The Lay Sister

The lay sister slides her hands
through holy water. Chops
onions, carrots, celery

in that order. Splits
blocks of wattle. Her hands
are fat on the axe handles.

‘Good God,’ says the Bishop,
slipping another smoke ring
round the crystalline throat

of the Portuguese sherry
decanter. ‘That woman
would knock you down as good

as look at you!’ The lay sister
is as rough as guts, speaks
Irish rather than English,

sleeps through the mission,
eats by herself in the kitchen.
Sometimes however

they do let her answer
the door and it’s ‘Excuse me,
Reverend Mother, there’s

a piano in the parlour’
(that’s the given code word
for a man) and she’s not able

to keep herself from laughing
then, imagining knocking
a fine old tune out of him.

Bernadette Hall was born in Central Otago in 1945 and now teaches and writes (plays as well as poetry) in Christchurch. She has had five collections of poetry published, the most recent being Settler Dreaming (Victoria University Press, 2001). Over the last 10 years, her work has been included in a wide range of anthologies and literary journals, such as LandfallSportSoho Square (Bloomsbury). In 1991, she was writer in residence at the University of Canterbury and in 1996 held the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University, Dunedin. In 1997, she spent three months at the University of Iowa, USA, representing New Zealand as a member of the International Writers Community which gathers there each year. For 10 years, she was poetry editor of Takahe, a New Zealand literary magazine which publishes poetry and short stories from both local and international writers.

“My lay-sister is an amalgam,” Hall comments. “She springs from anecdotes related to me by a number of Catholic Sisters, now in their 60s, who as modern free spirits recall with amusement and regret the strict discipline and fear of the ‘world’ which marked their experiences as religious novices in convents of the 1950s. Irish Catholicism, as the famous French missionary to these islands, Suzanne Aubert, noted in the late 19th century, brought some strange aberrations with it to this particular British colony. Disciplines and penances became more conservative, sometimes bizarre, after the huge loss of confidence in ‘civilisation’ that marked the end of World War II.

“I was brought up, a post-war baby, in a small-city Catholic community that was proud, theatrical and pretty much enclosed. The Sisters who taught me were highly educated, fastidious, impressive women, all mind and spirit and no body. So I have had to learn to love the body and to trust the ‘world’ — to become real in the way in which my lay-sister is real. Lay-sisters were not fully professed members of a religious order. They lacked education and gentility, but they did most of the donkey work. Stories about them often mention their humanity, grit and good-humour. I love my lay-sister and it’s these qualities in her that I hope will touch readers.”

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New Zealand Book Council writer file