Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sisters of the Convent

This posting is dedicated to Mary Kane. She lived across the street from me when I was a little girl, and she was Roman Catholic. I am protestant. My father’s family came from old New England Puritan stock. My dreams of becoming a nun began about age seven, when I attended my friend’s first communion. Things really got serious when she taught me the sign of the cross, and the two of us erected a shrine in the basement of my house on Maxwell Avenue. Soon, I was reciting Hail Marys to the astonishment of my parents. All this should not have been so strange, since the other side of my family were French-Canadians and Irish!

How appropriate it was then, that I should find myself living in Belgium, a country with so many remnants of the beauty and theatre of the Catholic Church! Religious imagery and architecture are on show everywhere. In addition to the churches and shrines, many of the larger towns in Belgium had a beguinage, compounds where semi-religious women’s communities flourished in the 13th century. There was even a small roadside chapel or kapel across from our farmhouse. In Brussels, we discovered the “Musée du Coeur” devoted to the heart in religious iconography

On one of our many weekend antiquing excursions, we met a jolly Flemish man named Jan and his wife, Marcelle. They graciously invited us to their home which adjoined the medieval town walls of Mechelen. Inside was a miraculous collection of antique religiosa-statues, chapelets (crucifixes), and bénitiers (holy water fonts). The couple had even built their own chapel next to the wall in their garden.

Elsewhere in Belgium, we encountered other religious souvenirs. Near Antwerp cathedral is “Het Elfde Gebod” (Eleventh Commandment). This unique café offers its patrons sanctuary in an interior illuminated with church candles, and packed to the rafters with effigies of angels and saints.

The more we looked, the more new collecting passions were born within us. We trawled the antique markets and brocantes for delicate paper lace holy cards, ornate silk priests’ vestments and miniature travel reliquaries. The inspiration for my Sacre Bleu necklaces (from The Parrott Collection) with tiny blue enamel medallions, comes from this time. Frankincense and myrrh, purchased at a monastery shop near the Vatican, brought home the memory of the smoky-scented church interiors of Italy. The ancient pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence was a miss, but it is on my must-see list.

It is comforting to know that so many former religious buildings have been born again. In Australia, and other locales down-under they have the right spirit when it comes to reusing these structures. One example is the imposing Convent Gallery in Daylesford, Victoria, (once The Holy Cross Convent and Boarding School for Girls), whose shop was the source of my slender and graceful beeswax church candles. Near Melbourne is Abbotsford Convent. Eleven heritage listed buildings, once the cloister of the Sisters of the Order of the Good Shepherd, now shelter artists, writers, small organizations, a restaurant and a radio station. On New Zealand’s South Island at the Old Convent bed and breakfast in Kaikoura, we swam with the dolphins by day, and slept in a former classroom of the church school by night.

Long ago, I gave up my calling to become a nun. That doesn’t mean that I don’t weep watching Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, or Donna Reed, the good sister in Green Dolphin Street as she takes her final vows.

These days my spiritual side is sated by a visitation to Diamonds and Rust, at 472 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, California. Susie and Marilyn opened the shop two years ago in its current location, and it is ecclesiastical Nirvana! There, artifacts such as shell grottos, Virgin Mary statues, and ex-votos/milagros help me find my lost saints.

Dominus Vobiscum,


  1. What a lovely story. I've never been very religious....something I hesitate to mention but I do love religious statues and churches. I love listening to bible historians on the history channel.....Does that count?

  2. HI Marjorie
    Thanks for popping over to visit my blog
    What a treat it is for me here!! I love anything to do with religious art and had started a regular post series but got lazy. haha I've been working up another post on such so you have inspired me. Well so many things I love here on your blog that I 'sometimes' post about also.. old movies.. the sea.. etc and love bycicles too ... going to take a look around. PS Love your profile pic!! Julie

  3. Carole,

    Sure does. You can be an honorary Sister of the Convent.


  4. Hi Julie,

    Stay tuned. More to come. So glad to find we have so much in common. You can be an honorary Sister of the Convent too!


  5. Thank you for your visit and for your nice words! You've a lovely and very interesting blog!And very unusual!!!
    Happy week end!

  6. Growing up in a Portuguese religious environment I do know the effect that all those religious artifacts, gilded saints cards, and old churches have on you. This post took me back to familiar sites :)
    I do thank you for the lovely comment you left on my blog. I'll come back to visit.



  7. Dearest Marjorie,
    Merci mille fois for coming to my Petit Théâtre de Chimères! How enchanting is YOUR BLOG! I lived in Massachusetts for 12 years and reading your experience reminded me of living there. I knew a family with Puritan roots and it was so fascinating! I also have a couple of acquaintances from Belgique as well. I love your photos as they radiance the luminance and beauty of the old relics. Thank you for visiting and leaving such kind words! I love Audrey Hepburn and her style fits me! I figured long ago that as far as style is concerned, wear what looks best on you; I think she knew this and wore what classically fit her. I do the same and it works! Do come again, I enjoy your company and your delightful blog! Au revoir, ou bien, à bientôt! Anita

  8. I too a non Catholic have a thing for these religious symbols. I love their folkart qualities and colors and the mystery of them.

  9. HI Marjorie
    Unfortunately I did not make it to the cemetery. That would've been fascinating. PS I posted on Mexican Icons the post before this Venice post. Have Fun Julie

  10. Its so nice to meet you and read your wonderful story...we have visited 'het elfde gebod' many times..Also 'Santa Maria Novella',and both the movies you mentioned belong to my favorites..I wish you a wonderful week...Blessings

  11. As someone who grew up in a Catholic family I enjoyed this post!

  12. Marianne,

    Thank you for dropping by. Writing this posting brought back so many memories to me as well.


  13. Wow, looks like a beautiful shop. What a great story too about your journey. Thanks for stopping by Beach Vintage and leaving a comment.

  14. I have visit the " elfde gebod " in Antwerpen .
    A great place !
    Lovely photos do you have in this post !
    XOX Rini

  15. Beatiful blog!!!

    Please come to see mine if you like!

  16. Hi, tank you for passing and leaving your lovely comment!
    Nice to meet you you have a very inusual and lovely blog!
    Tank you for sharing your story with us.
    Have a nice day

  17. So lovely to meet you..thankyou so much for dropping by..and for me to be able to read your very lovely and beautiful blog...such a treat so lovely.
    I will call by again
    have a lovely evening
    Hugs Lynn xxx

  18. What an interesting post. Living in Belgium must have been wonderful. I would like to visit there in the next year or two. Really taken in by the blue and white of the first image.

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