Were the Nuns really that bad?

I often hear stories about how harsh Catholic school nuns were in the past. Writer Truman Capote referred to them as 'Black Widows,' many others have said recounted instances of harsh treatment.

My limited experience with nuns, three in grammar school, was positive. However, this was in the late 70's.

What's the truth of this?

My dad and uncles, my in-laws and all their siblings, everyone I know in their generation who went to Catholic schools (1920s-40s), and in my own generation who attended Catholic schools (1950s-60s) have nothing but good memories to relate of the good sisters and of our school experience in general. Even where there was a story of a nun with a personality who probably should not have been working with children, it was a one-time anecdote, and told simply because it was so rare. Like the mythical stories of forbidden bible-reading, "mean nuns" is something I know of only as urban legend, not from actual experience of anyone I know.

Conversely, almost everyone I know who went to public school also had generally good teachers, but may have one memory of one teacher who stands out simply because they were harsh or their behavior was out of the norm. Since those make the best stories, those are the stories that get re-told.

Same here. My mother and her sisters were taught by ‘nuns’ in the 1920s and 1930s; my sister, brother and I in the 1960s to 1970, my daughter in the late 1990s. . .all of us had nothing but positive experiences for ourselves and we never saw anything (or heard of anything) ‘awful’ happening to others. While I’m sure that ‘mean nuns’ existed I do think that like so many perceived “Catholic evils” it has been blown out of proportion and demonized.

Of course, we’re in the U.S. I can’t speak for other countries and apparently from anecdotal evidence there were indeed greater instances of such things. Of course one still has to look at the whole picture. If, for example, every other authority figure in that country radiated sweetness and light and ONLY the nuns were ‘mean’ it would be a very different picture than, say, if most or all of the authorities acted in a ‘mean way’ in which case the nuns would simply be part of a greater ‘cultural’ or societal way of behavior.

If you’re told that your behavior is acceptable, you look around and see your peers etc. acting the same way, it’s been ‘done that way’ for generations, you’re probably not going to question it if it seems culturally appropriate. How many generations did men think that it was perfectly right and just to beat their wives so long as the stick was no thicker than a finger? And did the women think that it was (while painful) perfectly acceptable for them as well? How long did it take for people to hear ‘this is wrong’ and to accept it?

Taught by nuns here as well (an Australian Benedictine order, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan). Great memories.

*My husband has terrible memories, his mother has wonderful memories, my sister has mixed memories. I didn't go to Catholic school. I think that everyone will have different experiences. No two nuns are going to be the same, just because they have chosen the same vocation.

I agree with annie about public school teachers, also. I never suffered corporal punishment, but there are some bad memories I have of very scary teachers! :eek: There can be good and and not-so-good teachers everywhere, really. *

Probably it depends on how good the person was...I've heard some nun horror stories over the years from people....;)

Most of the nuns were kind, pragmatic, dedicated women. But the ones who weren't stand out in people's memories, and did some damage. In my limited experience, the nuns that I remember less than fondly happened to be in charge. I'm not sure if that's a coincidence.

I also think that in the past, some Catholic families took problem daughters and PLACED them in a nunnery. When that happened, it isn't surprising that you would wind up with a rather bitter, and not-very-good nun.

Welcome 1 poster…May the Lord bless you and draw you closer to Him…

I had nuns up through fourth grade, when we moved into an area where Catholics were thought to have two heads and horns, and there were no Catholic schools. This was in the early 1960's. Three of four of them were just lovely, but the third grade teacher was one of the nastiest women I've ever known. Her particular pet peeve (other than children in general) was people using handrails on the stairs. If we were in a line going somewhere that involved the staircase, she would stand at the bottom saying, "Hands off, hands off!" With her (I think) New York accent, it came out, "Heee-yuns oooo-wuff, heee-yuns oooo-wuff!" :eek:

When I was in high school in the above-mentioned rural area, it was permitted to spank students with a paddle, but not the hand. Most of the male teachers had personalized paddles displayed prominently in their classrooms. One even had holes drilled in his to make it move faster and hurt more. However, I never saw a nun with a ruler or any other weapon.


I was educated at a Loreto Convent and I was probably about the third year of boys since the school's inception back in the 60's so it was a culture shock for them. To be honest there was a mixture of good and bad; it's the same with all people. Some were really good teachers especially the Biology teacher but the Religious Ed teacher ironically wasn't that great. Behaviourally they were ok, some were austere and hostile towards guys but some of the other teachers who weren't nuns were the same. Anyone who writes books with venomous vilification have an agenda to sell books and I'd treat them with suspicion.
I met some of my nun teachers at a retreat a year ago and some of them disappointed me because they were talking about the faith requiring an upgrade or words to that effect. The beauty of the Catholic church lies in its eternal ceremony. I think it was because they no longer lived in the Convent; that's a really thorny issue for me. Nuns wearing ordinary clothes and living in the community. I believe that's loss of tradition. Simply put the nuns were ok but the protective and traditional aspects of their culture should be retained. At the moment the Church Militant needs unity.

I'm only 25 but growing up I knew a nasty nun. She threw out a hawaiian gifts I had from my grandparents beucase she said they were awful pagans. She badgered me and told me...when I was seven...that I could not sing and sholdn't try and that even God would be offened by it. She constantly belitled me.

In my teenage years I met a wonderful nun, the second I met, who was the most incredible, loving wonderful person I'd ever met. I love her still probably more than anyone else.

Since then I've met many more nuns who range from old and senile to loving. It depends on the person...like with all humans

I went to Catholic school from first through twelfth grade. (This was in the 60s and 70s.) The majority of the teachers were sisters. For the most part they were kind, thoughtful women. But I liked some of them more than others. I didn't particularly like my seventh grade teacher but I think that was more a reflection on what I was going through hormonally than it was on that particular sister.

It was my observation at the time that classmates who found following the rules (no talking, no gum, proper uniform) to be too limiting also found the sisters to be overly strict and too harsh.

I started Catholic school south of Boston, with the Sisters of St. Joseph, in the late 50s. We had 65 kids in my first grade class. :eek:

I remember that in first grade Sr. Mary Christel told us all that it was also her first year (likely not true, but it put us all at ease.) She was a good-hearted soul, but didn't take any nonsense. Our fourth grade teacher was a dour woman, and passed away just after the end of the school year; it turns out that she had been ill. The other sisters were generally kind, often funny, but rarely mean.

In high school, we had Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. My freshman homeroom/religion/Latin teacher was fierce, and, I suspect, a most unhappy person; the other sisters didn't even like her. Sophomore year I had a homeroom/French teacher who was knows as "Bloody Mary"; we all dreaded every single day of school that year. The rest of the sisters were wonderful teachers.

All in all, there were, indeed, a few of the stereotypical "mean nuns", but the majority were great teachers and caring people.

I think it may depend on individual experiences and perhaps even on the school the kids attended. My grandmother attended Catholic school from grade school all the way through high school in the 30s and 40s and she had wonderful memories of her teachers, who were mostly all sisters.

My father and his brothers who are closer to his age (gradeschool in the 50s/early 60s), on the other hand, don’t have many good memories of most of the sisters in their gradeschool. Most of the sisters at that school were apparently very miserable, would hit them and belittle them. My father also remembers an incident in 2nd grade when one of his classmates needed to use the bathroom and the sister wouldn’t let her. She ended up peeing in her desk, the sister began screaming and yelling at her, then had my father and another boy clean up her pee while she was sent to the principal’s office to be taken home. He remembers feeling so badly for her because she was a nice, shy little girl and that teacher belittled her and shamed her in front of the entire class. That said, he has a good memory of one, young sister who was strict, but kind to all of the children in his 6th grade class. I also have a few older friends who attended school in the same area as my father and his brothers around the same time and they also related bad memories with the sisters during that time period.

I attended Catholic grade school in the 80s and 90s and had decent experiences with the sisters, except for one who was not the nicest person. But I don’t equate that with her being a sister. She just wasn’t a nice person.

Yes, this idea is perpetrated by certain ex-Catholics, born-again secularists. It contains more than a hint of misogyny.

Clergy are human beings, there are good ones and bad ones and everyone in between. My dad was class president of his Catholic school (HS) and he used to tell me about this certain nun that put the fear of God in him and the other boys and boy was she strict, etc., etc. Now you should my father is about six feet, big strong guy. So years later we are visiting some of aunts of ours who were in the same order as that infamous sister of his youth in the conventual retirement home. So while we're there, this little nun, oh about 4 foot 10, with a sweet wrinkly face and big smile comes up and says "oh -----" (using a dimunitive of my dad's name), "is this your boy?" You guessed it, it was the same nun. Maybe she looked bigger when my father was a boy. :D

I do think the old-time sisters and the priests were tough and strict. (I know of quite a few priests from that era who were golden gloves boxers.) But I think this was needed. We forget the "good old days" were pretty hard, especially back in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. They served working class neighbors were there were gangs, violence, family problems, drunkeness, etc. Those aren't new problems and despite what folks think the Irish, Italians, Poles and others had just as many social problems as inner city minorities today. These sisters and priests were fighting a real battle and they kept a lot of kids on the straight and narrow that would have gotten into major trouble. Sadly, the underclass today has no such group of advocates. It was tough love and it worked.

That's a story you'll never hear in most history books.


My Dad was mistreated by the nuns at his school. He was in elementary school in the 60s. He’s left handed but they tied down his left hand and made him write with the right and now his handwriting is atrocious (still left handed). He was also hit with rulers, etc. Large part of the reason he will not return to Catholicism which is too bad. :frowning:
I’m sure it depends largely on the school or teacher though. But I think it is sad any educator would shame and hit a child.

More often times than not, they were not bad. I saw a few occurrences where I felt the kids were unjustly treated. My experience was positive with the very few nuns I had. Never had a priest as a teacher. My uncle was a seminarian at the age of 11 in the EU and he left it by claiming he wanted to see my mother as she was just born, but he often tells the stories of the ultra disciplinary methods that were not that far off from the David Copperfield experiences at his boarding school. That was the end of his time in the Seminary.

I have to say that todays clergy are quite upstanding and caring individuals than back in the day, much more understanding and open minded than the stern ways of life that were known to many.

I have to say, I heard Bonnie Hunt (both in an interview and on her show) reference a certain name of a nun a while back and sure enough, it happened to be the very same one of four I grew up with as well. I was never a victim to this particular nuns flying erasers! :D LOL I ducked out of that one just in time. :p

The little town in upstate New York where I grew up did not have a Catholic school, but we were taught religion by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. I only have wonderful memories of them. I remember once when I was in second or third grade, some of us girls asked one of the Sisters why she would want to be a Sister and not be able to have her own children. Sister told us that she was a mother to all the children. Thank God for all of the wonderful Sisters who dedicated their lives to teaching us.

Sisters of mercy "Mater Misericordiae" were the order of nuns who taught me at primary convent school St.John Bosco. One sister is still our family friend today Sister Mary Joseph.
I was at school in the 60's.Corporal punishment was the 'norm' in all schools not just catholic schools.My husband who was not at a catholic school tells stories of the blackboard eraser being thrown at him or others or chalk being thrown etc.This never happened to me.
I did get rapped over the knuckles with a ruler once,I can't recall why! I loved my schools and really learnt manners,a good conscience and to care for others.
I was awarded the cup for Courtesy at my final year at school.

My secondary convent school Convent of the Nativity of Our Lord had both lay and nuns teaching.Sister St.George was my geography teacher and formiddable as she could be,she was a good fair teacher.
I formulated my ideas and character from my experiences at my two convent schools.
I am sorry for others who may have had a different experience and especially if if was not a good experience.I think it's important to remember clergy are human and you get good and bad or happy and grumpy people in all walks of life.We all have good days and bad days too!
Our personalities are there whether we are clergy or laity.
God bless

I went to Catholic grade school in the 1980's. I had direct experience there with five nuns. Some of the older one who were "semi-retired" by the time I was there had also taught my aunts and uncles at the same school in the late 1960's and early 1970's so I know a bit more about them from their experiences.

I would say the nuns fell across the spectrum. I would describe two of the five as among the nicest people I have known. They clearly loved working with children and were very gentle and kind. A third nun (the school principal) cultivated an image of strict discipline and could be a screamer when kids misbehaved. But she also clearly loved the kids, and could be very friendly, as long as you were doing what you were supposed to be doing. Two others came closer to the stereotype of a "mean nun." I know one of them used to hit my uncles when they were in school (that was no longer accepted by the time I was there). She would sometimes yell at kids and belittle them. The other simply did not seem to have a lot of patience for children. I sometimes wondered why these two women joined teaching orders, since they didn't seem to like being around children very much.

When I compare the nuns to the lay teachers I had at the same school, it's a pretty similar assortment.

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