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C. M. Bush

Professor of English at the College of St. Angela 

Convents had always seemed to me fascinating places with a flavor of Gothic romance—perhaps because I had never been inside one. I came, therefore, to teach in the College of St. Angela with a sense of adventurous curiosity, eager for new experiences, and quite artless in my attitude of receptive wonderment.

When I rang the Castle bell, the door mysteriously opened through the agency, as I saw at a second glance, of a white veiled novice who stood modestly in the background to let me pass through. The hall into which I entered was not quite so conventual as I had imagined it would be. Its dark panels, its carved furniture, its stained-glass windows, all seemed to me a thought too elegant for a cloister, an impression that was further carried out by the drawing room in which I awaited the coming of the Reverend Mother.

The long light of late afternoon shone through the French windows of the recreation hall, across the polished floor. Everywhere there was a sense of order and stillness and peace. The quiet was occasionally broken by a bell which clanged out some mysterious number, followed by soft, padding footfalls and the dull tinkle of rosary beads. Then a deeper silence. For weeks after I came to the Castle I went about the halls on tiptoe, unconsciously imitating the noiselessness of those padded footsteps, fearing to speak above a whisper, and in daily dread of making some dull secular blunder against ancient cloistral tradition.

Once outside of the Castle, however, the sense of tradition ceased. In the daily life of the College there was a certain pioneer quality which it now seems strange to look back upon. My room was in one of the small private cottages, then recently taken over by the College in the process of expansion, and devoted to the housing of students and the secular faculty, with the spiritual leaven of a nun or two. I was so eager to taste the full flavor of a nunnery that I should have been rather glad to find myself allotted to a cell, but my small apartment held no disappointing luxuries. It contained a bed and a small iron washstand. Nuns, I discovered, did not use mirrors. The closet held the library of a former occupant, from which I selected a volume entitled The Perfect Religious, and seating myself on my trunk I read on in the waning light until supper was announced.

A long, white, chilly table was laid in the dark-panelled dining-room of the Castle. We were waited on by a lay nun whose genial brogue and caressing manner sweetened the pale ecru tea that she poured out of huge pitchers into cups of what seemed to me phenomenal thickness. But thickness is, after all, only comparative.

On a later occasion a visiting friend had the misfortune to break her cup and was comforted by our kindly attendant’s assurance that “them delicate cups has very fragile handles.” The nuns, it seems, used tableware of a far sturdier quality in their own refectory.

          If we didn’t exactly run to creature comforts in those early days, we lived in an atmosphere of friendliness and intimacy that is quite impossible in a large college. We had not yet become academic. The classes were so small that each individual’s tastes and convictions were matters of pleasant knowledge. Jenny’s aversion to fish which prevented her from tolerating The Compleat Angler.  Margaret’s earnest insistence that Fielding was inspired by Saint Joseph in the naming of his hero. Marion’s deep love for the metres of Horace which made her memorize an ode a day for the pure joy of acquisition!

           The sense of intimacy that prevailed throughout the College was partly due to the fact that some of the students had grown up under the convent wing and were still regarded by the nuns as irresponsible children whose comings and goings must be sedulously guarded. I remember that on one occasion, just after the lawn had been newly sown, a messenger arrived at one of the cottages, sent from the towery heights of the Superioress’s office. Her message was: “Tell Nellie Hannon that Reverend Mother says to keep off the grass.” It mattered little that Nellie was at that time an admirably-conducted young woman in the Sophomore Class. To the “Almae Matres” she was still the reckless seminarian whose errant footsteps had once crushed the tender blades.

          Fortunately, almost everyone had a sense of humor. No one took herself too seriously or refused to lend herself to the general entertainment. At the evening recreation she who had the gift of “floating,” floated to the joy of all beholders, and the staidest nun would whisper ecstatically to her companion “Look at Anna McGlynn!”

          The College of New Rochelle presents today a very different appearance from St. Angela’s of blessed memory. I imagine that the large residence hall holds more comforts than our simple cots. Hot water, for instance, probably flows more freely than it did in the cottages ten years ago when washing was extra, though French might be had for the asking, and music without it. The dining-room tableware, I have observed, has become attenuated almost to the point of fragility. What other luxuries may have crept in I will not try to imagine, but you may fancy, if you will, what cheerful ascetics we were in the consulship of Mother Augustine.



O F F I C E  O F  C O M M U N I C A T I O N S
29 Castle Place, New Rochelle, NY 10805

info@cnr.edu



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