|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 12 (1999)|
One afternoon in 1976, I made my first trip from Cincinnati to
the Ursuline convent in Brown County, Ohio. Driving along a state
highway, I saw from a distance the half-mile lane, lined with
towering ash trees, that led to the convent grounds. Rising out
of cultivated farmland, that lane of trees signaled a European
presence that seemed out of place along asphalt Ohio State Route
251. I drove up the lane, passing Sancta Ursula, a larger-than-life
statue which guarded the entrance to the convent grounds. A legendary
Nordic princess with thick braids and royal robes, Ursula stood
with her arms extended, holding wide open her ankle-length cloak.
Beneath the sheltering sweep of her arms on either side huddled
a dozen girls in bas-relief.
Ahead was a maze of trees and lakes, and beyond, the labyrinth
that was the red-brick convent. I parked my car, climbed the colonial
portico, and rang the bell. Minutes later, a nun ushered me into
a formal parlor. By now I was certain that I had entered a foreign
world-an island of elegance, hospitality, and learning that was
alien to anything I had ever experienced. I had no notion that
summer afternoon that these nuns would become my mentors, this
convent would become my spiritual home, and twenty years later
I would still be trying to understand its hold on me.
I was in every way an outsider. Raised a Methodist, I'd never
been in a convent before, never met a real nun. My images of nuns
were shaped by movies like The Trouble with Angels or the
1960s TV show The Flying Nun. As I settled in at the Brown
County convent for my week of silence, I was completely enchanted
by what one person described as "an elegant little French
world out in the middle of the woods" (Larkin). In the coming
years I returned for many more solitary retreats and came to regard
Brown County as a spiritual oasis.
When, in 1982 (eight years later), I learned that the historic
convent and boarding school were scheduled for demolition, I decided
to help preserve its history. My decision led to lengthy research:
I stayed in the convent dozens of times, recording oral histories
of the retired nuns and sorting through dusty archives. I sought
out former sisters and alumnae of the boarding school and interviewed
them. I read virtually everything that had ever been written about
the Brown County Ursulines. All this research deepened my appreciation
for the Brown County convent, reinforcing my sense that there
was something almost magical about the place.
Initially, what made the strongest impression on me were the sisters
themselves. I became acquainted with them first through chats
in the dining room, and later through walks around the convent
grounds and even taped interviews. I especially enjoyed getting
to know the several retired sisters. I met, for example, Sister
Dorothy, a stout and talkative woman in her seventies who delighted
me with stories of her work as "mistress" of the younger
children in the boarding school. In the course of fifty years
in religious life, she had taught, entertained, and mothered many
hundreds of elementary-aged girls, often sleeping in quarters
adjoining their dormitory. Now in retirement she was trying to
write books for children and sought my advice about publishing.
Or there was Sister Imelda. In her eighties, she took pride in
the enormous convent flower garden which she had expanded year
by year for maybe twenty years. Surrounded by tall privet hedges,
the garden was off limits to all outsiders; I knew Sister Imelda
trusted me when she gave me a key to her garden gate. Less than
five feet tall, Imelda's elfin countenance made me think of Yoda
of Star Wars' fame. She often spoke in riddles which tried
the patience of other nuns. She told me the secret to her longevity
was avoiding the "three Ds--the doctor, the devil, and the
dumps." She gave me a book of prayers once in which she inscribed,
"Count that day lost / Whose slow-descending sun, Finds from
Thy hand / No worthy action done."
I worked closely with Sister Mary John. As assistant to the community's Superior, she controlled access to the community archives. Sister Mary John shared my fascination with historical documents. With her high forehead, sparkling blue eyes, and lilting Irish voice, she was one of the most charming women I had ever met. She had entered religious life late-in her thirties, after work in the theater-and spent happy decades teaching English in the boarding school. Now in her seventies, in addition to tending the community archives, she nurtured the convent cats, a hobby which earned her the nickname "Frisky" among the sisters. Or there was Sister Ann Maureen, a pretty and gracious woman in her thirties who gave me guidance on prayer and physical exercise and told me that "self-esteem is the beginning of true humility," a baffling insight to me at the age of twenty-four. She later pursued graduate studies in psychology and also served as a leader in the community.
Most memorable of all was Sister Miriam Thompson, a woman whom
I eventually adopted as a mentor and spiritual director. She had
served for many years as the "directress" of the boarding
school and in her seventies and eighties ran a large-scale food
bank for the rural poor. With her full-length black habit, glasses,
and penetrating blue eyes, Miriam was a striking figure. She was
known among the sisters and to many people far beyond the convent
as a mystic because of her deep spirituality and her skill at
providing spiritual counsel. A woman both brilliant and loving,
Miriam soon told me fascinating stories about the history of the
convent. Later she supplied me with books and documents about
I learned, for example, that the Brown County convent had been
founded by an English woman named Julia Chatfield. Born in 1809
of distinguished Anglican parents, as a young woman Julia was
sent with her six younger sisters to an Ursuline boarding school
in Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France, to complete her education
and refine her French accent. According to Sister Miriam, Julia
was so moved by the faith and kindness of the French Ursulines
that she soon wrote her father of her desire to become a Roman
Catholic. In response, he immediately brought her back to England
and introduced her to London society. Julia held fast to her faith,
the story goes, and her father disowned her. She worked briefly
as a governess then ran away to Boulogne, this time planning to
join the community as a novice, a choice which led to a permanent
break from her family. Her biographer writes, "It seemed
to the girl that she had stepped for a brief space into the realm
of spiritual existence which she had always craved . . . the reality
of Christ with all its throbbing life" (Maginnis 26). After
a few years of initiation, in 1837, Julia Chatfield took her vows
of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the special Ursuline
"fourth vow" of dedication to teaching.
Later Julia began to dream of becoming a missionary to America
when she heard the preaching of a charismatic young American bishop,
John Baptist Purcell, who was touring Europe to recruit religious
communities to come to America to serve the growing Roman Catholic
population. Purcell spoke with zeal about the beauty of the Ohio
valley and the seething immigrant life that was springing up there.
Especially pressing was the need for teachers and priests. The
movement toward free public education was not yet firmly underway,
and many of the schools which did exist discriminated against
Catholic pupils. Soon Julia's good friend, Amédée
Rappe, the convent chaplain, did go to America. For the next few
years he wrote to Julia Chatfield encouraging her to come.
It took several years for her dream to become a reality, but finally
in 1845, at the age of 36, Sister Julia led a group of eleven
nuns to Ohio, intending to establish a girls' academy. Once the
group of Ursulines arrived in Ohio, Purcell, now an Archbishop,
gave the nuns a wooded tract of land (about 400 acres) fifty miles
east of Cincinnati. Originally military lands donated to the bishop
after the Revolutionary War, the property had been used for a
time as a seminary but the remote location made it untenable.
In 1846 the nuns built a motherhouse and an Academy for Young
Ladies which lasted for a century. While parochial schools served
all children, academies were geared to more privileged girls,
sometimes boarding students. Girls came from all over the United
States to receive what their families believed to be a superlative
education. Early letters from Julia Chatfield suggest that she
was very reluctant to accept the remote location; the nuns were
used to a refined way of life, not primitive living conditions
in an isolated area. But they adapted and in time were able to
make a success of the location where the priests could not.
Figure 1. Original Brown County "Convent of the Ursulines and Academy for Young Ladies," ca. 1850. Collection of Trudelle H. Thomas.
When I first visited the Brown County convent in 1976, the future
of the academy had grown uncertain. Boarding schools for girls
were no longer in style and enrollment was low. In 1981 the boarding
school closed and the nuns deliberated the future of the gorgeous,
rambling, costly-to-heat building. As a group, they came to the
decision to raze the main building except for the adjoining Sacred
Heart chapel and to construct on the grounds "Brescia"-a
new, compact and comfortable building that would serve as a residence
for the retired nuns, including those who were having health problems.
(Brescia was named for the town in Italy where Angela Merici,
founder of the Ursuline Order, had lived in the 1500s.)
The decision to raze the motherhouse was traumatic for many of
the nuns. For some of the older ones, the place had been their
home for five or six decades. By this time, the convent had also
become a kind of second home to me, a "secular," and
I mourned with them when the buildings furnishings were auctioned
off and the building itself was leveled by bulldozers. We all
felt bereft of our spiritual home. As time passed, I marveled
at the older nuns' resilience as they adapted to their new home
in Brescia. I became a regular visitor there, though I missed
the secret hallways and Lady Chapel and the impressive public
spaces of the old convent.
As I came to know the Ursulines, I was struck again and again
by how consistently the sisters used the imagery of home when
they spoke of their community. To outsiders, the motherhouse was
a school, an institution-not a home. Yet the nuns, in their conversation
and in their published records, consistently spoke of their "convent
home" or their "wilderness home." One poster that
I often saw during my visits bore this message: "If you open
your hearts to the presence of the Lord here in this holy spot,
in the midst of our wilderness, there is no limit to what he can
do through you and with you." I was struck by the odd juxtaposition
of "this holy spot" and "wilderness" and by
the strange promise that opening one's heart to the presence of
the Lord would lead to personal power and accomplishment. Though
the poster did not actually use the word "home," it
hinted that this place was both a haven and a hub.
As I pondered the way the Ursulines spoke of the wilderness, the
concept of a "wilderness home" began to make sense,
to seem less an oxymoron. Before coming to America, Julia Chatfield
and her sister-nuns back in France had fantasized about risking
their lives as missionaries on the American frontier; they had
hoped to emulate Marie Guyart, a French Ursuline and mystic who
had become famous for her work with Native Americans in Canada
in the 1600s. Those first sisters never made it to America's western
frontier, but where they did end up was no less forbidding: an
isolated, unsettled, poor tract of land in rural Ohio. Forty-eight
miles outside Cincinnati, Brown County is still rural today and
remains one of the poorest counties in Ohio.
According to an early travelogue, when the nuns arrived there
in 1845, it appeared desolate and uninhabitable. Surely they wondered
why the Archbishop would assign them, cloistered nuns from France,
many of them from privileged families, to this wooded, barren
property out in the middle of nowhere. Still, those first Brown
County Ursulines settled into the rough buildings that had once
been a seminary and set about decorating their log church. Instead
of deploring this wilderness tract, the nuns made up their minds
to make a home of it. Indeed, the "wilderness" soon
became part of their communal myth.
Religious historian Mircea Eliade observes that many religious
groups see their environment as a foreign and hostile place- "a
chaotic space peopled by ghosts, demons, and foreigners"
(29). As newcomers to this strange terrain, the nuns saw it as
a threatening wilderness, but in time they also began to see it
as a gracious wilderness. Hadn't the children of Israel communed
with God in the wilderness for forty years as they sought the
Promised Land? Hadn't John the Baptist and later even Christ Himself
withdrawn to the wilderness to wait, be tested, and receive special
graces? The Brown County Ursulines responded to the wilderness
by making it a home, their wilderness home, a place of grace.
But what sort of home might this be? A home without parents, certainly
a home without fathers-with virtually no men at all. A home with
no young children (the school started with six-year-olds). It
was a home with no kitchen table, no living room, no actual bedrooms--a
home with few of the creature comforts most humans associate with
home. Neither did it offer much in the way of privacy or personal
possessions. On the face of it, the convent was an institution,
not a home at all. Yet the metaphor of home persisted more than
150 years, from 1845 to the present.
I gained insight into the Ursulines' understanding of home by
reading Helen Fiddymont Levy's Fiction of the Home Place
(1992). A work of literary criticism, Fiction of the Home Place
traces an ideal female community that Levy sees as an alternative
to the American myth of the individual male who competes and dominates.
Drawing upon the work of several twentieth-century female novelists,
Levy outlines the attributes of this mythic "home place."
It is a small, stable community characterized by what she calls
"local language" and located in an ideal pastoral and
domestic setting. This ideal community is rooted in a sense of
history, a history that celebrates a lineage of female creativity,
and in this community materialism and possessions are downplayed.
This community provides care for the young, old, sick, or discouraged;
community members place great value on such caretaking. Finally,
an elder "wise woman" presides over the entire community.
In Fiction of the Home Place, Levy is describing a fictional
ideal-not an actual community, let alone a convent. But in reading
Levy's book, I was struck by how many of these attributes belonged
to the Brown County convent. It was a relatively small community--small
as convents go, usually numbering between thirty and sixty nuns
and under one hundred pupils (often far fewer). It was also very
stable in that nuns who entered the community were likely to stay
for life; nuns seldom were sent from the Brown County convent
and, prior to the 1960s, few nuns left the order. And the community
was made up entirely of women.
While the Ursulines at Brown County never practiced strict cloister,
the convent was considered semi-cloistered; as a means of protecting
the integrity of the community, the comings and goings of all
individuals were strictly monitored. Nuns could not leave the
convent grounds without permission and outsiders followed a prescribed
procedure when visiting. The presence of men in particular was
carefully regulated; in many parts of the convent and boarding
school, no man ever set foot. Exceptions might be made for hired
workmen (who ate in a separate workers' dining room), for visiting
priests (who stayed in a nearby "priest's house" used
for this purpose), or for a visiting father of a pupil (who might
converse with Mother Superior in the parlor). Though men might
visit briefly, the Brown County convent was a world of women.
This world of women was also a remarkably self-contained world,
one with a distinctive identity. The church, school, work- and
living-spaces all existed literally under one roof; except on
family farms, this fusion of work and home would have become rare
in the late nineteenth-century. Women and girls prayed, studied,
did chores, ate, relaxed, and slept all in the same building.
They developed an idiosyncratic and specialized vocabulary for
talking about the various places on the convent grounds; any novice-member
or alumna would be sure to know the location of "The Long
Walk" or "St. Anne's Gallery" or "Sunnyside"
or "Solomon's Run." Such language contributed to a sense
Like the fictional "home place" that Levy describes,
Brown County convent was located in a rural and somewhat idyllic
environment. What had been desolate woods were transformed by
the nuns' building, landscaping, and farming efforts; by the time
I visited in the 1970s the convent boasted Canadian geese, cattle,
and horses, in addition to landscaped slopes, lakes, trees, and
flower gardens. Though Cincinnati, the only city nearby, had greatly
expanded, the Brown County location was still rural.
Moreover, over the decades, the nuns had consciously set out to
sanctify the convent grounds by the use of various blessing rituals,
including Corpus Christi processions through meadow and woods,
May crownings, and the ceremonial blessing of buildings. The nuns
also placed shrines throughout the grounds and nearby woods. The
unexpected presence of statues in fields and woods made even those
places seem familiar and domestic. At the same time, the relative
lack of statues inside the convent made it seem less like a convent
and more like a home.
Within this idyllic setting, the Brown County convent was steeped
in a sense of history, particularly in a lineage of female creativity.
As a matter of course, both nuns and pupils were schooled in American
history, European history, and Roman Catholic church history;
they also celebrated historical events with pageants and parties,
year after year. More importantly, they identified with a tradition
of women, writing plays and poems to celebrate achievements of
women such as Saint Ursula (legendary twelfth-century patroness),
St. Angela (sixteenth-century foundress of the Ursulines), Saint
Joan of Arc, foundress Julia Chatfield, and various other heroic
women. Although this tradition was limited to women recognized
by the Roman Catholic Church, it valued women's contributions
more than did secular institutions of the time.
In addition to writing poems and producing plays, women at Brown
County found numerous channels for their creative energy: they
sang and performed on musical instruments; they embellished furniture
and the chapel walls and pews with their own intricate wood-carvings;
they grew flowers to adorn the altars; they perfected needlework
of every sort (Figure 2). In the 1880s, one farsighted nun, Sister
Eulalia Dunn, drew up all the original plans for the Sacred Heart
Chapel and oversaw its erection in 1885; the chapel is said to
be, even today, the only Roman Catholic church in America designed
by a woman (Figure 3).
Figure 2. Hand-carved door to Lady Chapel (Photo courtesy of Eric
Figure 3. Interior of Sacred Heart Chapel, ca. 1984, still in
use (Photo courtesy of Eric Weinberg).
Even as they celebrated a lineage of female creativity, nuns at
Brown County de-emphasized materialism and personal possessions
at times when the larger culture was increasingly materialistic.
All the nuns took vows of poverty. The community itself actually
was poor, unlike some religious groups which accumulated community
wealth even though individual members took vows of poverty; Brown
County convent's poverty was caused by its isolation and small
numbers. In addition, the sisters did their best to downplay materialism
among the pupils as well by discouraging extravagance in dress
and in other possessions.
Like the ideal "home place" that Levy describes, the
Brown County convent provided care and nurturance for women of
all ages and conditions, ranging from six-year-old school girls
to elderly nuns. The care and education of children was the academy's
reason for existence. According to Sister Miriam, many of the
academy's pupils regarded Brown County as a second family and
second home, and it was not unusual for an alumna's daughters
and even granddaughters to attend. Even now, most nuns who have
spent their lives at Brown County return there to die, cared for
by their sister Ursulines throughout their final hours.
Finally, an elder woman presided over the Brown County community:
Mother Superior was seen as wise and, at times, inspired by God.
From the time she led the first Ursulines to Brown County in 1845
until her death in 1878, Julia Chatfield served as Mother Superior
and was known then and thereafter as "Notre Mere." Following
Chatfield's death, the community was led by a series of Mothers
Superior, respectfully addressed as "Mother." Whoever
she might be, Mother Superior was advised and assisted by the
Community Council, a group of women elected from among the ranks
of the nuns. Important decisions were made by all the nuns together,
voting at yearly "chapter meetings." (In recent decades,
formal titles such as Mother have been dropped and leadership
has become less hierarchical.) While Mother Superior presided
over the community of nuns, another woman presided over the academy
as the Directress.
Even as her successors assumed community leadership, Mother Julia
Chatfield is seen as an important influence in the community,
even today, a hundred years after her death. In their documents
and in conversation, nuns often voice the belief that she is still
alive, in spirit though not in body, and is able to offer guidance.
For example, at times when I was wrestling with a problem, whether
personal or scholarly, Sister Miriam routinely suggested that
I pay a visit to Julia Chatfield's grave in the convent cemetery
and "talk it over with Julia." On occasion, I have heard
many other sisters casually make remarks about communication with
Julia, Monica, Hyacinth, Augusta, and other important community
leaders no longer alive. Initially I found this strange but in
time I came to understand that the sisters believe the dead are
part of the "communion of saints," alive in spirit though
The nuns' own sense of their "convent home" has changed
over the decades. Early on, the nuns made a conscious effort to
make the convent school an inviting, comforting home for the girls
who attended the Academy. Early brochures advertising the school
emphasized its home-like qualities and the motherly kindness of
the nuns themselves. Julia Chatfield had inherited from her father,
a London art dealer, good taste and a love of art, qualities she
passed on to her successors. Displaying art, including the sisters'
and students' own art, had the salutary effect of making the building
more home-like and familiar.
In addition to being a home for the students, of course, the convent also was a home for the nuns who came there to spend their lives-to live, work, die, and be buried there. After her profession, a nun would not return to her family home.
And the nuns also desired that their convent and school should
be a center of action for outsiders. According to Sister Joan
Brosnan, even in Julia Chatfield's time the nuns felt a commitment
not just to their boarding students but also to "the village"
of St. Martin. Early on, the nuns operated in the convent a "day
school" that served the local children. "The convent
was never an island," says Brosnan. "We have always
been committed to people in the local area, especially to women.
We reached out to them, and we welcomed them." This commitment
was more manifest in some decades than others. Beginning in the
1940s the Ursulines sponsored annual "Ladies Retreats"
for adult women on the convent grounds, and in later decades they
offered summer camps for girls.
The most significant change, of course, came following the Second
Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962-65). In response
to the Council's call to re-discover their founder's charism,
the Ursulines, like nuns throughout America, entered a period
of great upheaval, beginning with the change from the Latin liturgy
to the vernacular and the change from long black habits to more
relaxed dress for the nuns. As a result of the council, nuns who
formerly had been forbidden to visit their family homes were now
permitted to do so. Nuns began not just to visit their families,
but also to work and eventually to live outside the convent walls.
Brosnan was Superior of the community (1973-1979) during this
period of change and recalls the nuns deciding to invite local
people to use their facilities such as the play hall and the swimming
pool. Rules about cloister relaxed during this time; access to
places like the parlors and the nuns' refectory was less restricted
than in the past. Eventually most traces of cloister died out
The last twenty years have seen the most dramatic change in the
Ursulines' idea of home. Now that the boarding school has closed,
most of the nuns live in their own apartments and houses and only
visit the old convent grounds for meetings or retreats. Still,
among the nuns and others there remains the sense that Brown County
is a spiritual and symbolic home. One old document (ca. 1920s)
observes, "There is in dear old Brown County something that
lives in its atmosphere, that draws hearts closely together; that
gives the home feeling; that inspires faith in Divine Providence.
. . . The Spirit that dear Notre Mere left us, our richest inheritance"
(Necrology 4). The form and meaning of this "home feeling"
continues to evolve. Even as I write this essay, a dwelling beside
the chapel has been renamed "Springer House" and is
being renovated as a house of prayer to be used for retreats.
The nuns point out that the building I had always known as the
"Priest's House" was in fact originally commissioned
in 1865 by an alumna named Jenny Springer who wanted to visit
the convent often and "keep alive the happy memory of my
school-days." Soon it will serve as a haven for myself and
others who consider Brown County their spiritual home.
While Levy's literary emphasis sheds light upon the Ursulines'
"wilderness home," further insights come from the sociology
of architecture. Sociologist Daphne Spain observes that the use
of architectural space shapes social life. Human beings' view
of themselves and their relations with others is not only reflected
in but is also shaped by their use of physical space. Space is
a good indicator of what a group of people values, she says, and
these values are preserved by the way a building's floor plan
influences daily activities. The way that the Brown County Ursulines
used the interior spaces of their buildings says a great deal
about their values as a community and thus about the nature of
their "wilderness home."
In her book, Gendered Spaces (1992) Spain points out that,
in contrast to contemporary American architecture, homes built
in the nineteenth century tended to have highly specialized spaces.
Where a modern American home might have a living room or a multi-purpose
"great room," affluent homes of the last century would
have had a ladies' parlor, a library, and perhaps a smoking room
or billiard room. Built in 1845, the Brown County motherhouse
was similarly characterized by the specialized use of space. One
example is the Ursulines' use of their two parlors to receive
outsiders; such use of parlors was a long-standing tradition in
many women's religious communities, dating back to the Counter-Reformation
(perhaps further). Here Mother Superior might confer with parents
or a merchant, for example, or a young girl might visit with her
At Brown County, two formal parlors flanked the vestibule where
all visitors entered the convent. These parlors were elegantly
decorated with carved chairs, velvet sofas, Oriental rugs, and
large oil paintings in gilded frames. The tradition of formal
parlors has roots reaching back through centuries of European
convents; according to the Ursuline Rule, convents might boast
up to four parlors, and nuns would speak to outsiders through
a grille (a screen which separated insiders from visitors). This
more relaxed American convent had no grille in the parlor, but
formal behavior was still expected. Pupils entered the parlors
only when invited, and were forbidden to wear aprons there. They
curtsied when greeting guests.
Other parts of the convent were also highly specialized in purpose.
The Commencement Hall (added to the main building in 1860) served
as a combination library/auditorium. Here the commencement "awarding
of premiums" was held each spring, wherein pupils were given
recognition for their academic, artistic, and moral accomplishments.
There were two different chapels as well. The small, intimate,
and softly lit "Lady Chapel" served as a place for personal
devotions, especially to the Virgin Mary who was represented by
a prominently placed life-size plaster statue. The vastly larger
Chapel of the Sacred Heart was a gathering place for daily mass
and for large liturgical gatherings, including choral performances.
The large and beautiful spaces set aside for public gatherings
contrasted strongly with the almost complete absence of space
for individuals. The nuns slept in tiny unadorned cells and spent
all their waking hours in common rooms. The pupils slept in dormitories
on the top (fourth) floor of the convent; long open rooms were
divided by white curtains into small "efficiency alcoves,"
one per girl. Each alcove contained a bed, a bedside cabinet and
little more. Bathrooms were communal and clothing was distributed
from a nearby laundry storage room.
The values of the women living in the Brown County convent were
clearly reflected in the way they appropriated their physical
space. The presence of lush and elegant parlors suggested a gracious
hospitality, albeit a hospitality carefully contained. The message
of the convent parlor was not "Come in and make yourself
at home," but rather "We're happy to see you but please
keep your distance."
Similarly, the Brown County community placed tremendous value
on large communal gatherings. These gatherings celebrated the
life of the convent-community and sometimes welcomed outsiders
as well. Such celebrations included public performances (such
as choral and theatrical events), ceremonies associated with academic
achievements, and, most of all, communal worship. Irene Mahoney,
an Ursuline novelist, describes a convent chapel as seen through
the eyes of a young sister. Although Mahoney is from another community
and the scene is fictional, her description could well apply to
the Brown County Sacred Heart Chapel:
When their efforts to live angelically had worn [the nuns] to depression . . . they had the reaches of worship to set them free from their own limitations and immerse them in the splendor of adoration. Their chapel-with its aspiring arches and brilliant stained glass windows, its marble sanctuary and rich ornaments-had provided them with a beauty that compensated for their small unpainted cells and the dismal barrenness of their common rooms. Even that austerity [the young nun] had loved, glorying the fact that all the beauty that they knew was vested in the worship of God. (Mahoney 90)The contrast between the ornate chapel and the "small unpainted cells" highlights the lack of value placed upon individuality, privacy, and personal relationships. What was valued at the Brown County convent was the life of the community, and even more, the worship of God.
I find it particularly interesting to examine the Brown County
convent buildings in light of what they reveal about gender identity.
Since time immemorial, cultures and societies have organized space
around gender. According to Daphne Spain, nineteenth-century Victorian
homes were highly segregated along gender lines. The design of
such homes puts women in parlors, kitchens, and boudoir, while
men inhabited the library, the study, and everywhere else. Such
containment of women based on gender, according to Spain, cuts
them off from access to knowledge and power. She argues that it
results in a diminishment of women's power and status.
The all-female world of the Brown County convent challenges Spain's
observations. Isolated by geography and church rules of cloister,
the Ursuline women nonetheless exerted tremendous influence on
the world around them. Within the convent, nuns certainly had
power: Mother Superior, the Academy Directress, and the Community
Council ran the entire school, farm, and convent. In this self-contained
world, women and girls had access to every place in the communal
buildings, while men had none.
It is true that, for much of its history, the nuns and the young
women in their care were not directly involved in public life,
at least not in the arenas of business or politics. But through
their work as caretakers of children and young women, and as educators,
the nuns exerted powerful influence that radiated out from the
convent. Because their pupils were continually in their care,
day and night, throughout the school year, the nuns had the opportunity
to shape their characters, tastes, and attitudes. Most alumnae
went on to raise families of their own, often passing on the values
they absorbed at Brown County. Because many of the pupils were
daughters of the middle and upper classes, once they left the
academy, many married into socially prominent families. Many also
became active in volunteer and church organizations. The nuns'
influence as nurturers and educators, though limited in scope,
was tremendous in impact.
In addition to their roles as educators of young women, the nuns
also lived lives of prayer, praying and singing Gregorian chant
at several appointed times throughout each day. They believed
that such prayer affected events and people beyond their convent
walls. I agree with Spain that segregation based upon gender is
an important influence, but in the case of the Ursulines such
segregation did not undermine their power as women. Rather, segregation
Having observed and pondered the life of the Brown County Ursulines
over the last two decades, I have come to appreciate the complex
ways that the convent became a home to the women living there,
whether during a pupil's school-years or during a nun's lifetime
"in religion." The sense of home derives in part from
the belief that inhabitants of Brown County are in a special and
holy place. A priest speaking at an alumnae celebration at the
Brown County convent in 1910, described it this way: "I see
the Dove of Peace and the Phoenix of Rejuvenation hovering tonight
over the confines of this sacred enclosure, consecrated to God
and sanctified by the lives of so many daughters of St. Ursula"
(First Alumnae Year Book 14-15).
Religious historian Mircea Eliade speaks of this sense of "sacred space" in a wider context when he observes, "The sacred is pre-eminently the real, at once power, efficacity [sic], the source of life and fecundity. [Our human] desire to live in the sacred is in fact [our] desire to take up our abode in objective reality" (28-29). Nuns and perhaps pupils as well saw themselves as living in "the sacred . . . the real . . . the source of life and fecundity." It was the grounding in a larger or deeper reality that gave the inhabitants a sense of home, an "abode in objective reality."
While nuns and church leaders might speak of home in theological
terms, they actually experienced home in ways that were emotional
and familiar. Novelist Anna Quindlen writes of "that greater
meaning of home that we understand most purely when we are children,
when it is a metaphor for all possible feelings of security, safety,
of what is predictable, gentle, and good in life" (213).
The security, gentleness, and predictability of life at Brown
County did much to reinforce a sense of home.
With time I have come to appreciate the allure of the Brown County
convent. Its sense of home had its source in the way it echoed
a mythic or even archetypal ideal. Life at Brown County embodied
an imaginative alternative to the individualistic, competitive,
male model with which we are all too familiar. The same yearning
for a mythic "home place" that inspired the novels in
Levy's study also drew women and girls to the Brown County convent.
The control of architectural space, through the use of cloister
and specialized interior spaces, served to heighten the sense
that this was a special, important, even sacred place. Theological
associations and emotional reverberations all contributed to a
multi-layered and complex conviction that the Brown County Ursuline
convent was indeed a very appealing "home in the wilderness."
Archdeacon, Thomas J. Becoming American: An Ethnic History.
New York: Free Press, 1983.
Brockman, Pat, O.S.U. Telephone conversation. 11 July 1998.
Brosnan, Joan, O.S.U. Telephone conversation. 9 July 1998.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.
Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959.
Ewens, Mary, O.P. "The Leadership of Nuns in Immigrant Catholicism."
Women and Religion in America. Vol. 1. Ed. R. Ruether and
R. Skinner Keller. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981. 101-149.
First Alumnae Yearbook. St. Martin, Ohio: Alumnae Association
of the Ursulines of Brown County, Ohio, 1910.
Larkin, Sally Love [alumna]. Personal interview. 25 August 1985.
Levy, Helen Fiddymont. Fiction of the Home Place. Jackson:
UP of Mississippi, 1992.
Maginnis, Monica. The Cross in the Wilderness. New York:
Longmans Green and Co., 1930.
Mahoney, Irene, O.S.U. An Accidental Grace. New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1982.
Necrology, 1845-1932. [approx. ninety entries]. Ed. Barringer,
Mary Gonzaga. Brown County Ursuline Archives. St. Martin, Ohio.
Quindlen, Anna. One True Thing. New York: Random House,
Spain, Daphne. Gendered Spaces. Chapel Hill: U of North
Carolina P, 1992.
Thompson, Miriam, O.S.U. Personal conversation. Feb.1977.
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