by Beverly De Soto
“Sister will see you now,” came the dreaded voice of the School Secretary.
I stood up and swallowed hard. Heart pounding. Sick stomach. Weak knees.
I was six years old, and I was in a lot of trouble.
The Secretary tried to make me feel better by smiling kindly at me, but I was beyond comfort. I set my face grimly for the door of the Principal’s office.
To my eyes, Sister Mary Ruth was immensely old. She was also the Most Important Person I had ever met. Sister regarded me soberly from behind her large oaken desk. She wore a majestic Dominican habit, with huge bell-like sleeves. Her eyes were a watery blue through her wire-frame glasses as she leaned forward and folded her veined hands carefully.
“You were quite late to school this morning,” she stated flatly. “About an hour late.”
I nodded, and swallowed again. I thought hard for some likely explanation for this.
“Y-yes,” I began, nodding. “I’m really sorry, Sister.”
She nodded gravely.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Actually, I did not want to tell her anything. The truth simply could not be told.
“Your mother called. She was upset,” she said carefully. Her blue eyes were watching me closely.
My alarm heightened. At the mention of my mother, hot tears burned my eyes. What could I tell Sister that would get me off the hook?
“I-I lost my rosary beads,” I confessed, finally. “It was r-really stupid of me.”
Sister nodded solemnly.
“You lost your rosaries…so what happened then?”
I nodded again, trying to control myself. But the hot tears started running down my face, unbidden. She pushed a box of Kleenex across her desk to me. I took one and blew my nose.
“Why were you late this morning?” she asked again, a little softer.
I shook my head, unable to speak. The tears were flowing freely now, sliding down my face in big rivulets.
“Now, now,” she said, and stood up. She walked around her desk and put a bony hand on my shoulder. She smelt of soap, and linen.
This was too much. I sobbed aloud, unable to restrain myself.
Sister opened the door and asked the Secretary to come in. They both stood over me, regarding me thoughtfully.
“Honey,” the Secretary said, crouching down beside me. “Tell Sister what happened.”
I had lost my rosary beads. This was the third time, too. I was wearing them knotted around my belt loop, in imitation of the Sister, like the other girls in my first grade class. But I wasn’t very good at tying knots, and the beads must have slipped off on the bus ride home.
At 7:30 the next morning, I couldn’t find them. This set my mother off. I don’t remember much of what happened next, only that she was screaming at me, and beating me wildly on my head and shoulders with a wooden spoon. I ran madly from room to room, trying to escape her. Finally I crouched down hopelessly in a corner in a vain attempt to ward off her stinging blows. She broke the spoon on my back, and when she retreated to look for another weapon, I fled.
In a cold panic, I raced down the street to the bus stop, only to see the bus pulling away. Too frightened to go home, I decided to walk to school, a mile and a half away. To be sure, I was scared to walk all that way alone, but I was more scared to return home to my mother’s certain fury.
So that’s how I came to be so late to school. And that’s why I was sent to the Principal’s office. But I didn’t tell any of this to Sister Mary Ruth.
“Your mother was worried about you,” she ventured, handing me another Kleenex. I shook my head, deeply humiliated. None of what had happened could be explained to other people, especially important people like Sister.
“I-I’m really sorry, Sister,” I tried apologizing abjectly, still crying. “I’m sorry for c-causing trouble.”
Sister Mary Ruth and the Secretary traded glances and then turned back to me. I couldn’t read their faces.
“Now, now,” Sister said again, with some finality. She handed me a glass of water. “Drink some of this. Calm down. You can stay here until you feel better.”
After a few minutes, she looked up from her work and told me I could go back to class. I slipped out, grateful to be off the hook.
Sister Mary Ruth was an Irish Catholic nun – one of a vast legion of such Sisters who ran US Catholic institutions for a hundred years from the late 19th through the end of the 20th Century. She ran a school of almost 400 pupils, in those days when class sizes often ran over 40 students.
Sister was a tough old bird, everyone knew. Her Sisters and her lay teachers all respected her enormously – as did the Catholic parents who scraped and saved to send their offspring to the Dominicans.
My parents were the exceptions. Married late in life, they were well-to-do. I was their only child. That my mother was abusive was something I could not articulate, not even to my father, who worked late most evenings. So I went to school, did my work, played with the other kids and tried to keep from angering her.
All these many years later, of course, I can imagine myself in Sister’s shoes. Old, tired, and faced with the huge administrative burden of running a school – and face to face with a child who showed clear signs of being abused.
In 1963, there were no child protection laws in effect. No agreements to call the police if child abuse was suspected. It would almost certainly be the child’s word against their parent. Sister Mary Ruth had only her prestige and the influence she could wield over my parents and teachers. This is what she did.
My mother received a call from Sister Mary Ruth that day. Though her verbal abuse continued, I cannot recall that she ever used an object to strike me again. Sister Mary Ruth must have made her point.
A few weeks later, it was time to crown the May Queen. We first graders were all excited. The school had two ravishingly beautiful long dresses which two privileged girls would wear as they carried the lovely crown made of flowers in the procession to the statue of the Blessed Virgin.
To my immense joy, Sister Mary Ruth made sure that I was one of the girls.
The next year, she would often come to call for me at the classroom door, and quietly ask me to read aloud for the students in the other classes. The idea was to show the older kids how well a little kid could read. It had the side effect of boosting my confidence immensely.
In the third grade, Sister became my teacher, and I blossomed under her tutelage. She let me read ahead, and rewarded me for finishing assignments early by allowing me to read the ‘Lives of the Saints’ series, pretty yellow books with lovely pictures, perched on the windowsill.
Sister Mary Ruth also had an ingenious system for teaching arithmetic called ‘memorization.’ And if we misbehaved, she put her system to work in earnest. Minor infractions rated writing one’s times tables from the twos to the fives. Major violations of classroom conduct could land you in your seat at recess, writing the times tables all the way up to the tens.
It was simple brilliance. We all learned our times tables and many years later as a young mother, I used it to great effect with my own kids. (They learned to behave – and learned their times tables, all in one fell swoop.)
All these decades later, I remember my year in Sister Mary Ruth’s classroom as a time of great happiness and security. So when she finally retired at the end of that year, I was sorry to see her go.
But like most kids, I was preoccupied with on my own concerns. I never thought of her much after that — until thirty years later when I chanced across a book written about the history of her Order.
Little did we suspect back in those days, but the book revealed how the Dominicans had sustained a body blow to their esprit du corps in the 1960s and 1970s. Radical young nuns had imposed a system whereby hapless older sisters were deprived of their habits and communal prayer. They were forcibly ‘re-educated’ in the ‘Spirit of Vatican II.’
The results were disastrous. Those nuns young enough to choose another life fled the convents. Older nuns like Sister Mary Ruth retreated to the Mother House, which quickly became an old age home. Many of the radical nuns eventually left as well. (The few who remained apostatized in place, using Church property and prestige to promote their ‘new age’ agenda.)
In a few short years the work of generations of dedicated Catholics was carelessly, even vindictively, undone. By the 1970s the schools that had been built for the Dominicans from the donations and hard work of generations of Catholics were shuttered.
This was all so deeply affecting that I could not quite believe it. I rummaged hopelessly through the book, searching for some mention of Sister Mary Ruth.
Against all odds, I found it.
Indeed, the Dominicans remembered Sister Mary Ruth from a time many years before I knew her. In fact, Sister Mary Ruth had made headlines in 1923 when she was a young principal of a newly-built Catholic grade school in rural southern New Jersey.
Catholics were emphatically not welcome there. Violent threats were made against the school. And when the Ku Klux Klan came to set the school on fire, they were met by a 23 year old nun determinedly wielding a rifle.
It was my Sister Mary Ruth.
She held them off until the police arrived.
So this is a belated tribute to a tough, tender Irish-American nun.
Sister Mary Ruth, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. What you did gave me the idea that I was smart and special, an idea which has sustained me in both my career and my family life. Your kindness has paid multiple dividends.
I know that you are with the God you served with such courage, devotion and wisdom.
Sister Mary Ruth, pray for us all. We need your kind among us once again.