercation, when the mistress of the house pronounced me incorrigible, and said she would not keep me for a hundred pounds a year. She, in fact, became so weary of having me there, that she sent to my mother to take me away.
My mother, in consequence, sent a cariole for me, and took me again into her house; but I became so unhappy in a place where I was secluded and destitute of all agreeable society, that I earnestly requested her to allow me to leave Canada. I believe she felt ready to have me removed to a distance, that she might not be in danger of having my attempt at self-destruction, and my confinement in prison made public.
There was a fact which I had not disclosed, and of which all were ignorant: viz., that which had so much influence in exciting me to leave the Convent, and to reject every idea of returning to it.
When conversing with my mother about leaving Canada, I proposed to go to New York. She inquired why I wished to go there. I made no answer to that question: for, though I had never been there, and knew scarcely anything about the place, I presumed that I should find protection from my enemies, as I knew it was in a Protestant country. I had not thought of going to the United States before, because I had no one to go with me, nor money enough to pay my expenses; but then a plan presented itself to my mind, by which I thought I might proceed to New York in safety.
There was a man who I presumed would wish to have me leave Canada, on his own account; and that was the man I had so precipitately married while residing at St. Denis. He must have had motives, as I thought, for wishing me at a distance. I proposed therefore that he should be informed that I was in Montreal, and anxious to go to the States; and such a message was sent to him by a woman whom my mother knew. [Footnote: Mrs. Tarbert, or M’Gan. See her affidavit. What house she refers to I cannot conjecture.] She had a little stand for the sale of some articles, and had a husband who carried on some similar kind of business at the Scotch mountain. Through her husband, as I suppose, she had my message conveyed, and soon informed me that arrangements were made for my commencing my journey, under the care of the person to whom it had been sent.
Singular concurrence of circumstances, which enabled me to get to the United States–Intentions in going there–Commence my journey–Fears of my companion–Stop at Whitehall–Injury received in a canal boat– Arrival at New York–A solitary retreat.
It is remarkable that I was able to stay so long in the midst of Catholics without discovery, and at last obtain the aid of some of them in effecting my flight. There is probably not a person in Montreal, who would sooner have betrayed me into the power of priests than that woman, if she had known my history.
She was a frequent visitor at the Convent and the Seminary, and had a ticket which entitled her every Monday to the gift of a loaf of bread from the former. She had an unbounded respect for the Superior and the priests, and seized every opportunity to please them. Now the fact that she was willing to take measures to facilitate my departure from Montreal, afforded sufficient evidence to me of her entire ignorance of myself, in all respects in which I could wish her to be ignorant; and I confided in her, because I perceived that she felt no stronger motive, than a disposition to oblige my mother.
Should any thing occur to let her into the secret of my being a fugitive from the Black Nunnery, I knew that I could not trust to her kindness for an instant. The discovery of that fact would transform her into a bitter and deadly enemy. She would at once regard me as guilty of mortal sin, an apostate, and a proper object of persecution. And this was a reflection I had often reason to make, when thinking of the numerous Catholics around me. How important, then, the keeping of my secret, and my escape before the truth should become known, even to a single person near me.
I could realize, from the dangers through which I was brought by the hand of God, how difficult it must be, in most cases, for a fugitive from a nunnery to obtain her final freedom from the power of her enemies. Even if escaped from a Convent, so long as she remains among Catholics, she is in constant exposure to be informed against; especially if the news of her escape is made public, which fortunately was not the fact in my case.
If a Catholic comes to the knowledge of any fact calculated to expose such a person, he will think it his duty to disclose it at confession; and then the whole fraternity will be in motion to seize her.
How happy for me that not a suspicion was entertained concerning me, and that not a whisper against me was breathed into the ear of a single priest at confession!
Notwithstanding my frequent appearance in the street, my removals from place to place, and the various exposures I had to discovery, contrary to my fears, which haunted me even in my dreams, I was preserved; and as I have often thought, for the purpose of making the disclosures which I have made in this volume. No power but that of God, as I have frequently thought, could ever have led me in safety through so many dangers.
I would not have my readers imagine, however, that I had at that period any thought of making known my history to the world. I wished to plunge into the deepest possible obscurity; and next to the fear of falling again into the hands of the priests and Superior, I shrunk most from the idea of having others acquainted with the scenes I had passed through. Such a thought as publishing never entered my mind till months after that time. My desire was, that I might meet a speedy death in obscurity, and that my name and my shame might perish on earth together. As for my future doom, I still looked forward to it with gloomy apprehensions: for I considered myself as almost, if not quite, removed beyond the reach of mercy. During all the time which had elapsed since I left the Convent, I had received no religious instruction, nor even read a word in the scriptures; and, therefore, it is not wonderful that I should still have remained under the delusions in which I had been educated.
The plan arranged for the commencement of my journey was this: I was to cross the St. Lawrence to Longueil, to meet the man who was to accompany me. The woman who had sent my message into the country, went with me to the ferry, and crossed the river, where, according to the appointment, we found my companion. He willingly undertook to accompany me to the place of my destination, and at his own expense; but declared, that he was apprehensive we should be pursued. To avoid the priests, who he supposed would follow us, he took an indirect route, and during about twelve days, or nearly that, which we spent on the way, passed over a much greater distance than was necessary. It would be needless, if it were possible, to mention all the places we visited. We crossed Carpenter’s ferry, and were at Scotch-mountain and St. Alban’s; arrived at Champlain by land, and there took the steamboat, leaving it again at Burlington.
As we were riding towards Charlotte, my companion entertained fears, which, to me, appeared ridiculous; but it was impossible for me to reason him out of them, or to hasten our journey. Circumstances which appeared to me of no moment whatever, would influence, and sometimes would make him change his whole plan and direction. As we were one day approaching Charlotte, for instance, on inquiring of a person on the way, whether there were any Canadians there, and being informed there were not a few, and that there was a Roman Catholic priest residing there, he immediately determined to avoid the place, and turned back, although we were then only nine miles distant from it.
During several of the first nights after leaving Montreal, he suffered greatly from fear; and on meeting me in the morning, repeatedly said: “Well, thank God, we are safe so far!” When we arrived at Whitehall, he had an idea we should run a risk of meeting priests, who he thought, were in search of us, if we went immediately on; and insisted that we had better stay there a little time, until they should have passed. In spite of my anxiety to proceed, we accordingly remained there about a week; when we entered a canal-boat to proceed to Troy.
An unfortunate accident happened to me while on our way. I was in the cabin, when a gun, which had been placed near me, was started from its place by the motion of the boat, caused by another boat running against it, and striking me on my left side, threw me some distance. The shock was violent, and I thought myself injured, but hoped the effects would soon pass off. I was afterwards taken with vomiting blood; and this alarming symptom several times returned; but I was able to keep up.
We came without any unnecessary delay from Troy to New York, where we arrived in the morning, either on Thursday or Friday, as I believe: but my companion there disappeared without informing me where he was going, and I saw him no more. Being now, as I presumed, beyond the reach of my enemies, I felt relief from the fear of being carried back to the nunnery, and sentenced to death or the cells: but I was in a large city where I had not a friend. Feeling overwhelmed with my miserable condition, I longed for death; and yet I felt no desire to make another attempt to destroy myself.
On the contrary, I determined to seek some solitary retreat, and await God’s time to remove me from a world in which I had found so much trouble, hoping and believing that it would not be long.
Not knowing which way to go to find solitude, I spoke to a little boy, whom I saw on the wharf, and told, him I would give him some money if he would lead me into the “_bush_”. (This is the common word by which, in Canada, we speak of the woods or forests.) When he understood what I meant, he told me that there was no _bush_ about New York; but consented to lead me to the most lonely place he knew of. He accordingly set off, and I followed him, on a long walk to the upper part of the city, and beyond, until we reached the outskirts of it. Turning off from the road, we gained a little hollow, where were a few trees and bushes, a considerable distance from any house; and there, he told me, was the loneliest place with which he was acquainted. I paid him for his trouble out of the small stock of money I had in my possession, and let him go home, desiring him to come the next day, and bring me something to eat, with a few pennies which I gave him.
Reflections and sorrow in solitude–Night–Fears–Exposure to rain– Discovered by strangers–Their unwelcome kindness–Taken to the Bellevue Almshouse.
There I found myself once more alone, and truly it was a great relief to sit down and feel that I was out of the reach of priests and nuns, and in a spot where I could patiently wait for death, when God might please to send it, instead of being abused and tormented according to the caprices and passions of my persecutors.
But then again returned most bitter anticipations of the future. Life had no attractions for me, for it must be connected with shame; but death under any circumstances, could not be divested of horrors, so long as I believed in the doctrines relating to it which had been inculcated upon me.
The place where I had taken up, as I supposed, my last earthly abode, was pleasant in clear and mild weather; and I spent most of my time in as much peace as the state of my mind would permit. I saw houses, but no human beings, except on the side of a little hill near by, where were some men at work, making sounds like those made in hammering stone. The shade around me was so thick that I felt assured of being sufficiently protected from observation if I kept still; and a cluster of bushes offered me shelter for the night. As evening approached, I was somewhat alarmed by the sound of voices near me, and I found that a number of labourers were passing that way from their work. I went in a fright to the thickest of the bushes, and lay down, until all again was still, and then ventured out to take my seat again on the turf.
Darkness now came gradually on; and with it fears of another description. The thought struck me that there might be wild beasts in that neighborhood, ignorant as I then was of the country; and the more I thought of it, the more I became alarmed. I heard no alarming sound, it is true; but I knew not how soon some prowling and ferocious beast might come upon me in my defenceless condition, and tear me in pieces. I retired to my bushes, and stretched myself under them upon the ground: but I found it impossible to sleep; and my mind was almost continually agitated by thoughts on the future or the past.
In the morning the little boy made his appearance again, and brought me a few cakes which he had purchased for me. He showed much interest in me, inquired why I did not live in a house; and it was with difficulty that I could satisfy him to let me remain in my solitary and exposed condition. Understanding that I wished to continue unknown, he assured me that he had not told even his mother about me; and I had reason to believe that he faithfully kept my secret to the last. Though he lived a considerable distance from my hiding-place, and, as I supposed, far down in the city, he visited me almost every day, even when I had not desired him to bring me any thing. Several times I received from him some small supplies of food for the money I had given him. I once gave him a half- dollar to get changed; and he brought me back every penny of it, at his next visit.
As I had got my drink from a brook or pool, which was at no great distance, he brought me a little cup one day to drink out of; but this I was not allowed to keep long, for he soon after told me that his mother wanted it, and he must return it. He several times arrived quite out of breath, and when I inquired the reason, calling him as I usually did, “Little Tommy” he said it was necessary for him to run, and to stay but a short time, that he might be at school in good season. Thus he continued to serve me, and keep my secret, at great inconvenience to himself, up to the last day of my stay in that retreat; and I believe he would have done so for three months if I had remained there. I should like to see him again and hear his broken English.
I had now abundance of time to reflect on my lost condition; and many a bitter thought passed through my mind, as I sat on the ground, or strolled about by day, and lay under the bushes at night.
Sometimes I reflected on the doctrines I had heard at the nunnery, concerning sins and penances, Purgatory and Hell; and sometimes on my late companions, and the crimes I had witnessed in the Convent.
Sometimes I would sit and seriously consider how I might best destroy my life; and sometimes would sing a few of the hymns with which I was familiar; but I never felt willing or disposed to pray, as I supposed there was no hope of mercy for me.
One of the first nights I spent in that houseless condition was stormy; and though I crept under the thickest of the bushes, and had more protection against the rain than one might have expected, I was almost entirely wet before morning; and, it may be supposed, passed a more uncomfortable night than usual. The next day I was happy to find the weather clear, and was able to dry my garments by taking off one at a time, and spreading them on the bushes. A night or two after, however, I was again exposed to a heavy rain, and had the same process afterward to go through with: but what is remarkable, I took no cold on either occasion; nor did I suffer any lasting injury from all the exposures I underwent in that place. The inconveniences I had to encounter, also, appeared to me of little importance, not being sufficient to draw off my mind from its own troubles; and I had no intention of seeking a more comfortable abode, still looking forward only to dying as soon as God would permit, alone and in that spot.
One day, however, when I had been there about ten days, I was alarmed at seeing four men approaching me. All of them had guns, as if out on a shooting excursion. They expressed much surprise and pity on finding me there, and pressed me with questions. I would not give them any satisfactory account of myself, my wants, or intentions, being only anxious that they might withdraw. I found them, however, too much interested to render me some service to be easily sent away; and after