Chapter 19: The Convent School

People seem to be fascinated by nuns, and until I was eleven, I'd never seen a nun in my life. I've nothing much new to say about nuns, except perhaps we believed that nuns didn't go to the toilet until after the Second Vatican Council.

At the start of 1961, Leo and I began at St Patrick's School, Paraparaumu. France had gone to secondary school. Sister Columbiere was the Principal and my teacher.

St Patrick's, Paraparaumu
St Patrick's, Paraparaumu

Now all the Sisters were Irish, and not just Irish, but Irish Irish. After the first half day of Sister Columbiere, I hadn't understood a word she'd said. And then in sailed Mother Vianney just back from overseas.

Now tis like this you see. I was in one of those funny ships that swim under water at Disneyland, and you know, I couldn't figure out how she didn't drown. And I see, Sister Columbiere, there are some fine lookin' strappin' fellas here and I could picture them out in the field playin' ball with the Almighty God. And I'm after comin' back on the submarine like seein' daylight again was walkin' up the staircase...

And then I noticed that Mother Vianney's veil was on crooked, and I could see her at Disneyland in a submarine with a crooked veil, and I got the giggles. I giggled and giggled until I felt quite sore from giggling, and the more I giggled the sillier I felt at my new school on my first day.

Well Johnny Jackman, his sister's brother-in-law, Sister, you know that fella, a wee Protestant lad, was converted to the Jehovah Witnesses. Now what in the name of the Mother of Mary is this round world coming too? That's what happens, children, when you don't say your prayers.

And then I burst. The rest of the class didn't think it was funny at all because the accent and the order of words was bread and butter to them. And Sister Columbiere and Mother Vianney pretended that the new boy wasn't making any noise at all, but I was laughing and snorting at least as loud as a turkey.

Well I tell you somethin' Sister. It rained and it rained, well sha', I never tort I'd see the day the clouds would head to Spain.

Then other Sisters sailed in and out -

why tis Sister Celine!

- until the whole harbour was in full wind with black and white sails jostling for their starting positions.

Sister Columbiere was a most wonderful teacher. I have no crabby nun's stories to tell of Sister Columbiere. She taught us with a relish, and told us off with a relish -

come here now

- and she blew the sport's whistle as well as she taught science and maths and put out booklets with our poems and stories published.

One day, Sister announced that the famous New Zealand author, Miss Nelle Scanlon, was coming to talk. Nelle Scanlon had written novels that we had to read in preparation - about early New Zealand families and a man who got a knighthood. And then the visitor arrived.

Now Sister Columbiere's desk and chair was on a rostrum, about a foot above the ground, and when Miss Scanlon arrived Sister relinquished her chair and handed it over to the famous author. Miss Scanlon was wearing a little yellow hat, and spoke enthusiastically in response to our questions.

And then...

...the back legs of Miss Scanlon's chair went over the edge of the rostrum. There were these little old lady's legs and shoes sticking up over the desk. Chaos followed, with Sister Columbiere patting Miss Scanlon and expressing profound regret -

to be sure, to be sure

- and seeing her to her car

to be sure, to be sure, to be sure.

"Who laughed?" said Sister Columbiere on returning to the classroom.

"It was the girls, Sister," said Bevan Smith, who later was to hold several New Zealand sprints records and was pretty quick even then.

"Which girls?" said Sister Columbiere.

"Kathryn Trask!" they chorused. For Kathryn was the head girl and destined to become a nun herself, and it seemed safest in times of such crises to have an extremely reliable scapegoat.

"Well it's very rude," said Sister Columbiere. "She could have broken her neck!" By this time, all I could see in my mind were Miss Scanlon's legs and shoes over the top of the desk, and I snorted.

At last Sister Columbiere had found a scapegoat she considered culpable.

"And as for you, young Goodman," she said. And there the matter rested.

Us boys were sent up the hill to weed the gardens around the big statue of Mary at Paraparaumu. Religion became more important than it had before. We were sent over to the church for confessions regularly, and Father Dunn would hear them. We could tell who had done what sin because those who argued with their brothers and sisters got to kneel for prayers afterwards, but those who had told lies made the Stations of the Cross. And the nuns and priests became a familiar facet of our family life. Our house was next to the main road, and priests would call for a cup of tea on their way from somewhere to somewhere, and some would stay a day or two to milk the cows and work on the farm. Dad bought the Sisters their first TV set, and later on, their first car.

I won the Rotary Essay Competition while at St Pat's Convent. It was an essay about Sir Edmund Hillary. Sister Columbiere and I were invited to dinner, but Dad went with me instead because nuns didn't eat. And I was given a book and had to read my essay.

I stood up.

"In 1919 many baby boys were born. There was nothing to indicate that one would become so famous that... he was knighted by the Queen for his wonderful feat".

Of course, "feat" when read out loud is "feet". Sir Edmund's "wonderful feet" were heartily laughed at and I came to believe that I'd meant both of them.

Years later, I caught the train from Dublin to Thurles to stay a few days with a not much aged Sister Columbiere. For she'd returned to Ireland. She was waiting at the convent gate, with the same bright eyes behind those glasses, and greeted me with the same gracious enthusiasm.

"Sha'! Young Goodman!" she said.

I was not the first from the Kapiti Coast to have made the long journey to see her.

Years later...
Years later...

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