Holy Rule takes place during three weeks in October, 1958, focusing on the lives of a group of nuns who teach at St. Monica's Girls' School. During this time of high autumn, the pope lies dying in Rome— and then finally dies— while thousands of miles away life carries on among the students and teaching nuns in St. Monica's Girls' School. The girls— Gwen, J.J., Sally— are living in the adolescent space between childhood and adulthood and are testing their limits with their nun-teachers. Meanwhile, those same nun-teachers— Sisters Zélie, Martha, Beatrice— are living under a rule that to the outside world is regarded as "holy," but is more ambiguous to those on the inside. As the Reverend Mother grieves the loss of the pope, she makes impossible demands upon her charges. For the nuns teaching in the school, there is the added struggle of rebellious teenagers. For those who remain in the convent all day— Sisters Kate, Clementia, Antonetta and the housemaid Lizzie— various forms of subterfuge are used to cope with their lack of freedom. Some are able to choose their own inner path, others succumb to injustice and meanness. All of them are plodding their way through cultural and spiritual terrain that is both familiar and alien. They harbor regrets for the past as they negotiate their way through a present that is shifting under their feet. Unknown to all of them, their lives are spilling into a world on the cusp of change.
Mary Frances Coady was born in Saskatchewan and raised in Alberta. She now lives in Toronto. She is the author of several biographies, young adult fiction, and a collection of linked short stories, The Practice of Perfection. Her short fiction has also appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Dalhousie Review, The Fiddlehead, Whetstone, Commonweal, and other publications. She has taught at Centennial College and Sheridan College, and has also worked as an editor and creative writing instructor. She currently teaches professional communication at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Holy Rule by Mary Frances Coady
reviewed by The Miramichi Reader - January 1, 2017
A likeable and very readable story of a convent/girl's school in 1958. The Reverend Mother initially comes across as a neurotic Captain Bligh type of character and one even begins to question her sanity after awhile. The present pope has just died and everyone in the Catholic world at the time is curious as to who the new pope will be.
It is also a time of the rise of Communism in Russia, Sputnik, and social changes as well, leaving the older generation (like the strict Reverend Mother) confused as to enforcing the Holy Rule in the convent/school and the changing social behaviours of not only the students but the nuns as well. At one point, Sister Martha, one of the popular teaching nuns questions her faith and Catholicism as well: "She (Sister Martha) was a fraud encased in a religious habit, pretending to live a holy life. When had prayer become meaningless? And now he (the pope) was gone, the only mouthpiece of God was Reverend Mother. Heaven help the world if there was no one else to give out God's will except Reverend Mother with her leathery face and spying underling. A pope shouldn't die and leave the world bereft like that."
I was disappointed that Holy Rule ended a little abruptly, leaving certain story lines unfinished. It almost seems like Holy Rule is 2/3rds of a story instead of a full novel. Perhaps a sequel was on the mind of Ms Coady? It would have been nice to see how the Reverend Mother eventually fared, how students Gwen, Brooke, Sally and J.J. and the other principal characters developed and what St. Monica's would have been like with a full-time priest (the lecherous Father Brody) on staff.
At any rate, Holy Rule is an interesting drama set inside the walls of a convent during a time of stressful upheaval in the Church.
Holy Rule by Mary Frances Coady - an excerpt from the review
reviewed by Clarissa Fortin
Quill and Quire - December 2016
With Holy Rule, Mary Frances Coady revisits the cloistered Catholic she explored in her 2009 short story collection, The Practice of Perfection. Those stories followed a group of novitiates taking their first steps toward becoming nuns. Holy Rule details three weeks in the lives of long-time sisters.
The year is 1958. Pope Pius the XII is on his deathbed. A the nuns come to grips with the imminent loss of their Holy Father, quiet but deeply felt resentments threaten the convent's perfect order. The aging Reverend Mother, who demands absolute obedience, dispatches a spy, Sister Antonetta, to weed out and punish recalcitrant nuns. In the first chapter, Sister Antonetta smokes a cigarett without permission and burns an embroidered cloth in the convent library; that cloth reappears throughout the rest of Holy Rule, a subtle symbol of the damage and imperfection present in even the holiest places.
Coady's writing is most engaging when it focuses on investigating the nun's imperfections. She invites readers into the minds of women struggling profoundly with obedience to the Church. Sister Antonetta only goes through the motions of religious devotion. Sister Martha longs for love and acceptance, but cannot contain impulsive urges to berate her students or read prohibited magazines. Reverend Mother, herself, who at first resembles Big Brother in a wimple, also turns out to be flawed and deeply human. Coady conveys the psychological complexities of the nuns' lives without passing judgment on their choices and beliefs. Her prose is a pragmatic and unadorned as the women who populate her pages. The world she reveals behind the imposing convent walls is surprisingly rich, and entering the world is a rewarding experience.
“You’ve been smoking in here, Lizzie.”
“Sister, it was just a short break, to give me back and legs a rest. I know I
should have gone downstairs for me fag, but—”
“Lizzie.” Sister Antonetta looked again toward the door. “Do you suppose
I might try one?”
It was a moment before Lizzie replied. “Do … do you mean… a fag?”
Sister Antonetta nodded. Her face brightened. “Just to try it. I’ve often
wondered what it’s like to smoke a cigarette.”
Lizzie sat down at the table. “Only if you think it’s allowed, Sister.”
“Allowed? And is it up to you to question me about what’s allowed?” Sister
Antonetta’s face began to gain color again. She stood straight, her face serene.
“I’m simply asking you for a favour.”
Lizzie drew from her pocket a brown pouch, opened it and pulled out a thin
piece of cigarette paper. She reached into the pouch again, and looking up at
the nun, said, “I rolls me own, d’you know that, Sister?”
The nun pursed her lips.
“I mean, I’ll have to roll you one too. This isn’t a bother to you, Sister? Me
licking the paper?”
A muscle flinched on Sister Antonetta’s face. “Do what you have to do. I
know nothing of these things.”
Lizzie plucked some stringy tobacco from the pouch and arranged it on
the paper, rolled the paper up and licked the edge. She tapped it on the table,
poked in a stray string of tobacco, and handed it to Sister Antonetta, who sat
down at the table across from her. The nun put the cigarette into her mouth.
It dangled in front of her chin.
Lizzie rolled one for herself and brought out a box of matches from her
pocket. Sister Antonetta thrust her head forward and raised the cigarette.
“You suck in on it, Sister.” Lizzie struck a match and held it out toward the
nun. A flame shot up from the end of the cigarette. She then lit her own. “Suck
in, Sister!” she said, waving away the smoke that had risen between them.
Sister Antonetta drew in, and immediately the cigarette flew out of her
mouth onto the table. She doubled over, her body wracked with coughing. A
smell of scorched cloth rose between them.