Warm memories of a holiday call on the sisters

JACQUES KELLY

December 25, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

The nuns my family used to visit on Christmas Day lived a austere life. There wasn't even an evergreen wreath on the front door at 5712 Roland Ave.

My four sisters, my brother and I would race from Father's 1964 Checker Marathon to see who would be the first to press the doorbell. That ring could have been heard in Towson.

After what seemed like a long wait, a voice sounded from an opening cut within the massive front door. It belonged to the portress, cheery old Sister Mary Stanislaus. She was a tiny person with a sunny personality. She'd lead us into the vestibule, which was spotless and always smelled of wax and varnish, then direct us to the left or to the right. Then she'd pull a lever that released a huge lock on the door to a visitors parlor. The mechanical clicking sound was like something out of medieval Europe.

The Kelly family's Christmas Day visits began in the 1950s and ended when the Order of the Visitation closed its Roland Park monastery in the mid-1970s. Today, the massive old place is the Roland Park North condominium. The cloister, garden and grounds are now peppered with expensive town houses.

On those chilly Dec. 25th mornings years ago, the nuns' call bells rang incessantly. The sisters had an Autocall, a patented striking device that sounded all over the monastery. Each sister had her own code. If it rang two, then three strikes, Sister Francis Patrick would know she was wanted. The Autocall would clang away for about 10 minutes, summoning each of the 28 sisters.

Sister Mary Maurice was usually one of the first to sweep into the visitors parlor. She cut a tall and graceful figure in her black serge habit, with deep long sleeves and a flowing skirt of 21 pleats. She taught the seventh grade at the academy next door to the monastery.

The scene in the visitors parlor was typical Christmas morning bedlam. Wrapping paper that covered presents flew in all directions as the monastic silence was shattered on this most joyous of Christian festival days. There was not a single yawn although the nuns had been up late for a solemn High Mass at midnight. Even the ever-stern Sister Mary Ignatius brightened up for the hour's visit.

The sisters always sat on their side of a wooden, checkerboard grillwork. You could see through the black bars, but the partition was a fixed reminder of the sisters' separation from the world. On one side was a drum-like contraption on which you would place a small gift and revolve it so the sisters could reach their Christmas presents.

Because the nuns took a vow of poverty, the gifts my mother gave them had to be small and practical. Mom spent many a November and December day going from bargain house to bargain house finding the right item for each nun. Nothing could cost more than a couple of dollars. Once a picture of Princess Grace of Monaco was returned as being far too worldly.

Most people would have turned up their noses on Christmas morning to find a gift of unscented white soap, or a ball of twine, or undecorated writing paper. But the sisters reacted as if each gift were a complete surprise and treasure.

Each nun had her own role and specialty in the community -- the procuratrix who did the essential buying; an infirmarian; a portress, who answered the door and phone; a librarian; a sacristan; and a treasurer. Mom often tailored gifts to their assignments.

Among other oddities of the order, founded in France in 1610, was a strict rule against buying fowl, once considered a delicacy for the rich. The edict did not prohibit eating it however. So the Christmas turkeys served in the refectory were always gifts.

Before we left, we trooped around to the other side of the building, where the three sisters who were allowed to leave the complex often sat. Sister Mary Clement was one of these so-called "out" sisters because she was permitted to go downtown on monthly business trips. Mom usually slipped her a few Ellery Queen paperbacks -- always used -- so she could keep up with her favorite detective.

To signal that the visit was over, the monastery's largest bell, the huge bronze one in the tower that pealed when a nun pulled on a heavy rope, rang precisely at noon.

The sisters were reciting the great Angelus prayer, "The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary; and she conceived of the Holy Ghost" as the old Checker, its eight passengers and empty trunk headed south on Roland Avenue.

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