I Was a Catholic Nun
As told to “Awake!” correspondent in Belgium
“I WILL become a nun so as to belong to Jesus forever. Only he will count in my life.” That decision was made by a little seven-year-old girl one day in 1916 after having taken Communion.
I was that little girl. Born of devout Catholic parents at Neufchâteau, Belgium, on August 28, 1909, I cherished that desire from early childhood.
Having in mind that ideal, I found delight in prayer, in small sacrifices and in serving others. So many hours passed in prayer in the church at Neufchâteau! Every evening upon hearing the church bells I joined a few parishioners in the recitation of the rosary, led by the priest.
In fact, at that time I would recite as many as eleven rosaries a day! Mass and Communion were daily ceremonies for me. However, at vacation time, I would attend several Masses a day, these being followed by a long period of thanksgiving.
During summer vacation, after my second year of teacher-training studies, I went to the woods at Neufchâteau one afternoon in order to meditate. I can still see myself lying there on the grass, rereading the book Life of Young Theresa of Lisieux. I wanted to be like her because I believed she expressed a deep love for Jesus. I was determined to become a devoted nun, a beloved wife of Jesus, whatever the cost.
So one day in August 1926, after spending many hours in prayer, kneeling with arms outstretched as on a cross, I waited for my parents to come home. Upon their arrival, I made known my decision. “Father,” I said, “I’m sorry if I make you unhappy but God has called me to the convent.” “My child,” said father, “you are still so young. Think carefully about what you want to do.” I replied: “Father, I’ve been thinking about it for over ten years.” After a long talk, he concluded: “My child, if it’s God’s will, I won’t put any obstacle in your way. You have my consent.”
I Leave Home
The priest made inquiries by letter to the Dames Louise Institute, and I was invited to go to Louvain for an interview. Mother went with me, on September 5, 1926. There we were received by the founder, Dame Louise, who, although ill in bed, was lucid, agreeable and kind.
When mother mentioned that I still had two more years of school to go, and wondered if it would be better if I finished school first, the founder replied: “No, she must enter immediately and we will see to it that she finishes her schooling with us.” That promise, I am sorry to say, was not respected.
The entry date was fixed for September 16, 1926. But since this was the date we had already fixed for a trip to Lourdes, my mother asked: “Wouldn’t it be possible for the entry date to be postponed in view of the pilgrimage to Lourdes?” “No,” was the reply, “your daughter can choose; either enter the convent or go to Lourdes.” I said: “I’ll enter the convent.”
So the day came when I tearfully left my family. My father accompanied me to the Château of Ezeringen, where the postulants (candidates seeking to become nuns) had to pass a six-month testing period. After saying ‘Good-bye’ to my father, I was clothed with the postulant’s cape and headdress, at the same time as twenty other young girls. So I became a postulant of the Canoness Missionaries of St. Augustine. I felt very happy indeed.
Preparing to Be a Nun
As postulants, the strictest silence was imposed upon us. If we were ill or had problems, we either had simply to endure them or else speak only to the Mistress. This enforced silence did not help to stimulate love between us.
The interview with the Mistress who asked me to get rid of all my personal belongings covered me with shame. Expecting to be understood, I freely confided in her, without restriction, just as I had the custom of doing when still a child. I was deeply disappointed when all she said was: “As penance, you will extend your arms out as on a cross at the beginning of the noonday meal.” From then on, I no longer felt at ease.
One Sunday, mother came to visit me. In the parlor, I became my natural self, spontaneous, joyful. This surprised my Mistress, who said to mother: “Madam, your daughter is completely different in the parlor. Here she is so happy, so cheerful, whereas in the community she is so serious, so silent.” What a contrast, to be sure. But why? Because it was not the kind of life that I had expected.
However, I consoled myself with the idea that for Jesus nothing could be too difficult and that I was there to become his wife. So I suffered in silence. I believed that as a future nun, I had to suffer, and that having made the forward step, there was no question of looking back.
When the six-month period of postulancy ended, the postulants had to go to Louvain for one year of novitiate (probation period before taking the vows). The ceremony of taking the veil was preceded by a week-long retreat. Clothed in the nun’s habit and with a white veil, we went in procession to the chapel.
The difficulties met during the postulancy were to reappear and even get worse at Louvain. My Mistress here did not inspire in me any more confidence than the former one. I was afraid of her and I became more and more an introvert. Moral suffering was to be a daily occurrence with me. How many tears I was to shed!
On Wednesdays and Fridays, there was a five-minute period of self-discipline. For this, we received a whip made of small knotted cords with which I actually whipped myself in order to cause myself real pain. On these same days, at noon, we drank our soup in a kneeling position.
Every Friday, each one in turn, while kneeling at the entrance to the refectory, had to kiss the feet of all the nuns in the convent. Each Saturday, we would gather together for the recitation of our shortcomings. Each nun in turn would kneel and, aloud, had to own up to external faults committed.
Each day, we had to repeat five “Our Fathers” and five “Ave Marias,” with arms outstretched as on a cross. We were counseled to accomplish at least one mortification at each meal. And each month, during the monthly contemplation, we had to make a report to the Mistress and ask permission to use small things such as pins, buttons, images, and so forth. All of our actions were strictly controlled, even when leaving the refectory, the workroom or the chapel, regardless of the reason. With hands joined, we would ask: “Will you allow me to go out?” When in the chapel, a simple gesture was sufficient.
Whenever we were late, we had to excuse ourselves before the Superior, on our knees and with hands joined. After evening prayers and before leaving the chapel, each one in turn would kneel down before the Superior, who would make a small sign of the cross on the forehead and say: “May Jesus, Mary and Joseph bless you.”
The Day Arrives
Finally, the long-awaited day arrived, March 29, 1928. That was the day when my novitiate ended and I was to become a nun, the wife of Jesus!
After replying affirmatively to some questions, such as: “Are you acting of your own free will to become the wife of Christ?” I was invited, in front of the altar, to pronounce my vows. I had to vow that I promised “before Almighty God, the blessed Virgin Mary, and our Father St. Augustine, to live in poverty, chastity and obedience, according to the rules of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of our Order, and that for three years.”
After that, I went to the epistle side of the altar and there signed a register confirming my declarations. So, before I was nineteen years old, I became a member of the Congregation of the Canoness Missionaries of St. Augustine. Then the priest said: “These vows will be your only consolation; they will accompany you to the grave.” A gold ring, symbol of our union with Jesus, was then slipped on to the annular finger of the right hand.
Together with the other nuns who had taken part in the same ceremony, I was considered as being dead to the world. To symbolize this death, we went to a place indicated and knelt down, then laid face down, under a pall, as if buried. The choir sang and upon our hearing the words “rise up,” in Latin, the pall was removed. We stood up and returned to our places. Then the choir sang a resurrection hymn, followed by another: “Come, wife of Christ, receive the crown which has been prepared for you.” We then went to the communion rail where the Superior pinned on us a crown of roses made of white tulle.
Convinced of really being the wife of Jesus, my happiness was complete. I kept on repeating: “Jesus, I am yours forever. Make me a wife according to your heart; my only wish is to please you.”
Where, now, would I serve as a nun? Well, during my novitiate my Superiors, having noted my artistic talents, gave me an assignment that would take me to the Philippine Islands. I was to give painting lessons there at the Ste. Theresa’s College in Manila. Thus, toward the end of September 1929 I left for the Philippines after passing a few days with my family and also to make collections in order to cover travel expenses. It was the custom for each one to make an effort to have the necessary funds to cover her own expenses for the journey to her assignment.
What Forty-three Years as a Nun Produced
Toward the end of 1929 I arrived at Manila and was welcomed by the community of Ste. Theresa. This began seventeen years as a missionary in the Philippines.
While I felt at home there, one of my activities soon became a torture for me. That was the confessional. The more I went to confess, the more the priest scolded me. Although I became even more scrupulous in my work, that did not seem to be good enough. Fortunately, in time the confessor was replaced.
I knew only a little English. So I was surprised when my Superior told me that I would be teaching first grade, both boys and girls. On Thursday, there being no school, I gave private painting lessons. But halfway through the school term, I was asked to go to Tubao in order to help with the church singing there, since I could read music and play the piano.
In 1931 I was sent to Tagudin, where I began with the fifth grade and continued to the seventh grade. But in the middle of the year I was assigned as a substitute to teach in a high school.
During the school vacation I was sent to Baguio, where I was given a university diploma for a course I had never taken! This was done to make believe that I had the necessary qualifications to teach. This dishonest action was very distasteful to me. In addition, it compelled me to put forth superhuman efforts during the following term, since I really did not have the qualifications.
However, by working hard I managed to equip myself with good material. My Superior promised that I would not be transferred again, but that promise was not to be respected. In fact, throughout the whole of my life as a nun, many promises made by those whom I believed to be God’s representatives were a source of bitter disappointment to me.
During my many years as a missionary nun, I taught different courses: mathematics, painting, science, physics, gymnastics, piano, and others. But each morning I also discussed religion with my students, based on the catechism that they had received. This course in religion should have given me much satisfaction in view of my missionary vocation as a nun. On the contrary, the religious instruction was a burden to me, a very heavy task that I dreaded. Why was it so distressing and painful to me? Because I had the feeling that I had nothing really worth while to communicate to others.
One year, after the yearly retreat, I went to my Superior to confide in her my resolution made during the retreat. How stupefied I was when the Superior said to me: “That’s not what you should keep an eye on; instead you should watch your jealousy.” I was bowled over! Jealousy was far from my thoughts! I could not understand how it was possible for my Superior, whom I implicitly considered to be God’s mouthpiece, to have acted as she did. It had been instilled in us that our Superiors substituted for God.
A few months later, I fell ill. How happy I was! “Happy to be ill,” you say? Yes, that’s right, because during the novitiate it had been constantly repeated to us that ‘God tests those whom he loves,’ so that being ill would be a sign of having God’s favor. Because of wanting to be found among God’s privileged people, I didn’t want to get well! I suffered from a stomach ulcer and had to undergo an operation. After that I went to Baguio for convalescence, where I was not inactive, as I would go begging in the marketplace.
Return to Belgium
The years passed. World War II came and we endured hardships and dangers. Then, after the war, I had a relapse in my health. The surgeon would not agree to a second operation and instead ordered my return to Belgium. So after seventeen years as a missionary in the Philippines, I returned to Belgium in March 1947.
My activity was limited while I more or less rested up, waiting for the time I would return to the Philippines as had been promised. However, this was another promise that was not kept. Instead, I was sent to the community of Auvillar, France. There I gave lessons to scholastically retarded adolescents. What a contrast with my pupils and the classes in the Philippines! How often, when class was over, I would weep! I believed myself to be morally and physically incapable of overcoming that atmosphere.
Since the State required a diploma for teaching handicapped children, I was asked to take a correspondence course. Also, I went to Toulouse for six weeks of instruction, which was closed with a written and oral examination. I obtained my diploma, and it turned out to be quite a revelation to me. Why? Because I was commended! I had never been encouraged before, so I got to believing myself unworthy of being shown the least appreciation. I said to myself: “Well, there seem to be two persons in me. One ‘appreciated’ by those outside the convent, and another ‘kept in the dark’ inside the convent.”
I Obtain a Bible
We were forbidden to read the Bible. However, at that time, in the 1960’s, no other reading matter interested me. What I wanted was a Bible, but the Superior General refused to let me have one.
Nevertheless, I was able to get a copy. This is how I did it. I needed a French dictionary for my class and I could have it only if my family sent me a thousand francs. Once again they came to my help! However, the Superior used hardly a third of that sum and kept the rest! Considering that the balance belonged to me, I risked asking that a Jerusalem Bible be purchased for me. This time the request was not refused.
In possession of the Bible, I decided to read its entire contents in order to find out why it was prohibited. What seemed strange was the fact that my Bible reading helped me to pray and to meditate more than ever before. I learned many Psalms by heart and recited them at every opportunity. Sometimes I tried to introduce the Bible into my conversations with other nuns, but to no avail. Often I told the others that our conversations were too commonplace. Yet, when I brought up spiritual matters I was ridiculed.
Since my health did not improve, I was sent back to Roulers, Belgium, where I underwent an operation. Then I was sent to Héverlé, a home for seriously ill nuns where I was operated on once again. After that my health gradually improved. At this time I had with me a small radio, a family gift. It enabled me to follow six Bible courses by correspondence, and to listen to eleven different religious programs. As a result, I found a way of deepening my study of the Bible. However, I suffered in that I was unable to communicate my happiness to others.
I began to appreciate that Protestants learned more of the Bible. Yet, one day, by letter, I asked the Protestant pastor who corrected my correspondence courses, and in whom I had the most confidence, what he thought about evolution. He said that it could be accepted! Thus, my confidence diminished, as this theory was clearly not in agreement with the Bible, and I was looking for the truth, not falsehood.
A Lack of Love
Then the Vatican Council was held. This resulted in the Church asking nuns to undertake renovation of their religious life. As part of this I was given a questionnaire to fill out, enabling me to give my viewpoint.
In January 1968 I filled out the questionnaire. Two of the questions were: “Have you found among your fellow nuns (Superiors or others) a sufficient help for your spiritual life?” and “Have you found a true friendship in the congregation?” To these questions I had to reply “No.” I had simply never met with a true, unselfish affection among fellow nuns or the congregation. There had only been a pretense of love.
A portion of the questionnaire had to do with the “attitude of the Superiors.” This is what I wrote to the General Secretary’s office in Héverlé, Belgium: “Many times my fellow nuns have asked me this question: ‘Why is it easier for us to get along together than for us to get along with our Superiors?’ This is my reply: Because our Superiors do not sufficiently make themselves accessible to the sisters and do not possess that mother’s gentleness that the sisters expect from them.”
I continued: “Generally, our Superiors are too preoccupied by outside matters. They are busy with so many things, except the most important of their tasks—mother love for all the sisters. Yet, without exception, Jesus loved. Jesus is love. This is the ideal conception of a mother. In all respects, the Superiors lead a totally different life from that of an ordinary nun, whereas they should be ‘servants.’ The ordinary nun should be able to enjoy, on an equal footing, the same things as their Superiors. It is not only the ‘name and the dress’ that have to change, but also the mental outlook and the way of life. If our Superiors wish to have our affection and our confidence, let them love us sincerely and have confidence in us.”
One day, disgusted, I said to my Superior General: “What I don’t understand is that our vow of poverty always allows us to receive, and the more the better. Yet it never allows us to give, not even a pin!” And Jesus said there was more happiness in giving!
She was honest enough to say that my reasoning was correct. So later, to a Superior General of Scheut, I said: “In my opinion, the greatest sin against poverty is the vow of poverty.” I added: “What is required is the abolition of such vows.” He did not agree, saying the vows could never be abolished.
Yet, since then, the vows have definitely been replaced by just simple promises! Surely something is wrong with a system that sees so much contradiction! Thus, I kept repeating that very soon convents would no longer exist. Indeed, I had the ever-increasing feeling that convents were devilish institutions. And I was more and more convinced of this because of the abuses I saw. For instance, abuses in comfort. I saw with my own eyes that totally unnecessary and unjustified expenditures were made on an ever-increasing scale. So as time went on, my eyes became opened. I could see that life in the convent was becoming just simply impossible.
I also began to appreciate how empty were the religious ceremonies I had always been fond of. In spite of all the decorations, flowers, beautiful altar ornaments, the priests’ apparel and music, once a ceremony was finished I was aware that I had derived no spiritual benefit whatsoever. I would particularly watch the priest on these occasions. So very often I was disappointed with him, and said to myself: “What carelessness! It’s as if he doesn’t bother at all and doesn’t even believe himself what he’s doing.” The sign of the cross was made automatically and the genuflections with so little respect.
One day, having heard that during the Vatican Council the bishops discussed changes in the Eucharist, I said to myself: “There’s something wrong here. Truth is unquestionable and never changes.”
On another occasion, I was told that the holy blood of Bruges was not real! The Holy Blood Basilica in the Belgian town of Bruges contains the Holy Blood shrine in solid gold. Here, it is claimed, are to be found a few drops of Christ’s blood. Every year a procession wends its way through the old part of town, the shrine being carried with traditional pomp. But now I thought: “Is it possible that the Church has made us indulge in so much idolatry during all those Holy Blood processions? It’s time I found the TRUTH!”
I mentioned all this to another nun, and added: “You know, I’m looking for the truth and when I find it, nothing will ever stop me!” I became even more eager in my pursuit of truth.
Finding the Truth That Leads to Life!
About August 1969 I received from another nun a book. It was entitled “The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life.” She had received it from her nephew, who was one of Jehovah’s witnesses.
When she brought it to me she said: “I received it from my nephew. You can’t imagine how zealous he is. He has promised me a Bible, and can you believe it?—he preaches from house to house and even gives Bible talks!”
I listened very attentively. I took the book and said: “That interests me, because now I am looking for the truth.” Right away, I started reading the first chapter. I noticed that it was very different from my religious teachings.
However, a short while afterward I had to enter the clinic, as the doctor considered my condition to be serious. So I put all my things in order before leaving, returning the book to my fellow nun. But the diagnosis was inexact, and very soon I was back again. I looked for the book—but disappointment! The nun handed back to me only its cover. She had thrown away the inside pages! I went to see her and expressed regret at what she had done, repeating that I had so much wished to read the book.
A Not-to-Be-Forgotten Ride
One day the Superior announced that they wanted volunteers to learn hairdressing. I volunteered and followed a course issued by the “Oréal” school in Brussels. On October 26, 1970, I was instructed to present myself before an Examiners Board in Brussels in order to pass my hairdressing exams.
I went at the appointed time. However, when the names were called out, mine was not included. They even seemed surprised to see me there. The secretary dismissed me, informing me that I would be called again the following month.
Not wishing to profit from this unexpected liberty, I went to the convent where I was supposed to pass the night. When I told the nuns that I would return to Héverlé by the first train, they advised me to return by bus; it was cheaper. Wishing to respect my vow of poverty, I agreed.
To get to the bus stop, I had to take a tram ride. Not knowing the locality, I asked directions of two men who were on the same tram. They promised to tell me when we arrived at the bus stop. But they told me to get off at least two stops too early! So I had to walk the rest of the way, carrying two heavy suitcases.
Finally I put down my cases and looked around for the bus stop. At that precise moment, a car stopped by me. The driver said “Madam, are you going to Louvain? Can I give you a lift?”
I was embarrassed, thinking it was not fitting to travel with a man. But then he continued speaking, saying: “As long as you don’t mind traveling with one of Jehovah’s witnesses.” While I did not know Jehovah’s witnesses very well, this did inspire confidence and I accepted the offer. Afterward, I learned that this was the first time he had ever taken the initiative to stop and offer someone a ride. Usually, he waited for a sign from the hitchhiker. It was also the first time he had gone this way in the afternoon. Until then, he had always left in the morning. But what blessings these coincidences brought!
He took care of my suitcases and helped me into the car. As soon as I was seated he said: “You know, Madam, Jehovah’s witnesses talk much about the Bible.” I replied that at the moment it was about the only thing that really interested me, and that I followed a Bible correspondence course and heard religious radio programs.
He began talking to me about various doctrines, such as the Trinity, and this amazed me. I mentioned that what he was telling me was contrary to my Church’s teachings, but still it seemed in harmony with the Bible. The more I listened, the more I was dumbfounded. I recognized that all he was saying was indeed in harmony with the Bible. While listening, I prayed for the holy spirit to help me and not let me be misled into error.
When we arrived at Louvain, the Witness said good-bye and at the same time offered me a book. Yes, it was The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life! I thanked him warmly for it, and all the way to the convent I meditated on what we had discussed. I was also very happy to have another copy of the book that I had seen a few months earlier. I could now continue my search for the truth.
Increasing in Accurate Knowledge
Once inside my room, I started to pray. This time, I prayed to Jehovah, explaining my situation and asking him to help me. On another morning, I asked Jehovah to send me someone who would show me the right direction to take.
That day, instead of starting hairdressing at 11 a.m. as was usually the case, I had an appointment at 2 p.m. to do a nun’s hair. You can imagine my surprise, on going down the stairs, to see the man who had given me the lift from Brussels! Because of the appointment at 2 p.m. he proposed coming back an hour later. I was free then and able to receive him in a small parlor.
He suggested that in order to take in more accurate knowledge of God’s Word, I should have a Bible study, which would be conducted by two women of the local congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses. Joyfully I accepted his offer. The first study was held in my room, right inside the convent!
When I learned that after six months of study I would have to make a decision, I said to myself: “Do they think I’m going to change? If so, they’re mistaken. All I want is a detailed study of the Bible.” I took this study very seriously.
The Truth at Last!
Then one morning the Witness invited me to a three-day assembly of Bible instruction held every six months and organized by Jehovah’s witnesses. The Superior authorized me to leave, without knowing where I was going, and everyone wished me a happy weekend.
During the trip I said to myself: “I’m not going to let myself be hoodwinked. I’ll listen and take note of everything. If I hear one word contrary to the Bible, that will be the finish once and for all.”
At the assembly I found everything to be upbuilding. I had the distinct impression of having passed from darkness into light. I was deeply touched by the brotherly love displayed by the Witnesses. Indeed, I had found the true Christian love which I had been seeking for forty-five years! I concluded that I had found the truth at last!
Returning to the convent, I more and more sensed the truthfulness of the words I had so often repeated in recent months: “We are in a diabolical system. I can no longer continue living here like a hypocrite.” I prayed to Jehovah, imploring him for guidance.
Making the Break
That very same evening after returning from the assembly, I sat down and addressed a letter to the Pope. I asked him to grant me dispensation from my vows. I wrote another letter to my Superior General.
However, I then recalled that since the Vatican Council our rules as well as our Constitutions had been burned. Consequently, we were no longer the Canoness Missionaries of St. Augustine, according to whose rules I had taken my vows. I concluded that there was no need to be dispensed from my vows.
Further, I no longer accepted the Roman Catholic Church as being the Church of Christ. It was in opposition to God’s Word. Hence, I no longer saw the necessity of consulting the chief of an apostate church to ask permission for anything. So those letters that I had written were never mailed.
Having compared Bible truths with the religious teachings that I had received, I realized more and more that the Church’s major teachings were not in agreement with the Bible. For instance, Jesus is not the Almighty God. Also, the Trinity does not exist. The Mass and Communion are not Scriptural. And what about the souls in hellfire, going there because they had received the Holy Communion without having fasted, or for having bitten or touched the host, or for not having attended Sunday Mass, or for having eaten meat on Friday? Now all those things are permitted! These facts helped to convince me that I had found the truth.
On January 23, 1971, I telephoned to thank the Witness who had so kindly taken care of me during the assembly. When she asked me what I was going to do, I replied: “I am ready to leave.”
I decided to leave the next day, in spite of the fact that my health was not good, and then there was my age, and other factors. However, after deep reflection, I said to Jehovah that because of his love, I would give myself to him without reserve. He could use me as he wished. I asked only that his will be done and not my own. I relied entirely upon him and repeatedly prayed throughout the whole night. I no longer worried about food, clothing and lodging. I had eyes for only one thing: Preach the good news of God’s kingdom, and bring as many sheeplike persons as possible into contact with the truth.
The next day, two of Jehovah’s witnesses came for me. My departure went off smoothly. There were about thirty nuns in the convent and they all looked on, surprised, but not saying a word. When the sacristan wanted to know what was happening, I said: “You remember I told you that when I found the truth, nothing would stop me. I’ve found it with Jehovah’s witnesses and that is why I’m going with them.” She went away without saying another word.
I stayed for two months with a Witness family in Brussels. They would take no payment for board and lodging. One could feel that all this was done out of pure love for Jehovah. I was so happy to be at last free from the influence of the world empire of false religion, which the Bible calls “Babylon the Great,” and to be in the company of these dedicated Christians.
And so it came about that I truly dedicated myself to Jehovah. I wanted only to do His will, as one of his witnesses. Five months later, on June 26, 1971—after forty-three years as a missionary nun—I symbolized this dedication by water baptism.
Today, in order to take care of myself, I work part time as a housekeeper, but I have no regrets, as my happiness is complete. I feel that now I really am a missionary, leading a much more honest life than when I was a nun. Actually, I do have just one regret: that I had to wait such a long time before I could prove to Jehovah God that I love him, and this by accurate understanding of his Word.
So now has been realized the desire, expressed in 1916 by me when I was that little seven-year-old girl, to give myself entirely to God’s service. From now on, I give the rest of my time to making disciples of Jesus Christ, just as he told his followers to do. I do this by preaching the good news of God’s kingdom and by sharing with others the truths I have found. I hope that many more honest-hearted persons will taste the same joy I have by accepting, while there is still time, the truth that leads to eternal life in the new system of things promised by God.
[Picture on page 17]
From a photograph taken in March 1928