Return to the Monastery

In early February 1998, I traveled to Bordentown, New Jersey, to visit the Poor Clare Monastery where I had lived for fifteen years. The Monastery was being sold and I wanted to say goodbye. Forty-two years had elapsed since I’d first entered its walls as a postulant. Although I had traveled more than a thousand miles in order to walk one last time through a building that had been my home, I’d been relegated to the section assigned visitors. I was told that coming inside the cloister was “absolutely out of the question.”

Realtors, contractors, historians, and surveyors had walked through the cloister during the time it had been for sale but I could not because I was no longer a nun. I felt this loss so keenly that it swelled in my belly like a mass of fermented dough. I promised myself that when the nuns had left, I would return. I would walk again through my home. Seatbacks and delays plagued the sale, however, and it was more than a year before the nuns were able to move and almost another year before I could travel back. Meanwhile, the monastery seemed to wait for me. When I called the new owner, Christiana Foglio, in her New Brunswick office to ask if I could revisit the building, I learned that I’d phoned just in time.

“Remodeling begins next week,” she told me. We made plans to meet at the Monastery on Friday morning, May 12, 2000.

Walking Within the Walls

The building had deteriorated since my last visit. A large crack had opened under the front door and the towering maple in the front yard had lost its limbs -- its jagged trunk now resembling a moss-ridden statue of some forgotten saint. Even the community center next door, bright and shining thirty years ago, had become decrepit. It shed its skin in layers and its windows were boarded up or broken.

Yet some things remained the same: the stained glass window of Saint Clare and her sisters shimmering with golden light in the visitors’ dining room, the faint scent of linseed oil and polish that lingered in the hallways, the silence that softened the noise of the busy street outside. Even the red brick walls that had so disappointed me the first time I’d seen them (expecting as I was the fluted columns and monastic arches of an Italian cloister) comforted me with their familiarity.

I waited inside the vestibule for Christiana. She arrived wearing an exquisite leather suit with tiny spiked heels and looking incredibly young to have negotiated the purchase of a historic building for a senior residence so unique that it had been written up in the New York Times. And there I stood, in my linen jumper and clunky sandals, a self-proclaimed writer with no published books and only a weekly column and a few articles of which to boast.

As we passed through the large double doors that led into the cloister from the vestibule, I felt the same shudder of excitement that I’d experienced when I first crossed that portal, leaving my white-faced parents behind. My father had tried to joke about “there still being time to change your mind” but my mother’s anguish had no restraints. “I’ll never be able to hold you again,” she’d cried. I was seventeen then and oblivious to her pain but now the memory filled me with sadness. I wondered, were my parents still alive, what they would make of this desire to see the Monastery one last time.

We began our tour on the third floor, in the Novitiate, the section of the Monastery where I’d spent the first five years of my religious life learning to subject my will to that of my superior, to rejoice in poverty, to serve my sisters, and to seek God above all things. Christiana had not been given such a tour by the nuns and it was easy to pretend that I still lived there -- was still a young woman burning with a desire for sanctity, filled with gratitude to have been chosen for such a life. We walked through the community room where we recreated and studied, the large dormitories with their tall frosted windows and the curtain rods separating the novices’ straw pallets, washbasins and stools. The memories that flooded me were so strong that I became garrulous, longing to share as much as I could with Christiana, hoping that my words would help her to understand the building’s past. I wanted to laugh out-loud at the joy of this visit. With the nuns gone, I was no longer an outsider. I had become, instead, a tour guide, a historian: the interpreter of the life I’d once lived.

Denise, the building’s young caretaker, joined us on the second floor near the infirmary. She’d grown up in Bordentown where residents had puzzled over the convent in their midst, where nuns neither taught nor nursed but spent their lives in prayer and penitence. She pointed to the room opposite the altar bread room (where we baked, cut, and sorted the communion wafers for the Diocese of Trenton) and asked if this was where the nuns performed exorcisms.

“Exorcisms,” I gasped. What had ever given her the idea that nuns performed exorcisms. Her next question was even more surprising.

“Why then is the room soundproofed?” I had no memory of the room ever being sound-proofed.(I later learned that it had been turned into a telephone room after I left religious life -- one of the innovations made possible by Vatican II.) As we moved from floor to floor I discovered that there were other rooms that I knew nothing about, rooms I’d never been in before. I began to feel like a sleeper in a dream who discovers that the place she thought she knew has all sorts of secret wings and hidden chambers.

“How is it possible to live in a building for fifteen years and not have been inside all its rooms?” The thought troubled me as much as it did Christiana. I didn’t know what to answer. Perhaps obedience and custody of the senses had quieted my innate sense of curiosity for I’d never thought to question the purpose or existence of rooms that I had no reason to enter. Not until then.

The monastery’s beautiful wooden floors had been covered with linoleum and cheap industrial carpeting. But worse lay ahead. From the Tribune, the lovely golden room above the chapel where the infirm nuns attended religious services, I viewed the damage. The heart of the cloister had been cleft, emptied of its altars and saints, its tiers of dark wooden stalls, its organ. Only the high-arched windows, vaulted ceiling, and amber Seraphim-clasped lamps remained.

“It will make an incredible dining room,” Christiana said and, with a heavy heart, I agreed. It seemed fitting that the place dedicated to prayer and liturgical worship, the Eucharist, should become a dining room for those nearing the end of their journeys. Still the dismantling of the chapel saddened me beyond anything I’d seen till then. This was the sign, the hot wax that sealed the document. The Monastery no longer existed. Even the bodies of the nuns, who had once been interred in niches in the crypt beneath the chapel, had been moved to a small cemetery outside the enclosure walls. But the scent of the crypt was the same: damp cement and mortar with a long-ago memory of Easter lilies stored in its chill embrace.

Outside the crypt lay the cloister yard and I was disheartened to see that the beautiful garden, once filled with roses, grape arbors and peach trees, had disappeared. “Don’t walk out there,” Denise warned, pointing to the swaying field of grass, “It’s full of ticks,” so we stuck to the cement pathway instead and walked toward the other end of the building where, under the novitiate window, the ornate and colorful irises planted many years earlier still bloomed and reentered the building through the kitchen porch to stop in the refectory to say goodbye.

“Workers say they’ve have heard nuns singing in the chapel,” Christiana mentioned as she shook my hand. Denise added that she’d seen lights flick on and off in different sections of the building at night and that even the police seemed hesitant to investigate. Perhaps the building was haunted, as they seemed to imply. I didn’t need voices or lights to know it mourned its loss. I saw grief in the grout falling in strips from between its bricks, in the sagging of its eaves, the widening cracks of its foundation. Yet I found comfort in the memory of the irises. No matter what the building becomes, I told myself, no matter how many changes it undergoes or what renovations modify its image, the irises will always bloom under the novitiate window.

Published Originally in the Trenton Times Sunday, January 6, 2002