The Most Cardinal Sin


The world had never been kind to lovers. Those who have fallen in love unwisely have often met with the most horrifying acts of cruelty, even death. From the middle ages and right up to the present day, we read of those who have suffered at the hands of disapproving parents, whose anger had spurred them to terrible acts of violence and murder.

My story this week concerns two such lovers, but it is not the classic boy meets girl tale. I first heard the story many years ago from a school friend who swore she had an encounter with one of the ghosts. It was only when I met her last week, that the memory of it came flooding back and I asked her to tell me about it again. She was slow to do so, because when she told it to us, a group of silly teenagers all those years ago, we laughed at it.

Still. I managed with some gentle persuasion to get the story out, and I promise you, not one word had changed in the telling. I’ve noticed that stories such as this get added to over the passage of time, and it is only the truthful ones that remain the same. The stories I bring to you every week are those I believe in and are not something I write to fill a page. To start I will give you a brief outline of her tale and the rest I have managed to fill in by going to this most haunted place and walking it grounds.

It is one of the oldest remaining convents inIrelandand it was here that my friend Jane was sent for a year as a boarder, while her father took a job abroad. It is situated on the edge of the sea in the most remote spot imaginable and over a hundred miles from the nearest town. Jane’s face grew pale as she recalled her first glimpse of the place, with it medieval spires and dark, forbidding façade. The nuns were kindness itself, she says, and she soon settled in, despite her fears. It had become the custom of the other girls, to tell ghost stories after lights out, and Jane was introduced to these almost from the beginning.

Being a young and enlightened young woman, she laughed them off and no matter how frightening the tale, she refused to believe a word she heard, imagining the stories were planted by the nuns to keep them in their beds at night. The only other buildings near the convent were a small group of cottages about a mile away and a pub. It was here that the girls liked to sneak off to at the weekend. They pooled their pocket money to buy cider, and cigarettes for those who smoked. A hunting party of sorts set out every Friday night, while the girls who stayed behind covered for them and waited impatiently for them to return with the goods. Jane was there over ten months when it came to her turn to go to the pub. Six of them set out that night, but Jane forgot her money and had to go back to the dorm. The others were already outside as she crept down the back stairs and tip-toed along the dark corridor to the back door.

“It was then that I saw her,” Jane said. “The figure of the nun was standing by the door and there was no way I could get past her without being seen. Neither could I turn around, so I decided to face the music and take what punishment was coming to me. I remember wondering, as I walked towards her, why the habit she wore was white. There were no novices in the convent. My legs felt like lead as I moved closer and goose pimples rose on my arms as the air seemed colder the nearer I got. She was looking around her, as though searching for something and it wasn’t until I stood in front of her that she became aware of my presence. I cursed my bad luck for not realising how distracted she seemed. If I’d kept my head I could have made it safely back to the dorm.”

Jane paused a moment and took a deep breath. I knew the next part of the story still affected her, but some memories are like that. They become etched on your brain and can never be eradicated.

“She looked up at me,” Jane said.

I waited for her to continue.

“I have never seen such sadness in a face,” Jane’s eyes filled with tears and she was forced to clear her throat. “I know it’s silly,” she brushed away a tear. “But even after all this time, I can see her as plainly as I see you. She was about my age, but very pale. The few strands of hair that peeped from beneath her wimple were blond, but it was her eyes I will remember forever. It’s hard to describe the pain I saw there. It was a look of hopelessness; of a loss so great it could never be imagined. Tears sprang to my eyes, as they have now,” Jane smiled. “Even I, a gawky, teenager felt her pain and I forgot my worry about being caught, in my need to help her. I put out my hand to touch her arm and she vanished. Just like that, can you believe it? I must have screamed, as the next thing I remember was being led back to bed by the nuns who tutted about sleepwalking and my overactive imagination. I had two months left at the convent, but I was sent home earlier to stay with my aunt. My nerves were very bad after the encounter and the nuns thought it best that I leave. It took me a while to recover, remember I was late starting the autumn term?”

I nodded; I did remember Jane coming to school well after the term started.

“I was very ill for a while and even now, no matter where I travel, I make sure the hotel is not a former convent or monastery. I’m afraid of seeing something like that again. I don’t think my nerves could take it and I wouldn’t ever want to see the vision of hopelessness I once saw. I switch off the TV when those adverts come on about famine, because I know I will see reflected in those starving children’s eyes the same look.”

This, my friends is her story and one I believe. So last Monday I set off for the convent to try and find out the full story of the ghostly nun and the reason for her endless quest. The journey would take me over a hundred and sixty mile from my home and through some of the most ravaged land inIreland. I had to stay overnight at a hotel a few miles from the convent, as I couldn’t possibly make it there and back in one day, not if I wanted to find out the truth. The first part of the drive was pleasant, with wide roads and very little traffic. I stopped at a bustling seaside town and took a short stroll along the beach to stretch my legs. I knew once I left this place that the roads would become narrower, and I would have to be on my guard for stray sheep and chugging tractors. I also knew the landscape I would encounter as the miles spread by and was not looking forward to it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the countryside, especially in summer when the grass is lush and springy underfoot, but there is something depressing about the land in this place. Like most parts ofIrelandit was once ravaged by famine, but here, in this dark place, it has never recovered. I turned the car radio up and tried to ignore the endless fields of giant rocks marred with green lichen.

Once I had checked into the hotel I set out for the convent. I found it strange that it wasn’t mentioned on any of the leaflets available to tourists, but thought it was down to the fact that it isn’t open to the public. It was late afternoon when I reached the small village Jane told me about. It is, as she said, no more than a cluster of cottages that huddle together in a small hollow to avoid the harsh breeze from the sea. It’s the smell that hits you as you step out of the car; the salty, briny scent of seaweed drying on the rocks that sticks to the back of your throat. I went in to the pub. It was empty and the barman polishing glasses seemed glad to see me. We made the usual small talk and I told him why I was there. I found that it’s easier to tell the truth and appearing furtive tends to make people wary.

“Ah, poor sister Theresa,” he said. “Sure everyone round here knows about her.”

“Really, I thought it was supposed to be a secret?” I was surprised by his answer.

“Oh, yes, it is, the worst kept secret ever,” he laughed, took my offer of a drink and I sat down on a bar stool.

“It’s a well-known story,” he continued. “I don’t know the full thing, something about her falling in love. The person you want to talk to is old Ma Cusack. She lives in one of the cottages across the way. Today’s the day she goes to town to visit the doctor, but she’ll be back this evening. I’ll show you her cottage on your way out. Call back about eight. I’ll tell her you’re calling and she’ll be glad of the company. She knows all the old ghost stories from hereabout, and she likes the odd glass of stout.”

“Great,” I asked for six of the half pint bottles from behind the bar.

They would serve as a peace offering, if it turned out she didn’t like strangers calling. John, the barman walked me to the door and pointed out her cottage. Since it was still late afternoon, I decided to drive up to the convent and have a look. I can now understand Jane’s sense of foreboding the first time she saw it. It is perched on a large rock formation and stand shadowing the land like some huge beast of prey, ready to pounce. As I stood looking up at it, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it lurched forward and tried to devour me. The building itself is 17th century. I know this because I read what little information is available on the place, but there is evidence of other styles. Stout buttresses have been added to strengthen the walls and the windows are of the usual Gothic arch one comes to expect of churches and the like. There is a balcony that runs the length of the first floor and beneath it a large wooden door. A small mesh grill at eye level is covered now, but it can be drawn back to view the visitor, and a large old-fashioned bell with a rope pulley. I was tempted to pull on it, but decided against it.

As I walked back to the car, I was aware of eyes watching me from inside and turned round. The setting sun made it difficult to make out anything other than shadowy forms. I had noticed a small graveyard to the side of the building and pretending to drive away, I moved the car until it was hidden by the trees lining the road and got out. The silence made me catch my breath. Once I stepped inside the rusting railing, it seemed that all sound ceased. I’m sure the birds were still singing somewhere and I think it is the overall landscape that I find depressing and so imagined the loss of sound. It is obvious that the graveyard is still in use, as the new headstones gleamed among the older, grey, forgotten ones. There are three tombs, the lettering faded and unreadable, but they stand out as a reminded of richer times. Large oak trees dot the grounds and cast gloomy shadows over the graves. The silence still seemed eerie and I felt removed from ordinary life. On my return to the hotel, I appreciated the sound of car doors slamming and the excited chatter of children’s voices.

I had enough of the dead for one day.

After a nice dinner, I set off for the village. A lamp shone through a gap in the curtains of Ma Cusack’s cottage and I saw her small figure hunched in a chair by the fire. It took her a few moments to answer my knock and I waited with growing trepidation, unsure of my welcome. I needn’t have worried as she turned out to be the sweetest old lady you can imagine and she invited me in as though I were a long lost cousin. Soon I was seated by the fire and my gift of six bottles of stout accepted graciously. After I refused a drink, she poured one for herself and sat opposite me.

“John told me all about your work,” she said. “I think it must be fascinating. I didn’t think young people were interested in ghost stories any more.”

After assuring her that they were, I asked about the convent and its ghosts.

“There are two ghosts,” she explained. “One is Sister Theresa and the other Johnny, her eighteen-year-old boyfriend.”

I told her Jane’s story and how she had seen the nun, but I had not heard about the boy before.

“Ah, it was a long time ago,” she said. “And the nuns would prefer it forgotten.”

This is how the story begins.

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, a young girl called Doris Wilson was left orphaned at the age of twelve. Her only living relative was an aunt, her mother’s sister andDoriswas left in her care.Doris’s father was a very rich man and on coming of age at eighteen, she would be a very wealthy young woman. Her aunt hated the child, as her husband had once been in love with her sister,Doris’s mother, and she didn’t want the girl to be a constant reminder to him as to what might have been. It was decided thatDoriswould be put into the care of the sister at the convent, who accepted her gladly, when the aunt whispered about her wealth. IfDorisremained with them, they would be entitled to all of her money. So Doris, a sad and lonely child was packed off. One can only wonder at the terror she felt been driven miles away from home to this desolate place. The nuns were kind to her and she fit in well with her unassuming manner and quiet grace. She was fascinated by the young novices, who floating around the dark corridors in their white habits, like pretty little ghosts. The girls were set different tasks and asDorisseemed to have green fingers, she was sent to work in the gardens, planting the vegetables and tending the flowers for the altar. The next four years passed uneventfully and at sixteen she became a novice, taking the name of Sister Theresa. By this time her aunt’s husband had died and there was no one who cared what she did. It was a lonely life for a young woman and as the months passed, she became aware of her blossoming womanhood and started to question her calling to the church.

Towards the end of summer that year, the sisters decided to expand the gardens and hired a young man to assist the aging gardener. Johnny was eighteen-years-old and the moment he and the little novice met; it was love at first sight. Like Theresa, he was an orphan and his life had been a hard one. He made the shy sixteen-year-old girl laugh, and as they worked side by side every day, the bond between them strengthened. For the first time Sister Theresa knew what it was to be love and be loved. Their meeting had to be kept private and the only place safe and out of prying eyes was in the graveyard. One of the tombs has steps that lead down to the door and it was here they met each evening at twilight. It was here also that consumed by passion, they made the mistake that was to be the death of them.

When her stomach started to swell, Theresa, at first, had no idea what was wrong with her. The sickness that sent her rushing for the toilet every morning made the older nuns suspicious and they had her examined. One can only imagine their outrage when they learned that the novice was pregnant, and it didn’t take much detective work to figure out who the father was. Theresa was confined to her room, but managed to get word to Johnny about her condition. There was a small rock outside the church door that they used to conceal their love notes to one another. Having bribed one of the boarders, Theresa kept him updated on events within the convent and her fears for their unborn child. Since the discovery of her pregnancy, the nuns’ attitude had changed towards her. Her inheritance was due in two years time and already they felt the gold slipping through their fingers. They became cruel, starving the young woman and beating her. When Johnny heard this he vowed they would run away together, and told her to be waiting outside by the tomb in the graveyard that night. His note was intercepted by the watching nuns’ and Theresa had no idea that as she read what was her ticket to freedom and happiness, dark deeds were being plotted against them and her happiness would be short lived.

Copyright © 2011 Gemma Mawdsley

That’s it for this week, my friends. The Story will conclude next Friday.

The Cloisters.The Most Cardinal Sin

  1. Avatar of Andrew Sacks
    Andrew Sacks says

    Gemma, your work is invariably fascinating and beautifully done! Great job once again.

  2. Avatar of Gemma Mawdsley
    Gemma Mawdsley says

    Thank you, Andrew. I’m so delighted you like my work. It’s very kind of you to take the time to comment and I appreciate it.

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