The algebra teacher adjusts her starched white wimple. She hikes her black, silky sleeves to her elbow exposing a thick, muscular forearm. With a pronounced languor she glides to the desk of a handsome 12-year old boy. At first glance her hand on his shoulder appears as a gentle encouragement. Until you hear him moan, see his eyes widen in fear, watch him slip beneath his desk. Her grip is like that of Mr. Spock on Star Trek as he subdued an enemy. The algebra teacher bends with the boy finally relinquishing her hold when he lies prostrate at her feet. We nicknamed her Bulldog.
Meanwhile a second grade girl is antsy at her desk in an adjacent classroom. The teacher is diminutive; shy of five feet, with a 20-inch waist cinched tight with a rosary, the crucifix a weapon at her navel. But she looms large in the eyes of the second grader as she approaches like a terrible phantasm to the girl’s desk. Without a word she encircles the girl’s tiny arm with her bird-like claw. The teacher points to her desk at the front of the classroom, and the tiny girl crawls into the dark recess, whimpering. There she remains for the next two hours. The algebra, and the second grade teachers are nuns, of a Roman Catholic Diocese; the meanest nuns in town.
True stories. I attended an elementary school run by Catholic nuns. By any standard the school was bizarre. A self-named “protectory” the school housed orphaned and abandoned boys, first through eighth grade. To support themselves and the boys, children from the surrounding area, those whose families attended the associated church, were recruited. In those days my parents believed a Catholic education, coupled with a certain amount of discipline, assured a well-rounded individual. They wised up by the end of the tenure of their third daughter. My three youngest sisters all attended public school.
From the nuns I learned how to memorize the catechism, but little else. I was a good student, never spoke out of turn, but even I was harrassed for the slightest infraction. In second grade I committed the punishable offense of glancing out the window at the rainstorm that battered the enormous windows. I was ordered to stand by that window, and focus only on the rain for the duration of the morning. Once, for smiling at a joke one of the more outspoken students dared to whisper, Bulldog snuck up behind me, and yanked my ponytail so that my neck whiplashed.
Years later I would wonder if having been relegated to a podunk town in rural Pennsylvania had contributed to their disappointment, or if their disappointment preceded their assignment.
From this early education I learned to eschew organized religion. I was witness only to the isolation, and the fear of difference, created by clinging to a rigid set of beliefs. Wars are fought; genocide is perpetrated, all for the tenet of a singular belief. We are human before we are Catholic, Hindu or Muslim.
Now that I’ve brought everyone to the point of asking their primary care physicians for an anti-depressant let me introduce you to the Sisters of the Humility of Mary and their green thumbs.
The Sisters till the soil of a 300-acre organic farm, the Villa Maria, on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border. Acres of vegetables and herbs are laid out in perfect symmetry. Sister Barbara O’Donnell asserts that she received a call from God to undertake this venture. Whether she did or didn’t is not for me to argue. The fact is the garden was an ambitious goal, as the farm had been in decline since the 1980’s, when Willie Nelson organized Farm Aid.
Today with the help of a large volunteer labor force the garden thrives year upon year, through a tomato blight, and without the use of fungicides. A conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers Villa Maria a showplace for sustainable agriculture. The Sisters donate half their harvest to shelters and food pantries. Recently they delivered 746 pounds of zucchini to the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, who presumably cooked up great vats of soup, and many loaves of zucchini bread.
I may prefer the voice of J. Krishnamurti who writes:
“It seems to me that before we set out on a journey to find reality, to find God, before we can act, before we can have any relationship with another, which is society, it is essential that we begin to understand ourselves first. If we are petty, jealous, vain, greedy – that is what we create about us, that is the society in which we live.”
And though I believe organized religion divides us rather than unites us, I cannot deny that the Sisters of Humility of Mary at Villa Maria do righteous work.
Thanks for listening!