Friday, August 19, 1994

Convent Life

Have you ever wondered about the daily routine in Irish Convents? Today life in the average Convent is more relaxed and less restrictive than it ever was, as evidenced by the routine which once applied in our own Convent of Mercy.

At a time when most Convents were independent houses with their own novitiates, young women were subjected to rigorous scrutiny before being accepted as potential postulants. For the first six months each postulant was easily recognised by the distinctive white bonnet which she wore. The next twelve months was spent as a spiritual year with the postulant wearing a black habit and a white veil. After that 18 months was spent in preparation for first profession after which first vows were taken. The last 3 years were spent in preparation for final profession when perpetual vows were taken.

In the daily life of the Convent the times of prayer, work and recreation were strictly regulated. Each day commenced at 5.25a.m. when the Convent Bell sounded. At 5.55a.m. Matin and Lauds took place in the chapel for 15 minutes, following which everyone spent 40 minutes in private meditation. Mass was attended at 7.00a.m. and breakfast was taken at 8.00a.m. after which there were house charges with each nun and postulant performing various house duties. Silence was maintained throughout the day except during periods of recreation. A card in the front hall indicated whether a period of 'silence' or 'recreation' applied at any particular time.

Teaching nuns went to school at 9.00a.m. and at 12 noon midday prayers were said with lunch at 12.30p.m. The main meal of the day was at 3.30p.m. followed by forty-five minutes of recreation usually consisting of needle work or walking in the garden. Nuns walked in groups and quickly acquired the skill of walking backwards as three or four nuns faced their companions to facilitate conversation while they perambulated around the Convent garden. This was followed by 30 minutes of spiritual reading in the Chapel and another 20 minutes spent at Vespers. Supper was at 7 o'clock followed by another hour of recreation and 30 minutes of night prayers at 9.00p.m. Lights out at 10.00p.m. was followed by the period referred to as 'the great silence'.

Every month a Chapter of Faults was held before the entire community in the Convent Chapel. Each Nun had to confess her transgressions to the assembled community, a duty which postulants had to perform every morning.

Even within the confines of the Convent walls a very strict divide once existed. Early entrants to an Irish Convent were as much dependant upon the availability of a dowry as were their sisters who sought matrimony in the rural Ireland of an earlier age. The dowry became part of the Convent's finances and ensured for the postulant on taking her perpetual vows the rank of a choir nun. As the name denotes a choir nun was one who participated in all the religious ceremonies within the convent freed of the necessity to engage in menial domestic duties. Those for whom the religious vocation was no less strong but who were without the benefit of a dowry, life in the Convent was that of a lay-nun whose duties included serving the choir nuns and providing for their daily needs. The distinction between a choir nun and a lay nun was initially determined by the availability or absence of a dowry but later by educational differences. It may seem to us nowadays somewhat incongruous that such a distinction operated within the convent structure but we should remember that the Church itself merely mirrored life in society itself. I can recall the special pew reserved for one local family in the Catholic Church in Kells, Co. Meath in the mid-1960's where they were assured comfort and solitude free from contact with their more humble neighbours. Who can forget that even in our time and town there existed a gallery in our local Church where entry was confined to those who made a donation of silver at the Church door. An example of clerical entrepreneurship or pandering to a class conscious society? I don't know but these examples like the choir nun and lay nun of another era were but reflections of life in Ireland of it's day.

The number of sisters in the Convent has fallen dramatically in recent years with few new entrants to the ranks of those who devote their life to God. The age structure of those who remain clearly indicates that in a very short time, unless there is an unprecedented reversal of current trends, the Sisters of Mercy Convent may have to close.

If and when this happens it will be a very sad day for our town and will leave a void which I'm afraid lay people could not adequately fill. Whatever lies ahead we must never forget those truly great women who served our community so selflessly for so long and who over the years brought so much good into the lives of so many.

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