Growing up in an old-fashioned Bengali Hindu family and going to a convent school run by stern Irish nuns, I was brought up to revere rules. Without rules, there was only anarchy.
Cokie Robert and Nuns
Cokie Roberts is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and author. Both her father (Hale Boggs) and mother (Lindy Boggs) served as members of the U. S. House of Representatives representing New Orleans. Her mother also served four years as the U. S. Ambassador to the Holy See (1997-2001).
Almost ten years ago, Cokie had a thought about nuns. Commenting on the lack of civility shown to members of Congress in town hall meetings, she suggested facetiously that it was the result of the declining number of Catholic nuns. Nuns, she asserted, had taught millions of Americans to show respect and civility in public meetings.
Alas, convents worldwide are shutting down because modern women no longer seem inclined to dedicate their lives to an organized lifestyle based upon poverty, celibacy, charity, discipline and prayer.
Nevertheless Roberts may well have hit on something.
Educated by Nuns
Those of us who were educated by nuns can well appreciate Roberts’ comment. They were more than good teachers—they were fearless—using a simple carrot and stick technique to instill the lessons of discipline, obedience and respect in tens of millions of young boys and girls.
Art Fonden provides an example. He recounts one memorable day when he, along with his four hundred classmates, was attending a Benediction ceremony at Newark’s St. Rose of Lima church. Several nuns stood in the back of the church like drill sergeants on guard duty watching their charges. Their hands were clad under their scapulars, giant rosary beads dangled from their sides, starched wimples draped around their throats, chins and cheeks which, in turn, were overlaid with veils. No makeup or sculptured nails. They stood erect. Nuns always had perfect posture. They stood resolute between good and evil.
The Class Clown, Caught by the Nuns
It was during the mid-1960s, shortly after the Church went from Latin to English. Clad in their neatly pressed school uniforms, the children were on their knees as Father Flusk chanted, “He has given us holy bread from heaven.” As he genuflected in reverence to this most holy moment, some eighth grader chanted back, “With peanut butter and jelly within it.” According to Fonden, you could have heard a pin drop. Four hundred kids in unison put their hands to their mouths. They had to muffle their shocked laughter as best they could. “The oxygen left the church, nobody breathed,” claimed Fonden.
As he recalls, it was like a practiced military maneuver reminiscent of a World War II movie. The nun’s faces turned red with anger, embarrassment and disbelief the minute the class clown uttered his idiotic mock refrain. Moving from the rear of the church in “double-time” down the aisles toward the miscreant little heathen, two nuns vectored towards their target like stealth fighters. Their rosary beads clanged like whistling bombs announcing their target as they moved in unison—one down the center aisle and one down the left side aisle.
Fonden and his classmates didn’t dare turn their heads—they looked straight ahead. Their eyes shifted to Jimmie, the condemned. He alone turned to see which nuns were coming. Jimmie had a quick decision to make. There were “soft” nuns and “tough” nuns, like good cops and bad cops. He had to figure which one he’d maneuver his body toward for the inevitable surrender.
He was going to be grabbed and dragged from that pew—that was certain—but by what body appendage—the scruff of his neck, his arm, his cheek or his ear? That was his dilemma. It was like German soldiers at the end of WWII—who had to decide who surrender to—the “good guy” Americans or the “barbaric” Russians? Easy decision, Sister Rita Damien coming down the center aisle was the “tough” one. He moved toward the left hand aisle so that Sister Regina Rose would be the apprehender—she’d grab him by the arm whereas Sister Rita was famous for her “ear yanks.”
Jimmie’s classmates in the pew began to move away from him, bunching their little shoulders back to ease the nuns’ way to their target. They knew what was coming and like the class clown they didn’t know if it would be from the left or the right; they didn’t want to get caught in the nuns’ friendly crossfire. They knew when the nuns pulled the young Philistine from his spot there would be collateral damage; that some of them were, even though unintentionally, going to get nicked or kicked. They all pursed their lips and steeled themselves for the onslaught to come! It wasn’t going to be pretty.
Sister Regina plucked Jimmie from the pew. According to Fonden, his legs were dangling and flaying in the air as he was surgically pulled from the midst of his classmates. Sure enough, Mary got a foot in the face and Eddy got kicked in his knee as Jimmie was yanked across them. Sister Regina dragged Jimmie by his arm to the vestibule of the church, his shoes scorching the rug as he tried to resist. Out of sight of his classmates, they heard a slap, maybe two, and a muffled “ouch.”
Everyone knew what would happen next. There would be notes of apologies to Father Flusk. Another part of Jimmie’s punishment would be to write something over and over till his fingers ached. Father Flusk would get him next, a severe tongue-lashing about the “error of false pride,” and probably a whack across the back of his head for good measure. But the worst would be going home because he knew that one of those nuns was going to call his devout Irish Catholic mother and tell her of his outlandish sin. His mother in turn would report the incident to his Sicilian father and that would likely result in a good whipping, along with home confinement after school and on weekends for several weeks.
Catholic school punishment in mortal sin instances like this was three pronged—nuns, priests and parents—not to mention public ridicule among his peers. All of this, though, was designed to develop character and in the end respect for law, order, discipline and civility towards our fellow man.
Education by Nuns: the Way it Was and the Way is Should Be Now
Cokie Roberts’ message may have been a tongue and cheek remark. Then again, maybe Senators and Congressmen might want to use nuns to their advantage. Have three or four of them attend these town hall meetings and place them conspicuously where all can see them.
The House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms should think of getting a few during the State of the Union message. When some misguided citizen or Congressman starts screaming and yelling, let the nun ask him to quiet down and show a little restraint and respect.
If a Congressman refuses to show respect to the office of the president, would it hurt if a nun was there staring at the lady or fellow legislator? Nobody in his or her right mind is going to push, yell at or a hit a nun! It would be like throwing a dog out the window of a moving car. The anger it would generate would embarrass and shame the offender. And that would be good politics and good for our country.