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Convent Life and Work by Lady Blanche Murphy

To those who have had but little opportunity to examine the inner workings of the Catholic Church the subject of the conventual life has always been something of a puzzle. Of course it has been difficult for them to obtain a personal insight into its details, just as it would be difficult to gain admittance into the mosque of St. Sophia or a Hindu community of religious. Curiosity, unsatisfied, betakes itself to hearsay, and since those who know most are generally most silent about their knowledge, it is to the gossip of ignorance or prejudice that curiosity looks for an answer. Distorted views or imaginary descriptions end by being received into the mill of public opinion, and issue thence ground into gospel truth and invested with mysterious (because fictitious) interest. It is strange that a phase of life which is in constant practice at the present day, often within a stone's throw of our own doors, and which has personal ramifications in the families of our neighbors and acquaintances, should still be so much of a phenomenon to the public mind. In England, France, Italy, Germany and America I have been familiarly acquainted with it, have studied its principles and its details under many varying forms, and never found it less interesting because it was not mysterious. Human, fallible beings are the inhabitants of monasteries either for males or females, with individual peculiarities and different sympathies—by no means machines, but free and intelligent agents, each with a character as individual as that of separate flowers in a large garden—full of personality and of human imperfection.

In Rome, not far from the Fountain of Trevi—of whose waters it is said that they have the power to ensure the return to Rome of any one who has drunk of them in a cup not heretofore devoted to common purposes—is the spacious convent called San Domenico e Sisto. Here the first convent of Dominican friars was established, and the spot is historic ground in the annals of the order of Preachers. In the turbulent thirteenth century, when papal, feudal and democratic parties opposed each other in Rome, and the vigorous sap of half-tamed barbarian life still coursed through the pulses of Italy, Saint Dominic rose like a reformer, a lawgiver and a peace-maker. On the other side of the Tiber, entrenched behind baronial walls and fiercely protected by baronial champions, was a convent of women whose practice of their vows had become too relaxed for such a bad example to be allowed to remain unreproved. The ecclesiastical authorities wished peremptorily to disestablish the convent and filter its inmates through some neighboring religious houses more zealous and more edifying in their conduct. But the nuns, who were mostly of noble families, appealed to their charters, their immunities and exemption from papal jurisdiction. Their fathers and brothers, the formidable barons who held within the papal city many strongholds well garrisoned, took up their quarrel and dared the world to dispossess the refractory sisterhood. Saint Dominic had just brought his friars to the dilapidated house then known as San Sisto, had caused rapid repairs to be made, and in his fervor had created round himself a nucleus of ardent reformers. The Gordian knot was referred to him, and with characteristic abruptness he promised to cut it at once. He came alone to the gates of the convent, presented no credentials from pope or cardinal, and asked an interview with the abbess. He spoke of the holiness of an austere life, the reward of those that "follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth," the merit of obedience, the need of reform, the great work that his order was doing for God, and the call for more laborers in the field: he proposed to the nuns to be his helpers among their own sex, and his coheiresses in the heavenly reward of the future. His eloquence and zeal soon melted the haughty resolve of the rebellious but still noble-minded women. Roused to a new sense of power and responsibility, they embraced his rigid rule, and with the enthusiasm of their sex, that never halts midway in reform, became models of austerity. The better to signify to the world the spiritual change wrought in their temper, they migrated from the abode which they had sworn to make the symbol and palladium of their independence, and went to San Sisto, Saint Dominic taking his monks to repeople the convent across the Tiber left vacant by the submissive sisterhood.

It is with this new house, henceforth called San Domenico e Sisto, that one of my earliest recollections of conventual life is connected. The order is one which enjoins strict enclosure. The dress is of coarse white serge or flannel, consisting of a long, narrow tunic with flowing sleeves drawn over tight ones of linen; a scapular or stole (i.e., a piece of straight stuff half a yard broad worn hanging from the shoulders both behind and before); a leathern girdle round the waist, from which hangs a rosary, large, common and set in steel; strong, thick sandals; a linen wimple enveloping the face and hiding the ears, neck and roots of the hair; a woolen veil, black for the professed nuns, white for the novices, and of white linen for the lay sisters; and over all an immense black cloak, falling around the figure in statuesque folds.

In this order, and almost invariably in every other, a candidate is admitted at first as a postulant for a period of six months—a sort of preliminary trial of her fitness for the religious life. She wears ordinary clothes during this time—plain and black, of course, but not of any prescribed shape. Sometimes, however, she is required by custom to wear a plain black cap. After six months she is admitted as a novice—i.e., she solemnly puts off the secular dress and wears the habit of the order, making the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for the space of one year only. The details of the ceremony vary in different orders, but the ceremony itself is called in all by the generic name of "clothing" or "taking the white veil." In orders where a white woolen veil is the badge of profession (these are not many) a linen one is equally the mark of the novice and the lay sister. Although there exists for convenience' sake a distinction between choir-nuns and lay sisters—the former paying a dowry to the common fund on the day of their entrance, and the latter bringing their manual service to the house instead of any offering—still, the difference is not spiritual, and beyond the mere distribution of labor is not practically discernible. In orders where the education of youth is the primary object, the lay sisters, under the supervision of the choir-nun to whose charge the housekeeping is directly entrusted, perform all the menial service, which would otherwise make too many inroads on the time of the teaching nuns; but in other orders, the Carmelites for instance, the lowest work, be it of the kitchen, the laundry or the chamber, is undertaken in turn by every member of the community. When Madame Louise, the daughter of Louis XV. of France, became a Carmelite nun, the first task assigned her was the washing of coarse dishes and the sweeping of floors. A parallel case is that of the Cistercian monks, who to this day, at their famous farm-monastery at Mount St. Bernard, England, are bound by their rule to labor with their hands so many hours a day. No exception is made for the abbot himself; and when we visited the establishment a few years ago we had to wait some time for the abbot, who was digging in a distant field. Scholar and savant are not exempt any more than the humblest member of the brotherhood; and as it is a very learned order, and attracts many recent converts to Catholicism, it is not infrequently that one recognizes in the monk-laborer, digging potatoes or hoeing turnips, some Anglican clergyman of delicate nurture and scholarly renown. To this monastery, entirely self-supported by its extensive farm, is attached a boys' reformatory, one of whose products is the most excellent butter known in England. Tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, turning, etc. are all taught under the supervision of the monks: those among the boys who wish it are helped to emigrate, and others apprenticed at the proper time to the trades they have already been taught at Mount St. Bernard.

To resume our sketch of the Dominican nuns in Rome. It is the custom in Italy for a young lady about to "enter religion" to choose a godmother or madrina, a lady of proper age and mature experience, who acts as her chaperon during the few weeks preceding the "clothing." She comes forth from the convent where she has been a postulant, and, dressed in the garb of the world, makes formal visits to all her relations, friends and patrons, assists at public ceremonies in the local churches, even visits some places of interest, such as museums and galleries. This is her solemn farewell to the world, and she is supposed thus to have another trial given to the steadfastness of her resolve, another chance to abandon it before it is too late. A young girl of an illustrious Roman family, but of very slender fortune, was about to enter the Dominican order at the time to which I allude, in 1853. Her only sister had for some years been a nun of a strictly enclosed order, and Mademoiselle G——, having chosen as her madrina an English Catholic lady who had been enabled to show her some kindness while still in the world, went to bid farewell to this elder sister. The meeting was very affecting: the sisters could not see each other face to face—a thick grating separated them. The elder had long been a spiritual guide to the younger: she had led her mind in the direction of the cloister, and now rejoiced sincerely that God had smoothed away the family difficulties and pecuniary embarrassments which for some time had stood in the way of her vocation. Still, natural affection was not stifled in the generous, unselfish heart of the cloistered nun, and she wept with her sister at the thought that, though the walls of the same city would hold them both till death, and hardly a few blocks of houses separate their convent homes, yet in the flesh they should never meet again. The English godmother sat in a remote corner of the cool, shady parlor, sympathizing in silence with the touching scene, but keeping as much in the background as etiquette and custom allowed, that she might not intrude on this last farewell. At length the curtain behind the grating fell, and the young girl had severed the tenderest link that bound her to the world. Many other visits were paid—some to friends of Mademoiselle G——'s parents (she had long been an orphan), some to ecclesiastical personages who had interested themselves to procure her admission into the Dominican community. With repeated blessings the young girl left their presence, every day advancing nearer to her spiritual bridal.

At last the day came. Early in the morning the madrina arrived at the convent with her two little girls of six and eight years old dressed in white as bridesmaids, or, as the Italian term angiolini has it, little angels. They bore delicate baskets filled with white flowers to strew before the "bride," and their office during the ceremony was to hold the novice's gloves, fan and handkerchief. The young girl herself, looking pale and earnest, walked up the aisle of the convent chapel in bridal robes of white silk, with a veil and wreath on her head, and round her neck a string of pearls, an heirloom in the G—— family. Her brother, the only male representative of her once powerful house, was present in the outer chapel, full of grief at a sacrifice which he had never countenanced, and ready to claim that morning the only legacy of his sister the promise of which he had been able to secure—the thick coils of her black hair when they should have been cut off preparatory to her taking the novice's veil. The scene was very solemn. The nuns sat in their carved stalls within the grating whose black bars divided them from the "bride" and her friends in the ante-chapel: the chant of psalms and versicles came down from a hidden gallery, and the priest in rich vestments stood at the foot of the altar within the railing. The service went on in the midst of a palpable hush; the very air seemed hardly to vibrate; the bride, attended by her two angiolini, left her gorgeous kneeling-chair and advanced to the open door in the grating, where the priest met her. Question and answer were interchanged in Italian, and the young girl vowed that of her own free will she left the world and joined the order of St. Dominic. Prayers in Latin followed, then again a chanted psalm, and Mademoiselle G—— was led away through the iron-grated door, which was then closed. It was not long ere she reappeared in the long close tunic of white serge, her head covered with a temporary veil of coarse linen and her feet shod in sandals. A procession of nuns, each bearing a lighted taper, escorted her to the foot of the altar (everything was visible through the grating), and she knelt before the officiating priest. A white woolen veil was handed to him, which he blessed with holy water, the sign of the cross and the prescribed ejaculations accompanying these rites: he then laid it on her head as a "symbol of the virgin modesty" to which she was now pledged. Two nuns were at hand to pin it into the right folds while a silver ring was being blessed in the same manner as the veil. This was placed on the ring-finger of the left hand as a "symbol of the intimate union and espousal with Christ" signified by her renunciation of the world. The scapular of white serge, similarly blessed, was then laid upon her shoulders as a type of the "yoke of obedience and sacrifice;" and lastly, the black cloak, signifying charity, covering and enveloping the whole person. Then in a loud, firm voice, instinct with passion and resolve, she read, standing, the formal declaration of her religious vows. When this was over the mother-superior led the novice, now Sister Maria Colomba, to a small table on which lay a bridal wreath of white roses and a crown of thorns. She asked her solemnly which was her choice in life, and the novice took up the crown of thorns and placed it on her head. This typical ceremony I never saw performed in any other order. Shortly after the crown of thorns was exchanged for that of roses, the superior saying, "Inasmuch as thou hast chosen the crown which thy Saviour wore, He rewards thee with that which is a shadow of the heavenly crown reserved for His spouses in heaven." This bridal token the new nun wears during the whole day.

To a few ladies and to the angiolini a special permission to enter the enclosure was given in honor of the day: a festive meal was served in the bare, cool refectory, the rule of silence being relaxed for the special occasion, and the nuns wearing a happy, child-like expression that hardly varied in the face of the youngest novice and that of the septuagenarian "mother." The strangers were shown through the dormitories, the kitchen, the laundry, the garden, the community-room, where embroidery, painting and study diversify the labors of the broom and the dishcloth, and everywhere the same exquisite neatness struck the eye. Everything used in the house was of the coarsest description—the linen like sack-cloth, but speckless; the delf as thick and rough as if made for sailors; the floors mostly of brick or stone; the furniture of unpainted deal. Over each bed, which is only a board on trestles covered with heavy sacking, is a common crucifix and a sprig of box or olive blessed on Palm Sunday. The sisters sleep in their tunics. The library is common property, but no one may use or read any book save by permission of the superioress. The rules of fasting and abstinence are not exactly the same in every convent of the order, but the broad rule is that meat should be eaten only on great holidays, vegetables and farinaceous preparations, such as most Italians are not unskilled in, forming the staple of the nuns' food. Fish is almost as rare a luxury as meat. Their bread is coarse and brown, and their drink indifferently water or a wine so sour that it is practically vinegar. Not that these nuns are not good cooks and bakers: witness the delicate sweetmeats, biscuits and pastry they offer to strangers on such festival days as the one just described, the fruit-preserves in blocks sold for their sustenance by the nuns at Funchal, Madeira, and the fairy frostwork of sugar seen on great occasions in French convents. No womanly art is a stranger to the deft fingers of cloistered nuns. Bookbinding is a pursuit well known among them, as is also the mounting in delicate filigree of the "Agnus Dei" or waxen representation of the Lamb of God, blessed by the pope at Easter and distributed throughout Christendom from the papal metropolis. Another convent industry is the preparation of the wafers used in the celebration of mass.

These Dominicanesses rise at four in the morning and dine at eleven, making after that only one slight meal in the evening—bread and vegetables, for instance, or a saucerful of macaroni. At stated times they assemble in the chapel for the singing of the "divine office," and always have an early mass, at which the whole community receives holy communion. This is administered by the priest through a square opening in the iron grating dividing the nuns from the altar. At eight, or at latest nine o'clock in the evening, all are in bed, whence they rise again at midnight (in some orders at two o'clock in the morning, but this custom involves rising somewhat later, generally five o'clock) for matins and lauds.

The duties of separate departments are judiciously divided among the sisters. There is the infirmarian; the économe, or housekeeper, to whose share falls the supplying of the larder; the librarian, the sacristan, the portress (often in cloistered orders this position, which is exceptional in its exemptions, involves the ordering of outside business matters), the care-taker of the garments and linen, the gardener, the secretary, the mistress and sub-mistress of novices. The house is managed like clockwork. Punctually as the bell rings each sister goes to the task appointed for that hour, and leaves it, no matter how important or absorbing it may be, for the duty appointed by the rule for the next division of time. Silence prevails among the sisters at almost all hours: for at most three times a day speech is permitted, and seldom for more than half an hour at a time. During meals one sister reads the Lives of the Saints aloud. Each in her turn takes the place of server at table. The superioress alone has power to dispense with the rule of silence in case of necessity, as she transacts most of the business, social or legal, of her community.

During the year of novitiate the novices are under the direct rule of the mistress of novices, whose authority over them is paramount, though she herself is of course under a vow of obedience to the superior. When a novice receives a visit from one in the world she is accompanied by the "mistress," and if the visitor be a near relation and a woman the curtain behind the grating is withdrawn; if only a friend, the visitor does not even see the nun, as the thick curtain is drawn, and the only communication possible is by speech. It is generally possible, on any necessity arising, to obtain a special permission to break through the rule of enclosure: this is done by applying to the superior-general of the order, or in Rome to the Holy Father, whose authority naturally supersedes all others. Sometimes the power to dispense lies with the local superior, but it is a prerogative seldom used, and wisely so. In every order the internal government of each house is of an elective form, but when once chosen the superiors exercise absolute authority. The community meets every three years (in some orders every year) and chooses by vote a superioress, an assistant superioress and a mistress of novices. Only the professed nuns have a vote, and the majority carry the day. These "officers," once appointed, rule the house and choose all minor deputies themselves. The heads alone of each house assemble at the death of the superior-general (or abbess, as she is styled in some of the more ancient orders) and choose another, equally by vote, the election being sometimes decided by only one vote. This assembly is called a "chapter." The generals of most orders reside in Rome.

The year after the "clothing" of Sister Maria Colomba we witnessed the final ceremony of her "profession"—that is, of her assuming the black veil and renewing her religious vows for life. Hitherto, she had been free to return to the world and marry: henceforth such a return (unless by a dispensation so rarely given that it is practically non-existent) would be sacrilege. The details of the ceremony vary in different orders, and with those which are not cloistered the scene is far less impressive. What we were going to see included the most solemn forms ever used. This time the whole service took place behind the grating: there were no "bridesmaids" now, no shadow of worldly pomp was borrowed to enhance the last and momentous consecration of religion. The novice knelt between the superior and the mistress of novices, each bearing a lighted taper. The white veil was taken from her head, and a black one, previously blessed with holy water sprinkled over it in the form of a cross, substituted: the low chant of the unseen choir of nuns sounded impressively as the echo of another world. Then came the renewal of the dread vows, binding now until death, and the voice of the young girl seemed firm though low: her face wore a calm, peaceful look, subdued by the solemn occasion, yet irrepressibly suggesting a joy unknown in the world, where joy is seldom free from passion. The most interesting ceremony, however, was yet to come. The slow chant shaped itself into the words of the psalm De Profundis, the special prayer which in the Catholic Church is reserved for the dead, and four professed nuns advanced toward their new sister, who was now prostrate at the foot of the altar. Each held the corner of a funeral pall, which they slowly; dropped over the figure of Sister Maria Colomba, and, kneeling, held it over her until the last verse of the psalm had been sung. This suggestive ceremony closed the service. It is a forcible and picturesque type of the complete severance of the nun's future life and interests from the outside world, the death of her heart to all carnal affections, the "dying daily" which Saint Paul calls the "life" of the Christian soul. A long procession accompanied the newly-professed nun to the inner rooms of the convent, and for this one day again she wore over the black veil the bridal wreath, which to-morrow would be put away until required for her last adornment in the coffin.

Ten years after our farewell to Sister Maria Colomba behind the bars of the convent-parlor we saw her again, and, armed with a papal permission, were shown by her over the whole convent. Those rare occasions when a stranger is allowed to penetrate the "enclosure" are always gala-days for the nuns. I remarked the blithe, youthful look that shone on all their faces: Sister Maria Colomba herself, from a pale, nervous girl, had expanded into a strong, hale, buxom woman. The glow of health was on her cheek, the sparkle of innocent mirth shone in her eye. There was one among the sisters who gleefully asked me to guess at her age. She was a sweet, fresh-complexioned, matronly woman. "Not more than fifty, good mother," was the answer.

She laughed and gently clapped her hands. "Add twenty years to that," she answered with an innocent burst of pride. Then she told how she had entered the order while yet in her "teens," had held half the offices of trust in the community, and had never missed any of the most rigid fasts or absented herself once from the midnight office, never having known so much as a day's ill-health. "Ah, a nun's life is a healthy one, child, as well as a happy one," she said in conclusion.

We went over the kitchen, laundry, refectory, dormitories, chapel, garden, etc. Just the same as before—a little "calvary" at one end of the garden and a rough picture of a Madonna in an arbor, the long, echoing corridors spotless as the deck of a man-of-war, and the smiling faces making a very flower-garden of the community-room. We left loaded with specimens of the nuns' work—Agnus Deis in frames of silver filigree dotted with white roses and hanging from white satin ribbon-bows; flake-like biscuits of peculiar flavor; and baskets, pincushions, etc. of delicate workmanship. I do not know whether this convent is still in the hands of the Dominicanesses, so many in Rome having become barracks since the new royal authority superseded that of the pope. But the picture of San Domenico e Sisto as it was in 1853 and 1863 may yet interest many who perhaps will never have the opportunity of seeing such an establishment for themselves.

This is a very fair sample of the convents of the stricter and cloistered orders: there are some exceptional houses, such as that of the Sepolte Vive, where the rule is far more austere. There is but one convent of this description in Rome, and I believe one or two in France. It is a noteworthy fact that most of the strictest observances of penance originated in France, and are continued there to this day. This convent of the Sepolte Vive ("Buried Alive") is not formally sanctioned by the papal authority, but only tolerated. The nuns were forbidden more than ten years ago to admit any more novices, and although the individual zeal of those who started the order was not exactly censured, still a tacit intimation of its being considered excessive and imprudent was given by the highest ecclesiastical court. Among their customs (which much resemble those of the Trappist monks) these nuns have that of digging their own graves, and as the cemetery is small and included in the "enclosure," the oldest graves are opened after a period of forty or fifty years, and the crumbling contents ejected to make room for the lately deceased. The death of a nun's nearest relation, be it father, mother, brother or sister, is made known to the superior alone, and she in her turn announces it, not to the bereaved one, but to the whole sisterhood, in this manner: They are all assembled in the community-room, and admonished to "pray for the soul of the father or mother" (as the case may be) "of one among their number." To the day of her death the nun never knows how near and dear by the ties of Nature may have been the soul for which she has prayed every day since the announcement was made.

The Sepolte Vive, when found guilty of any breach of the rule, are labeled with a ticket attached to their habit, and on which their fault is written in large, conspicuous letters—for instance, "Disobedience," "Curiosity," "Talkativeness"—and this they wear at their ordinary avocations for as many hours as the superioress commands. They never undress on going to bed, and wear the same habit winter and summer, the stuff being too hot for the one and too cold for the other; so that at all times the penance is the same. On the wrists many of them wear iron manacles that graze the skin and cause constant irritation at every turn of the hand: this is sometimes imposed as a penance, but very often is voluntarily inflicted on themselves by zealous members of the sisterhood. Before the prohibition to receive additional novices the sisterhood consisted of a fixed number, and when a vacancy occurred by the death of one the place was filled by the first on the list of postulants. This list was always a large one, and generally contained many names belonging to the noblest families of Rome. These details were gathered from the same lady who acted as madrina to the Dominican nun Sister Maria Colomba; and when she and a friend obtained permission from the pope to penetrate the "enclosure," the nuns told her that it was twenty years since the same privilege had been granted. For almost the space of a generation no stranger had been seen or heard by them, for not even the privilege of a grated and curtained parlor interview is allowed to the Sepolte Vive. And yet with all this unparalleled refinement of austerity they were as blithe and healthy a body of women, as cheerful and youthful in manner, as peaceful and calm in appearance, as could be found among the Sisters of Charity or the lay members of an association of Mercy.

The Carmelites are an order spread wide over the Christian world. The reform of Saint Teresa was sadly needed among these nuns three hundred years ago, and the recital of the vehement opposition made to her efforts shows the merit due to her. At the present day the order is one of the strictest in existence. The habit is of coarse brown serge, including the tunic and scapular, a cord round the waist, sandals (in England and other northern climates shoes are allowed), a black veil and an ample white cloak. They rise at two o'clock, winter and summer alike, to sing matins, and when they retire to rest at night one of their number walks through the corridors—in this order each nun has a cell—springing a rattle and repeating in a clear tone a verse of Scripture to serve as a subject of meditation before going to sleep. In the choir the Carmelites are only permitted the use of three notes, the reason alleged for this restriction being that the service of God must not run the risk of becoming an occasion of temptation to the singers. These nuns are very strictly cloistered, and their rules regarding visitors are much the same as those described at length in the beginning of this paper.

The cloistered orders are less numerous, but also less known, than the communities formed for active duty, such as education and nursing the sick; but in describing their constitution and rules we show the reader the true basis on which the more modern and active orders are constituted. The traditions of the spiritual life came down through them, and they represent the principle of vicarious oblation which animates all the different phases of convent life; i.e. the substitution of a small body of voluntary servants of God for the entire world, which ought to be perpetually engaged in His service and worship. The Benedictines, Capuchins and Visitation nuns are also cloistered, but the last are the only ones of this description who are likewise teachers of youth. Many very superior women belong to this order, which, except for the enclosure, practices no special physical austerities. The principle of the rule is the subduing of the will and the curbing of the spirit. The order is a recent one, and was instituted by Saint Francis of Sales while Beza ruled in Geneva and the Reformation had just disturbed the religious balance of Europe. With consummate prudence the new order was directed to employ the means best understood by the age. Cold calculation had succeeded to ardent zeal: the public mind no longer instinctively revered the old heroic type of dragon-tamers, be they called Roland or Saint Benedict. The new current required a new rudder, and the Visitation nuns supplied the need. At first they were not even meant to be cloistered, but to form a kind of missionary society (as their very name implies) among the Calvinists of Savoy and France. This original intention was soon overruled by the Italian advisers of Saint Francis: the southern European mind has ever been slow to conceive the idea of a more spiritual protection than bolts and bars. But even in their cloistered sphere the Visitation nuns clung to useful, active work, and became a teaching order. They and the Ursulines (who in Italy, at least, are cloistered) shared this task among them till the more modern order of the "Sacred Heart" almost monopolized it. I have myself known women of the most tried virtue and rare learning among the "Visitandines." Their rule is less strict about visitors, and even strangers are admitted to the parlor without a curtain being drawn behind the grating. Their features are thus perfectly visible, and you can even shake hands between the bars.

Even to this day there is hardly a noble family of Catholic Europe that has not one or more representatives among the religious orders. In England, both among "converts" and families of old Catholic stock, there are many girls whose names have been absorbed into those given at the same time as the ring and veil of a novice. In Flanders there are fully half a dozen convents—at Bruges, Antwerp and Louvain—emphatically called "English," and founded by scions of great English families exiled for their adherence to the old faith under Elizabeth and James I. They are mostly Augustinians. The new order of the "Sacred Heart" has drawn to it women from Russia, Spain, America, as well as from its native land of France, and the Sisters of Charity have won a worldwide fame in the hospitals of the East and the recent battle-fields of the West.

I have dwelt chiefly on the life of the old contemplative, cloistered orders, because they are less known to the public and more mistakes are made about their constitution and rules, and also because in these old cradle-institutions are hidden the roots of the whole religious system which to this day crops out so vigorously in works of mercy over every land where the Catholic Church has a foothold. Among the uncloistered orders of religious women—and here we expect to be better understood and more fairly met by those whose knowledge of "religion" is not personal—there are many that fulfill heroic missions, perform useful tasks, or even silent, uncomplaining drudgery. In all large European towns the cornette of the Sister of St. Vincent of Paul is seen in hospital, prison and asylum, in the garret of the dying workman as well as by the bed where the warrior lies in state—in the humble schools of the lowest suburbs and in the crèches of the darkest byways.

The crèche—so called in remembrance of the crib of Bethlehem—is an institution of the greatest use to poor women obliged to work for their living. They either find their children an insuperable bar to their labor, or else a source of constant anxiety during their absence. To the crèche, however, they can take the little ones in the early morning and leave them till late at night, paying only a small sum, such as five cents a day, if they are able, while if circumstances warrant their being exempted even this is not required. The house is supported chiefly by voluntary contributions, and the sisters often have lay assistants eager to share in their labor of love. The children are taken in at all ages, the tiniest, unweaned infant not excepted: there are little cots of all sizes prepared for them, an abundance of milk, toys for the older ones, picture-books, etc. They are fed three times a day, washed and combed before being sent home (although constant applicants are expected to bring their children tidy and neat on first arrival), and if the mother fails to return at night, they are of course housed with the tenderest care. As there would be no room to accommodate permanent baby-boarders without impairing the original intention for which the crèche is opened, these little waifs, if not claimed after three nights and days, are sent to the foundling asylum: this, however, does not often occur. There are many of these institutions scattered through France: London has two, and New York will soon have one—perhaps by this time it has already been opened. A woman earning her bread by hard work would have to leave her children in the care of some neighbor, who most likely would fail in her task or teach the children bad things, and demand some compensation all the same. If the eldest child were left in charge of younger infants, as is so often the case with the honest poor, the chances are that it will break or injure its spine by carrying the little ones. All this anxiety is avoided by this beautiful and inviting arrangement, which is generally under the management of the Sisters of Charity. The London crèches have a night school for working girls and grown women in connection with the principal part of the institution; also a Sunday school for children. Among the rules is one which forbids the wearing of artificial flowers or any tawdry finery during school-time. But in another part of London artificial flowers in a Sunday bonnet are a sign of a reclaimed female drunkard, as the clergyman has hit on the ingenious method of advising the women to leave off drinking, that they may be able to afford some Sunday finery wherewith to please their husbands' eyes and to hold up their heads with the best in church!

Old age is as helpless as infancy, and less attractive in its helplessness, so that the task undertaken by the Little Sisters of the Poor is still more meritorious when performed in the devoted spirit which characterizes them. They are literally the servants of beggars: they are bound to possess nothing and to hoard nothing; they live on the refuse of refuse, begging the crumbs from rich men's tables to feed the hungry ones under their care, and when these are satisfied sitting down to the scanty remains. They have a large establishment in London, which I once visited, but which has since been divided into two, the aim of both continuing the same. The sisters wear a very unpretending black gown and cap: when out of doors they add to this a poke-bonnet and thick veil, with a large black shawl. They have a little donkey-cart, which they drive themselves, and which makes daily pilgrimages all over town, stopping at the houses of the rich of all denominations and receiving contributions of that which is too often thought below the cook's while to claim as a perquisite. So laden, the Little Sisters return to their old people, and a transformation begins in the vast kitchen. No one would believe what savory dishes they manufacture out of the leavings and parings of great houses: everything is sifted, cleaned, washed, as the case requires; each kind of food is carefully separated and placed in its appointed place; an immense cauldron is continually on the fire, and soups and jellies are in a constant state of fusion and preparation. Puddings of all sorts come out of the renovating oven: joints of roast meat are the only things which are exceptional, and sometimes the more generous charity of some outsider adds even this luxury to the usual fare. The Little Sisters of the Poor clothe as well as feed their charges: for this, too, they trust to charity, and left-off clothes are a great boon to them. They are so ingenious that there is hardly a thing of which they cannot make a deft use. They have houses in New York and Philadelphia, and already do an immense deal of good among the destitute aged poor.

The Order of Sion is a rather peculiar one, its principal object being the conversion to Christianity and subsequent education of young Jewesses. It has been founded within the last forty years by the brothers Ratisbonne, both of them Jews of distinction converted to Christianity. The elder brother (they are both priests now) superintends the order in Europe: the younger resides at the mother-house at Jerusalem. The convent is an educational establishment, where the daughters of Orientals of all kinds are received—Jews, Arabs, Syrians, Armenians, etc. In Europe the houses, of course, do not confine themselves to Jewish pupils, else they would find less work than their many hands could do, but receive boarders and give a solid education like the other and more fashionable convents. As a child I lived nearly a year in one of these houses, a large, roomy, silent villa, two hours from Paris. Behind the house was a garden and grove crossed in all directions by bewildering little paths leading into unexpected hollows where a rustic altar and statuette of Our Lady would be placed, or a crucifix erected in startling loneliness on a little hillock. A wide avenue of lime trees, where the pupils might be seen early in the morning studying their tasks, or in the afternoon eating their luncheon of grapes and brown bread, traversed this grove in a straight line, and here on certain feast-days nuns and pupils would form picturesque processions, with the customary banners, tapers, white veils and swelling hymns. Here the Ratisbonne brothers came to rest from their work of furthering the interests of the order—the elder a fatherly, portly man with white hair and a gentle manner, the younger a bronzed, black-bearded man, a true Oriental, with enthusiasm expressed in every line of his countenance and every flash of his piercing eye. He was only on a visit at that time, and then, as now, made Jerusalem his permanent home. There are one or two convents of this order in England, but I think none as yet in America.

The convent of the Assumption at Auteuil, a suburb of Paris, is one renowned for its excellent educational advantages. I spent a week there one winter on a visit to a near relative among the pupils, and had an opportunity to observe the clock-like life of the place. All the girls I have known to be educated there were better scholars than any brought up elsewhere. There were many English and American girls, besides Poles, Germans and West Indian Creoles. The war of 1860-64 left traces of strange animosity among the Northern and Southern children: it was hardly credible that such a spirit could animate young children so long removed from the immediate home influences that would otherwise have accounted for the feeling. Among the nuns were several English women, clever and deeply read, but softer-hearted than most scholars who have had too much to do with the world. There was also a sister of Père Hyacinthe among the Assumptionists, and the great orator himself often came to the convent-chapel to preach simple little sermons to the school-girls. His sister was terribly crushed by the news of his defection from the Catholic Church, and, I believe, refused even to see him again.

A very beautiful scene which I witnessed on the 8th of December in this convent was the renewal of the vows. The mass was celebrated in the chapel at five in the morning, of course by gas- and candle-light. The body of the chapel was perfectly clear, the community sat in carved wooden stalls round the altar, the pupils assisted from the galleries above, and hidden under the gallery was the small but very perfect choir of nuns and children. The hymns of Père Hermann, a famous pianist and composer, a pupil of Liszt, a convert from Judaism, and afterward a Carmelite friar, are very popular in France, and of these the music chiefly consisted. At the communion the superioress stepped forward, wearing the white woolen mantle (which with a purple tunic is the complete dress of this order) and knelt to receive the holy sacrament. A nun in the same costume, bearing a lighted taper and bowing almost to the ground, stood on each side of her as the priest communicated her, and so on till the whole sisterhood had each knelt separately and the bowing figures, like attendant angels, had done homage to each as the tabernacle, for a time, of the blessed sacrament. When the mass was over each professed sister solemnly read over the formula of her religious vows before a table on which lay a crucifix, which each reverently kissed in token of rededication of herself to the divine service.

The order of the Good Shepherd is one that is known throughout the world. It has branch houses in every country. The one to which I shall specially refer is in New York. It stands on the banks of the East River, overlooking Astoria and Long Island, and from its top windows the eye reaches far up the Sound. Like all convents, it is marvelously clean. The order is devoted to the reclaiming of fallen women, and in this instance the house is a government reformatory. A certain annual subsidy is guaranteed by the city authorities, but voluntary contributions and the industry of the inmates give more than half toward the real support of the house. Three sorts of women are under the care of the nuns: (1) those whom the judges send there as criminals for a specified term; (2) those whom their friends send in hope of their being quietly reformed without the intervention of justice; and (3) those who seek of their own accord to do penance and earn forgiveness for their sins. This is of course the most hopeful class, and it frequently happens that these penitents become in time permanent inmates, and even nuns. In the latter case, as the rule of the order does not allow of the reception of any woman with a stain on her reputation, they are clothed in the habit of the Carmelite Third Order (brown serge tunic and black veil), in which the austerities are not very great. They go through the usual novitiate and make their vows in the regular manner: they are then called "Magdalens," and inhabit a portion of the house reserved for them, say their office at stated hours in their own chapel, contiguous to that of the Good Shepherd nuns, and live under obedience to the superioress of the latter. I saw about a dozen of them taking their evening walk in a pretty enclosed garden by the river-side. Other women who do not feel inclined to so full a renunciation of their liberty bind themselves by a promise, good for one year only, to the service of the house, and wear a semi-religious kind of cap and a scarlet badge with the letter P or F: they are divided into two classes, under the patronage of Saint Joseph and Saint Patrick. They renew the promise from year to year, and often spend their lives in this lay sisterhood of penance. Every inmate, be she prisoner or penitent, is taught to sew, first by hand, then on the machine: many on their first entrance are so ignorant that they do not know on which finger to place the thimble, but after a while most are able to do a good day's work on common shirts and linen articles which the order contracts for with the wholesale shops. Another source of profit to the house is the laundry, but this is conducted exclusively by the nuns themselves. They do all the washing of surplices, altar-cloths, etc. for most of the Catholic churches of New York, for the convents and colleges, and for many private families. The fluting on children's frocks and the polish on shirts is something wonderful, and the young nun who superintends the concern seemed to be a real enthusiast in the matter. The nuns' dormitories, as well as those of the prisoners, are miracles of neatness; the refectories likewise. There are various immense airy halls where the nuns and girls sit sewing, and where a stranger sees a spectacle new to most people, certainly unexpected by the greater number—that of an assemblage of ugly faces, each belonging to an unfortunate whose temptations are usually understood to lie originally in her fatal beauty. Many of them are scarcely fourteen, and if once admitted, the melancholy chance is that they will be here again time after time: the sentences are seldom long enough to afford room for thought and conversion. Among the penitents the cases are far more hopeful, but the gentle sisters never forget their kind, conciliatory manner toward all; and unless a perverse demon whispers to their ear that these nuns are their jailers, the poor prisoners see little to remind them that they are not in a voluntarily chosen home.

Nuns are by no means a shiftless, unbusiness-like set of women: they can look after themselves as well as after the poor and forlorn: many of them, were they in the world, would be called strong-minded, blue-stockinged women. At Montreal there is a large establishment of the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, generally called Congregation Sisters, founded by Margaret Bourgeoys. They are the great educational sisters of Lower Canada. They own St. Paul's Island, some distance above the city: this is their farm, and one of the nuns, called the sister économe, has to visit it frequently and superintend matters, being the stewardess and committee of ways and means and revenue department combined. Of course a good horse is desirable for these drives, and their horses being one source of profit, the économe feels that the reputation of the breed ought not to be depreciated by her own "turnout." The young men of the town often meet her on the road and try to distance her, but this she will never permit, and her horse, faultlessly groomed and in splendid condition, always comes off the winner in these innocent races. One day, however, the bishop, having heard of this rivalry on the road, sent for her and remonstrated, alleging that such "fast" conduct might lend itself to scandalous rumors, and was altogether unbecoming in a religious. The nun smiled, and protested that she was ready to obey her superiors' orders in every particular, as all good Catholics and good religious are bound to do, but slyly insinuated the following cogent argument: "Does not Your Lordship think, however, that, since our convent lives partly on the reputation of this famous breed of trotters, it is hardly for the credit of the house that its representative conveyance should drag along as dejectedly as a street-vendor's donkey-cart?" What the bishop's reply was "the deponent sayeth not," but we may infer that this shrewd woman was at least as capable of controlling a wide meshwork of business details as he was of managing his diocese. Now, there are many such women in convents, for the religious life leads not, as people think, to a renunciation of your own self-dependence, but on the contrary to the highest kind of confidence in your own power when backed by the help of Almighty God. Saint Teresa of Spain once said these memorable words: "Teresa and tenpence are nothing: Teresa, tenpence and God are omnipotent."