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Rituals and Routines

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

From And Poison Fell From the Sky by MarieTérèse Martin

My first night in the convent, I learned that Gabriella had a copper crucifix hidden under her bedcovers.

Gabriella had taken the crucifix from her grandmother’s coffin after the funeral and slept with it every night, the way a normal child who didn’t want to be a martyr might sleep with a teddy bear. Gabriella, it turned out, had more than one secret. In addition to the contraband crucifix, she also cut herself at night while the rest of us slept, creating wounds she hoped to pass off as stigmata. She imagined being recognized as a living miracle, a saint with bleeding symbols of the cross on her arms. She kept her wounds hidden under the long black sleeves of her uniform as she worked to create the effect. The rest of us stayed out of Gabriella’s way, lest she bring the wrath of that crucifix down upon us or else infect us somehow with her crazed brand of religious devotion.

At night, I waited until Gabriella had fallen asleep before I dared to sleep myself. The comfort of knowing someone from home was short-lived, and when Gabriella left the convent a year later, taking the copper crucifix with her, I was relieved. As it turned out, crucifix or not, she would become neither a nun nor a martyr.

Daily, as we walked the long corridors of the nunnery in perfectly straight lines, we recited endless loops of prayer in both Latin and French.The small chapel where we attended early-morning Mass was quiet and smelled of burning wax. On some days, Mass was followed by a visit to the confessional.

Located at the back of the chapel, the confessional was a brown wooden box with a center door. It looked ominous, like a portal to some forbidding place. Faded red velvet curtains drooped on the outside, and inside, a small sliding wooden screen door was all that separated the sinner from the priest. There was a single lightbulb in the center of the confessional so the priest could read while waiting for more sins to absolve. We knelt patiently in the last pew waiting for him to whisper “Enter.” I didn’t know what my sins were. Nothing I did seemed to qualify for my definition of sin, and I didn’t feel like a sinner, so I had to pretend that I was.

The nuns were more than happy to provide us with reasons why we needed absolution.

“It’s a sacrament, dear,” Sister Augustine said. “It will shower you with extra spiritual grace. Look into your soul, and you will find many things for which you need to be forgiven.”

I was in no position to argue with her, but it was never easy for me to go to the confessional. To sit in the semi-darkness and bare your soul to a complete stranger was a challenge. The priest would turn his head and look intimately through you, anticipating every word.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” was the introductory phrase we were taught to use. Other “sinners” were waiting outside the confessional for their opportunity to confess, so we whispered, in a futile attempt at privacy.

At the end of the recitation, the priest would issue his punishment: “Say three Hail Marys and one Our Father.”

I would then be free to walk out of the confessional, assured that whatever sins I had committed were wiped clean. For a few minutes, at least, I was a walking example of purity.

Every minute in the convent was part of a strict routine. Up early at six a.m., wash, dress, pray, and eat. Dressed identically in black, we sat in silence at meals while someone read the Catechism. Classes, chores, confession. Each moment accounted for, every decision made for us, every day the same.The goal was to prepare us for a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The very idea of being an individual, of having an identity, was to be ground out of us. Everything was done in the service of the collective.

For some of the girls, this seemed to work.

As time passed, however, I knew it wasn’t working for me. I had no choice about being there, but each day brought me closer to a time when I would.


This excerpt serves as the sixth chapter in MarieTérèse Martin's memoir, And Poison Fell From the Sky. "Terry" Martin grew up grateful for the paper mill that dominated the economy of her small Maine town, providing jobs for hundreds of local workers. But years later, while working as a nurse, she and her physician husband "Doc" Martin came to fear that the area's sky-high cancer rates were caused by the chemicals that billowed from the mill’s stacks. Together, they sounded an alarm no one wanted to hear and began a long, and often bitter, fight. Through it all, Terry waged a more private battle. This one against domestic abuse, as she tried to reconcile the duality of her husband's personality—the fearless crusader for good in public versus the controlling, verbally abusive partner behind closed doors.

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