... An Interview With Sister Isabel Goineau
For some 73 years, the teaching order of nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, taught at the St. Mary's parochial school (1909-1982). With changing times and a drastic drop in the number of young ladies joining the religious orders, many parochial schools, including St. Mary's, are now primarily staffed by lay teachers.
With their long black outfits, unique headpieces and prominent crucifixes and rosary beads, the nuns of yesterday were noteworthy figures to the community, catholics and non-catholics alike.
Over the years many young women from Melrose joined the various religious orders and served as nuns throughout the world. (See list of names at end of the article.) We are fortunate to have one person, Sister Isabel Goineau, 88 years young, who has served in the Holy Child order in many parishes, including St. Mary's. While officially "retired", Sister Isabel is still a very active and vital person, and is often seen at the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital visiting patients of all denominations. Silver Stringers Don Norris, a Protestant, and Jim Driscoll, a member of St. Mary's Parish, spent a delightful afternoon interviewing Sister Isabel.
Don: We need some background material, Sister. Tell us about yourself.
Sister Isabel: I was born on April 30, 1911 in Melrose, grew up in Melrose, went to St. Mary's grammar school. Then I went to Cheverus High School in Malden. I didn't go to St. Mary's High School because at that time St. Mary's only had a two year business course. I wanted to be a teacher. Yes, as a grammar school student I knew that I wanted to be a nun.
Sister Isabel: I think I just loved the nuns, I think that's part of it. It was a young age, but ... The thing is that, even though I was young, my mind changed a little in the second year in high school (laughter) and a few of the gentlemen came along that I became interested in, and then I thought, oh gosh, maybe I don't want to be a nun. But I came back and I became a nun.
I went to Cheverus three years and then I finished in New York. I went to one of our Holy Child schools in New York as a boarder, And from high school I went right into the Sisters of the Holy Child convent, which was in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.
Don: What was your course of studies there?
Sister Isabel: Well, I entered in September at age 18 (1929). I had graduated in June, came home for the summer, then went down -- and became what is called a postulant. For six months, it was kind of a trial, and you wore not a habit exactly, but a black skirt and a little veil. First of all you were given instructions on the rules of the order, Sisters of the Holy Child, and what was expected of you. And then of course we had studies for teaching, so that we could go on ---
And then after six months, you became what they called a novice, and then for one year you lead a very secluded life. You didn't do any studies for a degree in that one year, everything was based on religion. During the second year, you then studied to get your teacher's certificate.
Don: How long did you spend at the convent in Sharon Hill?
Sister Isabel: The novice period was two years, so there were three years of study. Then you made your vows for five years, so that, within those five years, if you decided you didn't want to stay, you would just say, 'I want to go'.
Don: You could quit?
Sister Isabel: Umm, you could quit.
Don: What were the vows you had to take?
Sister Isabel: Poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty in the sense that, well, everything you had you had to ask for. We weren't poor, but we owned very little. On chastity, of course we couldn't marry. And obedience, you did as you were told. For instance, after I made my final vows, I was told I was going to Portland, Oregon. That was it, I went off to Portland, Oregon. You did as you were told.
In Portland, in the early 1930s, Sister Isabel poses with three of her students.
Jim: Let's get the reference to time ...
Sister Isabel: I entered in 1929, and made my vows in 1932, and my first assignment was to St. Edwards in Philadelphia, and I had 60 fourth-grade boys.
Don: As a novice teacher?
Sister Isabel: As a novice teacher. We had had our training of course, and were still studying for degrees -- but, 60 fourth-grade boys in a small classroom, and the desks were two together. And the superior said to me, 'Now look, don't yell at them. Use your eyes'. And it worked. (Sister Isabel here gave us a strong scowl, as an explanation).
No, the children didn't have uniforms in those days. The nuns, however, wore a full habit: long black skirt and a cape, with a little cap worn around this way (showing with her hands how the cap was worn) and a veil. I have a picture in there ...
Jim: And the habit remained the same all though the years ...?
Sister Isabel: Yes, the habit remained the same until the changes came. (Her emphasis was on word 'changes', as if such was common knowledge). During Vatican Two this occurred. They were hectic times because when the church leaders wanted us to update the habits, the older nuns were really upset. They brought some samples to show us, to see how we would be dressed. They were awful. Just awful.
In place of the habit, the first clothes I had was a navy-blue suit. It was a very nice outfit. Also a short veil like I have now. And I went into my classroom -- I was teaching then at Drexel Hill Academy, outside of Philadelphia, I had the eighth grade -- when I walked into the room, the girls loved it, the boys hated it. They said, 'Sister, go home and put on your dress!' (Laughter).
Jim: Sister, let's talk a little bit about discipline. At St. Mary's I was in a class of 48 boys and girls, but 60 boys in Philadelphia must have been hard. How did you handle them? (Here Sister Isabel put her hand to her chin and took on a pensive look, trying to recall a time 65 years before).
Sister Isabel: I was able to cope. Some of the teachers couldn't. If you weren't successful, they put you somewhere else. Let's say, for example, if I had been a flop with all those boys, they'd put me down with the girls because the girls were more easy to handle. But I stayed with the boys. And I loved 'em.
Don: How did you handle hard discipline cases?
Sister Isabel: All I said was, 'Have your mother call me'. That's all you had to do in those days.
Don: You never used a ruler?
Sister Isabel: No, I never touched a child.
Don: Wasn't that a common means of discipline back then?
Sister Isabel: No, we weren't supposed to. Anybody who did it, wasn't doing what she was told to do. We were not supposed to hit them.
Jim: I had just a couple of experiences of being hit, and it was on the knuckles, with a ruler. It hurt but it wasn't overly painful. I never went home and told my parents, believe me.
Sister Isabel: No, because you would have gotten a whipping.
Jim: I would have got a belting at home, for sure.
Sister Isabel: Yes, it was the same with these children. All you had to say was, "I want to see your father or your mother". And you had no more trouble.
Don: Do you think that it was because these Catholic boys had been brought up in a tighter, religious family? More so than a non-Catholic?
Sister Isabel: No, I don't think so, because parents in general were stricter.
Don: I'm still trying to figure out the relationship between the children and the nuns. I can see a great respect for the priests, but does that follow the same for the nuns? I'm trying to figure where your source of authority comes from ...
Sister Isabel: You see, you were brought up as a child to believe the Sisters were wonderful and could do no wrong -- well, no, that's not right but the children were taught that way.
Don: When I came to Melrose (1947) the convent was full of nuns. Their building was beautiful, architecturally more beautiful than the church, which was significant in the esteem the nuns were held. Their quarters were handsome, certainly more so than that of the priests. So what has happened to the nuns?
Sister Isabel: I think it's the same with the nuns and the priesthood. Young people are not answering the call from God; churches and schools are feeling the loss of vocations to the religious orders.
Today, we have two girls that are thinking of entering our order. But two is not many. Years ago we would have, like, twenty. In the big orders, St. Joseph's, for example, they'd have ninety entering -- today very few.
You know what I think some of it is? There's no religion in the homes now. I don't care if it is Protestant or Catholic religion, but I know that children -- from my own nieces and nephews -- I am shocked. I go to my nieces' home at Christmas time. Her daughter is there with her two young children -- they haven't any idea what Christmas is. It's Santa Claus and presents. And so when Christmas Day came, I asked, what mass are we going to. And they all looked at each other. So her husband said, 'Isabel, I'll take you to whatever mass you want to go to'. The two of us went, but nobody in that house went. And that's my brother's family!
Don: And your order had charge of twenty-five schools, so therefore yours was a teaching order, right? So how did you determine where you wanted to start a school?
Sister Isabel: We are going way back to the early 1800's. The Holy Child order started in England. Our foundress was an American and she had quite a life. She was an Episcopalian lady, a Philadelphian, who married an Episcopalian minister. They moved south to Louisiana, where, across the street, was a Sacred Heart convent.
By this time the couple had a three or four children. They became very curious as to what those ladies (nuns) were doing over there, so they inquired. The Sisters had a big academy and a parochial school, as well as boarders. At that point he decided he wanted to be a Catholic. So she -- knowing her husband -- said I think we should do a lot of thinking first.
But he persisted and she went along with him. She was received into the church in the South, but he wanted to be received into the Catholic religion in Rome. He was a very proud man, very conceited. She saw that in him and tried to hold him back but it didn't work. When he got to Rome he was accepted into the church, and got a job tutoring some English lord's son, in England. And then -- he decided he wanted to be a priest.
Now that would mean that she would either have to live on another continent or enter a convent. So he went back to Rome to become a priest. In the meantime, Bishop Wiseman, who knew them, asked her to start a religious order in England. And that's how we started. She had three little children with her at this time.
To make a long story short, much happened over those years. He, now a priest, wanted to be reunited with his family. Pope Gregory, who seemed to favor him, died, and the next Pope paid no attention to him. And so being the proud man that he was, he gave up everything -- he decided he wasn't going to be a priest anymore and that he wanted to go back to the Episcopalian Church. Which he did. He tried to get his wife back, and there was quite a suit in England, but the court sided with her. However, he did get custody of the children and took them with him.
Our founders name was Cornelia Connolly. She was known as Mother Cornelia. She's the one who sent the English nuns over here to Philadelphia to start the order. And of course they started the new novitiate there. This all happened about 1846 and 1847.
Age is not a factor in her self-appointed duties, for at 88 she gets around well on her battery-powered scooter, bringing good will to everyone she meets.
Jim: You must have some feeling about the church changing, the fact that there are fewer priests now, fewer nuns. St. Mary's, for example, has one priest now. They used to have five.
Sister Isabel: You know what, I think the whole thing goes back to families. Maybe I'm wrong. We do not have the family life -- it used to be Mom and Dad, and Mom was home. You came home from school and Mom was always there. In my family, we said grace at meals, we said a payer before we ate, and before we went to bed. One night we would say them in my bedroom and another night in my brother's bedroom. My Mother and Dad were with us. We went to church with them, and religion was part of your life.
Jim: And to a great extent, the Protestant Churches also.
Sister Isabel: Oh yes; but, now how many of these children are latch-key children, right? They go home and there's no Mother. The little ones are put into a nursery for the day, right? There's not that same family life that we had --nor the religion. Our first Friday services here at St. Mary's, the children come over to mass, directly from school and the church is full. It's a devotion that goes way back -- I often wonder how many of those children go to church on Sunday. I'm sure half of them don't - and the same with their parents. And I know that the little Protestant children down the street went regularly with their Bibles up to their church on Sundays ....
Jim: I used to go with them, there was a girl there that I had my eye on.
Sister Isabel: What church was it?
Jim: It was the Baptist.
Sister Isabel: Baptist at the corner, yes. That's a nice church.
Jim: Well, I got to go to Sunday school at night.
Don: You went to Sunday school at the Baptist Church??? (wonderment)...
Don: The place probably fell in.
Don: In my estimation, it is television that is ruining family life. One major cause is that families have lost that sense of togetherness. They don't do things as a family any more.
Sister Isabel: Or share even dinner together. That used to be one thing, you had to be at dinner. A lot of it goes back to family.
Don: Why? Why have families drifted apart?
Sister: They get too much. Young people who are getting married, they want to have everything that you have, after you've been married ten or fifteen years. And I think that's why they fall apart, because if you have to sit down and think about how you are going to spend that penny, it unites you.
Don: Times were economically tough, you mean?
Sister Isabel: That's it. They say they have to work (at two jobs), they have to work if they are going to buy all the things they want.. They tell us that they need two cars because the children have to be driven to school. Heck, we walked.
Jim: Sure, we walked to school. I even used to go home for lunch and back.
Local Young Women Who Answered The Call To Religious Vocations
Kathleen Barker; Mary Louise Bishoff; Louise Beurneuf; Ann Byrne; Eleanor Carbin; Lorraine Cargill; Catherine Chisholm; Catherine Corrigan; Joan Curran; Lois Curran; Jane Dawley; Ruth Dawley; Lorraine DeViller; Agnes Doucette; Elizabeth Drugan; Maureen Duffy; Catherine Egan; Frances Flynn; Zita Folger; Margaret Gargano; Mary Alyce Gilfeather; Isabel Goineau; Elizabeth Gorvin; Marie Gorvin; Mary Green; Mary Griffith; Moya Gullage; Evelyn Hanley; Mae Keating; Mildred Keefe; Helen Kelley; Marcella Lucey; Lois Lyons; Florence MacDonald; Elizabeth Maroney; Evelyn McCarte; Rosemary McHugh; Eleanor McNabb; Elizabeth McNamara; Mary McNamara; Edwina Menten; Teresa O'Leary; Mary Quinn; Eleanor Rice; Florence Rice; Angela Robinson; Mary Robinson; Mary Samson; Mary Scanlon; Margaret Shea; Patricia Tirrell; Alice Toner; Madeline Weddleton; Mildred Whall.
Source: St. Mary's of the Annunciation Parish Centennial Booklet (1894-1994)