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Picks and Pans Review: Changing Habits

updated 01/09/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1989 01:00AM

by V V Harrison

Among many jolting images contained in this provocative volume about the Sacred Heart order of Roman Catholic nuns, one seems painted in primary colors: The author, a 1960 graduate of the defunct Sacred Heart school Eden Hall, near Philadelphia, is sitting in a restaurant across from her favorite teacher, the former Mother Daley, who now prefers to be called Peggy. Peggy is drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes, and, writes Harrison, "My high school dream had come true. Mother Daley was now in the world with me, but I didn't like it one bit." That sense of disappointment, even outrage, characterized many alumnae's reaction to the changes that rocked the order responsible for educating women as diverse as Rose Kennedy, Vivien Leigh, Yoko Ono, Susan Saint James and the Crown Princess of Japan. But change is Harrison's theme, and as an often recalcitrant Sacred Heart student (the child of a Protestant mother and Catholic father, she developed a feisty skepticism toward religion), she seems well equipped to examine the transformation. Founded by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat after the French Revolution, the Jesuit-influenced Society of the Sacred Heart today oversees 118 schools worldwide, 19 in the United States. Until the late '60s, its cloistered nuns led lives of such medieval austerity that they weren't allowed to go to a restaurant, see a movie, visit their families or even speak to each other in personal conversation. Their schools—despite the enlightened, child-oriented philosophy of St. Madeleine Sophie—often suffered from elitism and a rigid discipline and curriculum. Yet, once liberated from their habits by a decree of Vatican II (the 1962-65 conference that led to widespread changes in the church), the Sacred Heart nuns fell into a frenzy of disorganization. The older nuns were, after all, women who had chosen a restrictive environment, while the younger religious liked the new rules just fine. There was such discord between the two factions, one can only marvel at both the faith and fortitude that allowed the order to survive. Of all the women whose lives have been touched, tossed about and forever altered by the demands of the last two decades, certainly Catholic nuns have endured the most dramatic changes. Harrison's engaging and often eloquent memoir serves as a startling portrait of that remarkable group of people. (Doubleday, $18.95)

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