St. Hugh's Catholic Church, Coconut Grove, Florida

St. Hugh’s Catholic Church, Coconut Grove, Florida

A rubber band nicked my arm between my elbow and my St. Hugh’s uniform sleeve and fell to the floor beside my desk.

I turned around and shot a glare at Harry Ferguson, but he and the rest of the class stared, slack-jawed over my shoulder.

I twisted forward in time to see Sister Sheila step through the doorway smiling, as usual, but swathed in white like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

Gone were the heavy folds of purple fabric that covered her head to toe, the black hose and blacker lace-up shoes, the white wimple that covered all but her face.

I stared at the two inches of mouse-brown hair threaded with silver revealed by her abbreviated veil. My anticipation of getting my essay back emptied out of my head. Sister had hair!

My gaze slid down the linen three-quarter-length sleeves to the mid-calf hem, then slipped to flesh-colored support hose and open-toed sandals. It was a good thing I was sitting down. I’d never thought about whether she had legs.

similar to the St. Hugh's retired habits

similar to the St. Hugh’s retired habits

Soon, the happy chaos of Sister returning our essays washed our wonder aside.

Sister’s words—candy-apple red—at the bottom of my paper seeped through all the layers of me. Excellent writing—not only the grammar and punctuation, but the story!!! I loved the part about inflating the parachute on the City Hall lawn. I closed my eyes and laid my palm against their sweetness.

The leftover scent of the Noon rain blew in the window and mixed with chalk dust and after-recess sweat.

Too soon, the last bell rang.

Notebooks popped shut, chairs scraped across the floor.

I gathered my papers into my binder, not joining the escalating euphoria rising from the room. Going home always made me a little sad. I hung back from the white-shirted boys and girls in pale green dresses pressing through the door, sliding my sweater from the back of my seat in slow motion. Sister Sheila stopped me as I passed her desk. Her kind eyes seemed to dance with joy.

I couldn’t help but smile back.

Would I like to spend the night at the convent next Friday? I could bring a friend, and it would be fun, she said.

I floated down the steps, thinking this might be big enough news to put a dime in the pay phone on the dock and call Jody.

I skipped through the week atwitter with anticipation, at one point spotting Sister Sheila pedaling her way to school on a bicycle—something she never could have accomplished in her old habit.

Jody and I had barely recovered from the shock of the nuns’ transformation, and now we would find out if they slept on boards and blocks of wood as we suspected. Maybe their old purple habits had been converted to nightgowns. Did they eat hosts for dessert or intone Gregorian chants for fun? When Jody and I arrived on the convent doorstep, I felt like Nancy Drew about to uncover a mystery.

similar to the new (circa 1970) St. Hugh's habits

similar to the new (circa 1970) St. Hugh’s habits

Sister Sheila whisked us into the inner sanctum of the convent, her sandals clicking across the terrazzo floor. I scanned the beige couches, white walls, silk flower arrangement on an end table. It looked— just like Jody’s house, only tidier.

Jody begged for a tour, and Sister Sheila laughed and swung open the first door in the hall. “This is my room.”

Jody and I gulped air and poked our heads into the white-walled bedroom.

A crucifix hung over the dresser, but my eyes fastened on the twin bed draped in white chenille like the spread on my parent’s bed before we moved onto the boat—familiar when I’d hoped for exotic.

Our air whooshed out simultaneously in the sunlit room.

Later, a bit deflated, but optimistic, I scooted into my seat at the dinner table with the six nuns we’d seen every day at school.

They talked and laughed like normal people.

I sniffed to see if the convent smelled like the incense the priest swung in an over-sized brass egg on a chain as he walked down the aisle at High Mass. But I smelled only fish sticks and mashed potatoes.

My chin sunk lower when no communion bread or wine appeared at the table. No chants were uttered.

After dinner and board games, Sister Sheila cheerily hummed as she made us beds out of chaise lounge cushions on the enclosed porch. After she said prayers and disappeared into her own room, I groused to Jody that we hadn’t spotted a single nun in her pajamas.

Maybe, when I grew up, I’d take vows. Then I’d know what nuns wore to bed. I shoved away the thought as too extreme, even for Nancy Drew.

Several years later at Our Lady of the Hills Catholic summer camp in Hendersonville, North Carolina, I had second thoughts about a vocation. I cornered one of the nuns in arts and crafts about the possibility of taking orders.

Her response proved lackluster at best.

Our Lady of the Hills Camp, now Highland Lake Inn

Our Lady of the Hills Camp, now Highland Lake Inn

Maybe she noticed boys tattooed across my pupils.

Along with St. Hugh’s and Our Lady of the Hills, Mom carted me to St. Michael’s in Miami, St. Joe’s in Stuart, and Sacred Heart in New Smyrna Beach. Through every Sunday, holy day, catechism Saturday, Catholic Youth Organization function, and nine summers of camp I found my sanctuary in the Catholic Church.

The church welcomed me in from the storms of my life and gave me constancy and character. She comforted me through Sister Sheila when my family weathered divorce. She gave me Our Lady of the Hills camp—the happy in my childhood. And when the sharp edges of my relationship with Dad converged with my hunger for purpose at sixteen, she pointed me to God.


Madonna Lake when owned by Our Lady of the Hills Camp, now Highland Lake

Madonna Lake when owned by Our Lady of the Hills Camp, now Highland Lake

No matter that I left transubstantiation, saints, liturgy, the vow of celibacy, and the rhythm method of birth control on the ecclesiastical buffet table as I stepped into adulthood, part of my heart will always belong to the Catholic Church. She’s down in the bones of who I am.

I didn’t connect all the Catholic dots to God. But the Baptists filled in a few lines to help me out. At nineteen, the fusion helped me form a perma-bond with Jesus.

I went on to marry a protestant, procreate four kids who cobbled together their own faith, and pen books that are as hard to pigeonhole as I am.

Jody grew up to become a Miami business maven.

Neither of us ever found out what nuns wear to bed.