In the light of modern revelations and nunsploitation movies, 19th Century tales of immorality and crimes in Roman Catholic convents appear far less fantastic.
IN 1836, a controversial book exploded upon the scene like an artillery shell, written by a woman who had supposedly fled the revered Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal, Canada. It bore the title, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed! The book immediately touched off an acrimonious firestorm of wild polemics with its sensational allegations. And no wonder — for the author, “Maria Monk”, claimed that in the many years that she had been enclosed there in the cloister of the “Black Nuns,” as the sable-clad Sisters of Charity were called, she had witnessed or been subjected to a number of horrific crimes and abuses.
The nun’s tale
Priests, Monk claimed, under the pretext that such godly men could not sin, regularly used nuns for sex in a private room reserved for “holy retreats.” On the very day she took her solemn vows, she said that she herself had been forced to have intercourse with three priests, and once again with the first for good measure. More on that later.
Monk said she had personally witnessed an offspring from such a union being immediately baptized after birth, nonchalantly suffocated, and tossed into a pit of lime in the basement (where there were presumably others), with acid later added to dissolve the tiny corpse. A ledger she found in the Superior’s office listed many more.
At the mere whim of a superior, disobedient or recalcitrant nuns were severely disciplined with punishments that ranged from petty annoyances up to Inquisition-like torture. In dark cells in the cellar near the pit, several sisters were imprisoned for unknown sins apparently for life. Nuns would disappear in the night for no known reason never to be spoken of again; Monk firmly believed some had been murdered. Suicides were also not unrumored.
All of this took place in a forbidding atmosphere of medieval despotism, where the only thing expected of a nun was silent, unquestioning obedience. Superstition ruled supreme — hair and nail clippings of an elderly nun thought to be holy were prized as relics, for instance. Bizarre penances, such as drinking the Superior’s foot-bath, were often imposed and strange rituals were frequent. Nuns, for example, would be placed in their coffins upon taking their vows to show they had died to the world, and then propped sitting up in church after they died to show they now lived in Heaven.
Meanwhile in this hell on Earth, the sisters were expected to constantly spy on each other and inform the Mother Superior of any defects, disobedience, or independence in themselves or others. Yet lying to outsiders was encouraged insofar as it would further the faith — especially if it brought in wealthy new recruits.
According to her own account, having become pregnant, she escaped, and told her story to a Protestant minister at a hospital for the poor in New York. He persuaded her to tell her story to the world.
At any time, such outrageous charges would have sparked an outcry; in the jostling pandemonium of pre-Civil War America, they touched off an immediate conflagration of bombastic claims and counter-claims. For this was the era of the “Know Nothings,” stridently anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic nativists. Even before the Potato Famine brought starving hordes of Irish over, these men feared the influx of Roman Catholics as a sneaky invasion of papists determined to subvert the liberties of free, white Protestants and take over the country. Catholic apologists instantly saw that Monk was a tool being used by Protestant nativist agitators and fought back vigorously in kind.
It was quickly realized that proof of Monk’s story hinged on the existance of certain secret entrances and passages built into the nunnery. She had described these in detail, showing how a priest could gain entrance to the cloister unobserved at any time, day or night, with secret signals so he did not have to mention his name or even speak a word. Like the much later controversy surrounding the McMartin Preschool, a Col. William Leete Stone found no signs of such secret passages in the Hotel Dieu during a brief inspection and after interviewing her, was convinced she had never even been there. This finding, along with the story that she was a actually a prostitute, had been in an asylum, and died in prison as a pickpocket, was loudly trumpeted throughout the press, and Catholic propagandists triumphantly labelled her an imposter and hoaxer to this day.
But was she? She was not the only former nun to break silence at that time; shortly before Monk, a woman named Rebecca Reed came out with similarly horrid tales that led a mob to burn her former convent in South Carolina. Famous ex-priest Charles Chiniquy, himself a French Canadian, spoke out about many clerical abuses in Montreal several decades later. Maria Monk herself countered the claims of Stone in the back of her book with statements of nearby residents attesting to unexplained building supplies for interior alterations at the Hotel Dieu that happened shortly after she first spoke out in the newspapers.
In the Preface she implored,
Permit me to go through the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal, with some impartial ladies and gentlemen, that they may compare my account with the interior parts of the building, into which no persons but the Roman Bishop and Priests are ever admitted: and if they do not find my description true, then discard me as an imposter. Bring me before a court of justice — there I am willing to meet [her detractors] and their wicked companions, with the Superior, and any of the nuns, and a thousand men.
This, needless to say, never happened and Maria Monk is nowadays remembered only with derision. Despite the fame, or rather notoriety, her life ended tragically. She lost credibility by running off again, falsely claiming she had been abducted by a gang of priests. She may have been married briefly, but in any case had another child, was arrested for pickpocketing, and died in poverty in an almshouse in 1839 (although some sources say 1849).
But for someone out to boldly defame the Catholic Church, she went about it in an odd manner. The tone of the book is anything but lurid or sensationalistic; she knew the gravity of what she was claiming, and related her story quite calmly and rationally throughout. It is certainly not titillating. While using florid Victorian language about her feelings concerning the “debased characters” of the priests who had access to the convent and its inhabitants, Monk showed great circumspection in discussing the actual abuse.
This, for instance, is all she had to say about what happened after she took her vows:
Nothing important occurred till late in the afternoon, when, as I was sitting in the community-room, Father Dufresne called me out, saying, he wished to speak to me. I feared what was his intention; but I dared not disobey. In a private apartment, he treated me in a brutal manner; and, from two other priests, I afterwards received similar usage that evening. Father Dufresne afterwards appeared again; and I was compelled to remain in company with him until morning. [Emphasis added.]
I am assured that the conduct of priests in our Convent had never been exposed, and it is not imagined by the people of the United States. This induces me to say what I do, notwithstanding the strong reasons I have to let it remain unknown. Still I cannot force myself to speak on such subjects except in the most brief manner.
And indeed, she was true to her word. Far more space in her book was devoted to the daily life of the nuns. More space is even allotted to the antics of “mad Jane Ray M’Coy”, who helped her survive, than all the discussion of the wicked doings of the priests and her superiors.
In an age so famously reticent to speak of sex this was natural perhaps; surely quite different from the explicitly detailed confessions gloried in today. For many survivors of such cult-like abuse, however, often the only way it can be talked about is in such an unemotional, matter-of-fact manner as Monk. It is too painful otherwise.
The wrath of God’s wives
It is indeed strange that many people who are willing to ascribe any degree of wickedness to male clergy have a strong denial about female religious. Among victims and survivors that I have talked to those who had been molested by nuns seemed to bear a special burden, perhaps because of this. Yet, as every veteran of parochial schools has at least one story about mean or crazy sisters, a certain recognition of it exists in popular culture.
Undeniably, the best reason to reconsider Maria Monk’s claims is based on modern revelations of victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Reports in recent years have detailed extensive and global abuse of nuns by priests, which the Vatican has vigorously denied. Nuns, especially in Africa, have been even more vulnerable than before as they are deemed to be safe from AIDS.
It may be significant that Canada has unfortuntely been one of the major epicenters of these scandals. Since the late 1980s, there has been one grim exposure after another of abuse and neglect of children in Church-run institutions on a massive, institutional scale, beginning with the Mount Cashel Orphanage run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and extending through one institution after another across the entire country.
Thousands of children over decades at Mt. Cashel and in similar facilities were subjected to foul food, severely beaten with belts and fists on a regular basis, and occasionally sodomized. A film, The Boys of St. Vincent’s, effectively dramatized the situation, but was banned in Canada after its first showing.
Then there are the so-called “Duplessis orphans”, some 3,000 children who were condemned to be treated as retarded simply for the higher rates the government would pay for their care. Indian children were treated even worse, if that’s possible, in Church-run residential schools. Two nuns, for instance, members of the Sisters of Charity, have been charged with assault at a residential school in Ontario. However, this abuse occured not just in Catholic schools, but also those run by Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Canada as well. The recompense due to the Native population from this legacy of abuse may soon lead to the bankruptcy of the entire Anglican Church of Canada.
All of these innocents were victimized by an unholy bargain between the Church and the Canadian state, where the Church took charge of orphans and the underprivileged with the blessing of government grants and virtually no oversight — a situation already begun in Maria Monk’s day. (To which I say, thank God for the Masonic Founders of the US and the separation of church and state!)
The Sisters of Charity also figure in scandals in Ireland and in Australia. In Ireland, a Sr. Dominic of the Sisters of Mercy not only molested a 10-year-old girl, but also held her down to allow “a smelly vagabond” rape the child. Such cases are not common, but they do exist.
In Australia, war orphans sent from England were subjected to such abuses by the nuns as being burnt with a red-hot poker during an exorcism, locked in underground cells, scalded in boiling water, and so on in some of the worst atrocities ever said to be described there. “Madness, ruthless and sadistic madness, on the part of at least some of the nuns, and a depthless depravity on the part of some of the men who inhabited the place, are the defining characteristics of some of those who ran the orphanage,” Professor Bruce Grundy, the author of a report for the government, exclaimed. “There was no limit to the sexual deviance that could be engaged in with those unlucky enough to find themselves singled out as ‘the chosen ones’.”
He began his investigation, by the way, after police failed to find evidence that stillborn babies and children who died from disease were buried in unmarked graves. One can only wonder how these stories get started.
But, knowing the depravity that human nature is capable of, can anyone today claim in good conscience that Maria Monk‘s story could not be true? I doubt it.
The first victim
Illustrations from an Anti-catholic tract.
Top: “A Nun Stabbing a Priest,” Middle: “Death-Pit — Trap Door — Cell,” Bottom: “The Smothering of the Nun.”
It is time, I believe, for her name to be rehabilitated and her courage recognized and honored. Whether crazy or an imposter, Maria Monk was the first voice to speak out for North American victims of clergy sexual abuse, and paid the price for it. She was roundly reviled for her efforts. Even if she became a madwoman, pickpocket and a prostitute with several illegitimate children, it does not indicate her story is not true but more likely the opposite, for many victims of abuse come to unfortunate ends, especially if scorned and disbelieved. Certainly her verbal maltreatment by the mouthpieces of the Church after she spoke out is similar if even more severe than what many later survivors have faced.
With such factual horrors having been proven by government commissions and courts of law, the claims of rampant abuse and crime by Maria Monk do not sound so wildly extravagant anymore. Even the charges of infanticide which moderns find most revolting might look entirely different to those women who lived in medieval gloom before the invention of contraception.
After all, the Roman Catholic Church opposes such measures as abortion partially because it believes the soul of the infant, if unbaptized, will not be allowed into Heaven due to Original Sin. At least, the nuns might say in their deluded self-justification, their babies, being brought to term and baptized, were guaranteed an eternity of happiness, unlike today’s aborted fetuses forever doomed to Limbo, whatever that means. Their sins, they would claim, were thereby the lesser.
In any case, Maria Monk never claimed all nunneries were corrupt, but only spoke of her own experiences. But hers was not the only one so debased, and conditions have not necessarily changed for the better. A decade ago I listened in pity and horror along with several hundred other people at a conference as an elderly woman softly told her story. She had, at her quite advanced years, recently quit Regina Laudis, a wealthy convent, related somehow to the Benedictines and Sisters of Mercy, based on an island off the East Coast. Among other things, she claimed that the order stole land, duped recruits and supporters, and led by several shady confessors, advocated Eucharistic meditations for the sisters that were overtly autoerotic fantasies. Her complaints to the ecclesiastical authorities brought no relief but only harsh discipline for herself, and so she was forced to leave in protest.
Whether either her tale or that of Maria Monk is true or not, how can any of us on the outside ever know for sure? The lives of those women behind the cloister’s forbidding walls remain as insulated from the world today as if they were in a Dark Age harem.
Ironically, Maria Monk’s ultimate revenge lays not so much in reform but in extinction. It is not generally realized that many more nuns than priests have quit since the Second Vatican Council. Roman Catholic orders of female religious are withering away as their members grow old and are no longer replaced. Figures show that in the US there are only half as many in 1994 as there were in 1965, and the average age of a nun is now over 65.
The reason for this mass exodus may not be that the modern outside world is so glamorous. Perhaps it’s because the cloister is not that mysterious but cozy refuge portrayed in those old Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman movies any more than the priesthood is.
In reality, a convent is more like a prison, the uncomplaining inmates of which the Church has ruthlessly and thanklessly exploited throughout two millennia. Only those women who have actually been there can say if any of these disturbing tales are true, if a nun’s life is indeed worth such sacrifice. It should be noted that once Vatican II threw open the doors, many of these inmates have spoken, silently but eloquently, with their feet.
And so the cloisters’ silence deepens. The halls do not echo much anymore with the nuns’ whispered secrets or their footsteps hurrying on unknowable errands, but the mystery remains.