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Sister Mary Julian Baird, R.S.M.

POETRY WAS MY FIRST LOVE. ALL THROUGH MY girlhood on the southern shore of Long Island, I read anthology after anthology, privately scribbling free verse of my own. Inheriting an artistic temperament from my artist father, and a deep Irish faith from a more practical mother, I read omnivorously and lived in a dream world of my own. The idea of entering the convent was firm in my mind from a very early age.

After being educated by the St. Joseph Sisters of Brentwood, New York, and the Sisters of Mercy, Scranton Province of the Union, during the elementary grades, I found my friend of friends in a Dominican Sister who taught me English at St. Agnes High School in Rockville Centre, New York. She was a small nun with a glorious singing voice and a mastery of teaching rarely equaled. Her religious title was Sister Mary Joseph of Jesus, but among the admiring teenagers at St. Agnes she was always affectionately "Maryjo." It was she who encouraged me to write, and who directed my reading into adult channels. Helen C. White's Watch in the Night (1935) which had just been published, we enjoyed together. For many years it was to me a mirror of life, a comfort and an inspiration and a guide. Although I had other friends my own age, my relationship with Sister was more than mere friendship. It was discipleship and hero-worship such as only young hearts can experience.

Many who knew of my intimacy with her wondered when I entered not her white-robed Dominicans but the Sisters of Mercy. I can give no reason for it even now except the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When that friend died a few years later, it was after having been cared for in a hospital staffed by my own community, a gesture of God's Providence for which I have been endlessly grateful.

During my training at the Mercy Novitiate in Dallas, Pennsylvania, a Mary-minded mistress of novices directed my pen to a heavenly ideal. She was then Mother Mary Jerome, R.S.M., now Mother Mary of Jesus, Carmelite prioress in Little Rock, Arkansas. "Ask our Lady to help you magnify the Lord," she urged me. From that time on, I have made our Lady the central theme of all my writing.

However, I was loathe to publish what I wrote. Despite the dictum of my professor of English at College Misericordia, Sister Miriam Gallagher, R.S.M., that "poetry should earn its own bread and butter," I hesitated to offer mine to editors. Only after I had made my first profession in 1940 and was teaching at St. John's in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, did I finally have some of it published. Even then I used a pen name, first Julian Barry, and, when that was discovered, Elizabeth Gilmary.

During the Marian Year, 1950, Father John Forest, O.F.M., of St. Anthony Guild Press, brought out my first book of poems, The Refuge of Beauty: a Book of Marian Poems. The title poem, dedicated to Our Lady of a Single Rose, gives the keynote for the others:

This thou hast given us, Mary, as day dawns darker than night and all loveliness fades:

in the slender stem of a rose an impregnable tower; a shrine of beauty within its crimson heart.

A second book of verse, to be called Fountain of Miracle, is now in the making, dedicated to St. Bernadette of Lourdes and borrowing its title from Coventry Patmore's poem, "A Child's Purchase": "Thee to admire is all the art I know / My Mother and God's / Fountain of miracle."

As time went on, I realized the very small audience for such poetry as I intended to write. Prose was more popular. So I began free-lancing in Catholic periodicals, writing mainly on our Lady and her saints. Some of the latter were published in book form as The Court of the Queen (Grail, 1956). More are ready to be published as In the Circle of Our Lady.

While working for my master's degree in English at St. Bonaventure University, through Father Jerome A. Kelly, O.F.M., head of the department, I became interested in T. S. Eliot and worked out the poet's ideal of Mary from "Ash Wednesday" through the "Four Quartets." For my thesis I was permitted to use a treasure on the campus, the original notebooks of Father Louis Merton of the Trappists in Kentucky, who was once an instructor at St. Bonaventure. Through this I traced "The Madonna of Thomas Merton," some day to be published with additional critiques.

At Notre Dame University I pursued much the same research under the guidance of Dr. James C. Cameron, an exchange professor from the University of Leeds in England. With him I did considerable work in the novels of Henry James, whose Madonna proved less elusive than might be thought. Simultaneously I began a search for Shakespeare's ideal "Lady," a combination of Cleopatra-Cordelia-Miranda, which is compelling if at present inconclusive.

When, a few years ago, a Chicago publisher launched a writing contest for nuns, my superior said, "You must write a book for it." A tight teaching schedule at Mount Aloysius Junior College in Cresson, Pennsylvania, where I was head of the English department, made me hesitate. "There simply isn't time, Mother," I assured her. Serenely she smiled and nodded. "You can make time, Sister." And that was it.

By writing Our Lady of the Forest: A Book of Mary Names in brief chapters-each only a page-I managed to meet the deadline. Although the book did not win the contest, it was published by Bruce in 1957. Its short meditations on new titles for our Lady seem to appeal to those who have as little time to read as I had to write.

Seldom do I write of anything but the Mother of God. At the time The Nun's Story was a best seller, Father Basil Morrison, S.J., an editor of The Queen's Work, asked me to do something about "a live American nun" which might help to counteract what he suspected would be the influence of such a strange picture of convent life as the book gave. For him I wrote I Teach School-and Like It! the closest to autobiographical writing that I have done until now.

Once when forced to spend a summer reviewing Latin in order to pass a qualifying examination, I read through the Vulgate again, and yet again. The Canticle of Canticles began to exercise a strong fascination for me. It seemed the love song of God to Mary, His beloved, and her reply to Him. What I wrote of it appears in the Dominican Fathers' Cross and Crown, beginning with September 1960, through four issues.

In such ways our Lady gives hints of what she wants to be written. Just now I am absorbed in The Days of Our Lady, to comprise minute meditations on our Lady's calendar commencing with the days at Lourdes. It must be written-much as everything else had to be writtenin snatches of time between school tasks.

Is that the best way to write? I cannot say, having never tried another. At least it has the blessing of urgency. Too much leisure might be worse than too little.

A problem that has been more troublesome than when to write is how to write. Low-brow or high-brow? Popular or scholarly? The answer for me has been to follow the dictation of the moment. For example, when I read Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, I immediately sensed a relationship between the women in his book and his ideal of our Lady. What I wrote of it naturally belonged to the high-brow, scholarly type of magazine. A lilting poem about the golden sandals our Lady wore to her wedding would just as naturally belong to a more popular publication. So it goes.

Would I exchange a career in teaching for one in writing? Not without a battle! Words can never take the place of flesh and blood children. When our Lord came to earth, He taught. Our Lady spent the best years of her life instructing One Small Boy. The books will be read and forgotten. The children will live forever. Of making books there must be an end someday, but every single child is a complete world in God's eternal love. I often think of Mother Pierre Greene's words to us: "A nun who cannot enter the classroom as a mother should not enter it at all." This is the family I prefer to shelves and shelves of books: not cold words on a white page, but the memory of children's smiling faces about a statue of our Lady. With Gabriele Mistral, I pray: "Give me the power to make my children my perfect poems that I may leave my most moving melody within them against the time when my lips cease to sing."

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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