A different planet, Pauline Engel

Breaking the Habit: Life in a New Zealand Dominican Convent 1956-67,
Judith Graham,
John McIndoe, $24.95

‘Out in the world …’ used to be a common utterance in convent life. Unconsciously it implied that we inhabited a different planet. Judith Graham’s account of her twelve years as a Dominican Sister reveals the Alice-through-the-looking-glass world of a Catholic teaching order of women before the change of Vatican II. A world that is achingly familiar to all of us who lived it, but must seem as alien as Mars to the uninitiated.

Social historians can be assured that this unvarnished narrative conveys a truthfully detailed report of life as it was lived in most local teaching and nursing orders of women in New Zealand – and probably everywhere else in the western world.

There’s little mystique or romance in a life which left no minute of the day, week or month unregulated: images of serene faces, unhurried gait, and peaceful other worldliness are not real. We who were working for eternal life fought with time from the minute we were awakened. The constant physical exhaustion experienced in trying to wed the demands of a contemplative religious horarium with full-time teaching and degree studies would be considered sadistic today. Back then, it seemed simply normal.

Yet the 1950s and 1960s were decades of phenomenally high vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the Roman Catholic Church of the West. New Zealand was no exception. The novitiates of so-called ‘active’ religious orders – teaching, nursing, childcare – were full.

Secular terms don’t really explain it, because they were years of overfull employment, and (contrary to media myths concocted by 30-year-olds) those of us who entered adult life at the time felt we had ample career choices and a pretty good social life to boot.

Again, Judith Graham offers some clues to the mystery. The Irish Catholicism of the New Zealand Church regarded a calling to priesthood and religious life as the highest favour God could bestow on an individual and a signal blessing on her family. Judith’s mother (who had herself tried her vocation in two orders before settling for marriage) was overjoyed at her daughter’s decision to enter the convent at the end of her schooldays.

The sacrificial part of her decision, to which Judith refers frequently in her story, death to self, is rooted in the Jansenism of the Irish clergy. The call to suffering and self-sacrifice were certain signs you were marked out for God’s special love. A ‘more pain-more gain’ theology which rationalised suffering and injustice. Thus Judith’s reason for remaining in religious life when all her feelings and considerable intellect rebelled against it was: I believed God was asking me to do something special for Him and I felt I could not refuse.

However, Judith’s choice to enter the convent was also rooted in her years as a boarder which had given her a strong sense of identity, security, companionship and admiration for many of the sisters who taught her. The rites and routines of Catholic school life in the 1950s primed her for that step into the novitiate. At the end of her schooldays, she says, the thought of going to university, meeting new people, … freedom, change … terrified me.

She comes through these pages, nevertheless, as a warm young woman of personal generosity and genuine spirituality in traditional Catholic terms, which probably accounts for so many of those in whom she confided her early doubts tending to brush them aside. It does not excuse the persistent and often harsh dismissal of her later pleas to be released from her vows.

Judith’s desire to please at all costs, the ‘good sister’ syndrome, was her undoing. It explains the desperate flight from what had become for her a prison. Yet she displays little bitterness towards people who should have behaved better and her chronicle of convent life is truly more charitable than I suspect it deserved.

Breaking the Habit (a twee title, ill-suited to the book) makes no claims to be more than an explanation to her family of the writer’s twelve years in the convent. It would be unfair then to hope for some analysis of issues, some discussion of the transformation of religious life and the women who live it today. So I have no right to feel disappointed. This is not another Pauline O’Regan and Changing Order. It is a tidy uncomplicated narrative for the record.


Sister Pauline Engel, former secondary school principal, now runs a secretariat for the heads of religious orders in New Zealand.



Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Religion, Review
Search the archive
Search by category