The whole day the sky was gray, and the air was heavy and blue.
My vocation is to seek the past. It is a task that haunts me unceasingly and has urged me to locations international and unconventional. Where have I not sought it? Because I long for what is old, I traveled to the Old World, to search out the past the darkened corners of crypts, in stone turrets ruined by weather and age. Twice I have crossed oceans to climb the ruins of crusader castles in midday Jerusalem sun. I have run my fingers over books that had once been living flesh, stained with age and mineral ink. Here at last, I thought, the past spread itself delectably before me for the taking. But scars, I learned, are only hardened ghosts of once living wounds.
In all these years of seeking only once did I truly feel the weight of millions of lives lived and living. Improbably it occurred in the New World, the one I had inhabited all along. I was on my way to Toronto and I decided to stop at Niagara Falls. I was attracted to the wildness. I wanted to feel insignificant compared to something savage and old. It was a late-summer Thursday. The whole day the sky was gray, and the air was heavy and blue.
The presence of the waterfalls rendered time more powerful there, more tangible. The past was intrusive and the future beckoning. Warriors used to gather here. The Iroquois. The Huron. The Mohawk. They won their manhood with blood and bravery. Fire and water shaped their elemental lives. They proved their worth by sailing over the falls and singing through torture. Did the memory of one help them endure the other? You couldn’t cry out even though fire was devouring your organs. I don’t know why—self-sacrifice, proof of bravery?
There used to be warriors at Niagara Falls and now there were tourists. Niagara Falls has always drawn others to it, the Dutch, the Germans, the French, immigrants, and of course, the nuns. I learned from an old map hanging in the tourist office that just a few miles away from the falls there was a Franciscan convent with the poetic name of Stella Niagara, or Star of Niagara. The name is a pretty homage to an ancient name for the Virgin Mary—Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.
The name is a pretty homage to an ancient name for the Virgin Mary—Stella Maris, Star of the Sea.
Staring into the water, I imagined Stella Niagara. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of a convent (a place that projects outward serenity) with the national monument to chaos. I thought about nuns at Niagara Falls, but that is hardly unusual. I think a lot about nuns, no matter where I am. For several tumultuous pre-adolescent years, I longed to be a nun, much to the bemused horror of my Jewish parents. But is it any wonder why they fascinated me? In the Sound of Music, my favorite movie, nuns lived in a castle, frolicked on hill tops, and saved children from the Nazis. There was one particularly pretty nun, I remembered—Sister Margareta. That name was so beautiful, and she was the kindest of the Sisters, always standing up for Maria. I would be Sister Margareta and hide Jewish children in my catacombs. Twenty-five or so years later, while in upstate New York, my thoughts focused on the concept of a day shaped by liturgy—living the life of Christ in every twenty-four hours. And I pictured living that day next to Niagara Falls. Closing your eyes in prayer and seeing Jerusalem, not as a sunlit city, but a wet land in its infancy, still angry and raw from the birthing. I kept my own eyes open, shutting out the hordes of tourists to focus on the water fall, an icy blue tooth jerking out from the earth’s maws. I listened past the babel of languages, the chattering, the mothers yelling at their children. For most travelers, the heart of Niagara is the falls themselves, the rides that baptize the crowds with cold foamy spray. For me, I knew, it was Stella Niagara.
For several tumultuous pre-adolescent years, I longed to be a nun, much to the bemused horror of my Jewish parents.
Every single doorway on every single building featured the sign, “Please use other door.”
I passed the convent at first, because it was so much less imposing than I had imagined. I was picturing a fortress jutting out dramatically from craggy rocks and instead found several unassuming pink buildings off the side of the road dwarfed by a clearly 1960’s institution style building which I guessed was the school I knew existed on the premises. I parked and explored. I couldn’t find another living soul.
The buzzing of unseen flies, the heat, the roar of the falls I could still here—I felt groundless, rootless, searching for the grip of precision. The layout of the grounds was the product of a disorganized mind, and there were far too many parking lots for a nunnery. I approached building after building, all of them locked. Every single doorway on every single building featured the sign, “Please use other door.”
Only when I decided to retreat in defeat did a massive stone castle-like structure, rise in front of me as if by magic. The front door, up an imposing staircase, seemed too daunting, so I poked around a back alley. An open loading dock beckoned cool and inviting, so I snuck through and found myself in a claustrophobically dark room, the air clogged with what struck my senses as antiquated chlorine. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that I realized I was in a cement floored basement with a swimming pool. I steadied myself along the walls in the flickering light towards the exit.
I kept myself hidden—partly because I felt mysterious, like Nancy Drew, partly because I was afraid they would make me leave, because I didn’t belong, but I longed to be there, I felt comforted in the shadows behind the statues, I’m pretty sure the medieval still lingered in those corners, not yet swept out or exposed to electrical lights or air conditioning, technological monsters with dangly wires.
So I consciously avoided discovery while working my way through the giant maze that I always knew good convents would be. I found little nook bedrooms with ghostly dangling habits, mosaic floors, and an empty room with nothing but a giant harp. The room to which I felt most drawn was the empty chapel, with its dusty light filtering through stained glass and unearthly stillness. Frescoes in an earthy spectrum of orange and brown painted frescoes crowned the ceilings. The quiet unfilled pews waited expectantly.
I accidentally stumbled into an office where a startled woman was organizing files. We were both quite surprised and she seemed disconcerted to learn that I had wandered in through an open door. I resorted to wide-eyed innocence. “I’m so glad I found you,” I exclaimed. “I’m so lost—I was hoping to find the main office.”
“But how did you get in here? We lock all the doors?” She seemed perplexed but soon recovered her composure, and apparently decided I was harmless, if rather odd. To my extreme delight, she offered to give me a tour of the building. I pretended surprise at each new room while absorbing her information.
“But how did you get in here? We lock all the doors?”
And yet, it was the beginning of the end.
Pamela was an efficient and gregarious had worked at Stella Niagara for seven years as lay office manager and told me of the founding of Stella Niagara. Sister Magdalen Damen, originally Catherine from Masseik, Belgium, who had founded the Order in 1835. She and three companions tended orphans in the town of Heythuysen. In 1874, three nuns, Sister Leonarda, Sister Veronica, and Sister Felicitas were invited to Buffalo to minister to the Catholic German immigrant population. When their Mother Superior Seraphine came to visit her wandering brood she remembered the rivers of her homeland and asked, “In this great country, can’t you find us some water?” So in 1907 her intrepid spiritual daughters relocated to Lewiston, where the water overwhelmed the land and satisfied all sisterly nostalgia.
The convent now acts as a retirement home for older nuns and included an assisted living facility with around-the-clock nursing staff on an upper floor. I asked about postulants—the new applicants. In 1907, young women who joined convents were able to pursue higher education paid for by the church, travel to other countries, and hold institutional power in what was still a man’s America. But today? I wondered what kind of young woman would join a convent when women’s liberation and government financial aid had opened up the world. Pamela laughed dryly. “We don’t have postulants. The Order is dying.” No one wants to be a nun anymore. No one has wanted to be a nun for a very long time.
One could trace the end to Vatican II, which ironically, was meant to renew the convent system and bring it into the twentieth century. It forced orders to reevaluate their identities and their purposes in the modern world. Nuns could eschew the habit, take jobs, rent apartments, make friends, and rally for political causes. They wrote lectures and spoke publicly about issues as diverse as feminist-centered spirituality and environmental activism.
And yet, it was the beginning of the end. The Vatican allowed women freedoms they had already claimed for themselves. By modernizing the convent, many claimed, examining the falling numbers, nuns had made themselves irrelevant. Women left their Orders in droves during the seventies, and younger women declined to apply. The ones who remained were as dried up, few, and precious as genuine Catholic relics.
“I liked it then and I like it now,” shrugged a smiling Sister. “Gin!”
Pamela introduced me to several of the assisted living residents who were cheerfully playing Gin Rummy around a table lit with dull florescent light. They were jolly, plump, gray, and warty, as merry as Mrs. Claus. I forced myself not to blurt out inappropriately personal questions about how the changes during the 1960’s affected their spirituality. I did gasp out an awkward, “Do you like being a nun better now or when you first started?” “
“I liked it then and I like it now,” shrugged a smiling Sister. “Gin!” They commented favorably on my “Crafty Lady” tee-shirt and charmingly asked what grade I was in ( I was thirty-three). They couldn’t have been more down to earth, but I thought they were otherworldly, I couldn’t help it—I had never met real nuns before, they were as magical to me as Maria von Trapp—I half expected them to burst into song.
Afterwards, Pamela and I walked through a hall decorated with framed black and white photographs from the early days of the convent. The nuns were smiling, outside in the grass, holding shovels, shoulder to shoulder. They had beautiful names—Sister Frumentia and Sister Dymphnna, like laughing nymphs, goddesses of plenty. They camped out in tents at night, their heads against the earth, with the rushing in their hearts, reverberating through their brains with a joyful lack of stillness. They had dug the convent out of the earth with their bare hands, hewing rocks and digging drains, crafting their marble and brick love letter to St. Francis and the Virgin Mary.
The whole experience made me wonder about the renunciation that we always associate with nuns—sex, love, pretty clothes, exciting food. These ladies were content. If they had renounced something, they had found something much better. Their aura of contentment made me envious. How does one come to such peace? Had they always felt this vocational joy, or did their merry old age mask a thousand and one dark nights of the soul?
That “the order is dying,” left me with a profound sadness, and still does. The death of the Order was not a glorious martyrdom, a beautiful burning annihilation, but an ignoble petering off. At some point soon, within the next two decades (a generous estimation), the last nun will close her eyes. The building will become what? A museum? A boarding school? A bed and breakfast? Maybe there will a plaque. So we are once again at the end of a cycle. And the beauty of what we are losing catches my heart in panic—even as I myself recognize its archaism. I can’t look away. History is sad wretched, and achingly predictable, but also electric ice exciting, a surge of waterpower. We want to see it, we want to witness the fall, seeking both self and other in the infinite collisions of water droplets.
Adrienne Benson Scherger says
Beautiful. You’ve turned history into something not just deeply alive, but also deeply personal. I’ve only been to Niagara once, and only saw it one way. If I go again, I’ll take this essay with me and see it all in a totally different, more nuanced way.