TO MANY the word "convent" brings to mind a picture of austerity and silence, of gloomy .repression, of long grey corridors along which the nuns, heads bowed, glide unsubstantially wrapped in perpetual contemplation of the spirit.
They remember perhaps subconsciously the Victorian lithograph, which showed a wan and wistful nun lifting her eyes from her book of devotions and gazing with envy and yearning at a young mother rapturously clasping her beautiful infant, who happens curiously enough to be passing the open door of her convent cell. The picture was succinctly entitled "Two Heavens".
The mentality that produced such a picture still exists. Girls enter convents because they have lost somebody, not because they have found Someone. I remember one little nun, a Carmelite, who was asked if she were happy in her cloistered life. "Happy?" she answered with shilling eyes, "If Almighty God gave me ten thousand lives to live, I would spend everyone like this."
ONE WHO WISHES
Anyone who wishes to find out what a convent is really like should visit "Marymount." The graceful architecture Of the building can be seen as it tops the hill of the right-hand side of Thomson Road, just before Braddell Road. This is the convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, one of the many that they have throughout the world. The purpose in life of these nuns is to rescue and readjust the lives of girls who have been in moral danger- an expression which covers a wide variety of cases. With their Motherhouse in Angers, France, they have branched out from there to every country in the world.
Their work of predilection remains the rehabilitation of teenagers but they have extended their activities to other fields - orphanages, colleges, hospitals and the care of prisoners. Their buildings are spacious, light, airy-and gay. It does one's heart good to see the happy smiling faces of the girls, average age between 14 and 29. The religious, mostly Irish, are nearly all University graduates, who keep up to date with the latest methods of teaching. The girls in the morning follow an ordinary school curriculum.
This is very necessary for some of them have had little or no schooling when they arrive. There are also classes in commercial subjects, shorthand and typewriting, classes in hygiene, and simple home nursing. The girls have to be taught to earn a living when they leave the convent. Many of them take up nursing as a 'profession, and many of course marry very SOOH after leaving. It is lovely to see how the "old girls" bring back their fiancés to introduce them to the nuns, who .are often the only "mothers" they have ever known.
'Their wedding photographs are kept in a large album. It is touching to turn over the pages and look at the pictures of shy young brides with their smiling husbands, and to think what might have been the life of these girls if it had not been for the convent 'Home'. Not all of the girls by any means are Catholics. but the majority of the pagan girls eventually ask to be received into the Church. There is no pressure or persuasion brought to bear on them-simply the examnle of the nuns and the grace Of God bring them in. There have been vocations, too, from among them -girls who have felt the call to give themselves to God in the religious life.
During the past few years nineteen young girls have found true happiness in various Religious Congregations.
The most amazing thing is the transformation effected in the girls-they look so happy and sound. so happy, when they a e laughing and shouting on the playing field, or singing hymns to themselves softly as they bend over their sewing, or when in the evening, in their free time, they practise ballroom dancing to the strains of a "swing band" from their radiogram. They become courteous, gentle, and above all naturally and unaffectedly pious.
Full of fun, they are nevertheless disciplined there is no formal system Of punishments. The daily religious exercises in their beautiful chapel play a big and much loved part in their lives, but they are trained to be practical. In turn, they take part in cooking for the whole community- and that "involves Malay, Indian. Chinese and European cooking.
They clean and care for the house, and do their own laundry. When they leave, they should be competent housewives.
Nor is the cultural side of their training neglected. They learn to dance and to sing and are formed into two very good choirs. They make and design all their own clothes, and although they wear uniform working dress during the day, they are free in the evening. and when they go out, to wear clothes of their own choice.
All races live together in harmony. English, perforce is the common tongue, and the girls learn to sneak and write it beautifully. The convent has an atmosphere of happiness, the spirit of youth-for strangely enough nuns, however old they grow, always remain young at heart.
Some time ago, the convent celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Mother Mary of the Guardian Angels fifty years in religion spent in the service of God and the care of His little ones. They prepared a splendid concert. They must have rehearsed for weeks to insure its success. It was to be a polished performance. On the great night, the venerable Mother they wished to honour was seated in the front row of the audience, wearing on her head a crown of roses, serene y and innocently unaware that it had slipped slightly to one side. She looked embarrassed and pleased as the Archbishop congratulated her on her wonderful life of service, and then the performance began.
The curtain went up to reveal the choir, dressed in long and graceful white frocks, each girl with a gold clip on the left shoulder. As their clear, sweet voices fil'e1 the hall under the changing footlights, their frocks gradually took on the colours Of amethyst, green. rose, turquoise and blue. It was beautifully staged and the effect was tremendous.
Girls. robed to represent their own guardian angels. then stepped forward, one of each race. and declaimed. one by one, a stanza of a long and beautiful poem which had been written specially Ito commemorate the virtues of the Jubilarian.
Convents are not dull places – they are p1aces where God takes first place - and remember that it is "God Who giveth joy to my youth!"
The Malayan Catholic News, 1956, page 4