Somewhere in the picture morgue of the Halifax Chronicle Herald is a faded photograph of a nine-year-old runaway from St. Joseph’s Orphanage. If the photo were to be unearthed, it would depict a cheeky little girl seated on a pickle barrel, feasting on chocolate bars and sipping coca cola. Between unladylike bites, she was pontificating at large to a small but most interesting and believing audience about “the terrors inflicted upon us poor orphans by the wicked nuns and priests at St. Joe’s.”
The child in the photo is none other than myself and every time I pick up a newspaper to read yet another tale of abuse being recounted by some victim, twenty years after the event(s), I think of the pickle barrel.
It was mid-1950s, and after six months as a not very happy ward of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, I still could not, to the consternation of a certain sister of charity, learn how to make my own bed. Repeatedly late for classes during the bed making, I decided to take my story to the streets. After walking up and down the same avenue in the biting winter cold, I didn’t take too much coaxing when a concerned store clerk invited me inside to dine on chocolate and soda pop. The police and press were soon called and I remember even to this day the faint awakening twinges of guilt when I realized how ready was my little audience to believe the largely embroidered atrocities against innocent childhood by what I now understand to be a vastly maligned Christian clergy.
Having carried off my mission and quick-hit publicity, I was returned to the orphanage by a sympathetic member of the local constabulary.
In recent days, my fervent imagination had discovered the delightful pen of Charles Dickens, and I was, in turn, some of the tragic characters of his chapters. Plunged back into reality by my own doing, how frightened, I was going back home to face Mother Superior. I remember asking in that melodramatic way sometimes adopted by nine-year-old girls reading Dickens, “Mother Superior, are you going to kill me?”
“That Judith Ann, would be against the fifth commandment,” she wisely answered before rendering a gentle, but all the same well-remembered lecture on the evils of exaggeration. On that day, for the first time, I heard the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Newspaper pages are full of the stories of the victims of child abuse by clergy. Sad to say some of these stories are true and I want to make it clear that I do not condone real abuse – “mental, sexual or otherwise – by anybody in whose are care entrusted young children.”
Most recently, we read about the abuse in another Catholic institution of a certain prison inmate, who will write a book when he is paroled, sometime this summer.
“In the past I have told people about the atrocities, the violence and the sexual abuse I endured and witnessed while I was incarcerated” (at X Training School), the inmate told the Toronto Star. “Nobody would believe me. They would doubt my word, saying Catholic priests wouldn’t do anything like that.”
In those long-ago days of my girlhood in a Catholic orphanage, religion was still largely based on religion and not politics. The nuns of my childhood as I once wrote in my Toronto Sun column, did not stand about on street corners waving peace placards, or as one nun running for election to the school board did, advocate abortion.
As everywhere else in true life, not everything was roses in the orphanage. Nights after lights out in the dorm were long and lonely when pierced by the wails of new girls missing relatives on their first night. The taunts of “Little Orphan Annie” when our telltale beanies (skull caps with little blue tassels, used for identification) were spotted during group outings, built resentment in a young girl’s heart.
But when I look back through time, even what I considered the worst experience pales in contrast to what was learned. Does one ever forget the books, singing lessons, ballet and a repugnance of the world of communism?
Whenever someone died, we wards of St. Joseph’s were taken out for visitations to the local funeral parlors. Believing that the powerful pungency of the chrysanthemums came from the corpse. I used to hold my breath while my peers were reciting the rosary. One nun reported this strange conduct to Mother Superior and a psychiatrist was called in. This episode, I’m sure, would make marvelous newspaper headlines, and those ever ready at the attack would be screaming “Child abuse!” Yet, I can’t help but wonder just what I would do if faced with a child who insisted on holding its breath in funeral parlors.
On the day of the pickle barrel, the most humane thing about Mother Superior was that she understood that, while my real bone of contention was the frequent appearance of fried bologna at the dinner table, the most direct route to instant press reaction was an exaggeration of orphanage discipline.
I would like to say that my flirtation with the fine art of verbal embroidery ended right there, but alas, it did not. All of these things happened to an imaginative child or another era. Much later in my late teens, I realized exaggerating my orphanage childhood won me instant attention in the most casual of conversations. Worse still, I even went through a stage where I made myself believe that God and religion were not important.
This is why when I see so many stories about Christian clergy and child abuse in the media, I remain a bit skeptical. You see from the vantage point of maturity, I am convinced that at least some of the horror stories, written up years after the event, are a sign of the liberal-left time in which we live; a time when tradition and convention. God, church, the family as a unit, and nationalism are all under steady attack.
It is interesting to me that Christianity is under intense media scrutiny at a time when the secular humanists have made the boast “to bring the rotting corpse of Christianity before the world b the year 2000.”
Meanwhile, we live in an era where we continue trying to justify everything, and it is my own view that if we justify abortion then we are not too far away from the day when we will try to justify death at the other end of the life scale by commercializing euthanasia; the justifying of snuffing out human life by families who will claim they are already too overburdened by society pressures to keep up with the care of ailing, elderly relatives.
Indeed, we live in dangerous times, governed by the “self society,” caviar socialists and politicians who bow only to the most vociferous lobby groups. But in facing these dangerous times, some things imparted by the nuns and priests of Catholic institutions everywhere, remain in such a way to transcend all eras, because they are founded upon truth, decency and commonsense.
Mother Superior, wherever you now are, in heaven or on earth, this one’s for you.