A whiff of the combined scent of fresh flowers, incense, hot candle wax and floor polish always transports me back to the lovely little chapel of St. Agnes’ Convent, Matale.
In one way or another we boarders spent a good deal of time in the chapel. Apart from the services that we had to attend, we were sometimes sent there for some other purpose.
One day Mother Agnes sent a few of us to the chapel to confess the sin of stealing. What we had stolen was a ripe papaw.
Rev. Father Paul Perera came over to say mass and was often invited to stay to breakfast, which always included a slice of papaw, from home-grown trees guarded by a fierce old lady. One day when she was nowhere to be seen, we saw a golden fruit carefully hidden among the leaves. It was the work of a moment to pluck it. It was delicious.
The next day after mass there was an almighty fuss; there was no papaw for Father Paul. Who had done this? The culprits were asked to own up before the entire lot of boarders were punished. Naturally we owned up.
“Why did you do it?”
“For fun, Mother.”
“Is that what you call if? Well, I call it stealing,” said Mother who sent us to the chapel where Father Paul was hearing confessions.
I knelt mutinously at the confessional. “Well, what have you done?” asked Father. “I ate forbidden fruit,” I replied like a modern–day Eve.
Father’s lips twitched. “How did that happen?” he asked. “We stole the papaw reserved for you,” I said.
“Taking anything that doesn’t belong to you without permission is wrong,” said Father Paul (later the Bishop of Kandy) but there was a twinkle in his eye.
The chapel was also the place where one unforgettable day I attempted to wake the dead. I relate this for the sake of the incident, which affected me powerfully, but for the nun in the story, I express my most profound respect.
Sister R. (name withheld) was one of the oldest nuns in the convent. Tall and gaunt, she seemed to spend her entire time in the chapel. We’d see her sitting or more often kneeling, head bowed in prayer with the rosary beads slipping through her fingers.
One afternoon I was walking aimlessly along a corridor when Sister Lourdes called out to me. “Bernie,” she said, “Go to the chapel and tell Sister R. to come and have her tea.”
I went along to the chapel and found Sister R kneeling straight – backed with her head bowed over her clasped hands. “Sister,” I whispered, standing close to her, “Sister Lourdes wants you to go and have your tea.” No response. She was probably asleep, I thought and spoke louder,” Sister R wake up, your tea is ready.” When there was still no response I touched her on the shoulder, and before my horrified eyes, Sister R slid slowly sideways, toppled on to the pew and fell on the floor with a thud.
I did not scream, although I knew a scream was forming deep down inside my tummy. I stumbled out of the chapel somehow and ran along the corridor. “Sister,” I paused when I saw Sister Lourdes, “Sister R…. she... I think she’s … she’s…” I felt a stinging pain on my cheek. Sister Lourdes had slapped me – hard.
“Why…” I started to protest, but sister was already beckoning an older girl. “Take this child to the refectory,” she said, “and tell someone in the kitchen to get her a cup of coffee. Lots of sugar..” As I sipped the hot, sweet coffee, I felt my panic subsiding. A little while later Sister Lourdes joined me. “Why did you smack me?” I asked, aggrieved. “You were in shock,” she explained, "I had to do something fast to get you out of it. She also told me that Sister R had died peacefully and I felt comforted.
The chapel was the place we went to with all our childish problems. As we grew older it was in the chapel that we formed our hopes and dreams.
Often as we knelt for service and the clear, sweet voices of the choristers rang out, led by Miss Mary Walles our well–loved music teacher, we left glad that we were a part of the extended family that was the convent boarding school.