”I have decided to leave the convent. I'm pretty sure I'm gay," I announced to my mother over lunch at a quaint Victorian restaurant in Cape May, New Jersey. The year was 1990, and I had made this pilgrimage to deliver what I knew would be jarring news.
"You can't be a lesbian." My mother's piercing green eyes welled up as I stumbled through my announcement, explaining that I would be taking a leave of absence from the Sisters of St. Joseph. I imagine the daughter she saw sitting across the table didn't match her stereotypical image of a lesbian, if she had one at all. I studied her face. Was it shock? Even worse, disgust? Or perhaps the shame I myself had grappled with over the years. In our Irish Catholic family, we were raised to believe that gays were perverts. I was not that, I had told myself countless times. I could not be one of them.
Similar revelations to each of my brothers and sisters, the same well-rehearsed speech in hand, were met with support, encouragement, and just a few quizzical looks. I'm sure they wondered how I could come to this conclusion after spending 21 years as a Catholic nun. I didn't go into detail.
"Trust me," I said. "This is just a leave of absence — I need to figure out who I am."
If I had gone into detail, I would have started in 1969, in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, when I was 18 years old.
Our family's 1968 Buick LeSabre slowly made its way up the tree-lined driveway in this pause between seasons; leaves were just edging toward change and more muddled in hue than vibrant. It suited the mood of our travel as we approached the old ivy-covered gray stone building called Fontbonne Hall, where I would spend the next nine months as a candidate, or "postulant," as they called it, to be a Sister of St. Joseph. My required two full-length black gabardine habits had arrived at our home a week earlier. The outfit, the only one I would wear for the foreseeable future, felt foreign and otherworldly. Perhaps the novelty also made me feel special — my opaque black stockings, shoes that looked like men's oxfords but with a short heel, a black bonnet.
My proud parents and I after my first vows, 1972 | (Patricia Dwyer/Courtesy Narratively)
The main reason I gave for entering the convent at such a young age was that the civil rights movement and themes of social justice were a rallying cry to serve. Nuns in our parish school not only taught me but also often invited me and a few friends to the convent on Friday afternoons to help clean what they called their "charges." I was mesmerized by their friendly back-and-forth banter, their laughter, a side of them heretofore unseen in our strict fifth-grade classroom. Later, I volunteered with my high school friends at a poor parish in West Philadelphia where the nuns worked. They were young, and fun, and committed. Here was my chance to be part of this historic period. And I'm sure I believed this. But gnawing just below the surface was a fear that I would, at some point, be expected to marry. I was overweight and liked my girl friends much more than boys. I didn't date; I'd much rather be with my friends. The convent felt safe. It offered a more-than-acceptable way to avoid big questions I didn't even realize I had.
Just a few days before this car ride, I'd returned to my old high school, with two others from my graduating class who were also entering the convent, decked out for our first public appearance in religious garb. This annual ritual was our chance to see our high school teachers and some of our younger schoolmates, but also a way to encourage the rising juniors and seniors to contemplate their own potential "vocations."
Being back at my old high school, I remembered the hockey team, my leadership positions, the nuns who taught me, special friends. And Carol, my "big sister" in a school-designed coupling organized to help freshmen get acclimated. A junior and star athlete, Carol had chosen me to be her little sister. I adored her. She drove a cool Cutlass to school, and I knew her parking space and typical time of arrival. I memorized her class schedule and the exact moment we would pass in the hall on our way to geometry or history. She'd nod and smile, her straight blonde hair framing an inviting face, her shoulder sometimes brushing mine as we jostled through the crowded corridor. She'd grin sheepishly and apologize. I never minded.
Vows commitment ceremony, 1972 | (Patricia Dwyer/Courtesy Narratively)
The Christmas of my freshmen year, a few of us had taken our big sisters to Center City Philadelphia to see Gone with the Wind and go out to eat at Wannamaker's Crystal Tea Room. I could hardly sleep the night before, in anticipation of our time together. At the end of the day, Carol gave me a small box wrapped in silver and blue paper.
"A signet ring!" I squealed as I opened the leather case and spotted the shiny gold oval with my initials scrolled in the loveliest script. I fumbled to remove it from the satin fold. It slipped on easily; I stretched my arm, holding my hand up to admire its glint and style.
Carol looked at me shyly, her brown eyes searching. "I wanted to get you something special. After all, you are my little sister. I wanted you to know how much that means."
At the time, I'm sure the ring conjured images of going steady, although I didn't recognize the romantic edge to my feelings for Carol. Now, despite the directives we had received from convent supervisors to leave all jewelry at home, the ring was still with me.