Sometimes even now, at odd moments, I seem to hear the swish of robes and the soft rustle of rosary beads that always announced the approach of a nun, and I turn around quickly expecting to see a nun passing by.
My close association with nuns ended many decades ago, but I spent my entire childhood and many of my teenage years surrounded by nuns: first in St. Anne’s Convent, Matale and then in Good Shepherd Convent, Kandy.
From the time we entered the boarding, the nuns took charge of us body and soul. We called them “Mother” and they were indeed our Mothers by proxy. They fed us, kept us clean and neat, scolded us, spanked us, cared for us and loved us. They shared our laughter and dried our tears.
They taught us to pray and they prayed over us;“Lord, put some sense into this child’s head!”
They taught us everything we should know about manners and morals. A typical impromptu lesson would be as fallows:
“EXCUSE ME,” I say loudly, pushing past a girl who is talking to a nun. “Don’t be rude,” says Mother Benedict, coldly. “But Mother,” I exclaim with wide-eyed innocence, “You did hear me say, 'excuse me’.”
“You said the words, yes,” says Mother, “But your tone was rude.”
They insisted on the correctness of speech. “Tch, tch,” went Mother St. Colette when she overheard a classmate referring to a visitor to the school as 'that fat thing!' “Language, language,” admonished Mother. “Fat thing! That’s no way to describe a person.”
“But Mother, she was fat. That’s the best way to describe her.”“You could say, ‘that stout lady’,” said Mother Collette primly. Modesty ranked high in the list of virtues that the nuns strove to instil in our young minds.
“I want to see that hemline lowered two inches. You happen to be wearing a school uniform, not a ballerina costume.”
We boarders had an edge over the day students because we got a bigger share of the nuns’ attention and their ministrations. We also saw them in a different light after formal school hours were over.
When they were more relaxed and, metaphorically speaking, let their hair down.
During school hours Mother Principal and most of the teaching nuns wore shoes with lacings, which they exchanged for comfortable open sandals in the evenings and during week-ends.
I remember a new boarder staring in fascination at Mother St. Clare’s bare toes. “Well, what did you expect?” asked Mother tartly, “hoofs?”
Founded in France in 1835, by Sister Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, the Order of Good Shepherd nuns spread to many parts of the world including Sri Lanka in 1869. A large number of nuns in our days were Irish. The Sri Lankans included Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher nuns.
People tend to associate Good Shepherd nuns solely with teaching because of the large number of well-known girls’ schools in the island, in which they are either principals or teachers. But education is only one of their fields. Good Shepherd nuns maintain orphanages, a crèche for abandoned babies in Nayakakanda, homes for unwed mothers and homes for elders. They are also involved in social work in the plantation sector. Theirs have been lives dedicated to those in need - especially women and children.
In retrospect, even the faults and failings of these nuns (for they are ordinary human beings) endear them to those of us who have benefited from their care, for rising above these frailties they have sacrificed parents, home and family life and children of their own to care for those in need.
I am sure generations of past and present students would join me in saying a warm and heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the nuns of the Good Shepherd Order. We hope that their services would grow and multiply in the years ahead.