A Mother Superior and a Mother Principal: Two unforgettable nuns

The Mother Superiors I knew were all imposing figures. One such Superior was Mother Magdalene of St. Agnes' Convent, Matale. Tall and big-made, she' d sail forth like a majestic ocean-liner, swaying slightly from side to side, her robes billowing about her.

She did not come towards the boarding very often, and the very rareness of her appearances made us juniors tremble when we saw her. As she walked slowly along the corridor, we would cower with trepidation. We'd hide behind pillars and peep at her, quickly examining our consciences to find whether we'd done something to deserve her censure.

We never dared to run away if Mother Superior caught sight of us. Instead we'd freeze on the spot, while her small eyes behind thick lenses pierced into our very souls.

We'd take in our stride a summons by the Boarding Mistress or even Mother Principal. But a summons by Mother Superior would leave us quaking. It was either to commend us for some extraordinary act of good behaviour or to mete out some dire punishment, which usually took the form of a caning. The nuns were firm believers in the biblical injunction to "spare the rod and spoil the child".

Mother Magdalene left St. Agnes' Convent soon after I left for Good Shepherd Convent, Kandy and I didn't see her for some years. Then one day I got a message that I was to go to the parlour where there was a visitor. There seated in a corner was Mother Magdalene. She had come to Good Shepherd Convent to attend to some matter and thought she'd like to see me.

The old fears came over me as I saw her and I seated myself on the edge of a chair. We spoke for a while about my studies, but when I nervously bade her goodbye and turned to leave, she called me back.
"Bernie, come back here, child," she said in a tone so gentle that I turned in surprise. "Won't you give me a kiss before you go?" she said. As I put my arm around her and kissed her, I realized with a shock that she was old and frail and perhaps lonely. The old fears fell away and I felt my eyes sting. I left her seated there and never saw her again.

The Mother Principal whom I remember best is, however, happily still with us. Mother St. Agnes was the Principal of St. Agnes' Convent, Matale from the time I entered the boarding as a five-year-old till I left for Good Shepherd Convent, Kandy. She was an outstanding Principal, popular among staff and students alike, but as our Boarding Mistress she was also our guide and our counsellor.

One occasion stands out in my mind. It was the day of my first Holy Communion, a big day in the life of a little girl. All of us communicants were dressed in long, white dresses our mothers had sewn for this special occasion.

We wore veils on our heads. Mother Agnes was standing before me pinning a circlet of flowers on my veil. I'd always thought of her as a 'nun' - different from ordinary human persons, but as I looked up at her face, absorbed in her task, I realized that she was also a woman, young and pretty.

"How old are you, Mother?" I asked with the directness of children. Mother Agnes looked at my untoward face quizzically and smiled. "I'm twenty-seven years old,” she replied.

Many years later I met her at an opera in St. Bridget’s Convent. "You look the same," I complimented her.
"That can't be," she said, smiling, "Do you know how old I'm now? I'm...."

"Just a minute,” I interrupted her, "Let me tell you." After a quick calculation, I told her how old she was.
"That's correct," said Mother Agnes, amazed. "How did you know my exact age?"

I laughed and recalled the day of my first Holy Communion. Mother Agnes' reply was typical. "What a nice person I must have been,” she said, " to have told a cheeky little brat my correct age!"

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