12: Sister Mary-Joseph
The Poor Clare strode down the narrow cobbled street with the relentless purpose of a marauding Viking, her pudgy face hard, and expressionless. An oversized wooden rosary swung from a rope belt that pulled in the folds of her voluminous brown habit. Unlike her cloistered sisters, Bridget Riley had grown fat as the extern nun now known as Sister Mary-Joseph.
Sister Mary-Jospeh and the other extern sisters, were allowed to leave the convent grounds to mix with the faithful and carry out missionary work in the outside world. They nursed the sick, ministered to the dying, and begged for charitable alms.
The streets of Walmgate were shockingly filthy, and the stench from the kennels over-powering. As they went about their business, the nuns pressed silk eau de cologne soaked handkerchiefs to their nostrils to mask the smell. The malodorous narrow streets and airless alleyways were foul with detritus. Acrid fumes from the iron foundry, the glass factory and leather works irritated Irish and English eyes alike. The acid taste stung the back of the Poor Clares tongues and corroded Gaelic and Norse throats equally.
Senses were numbed by the ever-present smell from the slaughter houses and chicory works mixed with the smoke from the flour mill, and the stench from the gas works. Filthy human waste and decaying rubbish littered the by-ways. As the sisters passed, fat brown rats scattered from steaming piles of night soil, spreading disease wherever they scuttled. Life was dirty and cheap in Walmgate.
A cold wind snatched Mary-Jospeh’s breath away before she had time to suck it in. Breathless from the icy blast, her lungs ached from exertion and the lack of oxygen. Her red cheeks spilled out from the sides of her wimple and her black veil flapped behind her head like the wings of a trapped rook. The weather may be bad, but Father Meerendonk knew good money could be made from the dying.
As Mary-Joseph reached the cut leading to the coal yard, a waggoner trundled up beside her, hauling a load of red bricks. She put out her hand in the hope of cadging a lift. Instead of stopping, the driver ignored her and urged his horses on up the slight incline. Mary-Joseph was sure she heard a profanity as he passed. Insulted, she cursed him under her breath
“Damn the heathen to hell, God” she said. “Damn him to Hell for me.”
“That’s Bridget, Martin Riley’s sister,” Ellen O”Connor said to Mary-Margaret Flannigan, as the nun puffed her way down Long Close Lane, oblivious to their presence.
“She’s not one to be reckoned with.”
Mrs Flannigan nodded her acknowledgement. Mary-Margaret had been on the sharp end of Sister Mary-Joseph’s tongue many a time. It was the Sister who told her the Devil resided in her eldest child, and she was beyond saving. Mary-Margaret shivered at the thought and crossed herself.
Bridie O’Hara’s seventh child had entered the world at day-break. The baby was born small, and weak, and silent. Bridie, sensing her daughter was not meant for this world, sent for her cousin to pray over the mite so she could be buried in consecrated ground.
“It’s the work of the Devil, cousin Bridie,” Sister Mary-Jospeh said as she washed away the babe’s sins. Sister Mary-Joseph recognised evil whenever she saw it, she danced with the Devil every day.
“Has it bin ‘ere, ma?” The timid voice of a young boy wafted from the corner of the fusty room.
“Has what bin ‘ere pet?”
“The Devil ma, has it bin ‘ere in our ‘ouse an t’ecken our Molly?”
Sister Mary-Joseph brushed a cockroach off her habit and reached into the gloom. She grabbed the child by his chin and pulled his thin face close to hers. She studied his angular, grubby features with interest.
“The Devil,” her hot, foul breath blasted his face like heat from the glassworks furnace, and sucked his breath away. “The Devil, boy, is a He not an It. And…Satan hides in corners.”
Foam flecked her thin, chapped lips. The boy’s eyes widened and he began to wail. The acid words burned into his memory. Sister Mary-Joseph pushed him away in disgust and he fell to the floor like a discarded rag.
“My God,” she blasphemed.
“I’m here, Sister,” God said.
“Will ya be after a drop of whisky, Bridget?” Seamus O”Hara said as he slapped the boy around the head. “And will you take a morsel of bread and cheese?”
Sister Mary-Joseph stretched out her sandalled feet, sore with chilblains, and nodded.
“Bless you Seamus, that I will.”
Mary-Joseph never refused the offer of food and drink, even from the poorest families. Fighting the Devil was hard work and she needed to keep up her strength. A weak body weakened the spirit and Sister Mary-Joseph needed to be strong.
“Have you heard about the accident, Sister?” Seamus said as he set down a plate and glass. “A poor lass run over by a horse and cart near George Street, not an hour and a half ago…dead, they say.”
“Is she one of us?”
“Aye, of Irish stock they say.”
“Then God Bless her soul and keep her in eternal rest.”
The Poor Clares relied on charitable donations for their day to day needs, and to keep their serene and secret world untainted by outside influences. Their aim was to be self-sufficient, and provide for themselves all they needed for their frugal lifestyle.
The nuns cultivated their five acres of land themselves. In the summer, grumbling bees blundered from flower to hive, and the nuns collected honey for their bread, and beeswax to make candles for the altar. They grew vegetables and fruits, and medicinal herbs in the convent’s walled garden.
Any excess harvest was sent down to the kitchens at St Georges and made into broth to feed the poor, the numbers of whom grew each week. Protestants and Catholics alike, snaked through the open doors, united in hunger and poverty, if not by religion or creed.
Sister Mary-Joseph watched with disgust, as the lugubrious procession of the Walmgate poor poured through the doors of St. Georges. She frowned as the starving locals, Irish and English alike, snatched stale bread crusts from the trays and sucked thin bouillon from their small wooden bowls.
Sister Agnes sang Schubert’s Ave Maria as she ladled, not that any of the rabble she served would be educated enough to recognise it.
“Bon appétit,” said Sister Bernadette as she passed by each pathetic row, touching every head in a blessing.
Mary-Joseph watched the comings and goings of the ragged beggars with contempt. There was no doubt in her mind, The Devil resided within the soul of every Protestant man, woman and child. Left to herself, she would happily let the wretches starve.
When extra food was needed, Sister Bernadette sent Mary-Joseph and the other extern nuns out to solicit alms. They plodded up and down Walmgate with their hessian sacks, pleading for spare change and charitable donations.
Some folk were benevolent. John Braithwaite, the butcher, let the Sisters pick through the animal carcasses and condemned meat in the abattoir yard before they were carted away to be tipped.
“Hoorah,” Sister Agnes waved away a cloud of thrumming blow-flies. She stuffed a pig’s head into her sack and pinched her nostrils to block out the putrid smell. “A bit green, but we can do sum-met w”it.”
Others in the parish were not so mindful of the needs of those less unfortunate. Times were hard, folk didn’t have much to spare. Thieving and beggary were rife. Shopkeepers fretted over their ledgers. They needed to empty their stuffed shelves in order to fill the bellies of their plump wives and children. Tempers frayed as they barked orders, and poked fingers at grumbling men who wanted to be paid before they unloaded their carts. The workmen sweated and cursed as they hauled bolts of linen from the mill and barrows of newly harvested produce from the fields for a measly bob or two.
“Ay up, Molly” said Bill Miller, as he leaned against his bakery shop wall. He inclined his balding head toward the street, ‘ere cum papists.”
“Aye, I see ’em Bill,” said his wife, up to her elbows in flour.
The baker gobbed out a contemptuous globule of spittle as the nuns approached his shop. Sister Mary-Jospeh kept her nerve.
“God-Bless you, Sir,” the greeting stuck in her throat. Mary-Joseph held out her sack and tried to smile. “Will you spare some bread for the poor today?”
“Not a chance in Hell Sister,” the baker said. ‘thi’s not welcome ‘ere.” Miller closed the shop door in Mary-Joseph’s face, taking her by surprise.
“Did you see that, God?” She said. “The bloody protty shut the door in my face. There’s a man destined to go to Hell, if ever I saw one. He needs t’be brought down a peg or two.”
“I see everything, Bridget,” said God.
The baker turned to his wife, busy kneading dough.
“I’ve a mind to take it t’Club committee,” he said, as he watched the nuns pester two passing women.
“What’s that Bill?”
“The problem with’m begging nuns, it ain’t reet,” he said.
A committee meeting of the Protestant Working Men’s Club was called for the following Friday. The weather was fine for the time of year and fetched out a goodly crowd. They filled the pews of St Margaret’s Church with happy chatter and mannish banter.
“Were it only like this on Sundays,” the Reverend said to his wife with a sigh.
Word had got round and folk were riled up. Samuel Bowman, the chemist, was elected Chairman. He called the meeting to order. Bill Miller set out his store, and canvassed for opinions.
“I agree it ain’t reet,” a voice said from the back of the church. All eyes turned to Richard Saddler.
“It ain’t reet that poor folk should be up in front of t’magistrates for begging, but nuns get away wi” their scrounging.”
“It ain’t fair that’s for sure,” another voice piped up. The men continued the debate.
“One wonders,” the vicar’s daughter whispered to her party, “how the nuns can bear to be out in society dressed in those frightful brown habits.”
“Indeed Harriet, shapeless harridans all,” said Molly Miller.
‘That Sister Mary-Joseph has savage eyes,” said Harriet Day. “And she moves with the grace of a walking potato.” The woman giggled until they caught the reproving eye of the Chairman.
“What dost Reverend Day think?” said the Chairman.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” said the vicar. ‘these sisters are a social evil.” The Reverend put down his tea-cup to accentuate the importance of his comments. ’tis plain to me the papists venture forth into Walmgate with the view of proselytising.”
The meeting grumbled at this worrying thought.
“They do no harm,” said Jack Palmer the waggoner.
“I agree wi”Jack,” said Braithwaite the butcher. ‘there’s many a family who’d starve if it weren’t for’em nuns.”
A nag of wives clucked in the pews, as their needles clicked.
“The foreign Sisters do not know what is meant by decorum and respectability in England, Molly,” Harriet said to her friend.
“Indeed, Harriet,” said Molly.
The Reverend Day rose to his feet and put on his best pulpit voice.
“These nuns feed the body and kill the soul. Their church is a recruiting station for the Pope’s army.”
“What do you say we do about it, Reverend?” Richard Saddler was good at drumming up trouble.
The Reverend paused…as if asking for divine guidance…then continued.
“They make the wretched, unsuspecting recipients of their bounty, traitors to their Queen and their faith.”
The buzz of concern rose to a throbbing hum.
“Bloody foreigners,” someone shouted from the pews. “Let’s ‘ave it owt we’m now.” The assembly cheered.
“I’m ‘aving nowt to do with this,” said Jack Palmer.
“Me neither, Jack,” said John Braithwaite. “I’m away home.”
The congregation became an army, armed with their bibles, arrogant in their righteousness. Led by Reverend Day, the enthusiastic parade thronged along Margaret Street towards St George’s Church picking up curious spectators along the way. They were joined by Frank Mercer, and a cohort of infantrymen on their way to the Black Horse. As the mob passed the corner of Margaret Street, Richard Saddler picked up some of the bricks which had fallen from Jack Palmer’s waggon and lodged in the kennels, and handed them round.
“You never know, cousin,” Richard Saddler said to Frank. “When a brick might come in handy.”
“Sheep,” Grace Braithwaite, hissed through pursed lips, as the disparate procession passed by her shop doorstep. “One bellwether will have a whole flock after it, John.”
“The most dangerous man in the world is a religious man who thinks he’s doing the right thing, Grace,” said her husband.
“Some of us folk see angels where others see nowt, John.”
“Indeed, Grace,” said John. “Indeed.”
The mob arrived at the church just as six o”clock Mass was finishing. Father Meerendonk was outside shaking the hands of his flock, and the sisters were handing out alms.
Bunching together in George Street for support, the members of the Protestant Mens” Club and their pumped up group of supporters began to sing.
“Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before…”
Then the shouting…
“Bloody foreigners, get yerselves back “ome.”
The insults hit Father Meerendonk’s ears like thunder claps. Flustered, he dropped his missal. It landed in a puddle with a muddy splash and soiled his vestments. The crowd laughed and jeered. The priest had never known such disrespect.
Such a bobbery, Bill,” said Molly Miller to her husband. “I can’t remember the last time there was such excitement.”
“Indeed, my dear,” said the baker. “Indeed.”
A warm thrill swept over Molly, her cheeks pinked with excitement. Egged on by the baying crowd, the emboldened baker stepped forward, his chest puffed out like a fighting cock.
“Where’s them beggar nuns, Priest? “Fetch um out.”
Father Meerendonk blinked rapidly, trying to comprehend the scene.
“Go on Bill, tell”im,” said Bowman the chemist.
“S’thi ere,” said the bolshy baker. “We want a word wI’m begging sisters.”
Father Meerendonk backed up to the church door.
“Sister Bernadette, Sisters, erm…a gentleman wants a word, if you’ve a mind.”
The nuns peered around the portal at the agitated crowd and twittered in alarm.
“Don’t go out there, Sister Bernadette,” said Sister Mary-Joseph. ‘the crowd look reet vexed.”
“It’s not like you to shy away from trouble Sister,” said Bernadette. “I’m not afraid. God will protect me.”
“No, sister, leave this to me if you have a mind.” Sister Mary-Joseph elbowed her way through the quivering nuns. “I’ll give’m devils a piece of my mind. I’ll tell’m what’s what.” Damn protties, she thought. How dare they insult the Father.
“Take a care Bridget,” said God. “It’s not possible to protect all my faithful lambs against such raging, mindless, prejudice.”
Standing at just over six foot, and almost as rotund as she was tall, Sister Mary-Joseph was a formidable figure when roused. The Sisters crossed themselves as their Goliath stepped out of the shadow of St George’s bell-tower to meet her David. Father Meerendonk was taking no chances. He retreated indoors to the safety of his study. The crowd jeered as he turned his back, leaving Sister Mary-Joseph alone in front of the baying crowd. She jutted out her large chin and crossed her arms in defiance.
The Reverend Day sensed things were about to kick off. Nervous, he turned to his wife and daughter.
“I think it’s time we returned home, my dears. I fear things may get a little out of hand.” Without another word he escorted the women home to the pious sanctity of St Margaret’s and the vicarage parlour.
“Satan — get thi behind me.” Mary-Joseph’s voice boomed into the evening air. “Heathens, sinners, may you burn in the fires of Hell. May you suffer eternal damnation.” Mary-Joseph held up the cross on her rosary beads and began to pray.
“Ave María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum,” Sister Mary-Joseph didn’t see the brick-thrower, neither did she see the brick. She caught a glimpse of flying terracotta just before the missile struck her a glancing blow square between her eyes. As the red brick met its fleshy target, shock flashed across the nun’s impassive face. Her eyes crossed, and she fell to her knees like a stunned bullock in an abattoir.
“Stone me,” a voice called out. The crowd appreciated the pun and tittered.
For a brief moment it looked as if Sister Mary-Joseph had dropped to her knees to continue her prayer, then she pitched forward like a felled oak. Her face hit the ground, splitting her nose. Her broken teeth bounced across the cobbles like a tumble of winter hail-stones.
The crowd fell silent.
The members of the Protestant Men’s Club looked at one-another in blank dismay. No-one moved, unsure of what had happened, and even more unsure what to do. Sister Mary-Joseph lay face-down in the road, bloodied and unmoving.
Sister Bernadette was the first to come to her senses. Letting out a pained shriek she rushed to her stricken sister’s side. Just then a gang of Irish labourers from the timber yard rounded the corner of Peel Street on their way to the Red Cow public house. They had no clue what was afoot, but needed no excuse to start a fight with a bunch of Englishmen. They cursed and traded insults with the Protestant men as they jostled their way through the crowd.
The crusading boldness of the Club’s ring-leaders” began to desert them. One by one they began to skulk away back home, and hoped their faces would not be remembered by a drunken Irish navvy one dark Walmgate night.
Sister Bernadette shook Sister Mary-Joseph’s broad shoulders in an attempt to arouse her. With each shake she called out her name.
Sister Mary-Joseph’s flabby body quivered like jelly. At the third shake she began to moan and, at the fourth, her back arched and her body convulsed as if the ghost within her was trying to escape.
“Thank the Lord, sisters, she’s alive.”
With Sister Bernadette’s pronouncement the Poor Clares came back to life. They flapped about like a brood of startled brown hens, crossing themselves and praising the Lord.
“Thank God, she lives. Thank God, she lives.”
The nuns descended on Sister Mary-Joseph like crows on carrion, and bore her into the safety of the church.
The banner headline in the Herald read, “Protestant Mob Attacks Nuns.” Miller the baker laid down the newspaper and slurped his tea from the saucer.
“A rum do that, Molly love,” he said.
“Indeed, Bill,” said Molly. “Indeed.”
When Constable Dawkins brought Martin Riley news of the affray, and the extent of his sister’s injuries, Martin cursed the protties, and silently swore revenge. They may have had their differences but Bridget was blood, his only living relative, and it couldn’t be left.
The Poor Clares endured the anguish of the devilish events of that fateful Friday evening for many months. The shock and horror of seeing their fellow sister laid low in front of the hostile, heathen crowd was more than they could bear. Sister Mary-Jospeh spent the remainder of her short life cloistered in her cell at St Joseph’s. Confined to her narrow bed, traumatised and unable to communicate. She spent her long days staring at the painting the nuns had thoughtfully placed on her wall to comfort and protect her. The portrait of Christ the Saviour, with His Bleeding Heart, painted in angry scarlet, leapt out from the bare lime-washed walls.
Sometimes, Sister Mary-Joseph’s emaciated body would judder and twitch. She cried out constantly, whether in pain or anguish the sisters couldn’t tell. Her long, low groans echoed through the cloisters like the moans of a wandering ghost. The sisters shivered at the ungodly sound. No-one knew what Sister Mary-Joseph thought, if indeed she could think, of her God now.
“The Holy war is not over,” God said to Sister Bernadette, as she looked deep into Sister Mary-Joseph’s vacant eyes.
“I know God,” she said. “But, in the battle between Sister Mary-Joseph and the Devil, Satan has surely won.”
Read the previous chapter here.