A scary nun, a set of dentures and a walk down memory lane

THE scariest nun I’ve ever met taught me maths in high school in the 1970s - or more correctly, tried to teach me maths. I don’t know who had the worst end of that deal.

Her name was Sister Vianney. I don’t remember ever asking her, mainly because she was too terrifying to have a casual chat with, but presumably she was named after St John Vianney – a French cleric who died in 1859 and appears to have been made a saint because he prayed an excessive amount and condemned people for drinking and dancing.

He shares his feast day, August 4, with Saint Sithney, who sounds altogether more interesting as the patron saint of mad dogs.

Saint John Vianney shares his feast day, August 4, with Saint Sithney, who sounds altogether more interesting as the patron saint of mad dogs.

Anyway, Sister Vianney is the star of one of my best school stories – the day her teeth betrayed her.

Every week we endured a double maths lesson with Sister Vianney, who was also school principal. I can still picture her bearing down on me when I couldn’t answer a question, the habit on her head flapping and her eyes blazing. She would give me a couple of hard whacks on the left shoulder to force the correct answer out (which never happened) and then march to the front again. I am still crap at maths.

The day her teeth betrayed her started like any other day. The door to our classroom opened decisively, Sister Vianney entered, closed the door behind her, strode to the spot near her desk, opened her mouth to speak – and her denture, or dentures, I really can’t be sure, flew out.

And she caught them.

If it happened today a roomful of 15 and 16-year-old girls would be on the floor howling with laughter within two seconds.

On that day though, back in the mid 1970s when nuns like Sister Vianney were terrifying, and teenagers like me were terrified, there wasn’t a peep.

It was only after she walked from the room and shut the door behind her that the class erupted. My memory is that we laughed, cried, howled, rolled on the floor and recreated the scene for many long minutes. Certainly we exhausted ourselves because the laughter came in waves. The 30 or so of us would just have calmed down when someone would start up again and off we’d go.

We finally settled, the door opened, Sister Vianney walked back in and we struggled with trigonometry, or working out the value of x in equations, or any of those other maths things I’ve spent the subsequent four decades never using.

Sister Vianney made me vice captain in my final year of high school. She said it was to give hope to other girls who had promise but were a bit… challenging is the word I’ll settle on. If someone noisy like me, who tended to hitch her uniform and pay too much attention to the boys at the high school down the road could get through the year without disgracing herself or the school, then there was hope for everyone, seemed to be the message. The school and I survived the experience.

On our last day at the school some friends and I walked up to Sister Vianney to ask her to autograph our school memories books. I asked the question and I will never forget the response.

Sister Vianney told us she wouldn’t sign our death warrants. If it sounds bizarre now you can imagine what the impact was at the time. But then the most extraordinary thing happened. The terrifying Sister Vianney became tearful, and said she was hard on us because she always wanted us to do our very best. It was the closest I ever saw her get to expressing love for her students, but it was very real.

Even at the time her response struck me as poignant. For all those years she was surrounded by children but she had none of her own. We were too terrified of her to engage in actual conversation. She might have had familiar and personal relations with other nuns but it seemed like the kind of bizarre response that would come with a lack of intimacy.   

A few years later I interviewed her after she retired and became a Lifeline counsellor. We had a lovely chat. I also wrote her obituary when she died.

I’ve known some beautiful nuns. A few years ago I was talking with a group of nuns and the subject of priests came up. I’m delighted to say there were a few eye rolls and muffled laughs about the men of the church before I accepted it was time we changed topic or they’d break a vow and let rip.

In 2013 a senior nun gave evidence in camera to the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The transcript was later released.

I very much enjoyed writing up an article based on the nun’s honest and straightforward answers to questions, while under oath, about the church and its male hierarchy, priests, nuns and women in general.

The church was “basically patriarchal in its organisation and its systems”, regarded women in the past as useful for ‘‘cooking the Sunday lunch roast’’ but not much else, and even today left women feeling ‘‘fairly well overlooked’’, she told the commission.

Nuns were “never... part of any decision-making – even any kind of consultation, collaboration” in the 1980s, she said.

‘‘I think it’s true to say the Catholic Church is as good as it is today because of its religious women, not because of its religious men. We have endured much, put up with much,’’ she said.

Looking back on my old school records this week reminded me of one of my high school teacher/nuns who disappeared suddenly, only to be the subject of whispered conversations a few months later when it was confirmed she had left her order to marry a member of a religious order.

The trip down memory lane also confirmed the patriarchy lives on in the church as the number of nuns has declined.

For decades from 1910 my old school was headed by nuns until the last of them left in the very early 1990s. From that point on the school – exclusively for girls – has been headed by a succession of male lay principals. Sister Vianney would not be amused.