The Sister in the School and the Asylum

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVI (7) start of chapter

Without a community of Sisters, no parish, no Catholic community is properly provided for; with Sisters the work of reformation is really begun. Themselves examples of everything good and holy, gentle and refined, they soon exercise a salutary influence over adults as well as children. And what can equal the patience of the Sister in the daily drudgery of the crowded school? It is something wonderful, and can only be accounted for by the light in which she regards her work—as a duty acceptable to (rod. Whatever she does, her heart is in it; the motive, object, feeling—all exalt and render it sacred in her eyes. It is the consciousness of the sacredness of the nun's vocation that enables her to go through her laborious duties with such unfailing regularity and such matchless cheerfulness and patience. Entering any of the free schools of America, one may see young Sisters, with the bloom of youth's freshness on their cheek, as calm and unmoved amidst the clatter and clamour of a school of some hundred girls or little boys, as if that cheek had grown pale and worn with age. I remember coming into a crowded school in a remote and not over rich district; the teaching staff was miserably small, and each of the two Sisters had to instruct and manage a disproportionately large number of young people.

As I raised the latch of the door of the boys' school—in which there must have been seventy or eighty little fellows of all ages, from four or five to twelve—the clatter was prodigious. But as the door opened, and the stranger entered, the spell of silence—unwonted silence—fell upon the youthful students. The Sister was a young Irishwoman; and notwithstanding the calm serenity of her countenance, and the cheerfulness of her manner, there was something of weariness about her eyes—what one may occasionally remark in the face of a fond mother of a family on whom she doats, but who are nevertheless 'too much for her.' 'I am afraid, Sister,' I remarked, 'these young gentlemen are a little difficult to manage at times?' 'Well, certainly, they are a little troublesome—occasionally,' she replied; 'but,' she added, as her glance roamed round the school, and it rested on the familiar features of so many loved ones, and her voice softened into the sweetest tones, 'poor little fellows, they are very good on the whole—indeed very good.' I did not remain long; and as the door closed after me, I knew, by the splendid clatter which was almost instantaneously renewed, that the trials of the Sister had again begun.

If the patience of the Sister in the school-room is admirable, what can be said of her devotion to the orphan in the asylum? It is the compensation which religion makes to the bereaved one for the loss of a mother's love The waifs and strays of society are cared for, watched over with a solicitude which the natural love of a parent can alone excel. I have seen many such asylums in America—in the British Provinces as in the States Among those helpless little beings there is always one who is sure to be, not better cared for or more beloved, but the 'pet'—a tiny toddler, who will cling in the Sister's robe, or cry itself to sleep in her arms; or the 'prodigy' of the riper age of three or four—a young gentleman who, after conquering his bashfulness, will dance an Irish jig, or a negro breakdown, or recite a pretty pious verse, or sing something comic enough to set all the children in a roar of innocent delight, in which the Sister is sure to join. In one of these asylums I remember to have seen, in the centre of a large apartment, occupied as a day room by the youngest children, a couch, on which lay a helpless and hopeless infant cripple; and how the poor little thing, whose feeble tide of life was slowly ebbing, followed with a look of pleasure and a faint sickly smile, the performance of the infant prodigy. And no mother could have spoken to that stricken child with a gentler voice, or watched over it with a fonder solicitude, than the Sister, whom the inspiration of Faith had given to it as a second parent.

While passing through various institutions under the management of religious communities, the thought has often struck me—that if those who entertain strange notions as to the real character of these communities had the same opportunities as I have had, in Europe as in America, of witnessing the daily drudgery of the Sisters engaged in the laborious and wearisome task of education—the services of the Sisters in the orphan asylum, the prison, the penitentiary, the hospital—in visiting the sick, protecting the unprotected female, teaching habits of industry and neatness, bringing back the erring and the fallen to safety and penitence—in their daily life, in which they exemplify the beauty and holiness of their mission—how prejudice would vanish! And how the good and the enlightened would understand that if society loses the advantage of the presence and influence of these holy women in the ordinary paths of life, as sisters, wives, and mothers, it is compensated a thousandfold by their services in the training of youth, in the care of the orphan, in the reclamation of the sinner, in the relief of the suffering—nay, in the formation of the female mind on the solid basis of piety, and preparing the young girl, whether the daughter of affluence or the child of the people, for the fulfilment of her future duties, as wife and mother, as companion or as guide.(47)

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America