I Was a Catholic Nun
BACK in 1960, on the Turkish ship taking me from Haifa to Cyprus, I silently reflected on over 30 years of life in a convent. Although I was still dressed as a nun, I had in my possession a letter releasing me from my vows. At the time, only one thing was on my mind: getting to Beirut, Lebanon, and finding work.
But why had I become a nun? And why, after so many years, was I quitting?
Becoming a Nun
Shortly after World War I, when I was a child living with my foster parents in southeastern France, a Protestant preacher visited us. He noticed my interest in everything he was saying and left me a small “New Testament.” My interest in the Bible grew from then on.
Later I talked to some fellow Catholics about my desire to understand the Scriptures, but they told me that it was a mortal sin to read the Bible. I reasoned that since the Bible was such a big secret, only those in convents must be allowed to study it. From then on I was determined to become a nun.
I was just 21 when I took the train to a convent in the south of France, where I had an appointment with the superior general of the Carmelite Missionary Order. The convent stood on a hill near Gignac, a small town situated about 15 miles (25 km) from the Mediterranean coast. The building consisted of two parts: One was for the nuns and the other was used as a convalescent home for young ladies.
My first night was spent in the convalescent home—but without my suitcase. The young woman who met me at the train station had not returned it. The following day, I was already eager to leave, since I did not like the atmosphere at the convent. When I asked for my luggage, I was told: “Your suitcase is awaiting you inside the convent.” I said to myself: ‘If I walk in, I can always walk out again.’ But things were not to turn out as simple as that.
When entering the religious-community section of the convent, I was overawed by the ancient building with its heavy, iron-studded doors and high ceilings. A little later I had a brief conversation with the superior general, but I did not have the courage to tell her that I wanted to leave.
After a week I was accepted as a candidate for admission to the religious order. A few months later I took the novice’s white veil. I had not learned much about the Bible, but I was patient, figuring that such knowledge was not for us beginners. Less than a year after entering the convent, I was sent to Marseilles with two other nuns. From there we sailed for Cairo, Egypt, arriving in January 1931.
Convent Life in Cairo
Our convent and the adjoining school were situated in a good-sized modern building in the country, outside Cairo. There we would rise at 4:45 each morning and go to the chapel where we would spend 45 minutes in contemplation. Then 15 minutes was allowed to put our cells in order before Mass.
We ate our meals in complete silence while listening to a reading of the “Life of the Saints.” The first to finish her meal took over the reading. Conversation between nuns was forbidden during the day, except for questions pertaining to work, and even then we had to go to a special place called the parlor. The actual convent was a closed establishment. For instance, when an outsider entered during the day, the nun on duty would ring a little bell warning the other nuns not to leave their cells.
On Fridays, and also on Wednesdays during Lent, a self-discipline session accompanied the reading of Psalm 51. All the nuns gathered in a dark room, and each was required to flog herself with a three-thonged scourge. At the time, I thought such suffering was necessary in order to please God. Sometimes I would abstain from drinking for a whole day, which was not easy in a country as hot as Egypt, or I would wear an inch-wide belt studded with fine metal spikes.
At the same time, I had many doubts about fundamental Catholic teachings, such as transubstantiation and infant baptism. Also, I could not accept Mary as Mediatrix. I had never come across any such teachings in my Bible reading. One day a fellow nun said: “If you recite 25 rosaries, the Virgin will grant you any favor.” I decided to try, and I set about reciting my 25 rosaries (nearly 1,300 prayers). But this effort left me with the same empty feeling as before. It confirmed what I had read in the Gospels about Jesus instructing his disciples to ask the Father for all things ‘in his name’ in order for their petitions to be granted.—John 16:24.
I completed my three-year novitiate, or apprenticeship, and now the time had come to take my perpetual vows. I did not want to commit myself, but what was to become of me, so far from France, if I left the convent? I finally signed my agreement and went to the chapel where I promised to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience for the rest of my days. Deep down, I reasoned that I could always work things out with God if ever I broke my vows. I knew of other nuns who had been granted dispensation by the pope.
To Palestine and Beirut
In 1940 World War II was raging, and German planes were bombing Cairo. At that time I was transferred to a convent in Haifa, Palestine. After crossing the Suez Canal, I took a night train. Early morning brought the magnificent sight of a sunrise on an oasis, just a foretaste of the marvelous scenery I was to see in Palestine. I felt particularly drawn to this land where Jesus, his disciples, and many other servants of God mentioned in the Bible had spent their lives.
The convent in Haifa had been requisitioned by the British Army for their staff headquarters. I was, therefore, sent to Isfiya, a small village about 15 miles (25 km) from Haifa, up in the Carmel mountain chain. There I was isolated for a month, making jam in the kitchen.
In time I was transferred to Beirut, Lebanon, which was only a two-hour ride from Haifa. Palestine was then under British mandate and Lebanon under French, making it easy to cross the border. During the following years, I often spent vacations in Isfiya, but one year I fell sick, and instead of returning to Beirut, I stayed in Palestine.
While in Isfiya, on Mount Carmel, I enjoyed taking the children for walks in the hills up above the convent along with Caesar, the donkey, whom they loved to take turns riding. Making our way through pine forests and olive groves, we eventually reached the high plateau where, according to tradition, Elijah challenged the false prophets of Baal. Down below we could see the wadi of Kishon, where all those Baal prophets were put to death. (1 Kings, chapter 18) I had learned about Elijah when reading “Old Testament” history and particularly admired his courage and zeal in serving God. Consequently, as a nun I took the name Eliza Mary as a token of my devotion to him.
Efforts to Leave
Over the years my determination to leave the religious community grew stronger. In 1953, when I was called back to Lyons, France, I wrote a letter to the local cardinal. But before the cardinal’s representative could come to see me, the mother superior, knowing of my plans to leave, sent me to Saint-Martin-Belleroche, some 60 miles (100 km) away. I wrote more letters to the cardinal requesting dispensation—but to no avail.
In 1958 I was sent back to Lebanon. After a few months I was able to return to a convent in Haifa, my favorite city. Because of my knowledge of Hebrew, I was selected to run errands, and I seized the opportunity to mail a letter to the local bishop. From then on things moved fast.
Two days later the bishop, having received my letter, came to discuss things with me. I told him I wanted to leave, for I was not in good health. I needed medical treatment, and convent life was proving to be too hard for me. He was most understanding, and after an hour’s conversation he said: “You may leave this evening if you wish.” I kept in touch with him, and this was of great help later.
After a few days the bishop informed me that the superior general in France had sent a letter to me, but I had not received it. So I went to see the mother superior of the convent: “I believe there is a letter for me,” I said. Reaching deep into a drawer of her desk, she picked up an envelope and handed it to me. This letter informed me that I was released from my vows.
During a closed retreat (a period when no one was allowed to talk), I seized the opportunity to pack my bags and leave. Thus, on an August morning in 1960, I found myself outside in the big wide world with my luggage and a few Israeli pounds to tide me over for a while. I went to the home of a person I knew, and she put me up for a few days.
A New Life
I planned to return to Beirut, where I thought it would be easier to find work. But for this I needed a visa. It seemed impossible to obtain one from the different consulates in Haifa and Jerusalem. One official even said: “The superior of your convent asked us not to help any nuns going to Arab countries.” My friend in Haifa told me it would be easier to travel to Beirut via Cyprus.
Thus it was that in 1960 I was on that Turkish ship taking me from Haifa to Cyprus. Following the bishop’s advice, I still wore my nun’s habit, primarily because of my passport photos. I had already obtained a visa for Cyprus from the British authorities, thanks to the letter from the bishop with whom I had kept in touch. Afterward I flew to Beirut.
Wishing to adapt gradually to outside life, I accepted work in the kitchens of a Dominican convent in a nonreligious capacity. I stayed there for two years. One day a Carmelite superior invited me to return to the orders, saying: “We’ll just forget your little escapade, and you will retain your position among the nuns of long standing.” After having had a thousand and one problems getting out, I certainly was not going back!
After that I worked for a while as a governess for wealthy families, and when I would get together with other governesses, I would ask them if they knew of anyone who studied the Bible. “But not a priest!” I insisted.
My Search Was Rewarded
One day, in February 1964, my prayers of a lifetime were answered. With the help of a French nurse who had met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the concentration camps and eventually studied the Bible with Witnesses in Beirut, I also began a Bible study. After four evenings of discussion, I knew I had found the truth I had been seeking for so many years.
The Witnesses not only studied the Bible but put into practice what they learned and preached it to others. It seemed as if an immense barrier had come tumbling down. I could have wept for joy. The little I had read sufficed to convince me that the Trinity, immortality of the soul, and other such doctrines were not in harmony with the Bible.
Nevertheless, one thing dampened my enthusiasm: the name Jehovah’s Witnesses. I said to myself: ‘That’s asking for trouble in Arab countries; they’ll think we’re Jews!’ Yet this did not stop me from studying, and in October of 1964 I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to Jehovah.
Over 20 years have gone by since I found the truth that ‘set me free.’ (John 8:32) Yes, the vanity of practices such as self-mortification, as found in many convents, is clear to me now. How true the apostle Paul’s words: “Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”—Colossians 2:23.
What joy I have had in sharing knowledge with others and making known the marvelous hope contained in God’s Word, rather than shutting myself off from the world! Having been a nun for 30 years, I am able to talk with Catholics with a full understanding of their problems. For several years now, I have been serving as a pioneer (full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses), thus carrying out the mission entrusted us by Jesus to preach “this good news of the kingdom.” (Matthew 24:14)—Contributed.
[Picture on page 18]