I entered an active-contemplative community several years ago in New York. I was abused by my postulant director, who later also became my novice director. I lived the majority of my time in religious life being verbally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually abused by this woman behind closed doors. On the outside she was all smiles with a cheerful disposition, but towards me and one of the others in formation this was not the case at all.
No matter what I did even when following her explicit directions I was constantly reprimanded for how I did chapel work. She would gaslight me and tell me that what I said she told me to do she did not tell me to do. She would inform me that certain conversations never took place. It got to a point I was questioning my own sanity because of how constant she did this to me. After Mass when she would come into the sacristy and close the door behind her I knew the verbal attacks and belittlement would come, and they always did.
There was a while during my postulancy when she demanded that candles had to be super bright, and insisted we use tissues to absorb extra wax to make the candles be seen better. I told her that tissues could catch on fire, and I did not feel comfortable using them. Out of obedience I did what I was told to do anyway, and there was an incident during Adoration when the tissue caught on fire.
The altar was wood and the floor was wood, and I did not want the Luna to catch on fire, so I held on to the tissue. I literally had a ball of fire in my hand, and it hurt so much, but I did not want the chapel to catch on fire. I got back to the work sacristy and threw the tissue into the sink. I was convinced I would need to go to the emergency room and that my hand was severely burned, but by the grace of God there were no burns on my hand, and the pain had ceased to be present. My postulant director came barreling into the sacristy calling me stupid and shouting, and I told her that I made it clear I did not believe it wise to use tissues, and she was the one that made me use it. She told me I possibly could not become a novice because of the incident.
I later found out after I returned from my apostolic experience during postulancy that a similar incident happened to another sister, and now no more tissues would be used on candles. She constantly would remind me she was an expert at candles since she was trained as a sacristan as a younger sister, and one day I overheard her telling another sister in formation she had no clue what she was doing with candles.
She knew I had a devotion to praying for priests, and she would mock me for praying for priests, and told me priests cannot go to heaven because they are not made to go to heaven. And she insisted that there are very few saints who are priests. I was told that nuns work much harder than priests, and the reason we did not have a resident chaplain was because then the sisters would have to serve him. When a priest gave a homily she did not like she would accuse me of influencing the priest to give the homily on a certain topic. One time a priest gave a homily on fasting and that night at dinner she told us we had to get a second plate of food. Fasting might as well have been a sin in that community because they insisted that the Foundress said they did not need to do fasting because of their apostolate. Most of the religious sisters I lived with no longer even did such an apostolate. They condemned fasting, and often spoke about how their lives as nuns were the sacrifice. They truly believed they would become automatic saints by being nuns.
When an elderly sister was dying those of us in formation were not permitted to pray by her side before her death. We were told that being a postulant or a novice meant we could not see the sister. I was reminded multiple times that as a novice I was not a part of their community and they could get rid of me anytime. After the sister passed away we were granted permission to pray by her deceased body.
When it came time to receive the habit we had a choice of color, dark or light blue and she told me I could not have the light blue habit because I would be too pretty and outshine the Mother Superior who looked ugly in the habit. She told me I was too righteous like St. Joseph and too pious, and not prideful like her. She told me she was proud of her humility and then laughed because she knew that she was not humble. She timed me in the confessional, and told me I could not have a spiritual director even though the others in formation could have one because she didn't trust me not to talk about her. My novice director told me I did not need to tell a priest anything, and should tell her everything. She and the other novice directress that I had previously tried to get me to confess my sins while telling me it was all right to confess faults to them, which weren't the same as sins. I knew what they were doing, and would make up things to say that I thought they would want to hear, and would get them to stop harassing me.
After confession one day the novice director that I had for most of my novitiate ran up to me and shouted in my face that she was forgiven and did not think I was forgiven. I looked at her, and the first professed sister next to me told her that a part of Confession is absolution and we both had been forgiven too. She huffed in my face and walked away. Later I was informed that she knew I did not like Confession and that was later one of the reasons used why I had to leave the community by the Mother Superior. When we had a retreat I desperately wanted to go to Spiritual Direction, but my director was in charge of the list since she was the head sacristan, and I knew I would get in trouble if I signed up to speak with the priest.
One evening in the formation house she apparently called my name and since we had the AC and fan on on I did not hear her, and she started violently banging on my door until finally slamming it open and yelling at me on the top of her lungs while barging into my room for something I no longer even remember. She called me crazy and then stormed off. The next day she told me she was thankful the others in formation weren't around to see her behavior.
For a time I had a different novice director and it was incredibly peaceful, but then I was switched back to my postulant director. I explained to the first novice director about how my postulancy was the first year, but it fell on deaf ears and I was shouted at being told I had no faith, hope, and charity. She also barked that the priest who she permitted me to speak to about the issue was not God, and she didn't care what he said because he was a priest, and was not a member of the community. She told me she did not believe me to be a victim soul, but was unsure.
Once I received back my postulancy director, but now as my novice director things went from bad to worse. She harassed me daily, and I was always on defense mode, and did what I could to keep her off my back. It became about survival to be able to get through the day after being emotionally, psychologically, verbally, and spiritually beaten each and every day. She told me I was the tree that needed to be chopped down, and there was nothing good about me, and that some people are just bad. I was told that I needed to be supernatural and perfect to live the religious life because the natural could not live the religious life, and was bad. I became severely depressed because all I wanted was to give my life to God and His Church. I cried constantly because I just couldn't handle the constant insults and verbal assaults from my novice director.
She was racist and would constantly talk about how she hated Americans and make fun of how we cut vegetables or the food we ate. In the formation house at one point she refused to make anything else but Korean food, and would not permit us American sisters to help out in the kitchen because she didn't want to take the time to teach us how to cook Korean food. We did like Korean food, but she refused to allow us to eat different food. She would outright mock Americans at the dinner table and those of us in formation had to say nothing. The treatment of American sisters by the novice director was unjust and cruel.
Crying ended up being one of the reasons they used to get rid of me. I had been trained along with the others in formation how to hide crying by doing facial exercises because crying was not permitted in the convent, only smiles. When a sister's biological sister passed away she stayed in her room for days because she could not show sadness in public. When the Mother Superior's uncle died and we could tell at supper she was physically upset later that evening we were called into the Motherhouse for her to apologize to us for showing sadness.
During one of the vacation days formation was taken to a priest friend of a friend's mansion at the Jersey Shore. I just knew we were going to a house on the beach, and had no idea when we got there it was a 14 bedroom mansion at the shore with children and teenagers running around, and that three priests who would be spending the day with us. It did not feel right because there were children and teens running around in bathing suits and their parents were not present. Then one of the priests asked me twice to go put my bathing suit on and I declined. It felt very uncomfortable and the Mother Superior said she didn't know that would be the situation with children, teens, and priests all day. We were too far from the convent to go back home right away, so she opted that we remain there.
When the community would get donations to give to the poor they would first go through what they wanted and keep it. Our Christmas gifts were mostly things that were meant for the poor. I received the last Christmas there, a children's coloring book, and a stuffed dog that I could keep temporarily since stuffed animals were typically not permitted in the convent. My director however had tons of stuffed animals in her room, which she bragged about and you also couldn't miss them when she would leave her door wide open for all to see.
When I was sick with a 102 fever I was forced to do my chapel duty and almost fainted during Mass. I was finally able to go to my room because my novice director was embarrassed by me sitting down during Mass. After several days I was permitted to go to Urgent Care, and the entire time my director sat there in the room with me complaining to the medical staff how she felt I made her sick and she kept moaning. In the community a sister had to go into the examination room with you because they do not trust that you will not reveal information that they do not want to be revealed to the outside world. The doctor told my novice director I had the flu and needed to rest for a week. The next day I was told to get up, and that the Mother Superior had said that I rested enough and I needed to do my chapel duties. I remember lighting the candles feeling lightheaded and like I would be sick. I prayed to God to not make me faint during Mass.
The morning before I spiked a fever the pipes had burst in the Chapel. For two hours I was running back and forth from the sacristy to the hallway between the chapel and the sacristy emptying water buckets and throwing towels down then switching towels and placing the buckets down again. I remember feeling overheated and dizzy, but kept pushing myself to keep going back and forth.
They were aware that I had atopic dermatitis and it flared up a lot in the convent because of all of the stress. Instead of allowing me to go to the doctor right away they searched to see if anyone had a cream that I could use for my skin. Twice I had episodes where I would become dizzy and my novice director told me I had to take the Mother Superior's vertigo medication that was a prescription for her. While kneeling during the Rosary on multiple occasions I would feel overly warm all of a sudden and begin to black out. I would have to sit up and then the feeling would go away. My novice mistress told me I could not sit during the Rosary because it was not the tradition of the community, and that she wanted me to faint right there in the Chapel.
On the day I was asked to leave my novice director, again the same woman who is still in charge of formation today, told me she was sorry, but was not mentally well. She admitted that for two years she went after me, but did not know why, and that she could not control herself. She begged for my forgiveness, and after several hours of waiting for my parents to come finally close to the time of their arrival she had me place my my belongings on the lawn outside of the formation house. The Mother Superior originally wanted them to drive me home, but I refused because I knew that in religious life that is their last "f*ck you" to humiliate you by giving you the cold shoulder all the way home and then just dropping you off. Days before they had already taken all of my chapel duties away except opening the chapel in the morning, and I later learned this was also a "f*ck you" to give you a last humiliation before a departure.
The Mother Superior had to make a decision on her retreat as to whether to keep me even though I knew my novice mistress was lying and the decision had already been made months ago. I knew because the last time my parents came to visit they were cold to them, and when my parents donated items for the infirmary like masks and wipes, etc. for Covid-19 since this was during the pandemic they left the box they brought for weeks until finally my director told me to go get the box. They also took a donation from my faith-sharing group of $400 knowing I would be leaving soon, and my director lied when she told them I could go to a gathering at the local parish because she already knew at that time I would no longer be there. I had been given a summer habit, told I would be going to Philadelphia for an apostolic experience, and would be applying for first vows when I returned and my novice director knew that I would no longer be there soon. The mind games and manipulation was pure evil and maliciousness.
I was convinced there was something sinister going on especially towards the end. My novice director always sat in the same seat for breakfast, so for two days before she had woken up I put several drops of holy water on her chair. Both days she sat in another chair. She never sat in another chair in the morning. When we would have classes I would hold a St. Benedict's medal in my hand because during our classes she would often have random outbursts that had nothing to do with the topic we were learning for class and would start speaking very loudly and angrily attacking the priesthood and yelling at me for praying for priests.
The Mother Superior was very touchy-feely and that made me feel uncomfortable. When my novice mistress had to go away she insisted that I had to have classes with Mother. I was alone at the time in formation. She had me go to the Rectory because she said it was too hot and there was AC in the Rectory. She had me close the door and told me to move my chair closer to her. When we would be in the dining room she would often sit next to me and tell me to move my chair closer, and she did not say this to other sisters. A couple of times she would be talking behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. After the new postulants entered the Mother Superior wanted to go to our Pennsylvania convent, and I was told by my novice director that she wanted me to go with her. I did not feel comfortable being alone in the car with the Mother Superior and I used my visit day as an excuse to get out of it. This was later used as a reason to get rid of me, that I had more loyalty to my parents than to the community.
Whenever we would have priests visit they would bad mouth them as soon as they left. My priest friend was our instructor for one of our classes, and after he would have dinner with us and then leave as soon as he walked out they would negatively talk about him. The pastor of the parish affiliated with them was a friend of mine, and they couldn't stand him because he didn't run quick enough as soon as they called him. In front of me the Mother Superior would purposely mock him and speak ill of him. When my pastor came to visit me a few days before my departure, at supper that evening my novice director made fun of him and the way he looked, and I grasped onto the table because I was so angry, and it took everything to keep my composure.
When I had the final conversation with the Mother Superior she told me I was not fit to be a saint, and that because they loved me they needed me to go. She told me I had no vocation, and that they wanted me to keep in touch with them because of how much they loved me, and that they would even help to find a therapist. I was told they were giving me $200 to help me get back on my feet, and that was it. Never before had the Mother Superior spoken to me about anything and we were in the convent for several months together because of Covid-19.
I was forced to have one more meal with my former novice director who I only had for a short time and my current novice director. They carried on conversation as if nothing was different, and kept talking about how horrible it was out there with Covid-19. I could not eat anything because I knew I was leaving in a short while. They pretended everything was fine, and my novice director mentioned how I wasn't eating because she knew I was fasting for priests because it was a Friday, not because I was sick to my stomach about losing the vocation within my heart forever. The conversation ended with me being assured they were doing this to help me become a saint.
I was not permitted to say good-bye to the other sisters; only the other postulant and former directors. I left through the formation house door. I knew they would lie about my departure just as they had lied about the previous departures. When one of the postulants had been asked to leave a couple of weeks before me the Mother Superior told the community she was going on her home visit with the other postulant. I had already been told she was never coming back, and knew that she was lying to everyone. Also, in the letter to the community it said it was mutually agreed upon that she would leave the religious life.
Later after I left the community myself I chatted with this young woman and discovered that it was not mutual at all, and she had no choice in the matter. They had fitted her for her habit, and announced her date for novitiate and then decided her health was too poor and sent her away. The other postulant I later found out left too, and was informed she had wounds that needed to be resolved and then could return to the community. She returned about a year later and was there for only two months before departing again. I had seen old community magazines and there were so many women who were no longer there. My novice director at one point asked me to go find the magazines and pull out all of the pages of sisters who were no longer there so future women in formation would not see the pictures. She even told us that the community was discerning not having a habit anymore for novitiate since they often don't keep women.
Several months later my heart was still broken because I truly felt called to religious life despite being horribly abused twice, and with the advice of my spiritual director he directed me to another New York community. I informed him the community knew of my former community, but he said he would speak with them. He did speak to the novice director, and she was not concerned about me being in religious life twice and invited me to their virtual discernment retreat. Then she said she would have to call my previous community, and once that was done I received a phone call that they could not accept someone who had been in religious life twice. I was black-balled by the former community, and that is why I have chosen more recently to speak out about what has happened to me and so many others because I know the vocation to religious life for me now will only ever be able to be in my heart.
Religious life for many women is not what God wills for it to be in this world, and instead has become cult-like, and a means by which to hurt and traumatize women who desire to give their lives to God. My hope is that for the priests reading this to understand that for women who have been abused in the convent it is not helpful to tell them to try another community, and to dismiss their horrific experience. Also, too many priests recommend communities simply because they seem orthodox and wear a traditional habit, but know nothing about what goes on inside the convent. They can never know what actually happens behind closed doors. I ask of priests to please not recommend communities to young women simply because they seem faithful and wear a habit. There is so much more to living an authentic religious life. I know the truth because I along with many other women lived through the horrendous experience while from the outside the community seems well put together and an exemplary model for religious life. Not everything is what it seems, and wolves in sheep's clothing do exist, even in the convent.
"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves." - Matthew 7:15
Photo: Br. Christian Seno, OFM, Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic