Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Convent: Visiting My Past

I made my annual fruitcake-making pilgrimage over the weekend, but there was a side trip that was completely unplanned, a trip that took me back 55 years to my early elementary days and the nuns of the Benedictine order who taught our school.

I picked up my granddaughter Grace on my way across West Virginia so that she could be part of our annual bakefest. Grace is 15 and I hope that she and our other children and grandchildren might continue this tradition. First step is to have them be part of our day and learn to make the cakes. So Grace and I drove on to my sister Judy's, who lives not far from Grace actually, in eastern West Virginia. We spent the night there and drove together to Virginia Saturday morning.

It was on the way home that we made an unexpected detour. Our easiest route took us past the entrance to Linton Hall. This was a private military school for boys run by the Benedictines when I was a child, but our church (All Saints in Manassas, VA) decided to start a school, and the best available space was at the Benedictine convent. The nuns would be our teachers and the school would have 2 grades, kindergarten and first. The second year we had 2 grades again, this time first and second. I attended the first year (1957-58), and Judy attended first grade the next year (58-59).

In fall of 1959 the school moved to rented space at the National Guard armory and added 2 more grades so we had grades K-4. That year a new school was under construction and we moved in for the next school year. My class grew a little each year. We started with 7 students in 1957, but as the school grew to have 8 grades (K-7th), my class grew to 14 children at graduation. Each year we were doubled up in the classrooms, two grades to a class, so Judy and I were always in the same classroom together which suited us just fine. But Linton Hall was the place I always called to mind and the place that holds many memories. So as we were driving home and approaching the entrance to Linton Hall, I asked Grace, "Want to see where we went to school when we were little?"

It hasn't changed much. The piney woods where we had end of the year picnics is still there; the military school is now a private K-8th grade school but it is the same red brick building. The convent and chapel looked the same too. And down over the hill we saw the sign to a place we both recalled vividly--the grotto.

We pulled over and ventured down the path, memories flooding back as we walked. A gaggle of geese honked overhead, heading south on that chilly morning.

There was the wall of round stones, there the damp cave,

there the statue of Mary and the kneeling girl.

I did not remember it being a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, or the memorial plaque in the wall.

I thought there were more flowers but perhaps there are when the weather is warm. We were pleased to see that the shrine had been maintained; both of us remembered getting in trouble one day for sneaking down to the grotto during recess, and having to stand with our faces to the brick wall of the convent during the rest of recess. I can still feel the shame and misery of that! Other than that time, however, my memories of the nuns are of love and laughter, nothing like the grim tales we often hear about Catholic schools.

We thought we'd walk over to the chapel, a place I remember as hushed and sacred, filled with wood and brick and stained glass. But to get to the chapel we had to pass the convent, and there was a doorbell. Was there any possibility, we wondered, that one or two of the nuns still living who were our teachers?

"One way to find out," I said. And pressed the bell. No one came and we started to leave, but then a nun came down the hall and let us in. She didn't look like the nuns I remember with their stiff wimples and black habits. She was dressed in casual clothing, with short hair and really could have been anyone on the street.

"Yes," she said. "Sister Lawrence is still here. She's 88 now, you know. I'll see if she's up to visitors."

We looked at each other. Eighty-eight. She was probably in a wheelchair, I thought, or at least using a walker. She might have Alzheimer's; she might not even remember us. We read the history of the convent while we waited; I don't think I ever knew much about it before.
The door opened and a white-haired lady walked briskly toward us. She was trim and moved with ease, eyes alert behind her glasses. 

"So, you're the Connelly girls!" She remembered us with ease, and we spent a half hour with her, talking about our family, the school and our memories. She told us about her visit to Germany to meet her family; her parents were immigrants to the U.S. She described a bunch of roses they gave her on her arrival, and how the roses held well enough that she could bring them back with her on the plane.

I was sad to hear that Sister Ernestine and some of the other nuns who taught us passed away some time ago. My mother had urged me to go see them but whenever I was in Virginia my time seemed so crowded there was never an opportunity. I am very glad Judy and I took the time this weekend to go back--back in time, back in memory, back to when we were little girls. And I am very glad Grace was with us to share in those memories.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Joy@aVintageGreen said...

An important day to stop to revisit your memories. More for your memory bank. Glad you shared today.

Ellen Guptill said...

Hi, Sue!
Debbie Couture told me to check out your story of visiting Sr. Lawrence. That must have been so fun to share memories!
Ellen Herr Guptill

Granny Sue said...

Hello, Ellen! How many years has it been? It was a very good visit; those were happy days. How surprising it was to see so little change on the convent grounds, yet so much change all around them.

Nance said...

a very touching post.

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