organ lessons with a nun!
Sr Mary Carola
Music lessons were an important part of my upbringing in my hometown, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. From little on, I studied piano with Miss Helen Gaffin and I became proficient at the keyboard by the early 50s when I reached my teens. At that point, Mom thought I should learn to play the pipe organ, partly because it was her favorite instrument. Through a set of connections to which I was not privy, she found an organ teacher for me. . .a nun!
This turn of events shocked me as my mother was raised in the Lutheran faith and was imbued by her parents from a tender age, with a monumental anti-Catholic bias. As a family, we were tight in the Methodist church. So, how Mom loosened sufficiently to engage the services of a nun in any capacity remains a mystery to me.
The Mother House and Convent of the Agnesian Order was located on east Division Street and so I had seen nuns in passing as they walked to church, sometimes four or six together, arranged in pairs. Their flowing robes fluttered in the breeze as they strode in lock step, arms folded into their sleeves. This however, was the closest that I had actually ever been to one of "them."
Sister Mary Carola was no modernized nun. She was as far removed from my comfort zone as anyone to whom I had been exposed thus far. She came equipped with full regalia: habit, wimple, broad veil, wide white collar, and all the attendant chains and crosses.
She was pleasantly plump and her stiff white throat cover cut into her chins. The stricture made them dance in front of it when she talked. Her blue eyes twinkled with mischief behind gold wire-rimed glasses. I suppose that I felt some relief to find that we spoke the same language. It was difficult for me to concentrate during our earliest encounters and, I dare say, perhaps it was the same for Sister Carola as well.
Mother was not about to be too incautious with my Protestant roots. She apparently thought that Catholicism was contagious. Therefore, she insisted that the lessons be given in the relative safety of the sanctuary of the Division Street Methodist Church and not in any "Catholic facility".
Division Street Methodist had a Spartan decor. Without all the saints and golden statues, the sanctuary there must have seemed as foreign to Sister as the internals of St. Mary's did to me in later years. I dare say that her comings and goings at the Methodee Kirk turned a few heads among the Fond du Lac faithful from both denominations.
It didn't take long for me to warm to Sr Carola. She was an older woman, with the easy, happy smile I've so often seen on musicians. She had a wonderful sense of humor and our encounters taught me how important it is not to allow my preconceived notions about a person to cloud my objectivity. She was an excellent organist and we made some impressive music on the tubby old instrument there.
By the time that I moved away from town to go to college, we had become good friends and I was sorry to leave her. She retired not long after that and I lost track of Sr. Carola, but she will always be with me in memory. The organ lessons were the beginning of a life-long avocation.
My mother, progressive and open-minded in all other matters, held firm to her anti-Catholic ways until her death. Her uneasy truce with Sr Carola during those years cost her the friendship of a unique and interesting person, Catholic or not. Although she never said a thing, I can only imagine what she thought in later years when, despite her care and attention to this detail, I married one!