A Benedictine Childhood in Nauvoo, Illinois

Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the circumstances of the place and the nature of the climate in which they live…  Rule of Benedict

Six-year-old Noreen McDermott was standing on a train platform clutching the hand of a nun who was veiled and garbed in full-length black serge. She was going somewhere new, a long ways away, for school, and wouldn’t be back until Christmas. Her mom said this would be a wonderful experience. Noreen, who had just finished first grade at Our Lady of Angels in Chicago, wasn’t so sure.

Lots of young children shared Noreen’s experience over the 350 years (up to that time) during which Catholic education spread throughout the U.S. As immigrants poured into the country, Catholic nuns built schools to both educate and shelter the children. The Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery established their school in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1874.

Which is where Noreen was headed. The hand she was holding belonged to Sister Innocents, OSB. Truly, Noreen was embarking on one of the definitive experiences of her life.

“At first I was scared because I didn’t know what was going on,” Noreen, now 74, remembers. “I was herded onto the train and away I went. I loved it right away, though. It was such a wholesome environment. I felt very safe and happy.”

Like many others over the years, Noreen had been sent there because of issues at home. A single mother, Mrs. McDermott had felt she couldn’t give Noreen the attention she needed and confided her worries to the 1st grade teacher at Our Lady of Angels. That teacher – a BVM nun whose aunt was the Benedictine prioress Mother Mercedes Kelly – suggested the Benedictine school.

Grade school years

“It was an absolutely ideal life,” Noreen says. “I always knew what to expect, which was quite different from life with my mother. Our routine didn’t vary much. The Sisters would come into our bedroom – this is in grade school – singing morning prayers to wake us up. We would chime in as we made our beds and got dressed in our uniforms. They were brown pleated skirts and tan blouses. If it was our day to go to Mass – we went once a week – we’d go, but otherwise we’d go to breakfast.

“Then we would go to classes, lunch and more classes. Then we changed into play clothes – we never wore pants – and had playtime till dinner at 5:30. Then we processed out to the shrine singing Mother Beloved to pray to the Blessed Mother. After we processed back, we had more playtime before bed.”

Playtime meant jacks, checkers, jump rope and paper dolls. In the winter, it also meant iceskating on a rink the Sisters created on the lawn for the girls. Saturdays often included a trip downtown with their allowances to the confectionary. And every chance they got, they had a party.

“I remember one Halloween party in particular,” Noreen says. “It was set up in the auditorium and called Bluebeard’s Den. We were blindfolded and had to stick our hands in something that was supposed to be blood and guts. We walked into spider webs and spiders. There was a lot of screaming and laughing. After that, we had orange and black cupcakes and ice cream.”

For the first four years of her tenure at the Academy, Noreen only went home at Christmas. The other holidays – Thanksgiving, Easter and summer break – were spent, along with a couple of other young girls, with the Benedictines in Nauvoo.

“The Sisters tried to make it nice for us,” Noreen says. “They let us hang blankets to make playhouses in the music rooms. We had all kinds of fun arranging things and visiting each other. I always loved it, and couldn’t wait to get back after Christmas vacation.”

The Juniorate

Noreen’s Juniorate years – 7th and 8th grades – were marked by great friends, team sports and her “smart mouth,” as she remembers it now. “I was always having to write lines,” Noreen says. “But I was unbelievably happy. For one thing, I loved our prefect, Sr. Rosemary Murphy.

“I loved those girls and they knew it,” Sr. Rosemary says today over a cup of tea. She and Noreen talk often, during Noreen’s weekly shift answering the phone and greeting visitors in the Welcome Area of the monastery. “I cut their hair, did their fingernails and let them cry when they needed to.”

High School

If the Juniorate girls occasionally tried to get away with things – smoking cigarettes, sneaking out – the high school girls tried constantly.

“We’d sneak out of our rooms to visit with girlfriends,” Noreen says. “We’d smoke cigarettes and blow the smoke out the windows of the third floor of the Villa. I never got caught, but some girls did. They’d get extra study hall, have to write lines and be grounded from going downtown.”

By this time, downtown included the Kraus’ movie theater.

“The show had to be appropriately rated, of course,” Noreen says. “And we had to have all of our work done before we could go: drawers organized, closets cleaned.

“Everything I learned, I learned from the Benedictines. Work before play. Be kind to one another. Think about the other person. Enjoy the little things in life.”

Graduation … and the rest of the story

Like many young women in the 50’s, Noreen aspired to become a nun and planned to enter the Benedictine community upon graduation. Because she was 17, however, her mother’s permission was needed – and not forthcoming. So Noreen went off to college, met her husband and had another kind of family.

She always stayed in touch with her adoptive mothers, however. In fact, when her own daughter was in junior high, Noreen sent her to camp in Nauvoo. When her daughter wanted to enroll at SMA, though, Noreen said no.

“I couldn’t have had a better education,” she says. “I loved it. But I wanted to keep my daughter with me. I had a good marriage and could stay home with her and my sons. My mother had to work. There was no one to take care of me. But I’m grateful really. I had the best childhood in the world.”