The Human Touch
A finger poked through the metal grate separating us. I reached out my hand and was immediately hooked into a finger embrace.
“Me, too! Me, too! Me, too!”
Fingers wiggled through the metal barrier that separated me from the nuns. The small room echoed with giggles as I went down the line, grasping each finger in turn.
My family had a relationship with the sisters that began in the 1930’s when my dziadek (grandfather) would donate food from his produce store to the convent. As a child, I loved visiting the old medieval-styled stone church on Haddon Avenue in Camden. The convent’s grounds were next to Lourdes Hospital, but were separated from the hospital, and the world, by thick stone walls and iron gates. The nuns did not serve the hospital. They belonged to a cloistered, contemplative Dominican order, dedicated to praying for the world while remaining totally removed from it. Stepping into their sanctum was like time-traveling back to the 1600’s. Only one nun was permitted to step outside the cloister to interact with the outside world. The others interacted with lay persons only by letters and by receiving the occasional visitor on the other side of the barrier in the small visiting room.
The women spent their days reading and answering letters full of prayer requests, reciting the rosary, and maintaining the convent. Except for the prayer recitations and a short game time each evening, their days were spent in total silence. I sometimes wonder if they passed around my letters, which I tried to make chatty and gossipy for their entertainment. In return, they would send me holy cards and hand-made rosaries with letters assuring me that they were praying for my illnesses and final exams and safe driving.
They prayed in my stead when I found it hard to pray. Their chapel served as a spiritual refuge when I stopped attending Mass. Although their cloistered lives seemed anachronistic, I saw the sisters as an independent community of women in a church that was, and still is, a man’s world.
My last visit occurred a few years ago, although I did not know it at the time. I opened the ancient wooden door at the visitors’ entrance and walked into the foyer that smelled of incense-permeated old wood and stone. I rang the bell next to the tiny grated spy hole. I could hear its ringing echo through the building, then a few seconds later, the sound of footsteps. A panel slid open behind the tiny window. I could discern a pair of eyes.
“Sister, I would like to pray in the chapel,” I said as I slid a letter with a donation into the barrel next to the spy hole.
“How are you dressed? Do you have shorts on? You can’t come in her with shorts,” she barked.
I had gotten the tough gatekeeper-nun that day. I moved back a few feet so that she could see my clothes. I told her that my figure was well past my wearing shorts, and I wished I could disobey her and wear them, but I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy. I told her this joke every time, and she never laughed, not once. Instead she pressed the buzzer that controlled the chapel door, and I had to run quickly to open it before she ceased buzzing. I’m sure that was my penance for the bad joke.
The chapel was a big church with multiple side altars, each placed in a cave-like alcove in the thick stone walls. Icons, candles, more candles, and statutes filled the church. When I was young, one of the altars contained shoes and crutches of those who were miraculously cured by the Lourdes relic ensconced in the stone wall to the right. On each side of the main altar were steps leading to a loft containing statues. The loft usually had a small kneeling station with pencils and papers where supplicants could scribble their prayer requests.
I was usually the only visitor, although sometimes one or two others sat quietly in the pews. I would walk around the church, then sit quietly in meditation. If I were lucky and arrived at rosary time, the sound of chanting would filter through the church from the unseen sisters, who were hidden from view in an enclosure behind the altar. Even in times when my faith had lapsed and my belief was weak, sitting alone in the cavernous space, while unseen angels chanted and incense permeated the air, was an emotional spiritual experience.
My last visit was more mundane, bittersweet to recall now, since neither the sisters nor I had any idea the convent was to close soon after. I was sitting in the church when I heard a voice call my name and ask me to go to the visitors’ room because Mother Immaculate Heart wanted to see me. Immaculate Heart was the Mother Superior of the convent. She was a tiny woman with a big heart and a hearty sense of humor. She was over ninety years old and had spent almost her entire life in the cloister, having entered as a teen. She had recently been hospitalized and told me about the grand time she had joking with the doctors and nurses. The hospital had given her a special room overlooking the convent grounds so that she could see her lifelong home from above.
After a few minutes, the other nuns filtered in behind the metal grate. Fingers poked through the grate and each had to be touched in turn. I showed the nuns the box of McMillan’s doughnuts that I had brought for them. They adored sugar doughnuts. I had the impression that the cakes would be their dinner, not their dessert. Donations had been dropping for years. The roof leaked, and the kitchen was as archaic as their cloistered lifestyle. The women were surviving on food and funds provided by a dwindling number of donors.
Mother Immaculate Heart died soon after that visit. The few remaining nuns were dispersed to nursing homes or a sister convent in New York. The next time I visited, the church was stripped and silent, for all the angels were gone.