Memoirs of Sister Mary Wilma King, SND

Sr. Mary Wilma King entered the Notre Dame convent in 1925. Three years later her sister Ann Maureen entered. Mary Wilma was kind, gentle and beloved by all. These portions of her memoir (turned into an nine-part series) give a glimpse of life as a Sister in pre-Vatican II days. They are honest, humorous and sometimes surprising.

Part 9 – 1969 and Beyond

In 1969 Sr. Ann Maureen had been 40 years in the Convent and since I had waited we took a trip together. In those days after 40 years one could take a trip anywhere she desired. We decided to visit the places we had taught about and we both taught American History so the United States was our choice. We spent a week each in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston and took tours to the various historic spots in each. We spent the first week of our month in Galveston, Texas, with our relatives. We were treated royally and after that a letter and check awaited us at each hotel in the three cities. It was a wonderful month. We phoned Mom from each place and she loved it.

Sisters Ann Maureen and Mary Wilma. 1970s.

In 1969 I went to the College of Notre Dame as Registrar. I had been a member of the Teaching Faculty so continued as such part time. My main job was as Registrar. I loved it, of course, and the staff, especially Kathy Foster, was tremendous!

In 1975 I retired from the Registrar’s job—age was the reason—and went to work in the Library but continued as a faculty member.

Sr. Paula, Principal of the Notre Dame High School [Belmont], had asked me to come and help out. I accepted her offer and spent mornings in the high school library–not doing library work, except on rare occasions, but keeping students quiet–a glorified study hall. Most of the girls were cooperative as they are good students but one group of Juniors always gave me trouble. I dreaded to see any of them coming through the doorway….

Editor’s Note: Sr. Mary Wilma King did survive that group of dreaded Juniors. Eventually she retired and enjoyed all her days till her death at 98 in 2006.

Part 8 – Addiction and More Schooling

In January of 1944 I was missioned from Alameda to San Jose along with Sr. Mary of the Visitation. Sr. Mary told me that she was the cause of my mission. I really did have too much to do in Alameda. I was Junior Home Room Teacher, taught all day; ran the Library; was the Sacristan and took care of the linens for the Chapels at both the Naval and Marine Bases and when the ships came in the linens were usually in a very bad condition sometimes even green; and our own Chapel. Then added to all of this the two Sisters assigned to the body of the Chapel quarreled constantly and so the work was taken away from them and added to my already very heavy load. It really was overwhelming and Sister Mary had told the Provincial that she had better move me if she wanted me alive!

So I was sent to San Jose in pretty poor health. It was during this my first stay in San Jose that out of kindness I was given Nembutal to help me sleep. I never took the pills at night, I was afraid to, but I did become addicted and had to have them. This lasted for a period of about six years when, thank God, Sr. Paula whom I loved and respected helped me to be free of this problem. I have never since taken anything of the kind and I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Sr. Paula S.H. It was during this first sojourn in San Jose that I spent six months in Saratoga to recover my health. I have always experienced the greatest kindness from my Sisters.

I taught for College of Notre Dame in Belmont in the summer and gave Washington State History to the Sisters in Seattle so their credentials would be recognized. I took Washington State History at Seattle University and got a Washington Credential. This was an achievement and also my master’s degree arrived from Catholic University which really made me happy—that despite my “period of stupidity” I had come out OK thanks to God and my Sisters, especially Sr. Paula.

Part 7 – “Confession and a Sad Event”

Sr. Ann Maureen King and Sr. Mary Wilma King in the 1960s.

On one Friday I literally ran home for confession. I did not allow anyone to carry my books for me and as I ran down the street the wind caught my veil and the veil caught on the fence and I was going so fast that the veil pulled my bonnet off. I turned fast and grabbed the veil and in my haste just put it on my head with bonnet hanging down my back. I dashed home holding the veil on my head and on reaching home collapsed inside the door. I was so undone that I did not get to Confession that night!

A sad event was the death of one of my eighth grade boys by drowning. We had gone on a school picnic and the boys were swimming in the dam. One boy who could not swim was sitting on the edge floating a cork. The cork escaped and he not realizing that this was not a beach stepped in to retrieve the cork and went down. No efforts to save him succeeded and “they” said he had died of fright almost immediately. Sadder still was the fact that when his father (stepfather) was informed he said he “was glad” as the boy was a problem. He really wasn’t and his poor mother was grieved. The students were shocked by the whole affair. Our provincial’s reaction was “who gave you permission to go on a picnic?!”

In August of 1939 I was missioned to San Francisco for the high school. I really had loved Redwood City, the students, and the friends I had made. San Francisco was my home for the next two years. Sr. Mary Eleanor and I were Freshman Home Room teachers and the girls were wonderful. I taught American History and on one occasion, Mr. Gaffney, a State Representative, invited our class to Sacramento to a session of the State Legislature. It was great. We attended several meetings and then had lunch with the Senators and Representatives. The Bishop also had been invited. My companion was the Principal, Sr. Agnes Gertrude. We had to sit in a corner behind a screen as we were not supposed to eat in public. It was an unforgettable day.

Sr. Mary Eleanor and I became good friends in San Francisco. We were young and our work with the Freshmen drew us close together. The principal, Sr. Agnes Gertrude, was a really devoted and excellent principal but her voice and her mannerisms got on our nerves; especially when we had to listen to her in the community gathering in the evening as well as at school. We learned how to block her out and became quite adept at looking interested but not hearing what was said. We thought it a great accomplishment but sometimes we missed things we needed to know.

Our Superior was Sister Mary of the Assumption. She was wonderful to us and a number of times she took us, the younger members, to Sausilito for a weekend. We loved the ride on the ferry and the long sleeps.

I was only in San Francisco for two years but fell in love with my students and the place. I learned a great deal about Library work from Sr. Xavier who was the Librarian. I was assigned to help her and I remember that when Msgr. Campbell came from Catholic University to check on the school for our affiliation status I was sent to show him the Library. I learned that day what “bibliotec tools” were!

Part 6 – “Death and Driving”

December 1938: My darling Dad died of a heart attack on Christmas Day and we [Sisters Ann Maureen and Mary Wilma King] went to Alameda for the funeral. We were the first SNDs to be given this privilege but we could not go home. We stayed at the Convent, a half a block from home and Mom came to see us. We went to Mass and Fr. Praught told the undertaker to open the coffin for us after he had left the sanctuary. We saw our Dad but he didn’t look the same as we knew him.

We were not allowed to drive in those days and always had to ask someone to take us wherever we needed to go. I used to drive the cars of visitors around the house as we had a block to ourselves and a road around the house—plenty of room and privacy.

On this particular occasion we were to go to Carmel. The Superior called me and said I was not to touch the wheel—obedience! O.K.—Mrs. Royer drove the car I was in and we had a lovely picnic at Carmel. On the way home Mrs. Royer became ill and was not able to drive. I was forbidden to do so but since I was a Counsellor I asked Sr. Julie du Sacre Coeur to replace Mrs. Royer.

Sister was an excellent driver. All went well until we reached Santa Clara when we discovered our Superior in the car behind us. There was nothing to do but continue on which we did. Of course when we reached home there was trouble. The Superior informed me that she was writing to the Mother General about my disobedience. She would listen to nothing and that made me furious so my response was—“go ahead and write and I will write also.” That ended the matter and neither of us wrote.

Part 5 – “Ghosts”

Editor’s Note: While missioned in Redwood City Sister wrote about this humorous experience.

1921 or later  Charles Hanson Mansion  2nd convent_600px
Charles Hanson mansion convent, 1921 or later.

Then there were the ghosts!! The Hanson Mansion, which was our home, seemed to be haunted. We never did decide whether the voice we heard was that of a [deceased] Sister or a member of the family but all of us heard “things.” Fr. Cavanagh blessed the house for us yearly but he thought we were a “bunch of hysterical women.”  [Sr. Ann Maureen King also told of an experience on December 1932 that occurred in different parts of the mansion to six Sisters. “There was a loud, ‘Sister, Sister’ and no one was there. Each of the Sisters who experienced this was also unable to move as if someone was blocking the way. The paralysis lasted for a few minutes.”]

One night in the dorm shared by Srs. Ann Maureen, Marie Joseph, Mary Regina and me while we were peacefully sleeping the door suddenly burst open and a sound like that of a roaring lion roused all of us. We had agreed to say “In the name of God who are you and what do you want” but the only one brave enough to say anything was Sr. Ann Maureen who managed to get out “who do you want?” Another roar and then “Regina” the voice said. Sr. Regina almost collapsed and so did we all. Well when the lights went on it was Sr. Letitia who was having one of her periodic gas attacks and needed help so came for Sr. Mary Regina who was the infirmarian. The Superior was aroused by all the commotion and finally calmed everyone down, gave us sedatives and sent us back to bed. There wasn’t much sleep that night.

It is fun to relive those days in story but it wasn’t funny at the time.

Part 4 – “Vow Day and Becoming a Teacher”

We eagerly awaited our Vow Day which was set for the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1928. The Retreat of 8 days preceded this and it must have been an anxious time as I lost 10 pounds during it. However, our Vow Day was wonderful. The Chapel was beautifully decorated with yellow and some pink carnations supplied by loving parents. Since our Vow Day would come in Lent we had asked and obtained permission to wait until March 19th, a Feast Day, for our Vow Day.

Sr. Anna and I were sent to Santa Barbara to replace two Sisters who were ill. We went on March 20 with Sr. Rita Marie and drove down with a Lillian Rogers and her father. We had a picnic lunch on the way and enjoyed the ride. The Sisters were good to us and took us for rides on Sunday afternoons and treated us to ice cream–something unheard of in those days! We, not realizing what the result would be, told everyone when we returned to Belmont in the summer how much fun we had had. Of course the Sisters were reprimanded for giving us bad example!!

Sr. Anna and I were homesick so every night we walked around the grounds and talked over the day plus memories of the Novitiate, which we had just left.

Sr. Rita Marie was wonderful to me. I had the 7th grade–54 strong and 2 of the boys were just a year younger than I. I was 19 at that time. The students were good in class, studied and obeyed but when the bell rang for recess or dismissal the students “burst” through the door and, Bless her, Sr. Rita Marie was standing at the top of the stairs so my class went down in perfect order! One girl, who craved attention, came late at noontime very often. One day I had her stand at the door and wait. Finally, she asked if she could put her hat at her desk. I said “yes.” She walked to her desk; put her hat down; picked up her ink well and drank the ink. Needless to say I was horrified. I left the class, ran across the Music Room to Sr. Loyola. Sr. Loyola was the Principal and eighth grade teacher. She was wonderful to me always but a strict disciplinarian. I ran into her room and told her what had happened. She said, “Don’t worry–it won’t hurt her but I will take care of the matter.” She did. She came with me and ordered the young lady to her office. No more trouble from then on.

A highlight for me of my three months stay was a visit from Mom, Dad, Harriet and Louise. How good it was to see them.

Part 3 – “The First Year and an Introduction to Penances”  

Our first year as Novices we were Canonical Novices and our studies consisted of Church History, Philosophy, Logic, Theology, and Gregorian Chant. When we became Vow Novices the following year, some of us attended classes with the College Students. I taught Spelling in the 6th, 7th and 8th Grades [Notre Dame Elementary School, San Jose] under the watchful and helpful eyes of Sr. Mary Regis, and replaced in the 3rd and 4th grades for one month.

Some memories of these days linger on, e.g., I was very homesick and my Dad brought me a seagull sticker from his boat. I sat many a time by a basin of water and looked at the gull and thought of home and the good times we had as a family.

Another recollection was with regard to the penances performed by the Novices. We, as Postulants, knew that penances were performed and, of course, were very curious. On Fridays we ate our breakfast on our knees and omitted the butter on our cornbread. We could hardly wait for the Novitiate to find out what else. Items well remembered were: the chain which was worn on the arm about twice a week; the discipline made of cords; the evening meals during the week where once a week we either knelt at the table, away from the table and were served away from the table and begged for food from those seated at table, prostrating at the door; asking a penance from the Novice Mistress for some failing; asking pardon on one’s knees of any Sister whom we had offended or just to ask prayers if no offense was involved. Once a week, usually on Fridays, we had Conference with Accusation of faults.

Part 2 – “No Special Talent & Taking the Habit”

Our Mistress of Novices and Postulants, Sr. Mary Annunciata, was wonderful. She was gentle but firm and we all loved her. She always found something good about us. I remember feeling down once because I had no special talent. I was so ordinary. Sr. Mary Annunciata said, “Now, now—no one keeps the Novitiate Room (my charge) as clean as you do. I’ve tried to teach girls to sweep a floor properly with no success and you do it just perfectly.” Needless to say, I tried even harder to be neat and orderly. My mother would have been happy to hear this.

March 9, 1926: We received the religious Habit and white veil. Sr. Marie Anita, who was a Vow Novice, worked in the clothes room and so took an interest in how we looked—pretty sad at first. After breakfast that first day she took us up to the dormitory and re-dressed us. This she did daily until we had learned how to do it for ourselves.

Unidentified Sister in full habit in the 1920s.

Notre Dame wear in those days consisted of: 1. a corset made by Sr. Rodrigues and which did nothing for anyone so most of us kept ours under our mattresses. 2. a pair of drawers which looked like two very large sleeves on a band—I think all were the same size. 3. a black serge petticoat—a half slip tied around one’s waist. 4. a chemise 5. two large pockets also tied around the waist. These were large enough to act as “brief cases” or in some cases “tool kits” as everything went into them from the very large black and white handkerchiefs to a pair of scissors or a thimble. An oblong white linen bandeau went around the head and the black bonnet and veil were pinned to this piece of linen. A triangular piece of white material was folded and put around the neck, under the habit. This served to keep the black material clean. Finally, the Habit was put on, pinned down the front. A square piece of black serge covered the opening. The black apron and Rosary completed the Habit. Added to the Rosary Beads was a string of 33 small beads used for short prayers. We had two Habits, one for everyday use and one for Sundays and special Feast Days. We cleaned our everyday Habits on Sundays up on the fourth floor of Ralston. This meant brushing and spotting.

Part 1 – “The First Days”

Sisters Ann Maureen and Mary Wilma King as teens.

September 8, 1925: Mom, Dad, Mr. and Mrs. Chambers took Dorothy, a friend and classmate, and me to Belmont. For Dorothy and me it was the beginning of a new life—a rather strange one for both of us. My mother had said that the convent was like “the world upside down” and we thought of that the first night when we had corn flakes for dinner. To go back—we arrived at Belmont around 3 p.m. and were given our black capes and caps and we were postulants at last. Night prayer was at 8:30 p.m. and we then went to Cuvilly Hall, second floor, to the dormitory. In our alcoves we had only a bed and a chair. Rolled up under the bed was a small rug, which was pulled out each night. Lois, Dorothy and I were in one of the small dormitories. On our beds we had a towel and a basin, which held our soap, etc. After filling the basin with water, we put it on the rug on the floor and then knelt down to wash—what an experience!

Our daily schedule as Postulants and Novices was as follows:

5:30 a.m.: Rise (while we were Postulants—5:00 a.m. as Novices)

6:00: Chapel for morning prayer

6:30: Mass. A strange custom was receiving Holy Communion before Mass. I never understood why but did as everyone else.

7:15: Breakfast. We had 15 minutes between Mass and Breakfast and so Anna and I used to take a fast walk up the hill, slide down the rocks and were back at Ralston which was at that time called Berchmans Hall, in time for Breakfast. Breakfast was eaten in silence. It usually consisted of corn bread, coffee and either applesauce or prunes. On Sundays we had beans or eggs plus the ordinary fare.

7:30: “Charges” [daily chores] to do and classes to attend.

11:45: We met in Chapel for a daily examination of conscience. On Saturdays we had bath times assigned—one half hour. Anna and I had 11:00-11:30 so often when we washed our hair at the same hour we would arrive in Chapel still “dripping.” Many a Saturday we were sent out to dry our hair.

12:00 p.m.: Lunch

12:30: Washing dishes followed by Recreation. For Recreation we sat in two lines and talked to the Sisters on either side of us never across the aisle or down the line. We also were supposed to sew at that time. I don’t remember ever sewing anything except to darn my stockings. On Sundays we went for a walk in the hills—two by two. Sunday Recreation lasted until 2:00 p.m. and was followed by Vespers sung in the Chapel.

1:30: Class, prayers or study.

4:00: Tea—which consisted of tea, coffee, milk, a piece of bread, butter, or jelly—we were supposed to eat quickly and clean up as we went to Chapel at 4:15 for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

4:30: Talks on our Customs, religious life or our Holy Rule.

5:00: Time for study or a “charge.”

5:30: Meditation in Chapel.

6:00: Supper.

6:45: We did dishes in the big kitchen.

7:30: The Community met and Sr. Mary Regis asked the Novices questions on Religion or Church History. We used to “die of embarrassment” if we missed.

8:00:  Recreation. Very occasionally we had a movie. One that stands out was “Ben Hur.”

8:30: Night prayer and then to bed. The “Great Silence” began at 8:30 and, except in case of extreme necessity, no one was allowed to speak until after Morning prayer the following day. To our amazement and horror the movie “Ben Hur” was stopped in the middle of the chariot race—it was 8:30—and we had to wait until the next evening to finish the race!

Next week, Part 2 – “No Special Talent and Taking the Habit”