Sister Benedict’s Blessings
Concluding chapters of our inspiring serial
Excuse me, Sister, I apologise for my rudeness, but I pray you let me past, I must return to my wife and Eimear forthwith.” Colonel Stephens rushed from the Burke’s house in a hurried and harried manner, sweeping past Sister Benedict and Mary Burke who were approaching the front door. Sister Benedict was surprised to see him. She thought once the eviction had been carried out that Colonel Stephens’ business with the Burkes was done.
“I hope all is well, Colonel,” Sister Benedict called after him, feeling trepidation at his appearance, for both his sake and the Burkes’. The Colonel hesitated, his countenance hard to read.
“I don’t know, Sister, if the truth be told,” he admitted to Sister Benedict.
“You don’t know?” Mary’s voice trembled, and she rushed in to her Da.
“Speak with them, please,” the Colonel pleaded, once Mary had disappeared from view. “I have made Colm Burke a proposition. A good one, I hope, but from the reception I received I am now not so sure. I trust you, Sister. If anyone can persuade them it’s for the best it will be you.” He mounted his horse and rode away. Sister Benedict watched him make his way back to his wife and their newly adopted baby. She took a deep breath and entered the Burkes’ home.
Colm was sitting by the fireside, his head in his hands, mumbling. Mary sat by his feet. The sight was so reminiscent of what Sister Benedict had witnessed when she’d visited the Burkes’ after Mrs Burke www.myweekly.co.uk had passed away it tore at her heart.
“Da, now speak clearly, will ya,” Mary asked, stroking his back. “I can’t make hide nor hair of what you’re telling me. Don’t know if it’s good, bad or indifferent.”
Colm was making no sense. Sister Benedict wondered if he’d partaken of strong drink. He was no stranger to that, especially since the loss of his wife and the shock of the birth of Mary’s illegitimate baby. It was hard to blame him for turning to it for comfort when all else had failed him. But she needed to get to the bottom of the situation.
“Colm, pull yourself together. You’re neither use nor ornament to anyone in this state. Tell us now, Mary and myself, what was the Colonel wanting with you?” Sister Benedict kept the tone of her voice firm, as though she was speaking to one of her Industrial School recruits.
Eventually Colm looked up at her.
“I can’t make sense of it Sister. First he tells me the farm is gone. Now, today, he tells me he is paying for passage to America for myself, Mary and Bridget, should she wish to join us. That he has spoken with his wife and they are in agreement. It’s all too much for one man. I’m not sure I can accept. Maybe the Colonel’s cheating me somehow, but I don't understand how. Such luck can’t be happening to us, the Burkes, who’ve been beset with misfortune these past years.”
Colm’s head was back in his hands. Mary looked up, met Sister Benedict’s gaze. A look of confusion crossed her face, then something else, something Sister Benedict couldn’t fathom.
She needed to shake Colm Burke from his self-pity and help him see that an opportunity he was unlikely to see the same of again was being presented.
“I only hope that you accepted, Colm Burke. What a wonderful chance that is you’ve been offered. A fresh start. You will be able to join Aidan and his family. Colonel Stephens has his troubles, but he is a generous man. It is good of him to think of you. You know he would not be selling the farm if it wasn’t necessary. It will be the workhouse or America. Which is your preference? You’ve overcome much worse than this, Colm, you and your brood. Think of the famine and all the troubles that brought. You made it through that when many others didn’t.”
“What a WONDERFUL chance you’ve been offered – a FRESH start”
There was silence for a moment or two, as though everyone in the cottage were holding their breath.
“You’re right Sister. What other choice do I have? I’ll accept. The Colonel has done right by us now.”
“Sister, does this mean I have a choice too?” Mary’s voice was tentative. “About Eimear? It’s not too late, is it?”
That was the unfathomable look, then, Sister Benedict thought. Mary hoping she could take her baby with her. Eimear was still only days old. Mary would still have
milk. It was best for a baby to be with its mother, wasn’t it? And the Stephens had created the right conditions for Mary to take care of her baby again.
“Da?” Mary demanded her father’s attention. “May I take her with us?”
Her voice trembled. Sister Benedict watched father and daughter. Colm Burke nodded, then gazed into the fire again. He’ll come round, Sister Benedict thought. It won’t harm Eimear’s cause that she has the look of his late wife.
Ellen Stephens was settling Eimear when Mary Burke was seen flying up the drive to the Big House, hatless, her auburn hair flying behind her. With a heavy heart she laid Eimear in her crib.
“I must see Mrs Stephens, Bridget.” Mary’s voice echoed in the hall, and her footsteps came thundering up the stairs.
“I’m so sorry, Ma’am,” Bridget was in the nursery doorway with her sister, her face a picture of confusion and upset. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Mary breathed heavily. Her face was scarlet from exertion.
“Catch your breath, Mary, and share your business with me,” Mrs Stephens told the young mother.
“We’re so grateful to you for your generosity, Mrs Stephens.” Mary eventually calmed herself. “And myself and Da, we will accept. How could we not? When we know what would become of us otherwise? A fate we’ve avoided, until recently.” She looked away, her face aflame. “But if I’m to go, I would like to take Eimear with me. No one will know of my shame, not there. In America I can be a young widow. I’m sure God will forgive me that small untruth.”
“But she is settled with us now, Mary,” Ellen replied, her voice barely audible.
“I understand.” Mary was calmer now, and Bridget had retreated from the room. “But Mrs Stephens, kind-hearted as you are, you’d know a baby belongs with her mother, if her mother is in a position to take care of her. Which I will be, now, thanks to you and the Colonel. I love her, Mrs Stephens. I have to have her with me. Without her I’m lost.”
Ellen listened aghast. Despite her despair, she did understand Mary’s impassioned pleas. It was only natural for a mother to want her baby with her. Eimear snuffled in her sleep, not waking despite the commotion.
“My love.” The Colonel entered the nursery. “I heard voices, and Bridget informed me Mary was here. I overheard some of what was said. Until hearing it I’d have demanded Eimear remain with us, but she has right on her side. We must relinquish the baby to her mother.”
Ellen gazed at her husband. What he was agreeing to was the right thing, she knew. But she could not suppress her disappointment that her husband had not put up a fight on her behalf. He, of all people, knew what having a baby in their lives meant to her, to them.
She turned to her husband in fury.
“How could you let this happen, James?” Ellen pounded his chest with her fist, knowing the blows were having little impact. She had no strength left to fight.
He tried to hold her close to him as Mary stood by Eimear’s crib, watching.
“Ellen, we must let them go,” he said. “We agreed to pay their passage. We could have foreseen this might happen.” Suddenly the fight went out of Ellen. “I cannot fight you both.” She turned to the young mother standing protective over her baby. “I concede Eimear is yours, Mary. Take her with you. Make a new life for her, and take care of her.”
“But I must go before you do, leave the house while you take their leave. I can’t bear it!”
Ellen dashed from the nursery – the room that had been inhabited by the most beautiful baby for the first time since they had lived in the house, bringing life to it, a future she had only dreamt of. The room she had thought would remain empty – and now it was to be empty again. “Ellen,” her husband called after her. She was halfway down the stairs. He held the banister, making as if to follow.
“I beg you to leave me be,” she told him, turning away sharply as he returned to the nursery.
Eimear was crying. The commotion had clearly wakened her.
Ellen couldn’t bear it. Once the front door had closed behind her she could no longer hear the cries, although they still echoed in her head.
You have done the right thing, Ellen, hard though it may be for now.” Sister Benedict had welcomed Ellen to the convent, despite Mother Superior’s raised eyebrows as she passed the two women in the cloisters. Sister Benedict had thought it wise that they make their way into the herb garden.
“I know, Sister. I was most unkind to Mary – and to James. I hope he will forgive me. There’s been a lot for each of us to forgive recently. Our marriage has been under a great deal of strain. But our troubles are not those of the Burkes and other families like them, I know. There’s just the sadness…”
Ellen’s voice trailed away and she held her hands protectively across her stomach, no doubt unaware that she was doing so.
“He will forgive you, if there is anything to forgive. He loves you. Now, listen, I was talking with Father Maguire about admissions to the Industrial School. They are almost upon us. He has recruited Sister Scholastica to be the first teacher. Now isn’t she after being well named for her role?” Ellen gave a weak smile. “Father Maguire tells me the first intake will be within two or three weeks,” Sister Benedict continued. “Everything is almost in place. The desks have arrived, and the beds. Joe Murphy will be among the first intake, Ellen. He can have the
“You’ve done the RIGHT THING, Ellen, HARD though it may be for now”
pick of the beds in the dormitory. No more sleeping top to tail with his siblings.”
Ellen was listening with greater interest now, Sister Benedict took note, bending to pick herbs and glancing occasionally at her friend. She had been distraught when she had first arrived. She picked sage for the communal convent pot, not medicinal herbs today. Mother Superior’s foot was greatly improved.
As they were wont to do Ellen and Sister Benedict perambulated the garden in a contented silence, and Sister Benedict was relieved that her friend was calmer. She felt certain all was not lost. The Stephens had weathered worse.
“I must go,” Ellen said, finally. “I will visit the Murphys. There is much news to pass on to Joe. He will be pleased, and in turn that will give me pleasure.”
She smiled at Sister Benedict, making as though to leave, a more convincing smile this time. “Thank you, Sister, as ever,” she said.
Ellen had taken the long way back to the Big House from the Murphy’s. Joe hadn’t been there.
“He’s out Mrs,” his youngest sister told her. “He’ll be back later.”
Ellen had been unable to get any more sense from the small girl as to Joe’s possible whereabouts. “Will you tell him I called?” she asked. The small girl sniffed and nodded. “I will indeed, Mrs.” Ellen was confident the message would be passed on. Although she was a fairly frequent visitor to local families, her visits were still sufficiently out of the ordinary and her fine apparel unusual enough to warrant stares and comments.
“My love, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” “James!” Ellen had been so distracted by her thoughts and concerns that she hadn’t seen or heard her husband’s approach as she made her way though the wood on their estate towards the house.
They stood facing one another. Ellen took in the face she knew so well, but that had become strange to her lately. His eyes showed concern and love.
“I’m so sorry, Ellen.” He drew her into his arms and held her close, her face pressed against his chest, feeling and hearing the rapid beat of his heart.
“And I am sorry too, my love,” she replied, raising her head to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry I ran from you, that I was so angry earlier. You had merely confirmed to me what I knew in my heart I needed to do.”
“But had I not concealed my financial affairs from you in the first instance we may not have become so estranged,” he said, kissing her lightly on the cheeks where tears were drying. “We will be strong together again, my love. No more secrets. I love you.”
“Mrs Stephens, were you after paying me a visit?”
Joe Murphy appeared from behind a tree. How long had he been hidden there, Ellen wonder, unable to supress a smile at his filthy appearance, wielding a big stick and holding a sack of something over his shoulder. She chose to ignore
what might be contained within that sack, but guessed it would fill the Murphy family’s bellies tonight, however illicitly it had been obtained. She and James pulled apart. “I did visit, Joe, yes. I wanted to talk with you about Father Maguire’s plans.”
Joe flinched slightly at the mention of Father Maguire. No doubt he would be less forgiving of the contents of the sack Joe held.
“Plans, Mrs Stephens?” Joe glanced from one to the other of them. “For me? Not bad, is it?”
Ellen could understand Joe’s wariness. When you had lost so much, and life contained so much uncertainty and poverty, all you would expect would be bad news.
“I think Mrs Stephens only has good news for you, Joe, from Father Maguire. Concerning the school, I believe.” Colonel Stephens interjected. “That would be the case, wouldn’t it, Ellen?”
Despite Joe’s grimy appearance, Colonel Stephens put his arm around the boy’s shoulders.
“Can I let you into a secret?” he asked. Joe nodded. “I’m learning every day how good my wife is, how dedicated she is to you, Joe, to your family, and to the Industrial School and all the families she cares so much for.”
Joe looked up to the Colonel and Ellen smiled and flushed, embarrassed and happy. Joe looked vaguely disappointed that the secret was revealed to be that, that it didn’t involve treasure, or something more appealing to a small boy.
“Time to get that rabbit home and in the pot then, Joe.”
Colonel Stephens patted Joe’s shoulder and pointed him in the direction of home.
“He’s a good boy, that one. Has spirit. A boy after my own heart. I admire your dedication to him and to the school. And perhaps there are matters I may help you with?”
She watched her husband watch Joe make his way into the wood. There was a look of affection on his face, and she felt a sudden rush of hope for the future.
“Come, Ellen, it’s time we returned home too,” he said, holding his wife around the waist and kissing her again. A longer, deeper kiss now Joe was no longer around. Ellen felt a frisson of excitement. The kind of frisson she had not felt for some time.
“Shall I fetch tea for you, Sir, Ma’am?” Bridget nodded as they arrived at the Big House.
“Later Bridget,” Colonel Stephens replied, leading his wife up the wide staircase and towards her room. Ellen was aware of Bridget’s open-mouthed stare, but this time she didn’t care a jot what the servants thought.
All she wanted was to be in her husband’s arms again.
All was calm as Sister Benedict walked slowly around her garden, trailing her hands through wispy fronds of dill. The events of the past few days had been tumultuous. There had been new life, fresh starts, financial crises, sorrow and despair – but happiness too. The Burkes would soon be on their way to America. There was little point in delaying matters, as the farm would quickly be sold. Their few possessions would be packed away and taken to the port and then they would be gone.
All she could do for them now was to pray for a safe passage. There was so much more hope for them in America, so much to look forward to. They would be together as a family again. The Burkes had always been close, and had missed Aidan keenly. Bridget, despite having qualms had decided to join them. Sister Benedict had reassured her it was best.
“Sure, Mrs Stephens will miss you, and you her, but a person needs their family,” she’d advised when Bridget had visited with produce for the convent from the Stephens’ estate.
Sister Benedict was carefully selecting herbs today. Raspberry leaf, stinging nettles, red clover. Not all palatable, but effective herbs, especially when it came to matters of conception. She smiled as she placed them carefully in her basket.
If she stood very still, Sister Benedict could hear the murmurings of the sisters, her family, going about their daily tasks, each working to their strengths. Later they would congregate for their evening meal and services.
Alone and happy for now, Sister Benedict also looked forward to the times she spent with her fellow sisters, albeit much of it in silence or common prayer. A happy communion. Even a nun who had dedicated her life to God needed people to thrive and grow. Families such as her community, the Burkes and the Stephens were strong together, supporting and loving one another. A family could comprise of a mix of people, like her infusions, and the balance was often subtle. Sometimes bits were added, other times taken away. But still the family survived. Look at the Burkes. And the Stephens. With lively, clever, mischievous Joe inextricably tangled in their lives they would face challenges and much happiness.
She picked up her basket. It was time to return to her family. Her community.
Ellen would visit soon, she was quite certain. She would prepare an infusion for her from the contents of her basket.
The sun emerged from behind a cloud. Sister Benedict raised her face heavenwards, closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on her face. From now on all would be in God’s hands.
Ellen didn’t CARE a jot – she was in her HUSBAND’S arms once again