Sister Benedict’s Blessings
Part two of our inspiring new serial
Join me in the garden, Ellen, where we can be alone.” Sister Benedict led her friend by the arm, aware of her poorly disguised agitation. “I feel you have the need to tell me something. There is no rush. Mother Superior can wait for her poultice.”
Sister Benedict smiled at her friend, who gazed into the distance, past the walls. Trying to suppress tears, Sister Benedict wondered? If so, why? Had the conversation with the Colonel about the adoption not gone to plan?
The two women took small steps, silent at first. Sister Benedict would pause to collect herbs, watching her friend, knowing that given time she would speak of her own accord. Her life in the convent had taught that patience was a virtue. A comfortable silence is conducive to confession, whatever the religion.
“I spoke to James,” Ellen finally spoke, clearly attempting to suppress sobs. “Take your time, Ellen.” “He won’t consider the adoption. And Sister, there is worse.” Sister Benedict waited. “I fear James is the father of Mary’s baby.” Ellen slumped onto a bench, twisting her bonnet in her hands, her tears no longer hidden. “If I’ve lost my husband, Sister, I blame myself. I’ve been distracted. I still love him – but I fear he no longer loves me.”
Sister Benedict, who prided herself on her ability to foresee events, was, nevertheless, surprised at the revelation.
“Mary Burke and the Colonel?” she asked softly.
“I fear so,” replied Ellen. “I have seen them speaking with one another. He says his reasons for refusing the adoption are financial. But if the baby is his, surely we should be taking the poor mite in? She shouldn’t face a future in that dreadful place. I fear everything is spoilt.”
Ellen’s voice was bordering on hysteria. Sister Benedict sat next to her, holding her hand. She wasn’t used to human touch, except when the woman was under her care. As Ellen was today.
Sister Benedict’s life, although part of a busy and thriving community, could be lonely and isolated. It saddened her at times, despite her strong vocation.
“Calm yourself, Ellen. Nothing good will come of such upset.”
Sister Benedict had never pressed Mary to name her child’s father. From her experience unmarried women who found themselves in trouble were often reluctant to name the men they had sinned with if marriage wasn’t promised. It was no surprise that a man had taken a fancy to Mary’s translucent skin, comely figure and long auburn locks.
“May I speak to Mary of the situation we find ourselves in?” Sister Benedict said. “Seek assurances from her?”
Ellen turned to her. Doubt, uncertainty, then a glimmer of what looked like hope crossed her face.
“I would be so grateful, Sister. Maybe she will confide in you, and I can make amends with James. I love him so.” Sister Benedict nodded and smiled. “I know you do, Ellen. All is not lost.” This situation would require delicate handling. Sister Benedict hoped Mary would be open with her.
“Now, Ellen, Mother Superior’s foot is fair driving her to distraction. Follow me. I have gathered peppermint for a calming infusion. When are we next to meet with Father Maguire about plans for the school? I gather the building is almost done.” Sister Benedict drew cheer into her voice as she changed the subject.
“Indeed, and Joe Murphy is excited to be one of the first to receive a book.” Ellen complied with the shift in tone. “That boy will take to school, I know it. I will visit Father Maguire this afternoon. I need to speak to him of chalk and slates.”
Sister Benedict thought that a good idea. Any distraction for Ellen would
“If I’ve LOST MY HUSBAND, I blame myself. I FEAR he no longer LOVES ME”
serve her well. She held the wooden door open and followed Ellen Stephens back into the convent, her heart heavy.
She hoped she would obtain an answer from Mary that would satisfy Ellen. She also hoped the financial troubles of which the Colonel had spoken were not too serious.
Eimear’s nursing well, Mary. Her name wears her well.” Sister Benedict thought the workhouse no place for a mother and
child, but what was the alternative? Mary and her baby were placed at the end of a long dormitory.
“She’s named for my ma.” Mary whispered her reply.
Sister Benedict nodded. She knew. She also knew how much missed Eimear Burke was.
“Will Mrs Stephens choose a name of her own? An English name?”
Mary touched her baby’s head, stroking an auburn curl, her head down. Another woman wishing to hide tears from me today, Sister Benedict thought.
“I don’t know, Mary, that’s the truth of the matter,” Sister Benedict replied, hesitating before speaking again. “Mrs Stephens visited me earlier.”
Mary’s hand stilled. She met the nun’s gaze, her cheeks glistening with tears as Sister Benedict had suspected. What mother wishes to part with their newborn baby?
“Did she have news? Of when I am to take Eimear to her?”
“Not news, Mary.” Sister Benedict was reluctant to tell Mary of the Colonel’s decision regarding the adoption. It was too soon. Too new. “She had questions. And concerns. I am charged to ask you, who is Eimear’s father?”
“What comfort is it to Mrs Stephens that she knows who I sinned with?”
Spots of red appeared on Mary’s pale cheeks. Her mouth narrowed, taking on a determined look. Sister Benedict sighed. She did not wish to upset Mary further, a new mother whose milk was just coming in, but she’d made a promise to Ellen. She took Eimear’s tiny hand, allowed it to clench tightly round her finger.
“It would be of comfort, Mary, if she knew it wasn’t the Colonel.”
Mary laughed. A hollow laugh, maybe. A sign of guilt or innocence?
A figure burst into the dormitory, holding her skirts high as she barrelled towards them. Bridget.
“Sister Benedict, Mary, I bring dreadful news.”
The third woman I must calm today, Sister Benedict thought wryly.
“Dais so angry, Mary. We’ve been served notice. We have to leave. Colonel Stephens visited the farm this morning. Dais all in a panic .”
Bridget’s words rushed out, before coming to stop, and she fell onto a chair, putting her head in her hands, panting.
This family had too much to bear, Sister Benedict thought. First the baby. She knew that men often took advantage of innocent young women, and it was the women who carried the shame with them for the rest of their lives. And now the loss of their home and livelihood.
“If only Aidan were still home,” Bridget lamented, having regained her breath.
Aidan, their brother, had left for America two years before to make a new life for himself and his new wife. The family had raised some of the cost of passage, hoping Aidan would in time be able to send money back home, and
Colonel Stephens had helped with a financial contribution too, for which the Burkes had been most grateful. Only six months later Eimear Burke had passed away. The family was short of a mother, now, and a hard-working son.
“Or if we could run away and join him, that would be best,” Mary said, a bitter tone to her voice.
They all knew this was an impossibility. The only place the Burkes would be running to escape from their troubles was the workhouse.
Mary turned her gaze from Bridget to Sister Benedict.
“The father is not Colonel Stephens. Eimear’s father is a travelling man.” Mary’s voice was soft. “He passed through last summer, helped Da on the bog. He was a good-looking man, charming, and I lost myself to those charms.”
Once she finished speaking she gazed down at her baby, as though reminding herself of something precious she had shared, albeit fleetingly, and resulting in her loss of innocence, and of which Eimear was the product.
Sister Benedict looked from one sister to another. Bridget showed no surprise.
So Colonel Stephens was innocent of having relations with Mary, Sister Benedict thought. She believed Mary. She’d never known her to lie. The Burkes were a proud family, and faithful too. They would be well aware lying was a sin.
The Burkes’ eviction was evidence the Colonel had problems. He was known as a compassionate landlord, not harsh and ruthless like so many. He wouldn’t take this decision lightly, knowing what fate it would mean for the family. There was little more Sister Benedict could do here than offer false hope and short-term comfort. The workhouse was the fate of many before them, and would be for many following them too.
“Mary, Bridget, I must leave you. Mother Superior will be after wondering where I am. Take care of yourselves.”
She tried to resist the urge to glance back at the women as she walked down the dormitory, one holding her precious baby, but for once she gave into temptation. They gave weak smiles, but Sister Bridget knew what heartache and despair they must be feeling.
The door closed quietly behind her.
Mother Superior, I hope I find you improved.” Sister Benedict nodded her respect.
“You perform miracles, Sister Benedict. I feel as well as one of my age and experience can expect to feel. Now, what may I do for you?”
Sister Benedict smiled. Mother Superior knew her well. That she would keep herself to herself unless something was troubling her.
“May I take some time away from my duties, Mother? I wish to visit the Stephens. We have matters to discuss.”
There was some truth in this
“He’s a SHADOW of his former self. Now I’ve STRIPPED HIM of his LAND”
statement. It was the Stephens’ home she would be visiting. If she timed her visit well, she would see Colonel Stephens alone. Time was of the essence.
Mrs Stephens would leave for home in time for Father Maguire to prepare for the Angelus, and Sister Benedict would need to return to the convent for the same service.
Mother Superior eyed Sister Benedict. Would she hurry now with her decision, Sister Benedict thought?
“You may go, Sister, and I expect you to report back. A list of names, if you please. Enrolment must be due.”
That would be no problem. She and Ellen had discussed a number of children. She would write the names on her return. “Thank you, Mother Superior.” She nodded and left the room.
Colonel Stephens, I thank you for agreeing to see me.” If Sister Benedict’s visit was a surprise to Colonel Stephens he kept it well hidden. “Come in, take this seat.” “Thank you.” Sister Benedict replied. “Now, what may I do for you?” Sister Benedict told him of his wife’s suspicions of his infidelity in the most indirect language she could muster. “How can she think that of me?” The Colonel looked close to tears. Sister Benedict averted her eyes to save him from embarrassment. She remained quiet. He would answer his own question, in time.
“I have neglected her. I have troubles, Sister. An investment failed in England. I fell foul of a charlatan. I was a fool.”
He met Sister Benedict’s gaze. She nodded. He continued.
“I must speak with Ellen. I have lost a good deal of money. I cannot lose the love and respect of my wife too. She is precious to me. Without her I would be a desperate man.”
“It would be wise to do so,” Sister Benedict said.
“Seeing Colm Burke without his wife saddens me so. He’s a shadow of his former self. And now I’ve stripped him of all he has left, his livelihood and his land. The farm must go, but there may be something I can do for them.”
“The family would be thankful if you could,” Sister Benedict reassured him.
“I will give it consideration. Thank you for visiting me, and for helping me see clearly, Sister.”
Sister Benedict made her goodbyes and left with time to spare.
The Colonel watched his wife and Joe Murphy gather windfall apples, sorting them as they went along. Some were too bruised, but some could be used. Some, the Colonel knew, Joe would take home with him, plus other food besides. Every so often Ellen might ruffle Joe’s hair, smiling, as a mother would a son. He would move in close, point and ask a question, which Ellen would answer before they continued with their task.
The Colonel had to look away. It broke his heart to think that his wife would never be a mother.
My wife is miles from me, Colonel Stephens thought, and no wonder.
“My love, may we speak?” Ellen looked startled at his appearance. “Of course.” Her voice was cool. “Joe, there are more apples fallen from the trees close to the wall. Go and see for me, please. Take this basket.”
Joe glanced at the Colonel and ran towards the furthest trees.
“May I walk with you?” the Colonel asked gently. “You may,” his wife replied. “Sister Benedict visited me.” Ellen glanced at him, spots of colour on her cheeks.
“She spoke of your fears,” he added. “I am sorry that you were led to believe I have been unfaithful to you, my love. I have been distant, and absent too. I have withheld things from you, wrongly thinking I was protecting you.”
“I’m your wife, James. I don’t need protection from all the harsh realities of life. I’m not a fragile flower. I’m here to help you when times are challenging.” “I am sorry, my love.” He bent to kiss her, his heart swelling with love for her. He’d been living in a fog of his own fear and concern, unable to see or think clearly.
“I have other news,” he continued. “Not good news I am afraid. I have had to serve notice on the Burkes. They must leave the farm and I must sell the land. My financial troubles are serious, my love. I am giving thought to how I can help the family.”
“Oh, that poor family,” Ellen lamented. “They’ve been beset with troubles. Aidan leaving for America, Mrs Burke passing, Mary’s troubles. We have a duty of care to them, James. We must help them.”
They walked together in silence, her arm in his. The Colonel thought the silence today differed from those that had been a wall between them in recent months. Being close to his wife again gave him comfort. With each step he took, his mind cleared.
There was something. Something that would help the Burkes, and would please them too. His reaction when his wife had suggested it previously had been too hasty, he realised.
“I will inform Sister Benedict the adoption will go ahead. We will collect Eimear tomorrow morning, if she is in agreement. I will ask Sister Benedict to break the news gently to Mary Burke. The baby will have a future away from the workhouse. I hope you are in agreement?”
Before his wife could reply Joe Murphy appeared in front of them.
“Miss, Miss, look, lots of apples. Sure, they will make a good pie.” His voice was wistful. “I will have Bridget make one and send it over to reward you for your efforts, Joe,” Ellen smiled.
The Colonel put his arm around his wife. Changing his mind about the adoption was the correct decision. She would make a wonderful mother.
“I do agree, James – thank you.”
Too ra loo ra loo ral Too ra loo ra li.” Mary’s voice was choked with love and loss as she rocked Eimear. Her baby snuffled, then fell into a deep milkinduced sleep. Bridget sat alongside her. They were in the workhouse office; a comfortable room, oak-lined and filled with sturdy furniture. A far cry from where Mary slept and worked.
“It’s time now, Mary,” Sister Benedict whispered, whether for fear of waking the baby or for not wishing to break such bad news, she wasn’t sure.
Mrs Stephens stood behind her, silent and respectful. She must be only too well aware how hard this would be for Mary, Sister Benedict thought.
“I can’t,” Mary said, glancing towards Mrs Stephens. “I can’t bear to lose her,” she sobbed. “She’s mine.”
“But, sure what life will there be for you and Eimear in this place?” Sister Benedict asked.
“Sister’s right,” Bridget said. “And Da has said you may come home now if you give up the baby. Eimear will have a good life in the Big House, and you’ll be back home with your family. You can visit. Isn’t that right, Mrs Stephens? Mary can visit?” “You will be most welcome, Mary.” Ellen’s voice sounded pleading, Sister Benedict thought. Her dream of motherhood was so close. But one mother’s gain today would be another’s loss, and that was a most dreadful situation indeed, sin or no sin.
Mary gazed at Mrs Stephens, who smiled gently in return.
“Best you take her whilst she sleeps so she doesn’t know I’ve abandoned her.”
Mary kissed her daughter on the forehead, cheek and lips and held her out to Mrs Stephens. For one fleeting moment both women held Eimear.
Then she was solely in the hands of Ellen Stephens, who held her with the greatest of care, gazing at her with love already, as Sister Benedict had known she would.
“Thank you, Mary. We will take the best of care of Eimear.”
“Will you be keeping her name now, ma’am?” the girl asked. “I will, Mary. Will that please you?” The baby’s mother nodded, then turned into Bridget’s arms. “Stay strong,” Bridget urged. “Come now, the wet nurse awaits us at the Big House,” Sister Benedict said, leading Mrs Stephens to the door. “Mary, Bridget, I will be back with you shortly.”
The Colonel helped them into the carriage, and Sister Bridget watched them disappear into the distance, slow in pace, no doubt at Mrs Stephens’ behest.
She turned back to the workhouse. She could hear Mary’s sobs from the entrance. And that was of no surprise.
To lose a child, however it happened, was a dreadful thing.
“I CAN’T. I can’t bear to LOSE HER,” Mary sobbed. “She’s MINE”