Abandoned by Parents—Loved by God
AS TOLD BY BERNADETTE FINN
I was left in a convent, along with three older sisters, when I was not quite four years old. Bridie 12, Phyllis 8, and Annamay 7 recall the weeks of my continual screaming for my parents. Why were we left there?
I WAS born into a large Catholic family on May 28, 1936. We young ones lived with our parents in a small house in Duncormick, County Wexford, Ireland. I was the eighth child, and I shared a large bed with seven older brothers and sisters. A brother and sister born shortly afterward slept in the drawers of a dressing table.
Our father was a hardworking farm laborer. He earned very little money; hence food for our family was limited. On rare occasions Mother was able to provide a little lunch for my older brothers and sisters to take to school. Our situation was directly affected by the general poverty throughout Ireland and by the merciless rule of the Catholic Church at that time.
Our family attended church regularly, yet Mother was not deeply interested in spiritual things. My sisters, however, recall seeing her reading some religious literature while seated in front of the fireplace. She would try to explain to us some of what she had read.
“Where Is My Mother?”
I shall never forget the day I was taken to the convent. My parents were standing in the hallway talking seriously to a nun, and I started to play with some other little girls there, blissfully unaware of the conversation. Suddenly I looked around, and to my dismay Mother and Father were nowhere to be seen. “Where is my mother?” I cried at the top of my voice. As mentioned at the outset, I kept this up for weeks.
My three older sisters were at least some comfort. But as they were in a different area of the convent, I did not have much contact with them. Since they stayed up at night for two hours longer than we younger ones did, I stayed awake until I heard them heading for bed. Then, sneaking out of my bed, I went to the top of the stairs so that my sisters could wave to me. I lived for that precious moment each day.
The convent did not seem to encourage contact with parents, so we rarely saw ours. I felt that estrangement severely. In fact, on the only visit that I remember my parents making, I did not go near them, and they did not come near me. My older sisters, however, remember a few other visits.
In time, I came to regard the convent as my family, my home, my world. During the 12 years that I was there, I only ventured out twice. These excursions to the nearby countryside were very exciting, as we saw trees and animals. Otherwise, we girls never saw cars, buses, or shops, and for that matter we rarely saw men, with the exception of the priest.
Life in the convent had many faces—some positive, many negative. A very nice young nun taught us about God as best she knew how. She told us that God was a loving father. That pleased me, and I decided from that day on that I would think of God as my father because he was more loving and kind than my real father was. From then on I talked to God a lot in simple, childlike prayers. I missed that nun when she left the convent.
I received a good basic education, for which I am thankful. Yet, I remember what were referred to as “day girls,” who received preferential treatment when they came to the convent for schooling. They were from wealthy families, and when they came, we had to leave the classrooms. The nuns frequently reminded us that we were just orphans and should mind our place.
There were many rules in the convent. Some of them made sense, so most of us could understand why they were needed. There were beneficial lessons regarding behavior, manners, and so forth. I have never forgotten these, and they have benefited me all my life. But some rules were trivial and seemed unfair, while others were confusing and devastating. One such rule called for punishment for wetting the bed at night; and another, for needing to go to the toilet at night.
One day as I was walking up the stairs, I began talking to the girl next to me. A nun called me back, and I was punished for talking. The penalty? I had to stay in my summer dress throughout the bitter Irish winter! I was a sickly girl, frequently suffering with asthma and tonsillitis. I became very ill and contracted tuberculosis (TB), as did many girls in the convent. Although placed in a separate dormitory, we received no medical attention, and some died, including my closest friend.
Some of us were severely beaten for minor infringements of the rules. During a public assembly, we watched one girl being beaten for more than two hours by a nun. We were all crying. Of course, in fairness, not all nuns were so mean. Yet, what still puzzles me to this day is how anyone can be so utterly cruel to defenseless children. I shall never understand that.
In time, Bridie and Phyllis left the convent, leaving Annamay and me behind. We were the most important people in the world to each other. Annamay comforted me with stories about how one day our parents would come and take us away from the convent to a place where the nuns would never find us. When Annamay left the convent, my heart nearly broke. I remained there for three more years.
Learning to Live Outside
Leaving the convent at the age of 16 was a frightening experience. I knew nothing about the world beyond the convent walls, and it was truly bewildering. When boarding a bus, I was asked for a fare, but I had no idea what a fare was. Since I had no money anyway, I was promptly put off the bus and had to walk to my destination. On another occasion I wanted to ride the bus, but no bus came. I did not know that you had to go to a bus stop.
However, with a little bravado and bluffing, I gradually came to understand what was expected of me. I managed to obtain some simple employment, but after working for several months, I decided to go back home to see my mother. There I met some of my younger siblings for the first time—altogether by that time I had 14 brothers and sisters. Since there was no room for me to stay with them, my parents arranged for me to move to Wales to stay with my sister Annamay. My father accompanied me there but then left immediately.
I was practically destitute but managed to survive somehow. Later, in 1953, I moved to London, England, where I joined the Legion of Mary, a lay Roman Catholic welfare organization. However, I found working with them very disappointing, as I had expected some spiritual aspect to working with such people. I loved talking about spiritual things, but my work with the Legion of Mary was mundane, and it seemed that there was never any time for spiritual discussions.
While living in London, I met Patrick, who was a friend of my brothers’. We fell in love and married in 1961. Our first two children, Angela and Stephen, were born there. Later, in 1967, we migrated to Australia, where our third child, Andrew, was born. We settled in the rural town of Bombala in New South Wales.
Spiritual Food at Last
Soon after our arrival in Australia, a young man named Bill Lloyd called on us in Bombala to talk about the Bible. I was thrilled to have my questions answered straight from the Bible. But although I recognized the ring of truth in what Bill was saying, I argued with him a lot, to keep him there and to hear more explanations from the Bible. Later, Bill brought me a Bible and some magazines to read.
I enjoyed the magazines very much, but to my shock I realized that the people who published them did not believe in the Trinity. So I hid the magazines, in case reading them might corrupt Patrick’s faith. I determined to return them the next time Bill came, but on his next visit, he showed me that the doctrine of three persons making up one Godhead is in direct conflict with Bible teachings. It soon became clear to me that Jesus is God’s Son, that he was created by his Father, Jehovah God—thus, he had a beginning—and that the Father is greater than Jesus.—Matthew 16:16; John 14:28; Colossians 1:15; Revelation 3:14.
Soon I learned that other things that I had been taught as a Catholic were wrong. For example, the Bible does not teach that humans have an immortal soul or that there is a fiery hell of torment. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Ezekiel 18:4) Learning that was a most wonderful relief! One day I danced around the kitchen out of sheer joy that, at last, I had found the Father whom I always loved but never knew. My spiritual hunger began to be satisfied. To my further joy, Patrick felt the same enthusiasm for these newfound beliefs.
Bill invited us to a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Temora, another country town. Although this was many miles away, we gladly accepted the invitation and arrived in Temora early Friday evening. On Saturday morning, groups gathered at the convention hall to engage in house-to-house preaching. Patrick and I were excited at the prospect, as this was what we had wanted to do for some time. However, Bill said that we would not be able to share in the preaching work because we both still smoked cigarettes. Yet, when Bill left, Patrick and I joined another group. They assumed that we were Witnesses and so took us along.
We soon learned the Scriptural requirements to qualify to engage in preaching the good news. (Matthew 24:14) We finally gave up smoking, and Patrick and I symbolized our dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism in October 1968.
Trials of Our Faith
As we grew in knowledge of the Bible and in our relationship with Jehovah, our faith in God’s promises became firmly anchored. After some time Patrick was appointed an elder in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. We did our best to raise our children in the mental-regulating of Jehovah, coping with all the normal challenges of bringing up teenagers.—Ephesians 6:4.
Sadly, at 18 years of age, our son Stephen was killed in a car accident. Despite our grief, the fact that Stephen had become a worshiper of Jehovah was a real comfort to us. We long to see him again when Jehovah resurrects those in the memorial tombs. (John 5:28, 29) The following year, 1983, I joined our daughter, Angela, in the full-time ministry, and I have remained in that ministry ever since. Sharing our Bible-based hope with others has helped me keep a positive outlook on life, and it has contributed toward easing the pain in my heart. To my utter joy, I learned recently that my sister Annamay began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wales.
In 1984, Patrick developed what at that time seemed to be a mysterious illness. Later it was diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. Eventually he had to give up regular secular work, and he stepped down from serving as a Christian elder. Happily, he has made a partial recovery, and he now serves again as an appointed servant in the congregation.
My early childhood taught me discipline and self-sacrifice, and it taught me how to live a simple life and be satisfied with few things. But it has always puzzled me why the 4 of us girls were placed in the convent but the other 11 children stayed at home. I console myself with the thought that my parents, who died years ago, did their best under circumstances that I will probably never be able to comprehend fully. Those were hard times, calling for difficult decisions. Despite this, I am thankful to my parents for the gift of life that they passed on to me and for caring for me in the best way they knew how. Above all, I thank Jehovah for his fatherly care.
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When we were newlyweds
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When our children were young
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With Patrick today