What follows is a Speakeasy excerpt from Terrifying Freedom, Linda Anne Smith’s debut novel.
Amidst the large number of women joining the community, Sr. Rebecca Marise drew no particular attention. She entered at nineteen with some college education—typical of many—and went through the formation process in stride with the rest. Her reports were consistently positive yet in no way remarkable in comparison to the others.
As councillor of formation, Sr. Henrietta had access to the reports of the temporary professed sisters and she reviewed them all. And so it was that she read the practicum evaluation of Sr. Rebecca Marise. It was the first time Sr. Rebecca Marise blipped above the median. From the evaluation, Sr. Henrietta sensed that Sr. Rebecca Marise did not just love teaching, she was passionate. She had connected and adapted in order to draw out the abilities of the children. The superior’s evaluation, on the other hand, was similar to previous reports. Sr. Rebecca Marise was observant and prayerful, generous in community, devoted to the Church and its teachings. These qualities were mere check marks without comment, at par with the expected.
Not that Sr. Henrietta considered this a fault.
During the turbulent years following Vatican II, the SCRs clung together and braved the battle as a small, local congregation. They had few but steady numbers of vocations. Staunchly clinging to the traditions of the past and insisting on absolute loyalty to the Pope and Church teaching, they were tolerated or ignored among the more prominent and progressive religious Orders. In time, John Paul II was elected pope and the dust began to settle. During the past decade, their growth had been unprecedented and they garnered the notice and support of high-ranking members of the hierarchy. It was amazing to witness.
At the same time, a stance, difficult to name and even harder to address, was also surfacing. Sr. Henrietta noted among the superiors and many of the sisters a… a…. So nebulous, she found it hard to even articulate. It was a… particular flourish when expressing their gratitude to God for the blessing of their numerous vocations—always linked to their fidelity to the Pope and religious habit. In her later years as mistress, and now as councillor, she perceived a certain zeal…, surety…, even hauteur, among some of the younger sisters. They were thoroughly convinced of their vocation, resolute in their allegiance… jubilant, really. Wasn’t that right, wasn’t that to be lauded? And wasn’t their distain justified on occasion, given the trends prevalent in society and among certain sectors in the Church? So what was it that made her uncomfortable?
In this regard, Sr. Rebecca Marise was inconspicuous. Had Sr. Henrietta known her better, it would not have been surprising. Sr. Rebecca Marise had no experience of religious life outside the SCRs. Their perspective was reinforced by what she learned in class, gleaned from sermons, and read in the periodicals recommended by the superiors—the world was on a fast track toward impending doom. The sisters, instead, were buoyant and so zealous to have new members share their life. When among them, Sr. Rebecca Marise felt lifted up, banded together with sisters under the guidance of superiors who supported them on their journey toward eternal life. Together they brought Christ’s light to the darkness surrounding them.
The bus wound its way through the foothills toward the mountains, leaving behind the flatlands and its meandering lakes, headed toward Whitewaters. Sr. Rebecca Marise looked out the bus window at the rolling hills. Driving into the mountains was unknown and mysterious.
For the SCRs, establishing a school in a locale such as Whitewaters was unprecedented—the Catholic population was less than five percent. And truth be told, the decision would never have been made without the strong encouragement from the bishop at the time.
In the beginning, the new foundation generated much interest and esprit de corps among the SCRs. Over time, the novelty waned and other apostolic initiatives took precedence. Due to greater needs in larger centres, the Whitewaters community was reduced to four sisters approaching retirement age, “seasoned” nuns as they were called. While Whitewaters always maintained the distinction of the missionary project (which kept it in existence), the tiny community drifted into the shadows of the congregation’s attention, and its current inhabitants sought to keep it that way.
Unfortunately, a couple of weeks before school began, one of the four had a heart attack, sending Mother General and her councillors into a flurry. A replacement was imperative. But whom to send? All the sisters slated to teach were in their local communities gearing up for the first day of classes, now only a week away. In addition, the diocese’s anniversary celebrations were set to launch within the year and the SCRs held key positions on the coordinating team, further reducing an already limited selection.
Sr. Rebecca Marise’s head rattled hard against the window as the driver sped over a series of potholes. It was night. The full moon flitted in and out of view as the bus swerved around the mountains and wound through the hollows. Why was I chosen? Of all the nuns, certainly there had to be “seasoned” nuns willing to venture into missionary territory.
Linda Smith lives near Calgary, Alberta, enjoying the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. For 30 years, she was a member of a community of religious sisters. She currently works in an organization that is dedicated to assisting and advocating for traumatized and neglected children.
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