; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Letter to a Prioress #4 ;

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Letter to a Prioress #4


As this is a personal letter, comments are turned off for this post, and blanks are intended to mask personal or place names. 

April 24, 2022


Dear Prioress [______],

I hope this letter finds you well. What a stressful time these past couple of years have been. No doubt one of the most challenging in history for the prioress of [____]. We are all on a precipice of change, no matter our life and circumstances. I didn’t think I would write this year, but I have a matter of some import to which both of us have no doubt given a great deal of thought. I hope I can speak my mind, and you will destroy the letter without replying.

All is well with my self, except that last year I got a diagnosis of macular degeneration. My vision is starting to go and in a few years from now I will no longer be able to write, except through some sort of dictation. For now, I have stopped night driving and I use some accessibility features on electronics which help a lot. Maybe some day I will phone you and say hello that way. I will always remember that Sister [___] said, “keep at it,” and so I will.

The matter I speak of is sadly the Indian boarding school that my former community had. I saw on your website the same situation. I am following the LCWR’s actions and those of my former community, and in the process took note of what has occurred so far.

Last fall I began correspondence with a survivor of our school, which came about while researching my family matters. You might recall my father was an attorney. My family owned property near the tribes served by the former school, and he built the [____] in a nearby town. My father also mucked about filing cases in court for many years in the area.

I wanted to see if any of these things caused damage for people, because he was among many at the time for whom the area was their “personal playground.” For example, I recently found a case of him not paying local taxes and fighting it all the way to the State Court of Appeals, only to lose due to the ridiculousness of it demonstrated easily by locals. Stuff like that. Fighting a few hundred dollars of tax money to an impoverished area while he always carried at least two grand in cash in his wallet.

I’m still researching all this family stuff, because more things are showing up online now, court cases and newspapers and such. My family is mostly gone, but I want to make sure any family business is taken care of. My father was a very public person and politically involved as well. That’s how I ran across the search entries about the school, which surprised me.

The survivor I exchanged correspondence with is now writing a book, along with various publications pertaining to the school. You are probably aware of these articles. Many stories are coming out, and the book has a large publishing deal which indicates it will be highly promoted. I hadn’t fully realized our school had been a boarding school, because it converted to a day school like all our other schools. It closed in the 1960s, so of course it was a 15 year+ memory at the time I was in the order. Today we have really nobody left who taught at the school or even recalls it beyond knowing the history.

I and the survivor attended [_____] to look more closely at what the sisters are doing to learn about the school legacy and take responsibility. Then I gave some names, so the survivor set up an appointment to visit the archives.

Since then, I have been decoding subtext and interpreting the language used by sisters in my order, currently in public and in documents like the history book, hopefully to be of some assistance. You know how it is, a room with nuns can have 20 conversations going on in which nobody says a word, but all know what is being said and thought. We have lots of contextual language in common in religious life, we take meanings for granted that are obscure or hidden to someone who isn’t a nun in that community. I have also been digging through my old letters (you know firsthand how many letters I wrote back then!) and any photos.

I found one letter from a sister who was in authority back in my time, and later elected to further leadership. She was also a [__], and a beloved person, though she passed some years ago. In the letter, she talks about the extent to which the community was aware of emotionally disturbed sisters, the extent to which these sisters are discussed at the highest level of authority and the types of conversations that are had at that level. She expressed regret back in her early days that few sisters received any type of help when they clearly had “issues.”

The allegations name specific sisters with incidents of abuse. One account identifies a house superior. Yet another superior documented in writing her intention to [_______], and she was told not to do this by the Bureau, also in writing.

My view expressed in the interviews I have done for the book is that there is no possible way these abusive sisters operated without the knowledge of others, the sisters of the house and indeed the authority of the motherhouse. If it is claimed the motherhouse had no knowledge of the abuse, this would be an example of the operation as a fiefdom and a silo, a house allowed to operate with an authoritarian superior with less or no oversight. This means that either way people knew and did/said nothing, and the result is nobody took oversight action to remove or stop the abusive sisters.

The history book chapter is rather telling in the subtext. “The sisters stood loyally behind [the abusive Superior].” To me this is saying “nobody talked,” and such a statement of “loyalty” was perhaps what we call virtue signaling today, a sentence saying to the community as a whole something like, “here is an example of a difficult mission, difficult house, or difficult superior and this is how you bear up and put up, and you can do likewise because your mission is surely nowhere near as difficult as what these sisters are doing.” If you had complaints, you “offered it up” for the “poor souls in purgatory” or whatever. I believe that sentence has implicit and shared understanding of the mission of the school, the community impressions of it, and an example of the “virtue of loyalty,” in community. Pride heroics, too.

Anyway, that is my interpretation of the history and really, the book chapter on the school is terrible to read today overall, the language used is full-on racism. It is what it is, all too sadly. I am backing my interpretation with the letter, that while “nobody talked,” they still knew everything going on. You can’t treat kids like that without others hearing and knowing, among other things like the even worse attempts to erase the children’s identity and language. Nothing is unknown or even unclear in a small, insular place like a convent. That is just the reality.

The decision to talk about all this for the book, especially producing the letter I mentioned, is a terrible one for me. I have nothing but gratitude and love for my former community, and this is not the way I want to show it.

When I was in formation, the definition of Obedience was not the “plant a cucumber in the ground face down,” as Teresa of Avila wrote about concerning the idiocy of using obedience in nonsensical ways. The very first definition of Obedience for me was “confidentiality in the community.” Of course, I understood at that time the issue of confidentiality was related more to the experiences of the past in religious life, when letters were read and phone calls screened, when decisions about your life made by a single person, your superior, rather than today’s version of group discernment and multiple levels of authority.

Yet the old ways of Obedience running every detail of your life make it even more likely for others to see what you are doing as a sister, which makes it difficult to convince people now that nobody saw your bad behavior all those years ago. I for one was on the receiving end of corrections constantly for incredible minutiae as well as more serious matters. You can probably imagine the number of anonymous notes the novice director received on me (none of them terribly bad and certainly all of them pertained to things I did with my childish personality).

And that points to an established culture of anonymous reporting as well. Did anyone use that further back in the day? I would say, probably so. Even if one was teaching in a rather isolated place, there were summer retreats and various other opportunities to say something, even anonymously. To say doing that was “difficult” is just an excuse, really. Anonymous reporting is all too easy in religious life.

But the whole issue of confidentiality was not meant to obscure actions that should be reported, like child abuse. When I started working with my teaching license back in the 1980s, still as a nun, I was instructed of my lifelong duty to report to the police or social services any abuse related to children. Then later, in human services I understood this lifelong duty to report also includes assisting survivors with anything that can help them establish the truth of what happened.

The community can easily dismiss anything I choose to say and tell themselves I’m a disgruntled former member, or some such, even though I am the opposite of disgruntled, my experience was outstanding. They can decide that everything I say is only my view and not their reality. They can diss my credentials in the field of education. But there is no real disregarding the letter I’m sharing. It comes from someone who was considered one of the wisest in leadership. The letter goes beyond whatever my personal opinions or experiences were and expresses the exact opposite of a disgruntled person.

To be honest, I don’t even know if the survivor will use the letter. It may not be helpful to their premise at all. I feel that it is something which pertains, and in this duty to assist, I hand it over without dictating how a survivor uses it.

In the letter, I see in it a similarity with what you all have on your website, that one sister reported physical abuse when another sister visited the school. The sister reported appalling behavior towards the children, and nothing “appeared” to have been done. In both communities much harm was seen and too little acted upon. With all of it I don’t see a real place of denial or minimizing, to even try is a new level of harm I don’t even want to contemplate.

I don’t want to dwell too much on whatever happens to me, though surely it will end the informal relationship I still have with the community. I can expect any contact to cease, while that is a small matter it also involves family members I have remaining inside. I was a very young person then, as you know. I had nothing in my head aside from whatever I was open to becoming. I think exactly like they do up until the point where I don’t. I’m grateful for the person I became which is a great deal due to them. I have their voices in my head, believe me they talk aplenty. Mostly that is integrated with my own life and it’s comfortable until it isn’t, like now.

I do trust my group to make thoughtful decisions, as much as in yours. Until they don’t do that. After an article came out this week, they used a line from it that made them appear heroic, to ostensibly promote the article, a mistake, and they removed it in one location. In terms of action, the community has gone on record saying they aren’t sure what they are going to do.

I’m curious as to what the LCWR considers as “exploring your history,” the extent of that. We have the specific instances of the schools. But will the communities of nuns explore the extent to which a culture of religious and personal heroism played in determining who the “poor souls” were or are that nuns tried to “educate,” or “save?”

Will anyone be honest enough to say, “God probably didn’t ‘call’ us to convert or start a school on tribal lands?” It was in fact an opportunity presented by the government and dioceses in the form of lucrative contracts. One opportunity along with others that not only enriched us, evidenced by the level of building going on, but conferred a life of privileges like college degrees, health care, food and retirement. Things that people then and now struggle to get. Anyone who would say “well you never know what God calls” is just dissembling and excusing because God doesn’t call to genocide, God doesn’t call to physically or sexually abuse children.

In fact, I don’t think there is anything sisters can say on their behalf that appears less than insulting, re-traumatizing and gaslighting in this context. But I can guarantee that many of our sisters are probably hanging on for life that they worked hard for good, and they don’t want to relinquish or tarnish that idea. And I do understand, I know how many came from hardscrabble childhoods and are probably more vocally grateful than I am. The point is, the payoff days came for us, at the expense of many. Priests and nuns have accumulated an egregious level of social and material rewards. Sorry it might hurt to let go of all that, for what went down so long ago, but there it is.

I also think about the culture of fundraising. The constant begging for money that communities did. Whether it was needed or not. I am aware that the fundraising continued mostly non-stop in rural parishes in the area of the tribes. I counted at least 80 years of local begging for money to help the “poor tribes,” and a culture of tourist-ing the children for white people with the object of getting money.

In addition to the harm to the people involved, it perpetuated a cycle of re-enforcing entrenched racist ideas among non-tribal locals that the tribes are a “problem,” and whatever the sisters said the other locals no doubt agreed and handed over whatever the sisters asked for. When I took my first parish job in the 80s, I was shocked to learn that the county whites and the neighboring tribal border exchanged gunshots regularly.

I wonder if anyone really questioned why the sisters repeatedly asked for money to solve “problems” over an 80-year period without anyone wondering how badly they must be failing, continually wanting money for the same reasons, year after year. Anyone who says to me “oh we only asked for what we ‘needed,’” then I got a story for them from my first week in formation, when I turned down an offer of donated tomatoes because we already had so many. I was told never turn down anything, always say “yes we need that” because we can always find someone to take it. Heroic and greedy, really, but of course it was gifting called begging alms, a religious act. People give to sisters, don’t they?

The money itself washes away and disappears in household budgets. I can see what was coming in, for the history is remarkably frank on that, along with publicly held documents. I can’t see what got sent to the motherhouse or what the household budget was. I know that food got donated and maybe other donations that were purely for the sisters and these often didn’t get documented. I don’t think my box of tomatoes got written up. Stuff coming in on a daily basis just gets assumed.

But even if I knew what went to the motherhouse, it washes out by going out to fund other works, like building hospitals, and then later back to the school in years when the government salaries were no longer accepted. We built hospitals and whatever else that continue to be what most consider “assets of ongoing value,” that is, anything which contributes to the local towns today in terms of health care, jobs, education and taxes. We didn’t leave anything like that behind in the tribal areas we worked, sadly.

Then we have the reality that the communities are shrinking, so how much time can be spent on internal “soul searching” before acting? That is no doubt something you have considered. The soul searching has value mainly to the order, and it can be done at any time. If indeed enough time remains when the public call now is to act.

When I was in teacher education, I had a very fine sister of formidable character as my mentor. She told our classes of “teachers-to-be” that if your students fail to succeed and thrive for whatever reason, you as a teacher have failed. It is your failure and your responsibility to accept. This was a non-negotiable, and I put that line in my dissertation on the dedication page with her name. One of two questions I got from my dissertation committee was where I got that quote.

Beyond teaching, one of the main reasons for living a life in community is to consolidate resources and all share in them. We shared in these rewards. I received more than most, my education, therapy, leadership skills, travel experiences, even cooking classes since I couldn’t boil an egg when I joined. It was even an advantage of sufficient leisure time on my sisters’ part, to give attention to someone like me, you know what I was like back then. I didn’t give back even a fraction of what I received. I can certainly hope my life is a type of payback, but that’s just wishful thinking resulting in mostly air and self-justification.

I only need to think of what happened with those kids and see the legacy today. Any difficult thoughts I have are the product of selfishness. Of course, I have scruples, like every former nun, and here I probably go too far. It’s just that you know more than most what I started with, and it only got better for me. We can’t say that for everyone we “served.” This is not some sort of “politically correct” thinking, it’s the truth and the abuse of students is not some propaganda tool to be used now, we have facts that must be accepted as responsibility.

Thus, I feel that while we benefitted from living in community and sharing resources, the same holds when the organization itself is responsible, even when the sisters involved are no longer with us. We shared in the benefits, we also must share in the responsibilities. In my mind it’s incidental that members are alive but were never involved. History has shifted, and the stories we never heard before are coming out.

The question I pose to myself is, what would I have done? Had I stayed on, for at the age I am now I would have likely be there today struggling with this very problem as you are doing. But I am not in it, I am aware of that. I say everything with love, I hope.

Firstly, on the communication level. We, myself included, need to be in a stance of lifting up stories of the survivors with whatever light we can for all to see. We admit our part in all ways. We admit to and talk about the religious culture of fiefdoms run by overlording sisters who demeaned people and worse, silo-ing where abusive superiors and other sisters operated outside of oversight, and the extent to which abusive behavior was tolerated, the norm, or ignored or even promoted. We talk about the harms of a culture of fundraising on behalf of the “poor___” fill in the blank with the soul of the day’s fundraising. I think it’s possible to talk of these things frankly.

These topics take place in companies in the business world, and the language is understandable. While history may have other words to describe what went on, our understanding is evolved now to use terms like silo-ing and fiefdoms and talk about how that works when it happens. And how Obedience is used to compel silence and the harm that can intentionally or unintentionally happen. We need to be available to de-mystify our obscure religious language that we tried to force on people and punished them when they refused.

We don’t talk on and on about whatever advantages we have. Everyone can see what they are, or they don’t give a crap. These are what we must reckon with having access to, but our laundry is no one else’s to wash, our tub is infinitely large and we will indeed scour as needed and like conscious campers return whatever we can to how we found it, and consider more closely what cannot be returned and what is needed and wanted instead.

Really, communication like this needs to be normal in the sense that we have the skills, and we will discuss these topics easily. The whole church needs to do it and if anyone can model how to do that, they should. Can we model how to do that as an act of service and truth?

Now I will enter a fictional world of my own. I would undertake a study, hopefully not long in the making, of every place we served and see what, if any, are “assets of ongoing value” that we left behind. Hospitals are assets of ongoing value. A ring of bricks on the ground is of no value.

Then I would dismantle everything, whatever is left, in preparation for our death and leaving whatever possible behind to whomever got left with the ring of bricks and especially children we were given charge of, where we failed and worse. Doesn’t everyone try to look after the children they are responsible for?

Most of our assets are tied up to care for the aged, I’m sure yours are too. Though some of mine no doubt qualify for other aid. Certainly, I was told all those years ago I would be responsible for myself in old age, and I understood there would be no help and no one, and no plan for what I could acceptably do back then. But that’s all resolved now.

I see younger ones making alternative plans already. The aged remaining are not difficult to work with individually. In real life, I have had up to 40 people in my direct responsibility when I worked in case management with the state, and tertiary on-call responsibility for another 100 on Medicaid. It was my job to arrange for ongoing wraparound care for these people, by wraparound I mean a term that includes everything to do with basic activities of daily living.

In my fictional situation, the property aside from the skilled nursing facility has to go. I would carefully dismantle what’s left, there is not a single sliver of [rare wood] or [rare marble] we have that is not valuable, plus the added value given to nuns having owned something, the whole price is a premium. Piece by piece we acquired it all in an age when beautiful monuments were the Catholic way of getting creative. Nobody does that now, nobody needs our stained glass to learn from, and we live more simply. Can you see where I got this? I used to get nauseous in our chapel and longed for the airy simplicity of yours. [Your monastery] affected me deeply, the chapel and schola most of all. To go even simpler only frees us more for the truth.

Arranging all this can be a spiritual exercise of planning for death in the same way every person does around the world. I am certain you are much farther ahead of me in your thinking. I don’t believe I am saying awful things here, we can take responsibility with love, yes? It is not for us to tout what we did well, history will decide, and it may be the boarding schools are what we are remembered for. I would hope we can meet that moment with truth and everything else we have. Our inner and outer resources are certainly part of that, especially where we left such things so sorely lacking.

Our traditions have gone on for more than 1000 years, it won’t be our job to carry on, but someone else will. We also have the apostolate of prayer, even if it only does us good as a way of life. I don’t think it’s a bad idea for people to see us on our knees as often as possible for every reason anyone can name. At minimum, I hope the pope will someday soon declare a period of public and private repentance by religious and clerics for what all have done in its name. I cannot imagine any sister objecting to the idea of praying regularly, opening the doors and inviting others where possible, which you already do.

If my letter and words are too burdensome in any way, I am sorry. Just burn it, then. I don’t imagine you feel that way, but I don’t really know. This is a long piece here which took time from your life to read. Perhaps you feel I understand things not at all or badly. If I am too self-indulgent, sorry for that too. I guess it’s a luxury I have, and I admit it. But I also have a voice and I’m using it. This all is very painful indeed, more so for those we tried to serve who are telling their stories now. I wanted you to know what I did, in all its disobedience and for what reasons. As bad as all this rambling is written, at the very least I feel you deserve notice and explanation, given the 40 years next year we have known one another on this earth.

I have only bit of backbone, it is because I was taught and given such. I send it back to you, my friend, sincerely. I hope and feel confident that you will tread the proper path forward, looking to your sisters for the grace with which to guide the steps.










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