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Sister Maureen Flynn, O.P.

MY WRITING, LIKE TOPSY, JUST GROWED. AND when I hear someone refer to me as a writer I say to myself, "Who? Me?"

In high school my parodies on Shakespeare and Poe and yards of doggerel were as badly written as teachers would have expected, had they read them. They were praised by girls who might have done better, had they tried. In college a professor sent a class assignment of mine to a magazine editor. So I first got into print, and I probably also got a better mark from the professor. Anyhow, I did not fail the course, nor did I look forward to a literary career.

But let me introduce myself.

Born on a farm in central Illinois in 1900, I was eighth in a family of eleven children. My grandparents came to America in the 1840's--the Flynns from County Cork; Grandfather Duffner, who married an IrishAmerican girl, was from Bavaria in Germany. Both my parents, who lived to be past ninety, were born in America.

Early religious education included prayers at mother's knee, plus advice and admonitions from parents and (especially) from all and sundry brothers and sisters. The parish priest augmented the family plan with catechism instruction after Mass on Sundays and for a couple of weeks in summer, usually in immediate preparation for First Communions and Confirmations --ceremonies in which one or another of the family were often personally concerned. At our house a bit of additional instruction for those not in the classes was not amiss, so I was many times prepared for First Communion and for Confirmation, a fact undoubtedly responsible for my ability to recite glibly to this day not only the exact words of the old Baltimore Catechism, but also the location of the answer on the page and the number of the lesson in which it appeared.

In a one-room country school dedicated teachers took care of the mental gymnastics necessary for progress through elementary grades. My mother had been a teacher before her marriage. With father's full approval, she continued to guide and encourage us in our studies from the time my oldest sister started to school until the last of the family had finished college some thirty years later.

For each of us there had been Boarding School. For me this was an introduction to Dominican Sisters as well as a voyage through high school. It was also a challenge; first days away from home are not easy for the fledgling. But at the end of my senior year I, too, wept, as did the other graduates, even though I was to enter the Dominican Novitiate nearby in a couple of months. Six crammed-full months later I received the white habit along with a new name, and in due time made Profession of Religious Vows.

Since then my life has been one of continuous study and teaching. Summer sessions of study, mostly at Notre Dame, were supplemented by summers here and there from New York to California according to immediate need. And there were four long, exciting years at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago when I led a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde existence. It required no small amount of adjusting each day to be one of the look-alike Dominican Sisters at one end of the Elston Bus Line and to become at the other end a one-Sister -to-a-thousand-laymen that I had to be. Absorbed as I was in learning to paint, draw, and illustrate, I hardly noticed the oceans of literary inspiration that flooded the place. Certainly there were ready-made characters, plots, scenes, atmosphere, and dialogue there for the taking. But at that time it was enough for me to express myself in line, color, and form.

My first writing was about art, though. It was a paper on the goals of art in Catholic schools that I read at a National Art Convention in Cincinnati a year or two after graduation from the Art Institute. It was my first writing and my first reading of a paper. It was also my first use of a mike. The microphone was a blessed physical support; the many rewritings of the paper enabled me to read words that I could not actually see. Afterwards I heard one delegate say to another, "Did you hear the Sister's paper? She must be a teacher of English, too." No remark could have been farther from the truth, nor sweeter to my ears.

At this time I was teaching art in the same Academy from which I had graduated and I was also giving evening lectures on art that had to be painstakingly researched and written. I did free-lance painting and design. Never think for a moment that this last was dull, or even sane at times. Requests ranged from "paint a portrait" to "mend a broken finger on a plaster statue. Once I painted a near-life-sized picture of a huge St. Bernard--a beautiful, intelligent animal that had been several times world champion. Esbo, the dog, couldn't come to my fourth-floor studio, so I went to the kennels, but not before I had spent days studying canine muscles and bones. I thought of writing about that experience, but then, who would believe such a tale?

About this time I was drafted into the history department without relinquishing the art, and during summers I began to take my turn at teaching in Vacation Schools. Sisters went two by two hither and yon to teach religion to children who did not have the benefit of parochial school training. At such times one suddenly and of necessity became "all things to all men." In one town we had classes on the second floor of a public school building; the non-Catholics had theirs on the first floor. One morning that summer I was guest teacher for their eighth grade Protestant Bible class, its minister-teacher and his assistant. The minister who invited me said he had never spoken to a Sister before. That's nothing, thought I, I have never spoken to a minister, an assistant or a Bible class. In the front line of duty I taught High Masses by rote to children seated on the pastor's lawn; I taught Confirmation hymns as we rode in a motor boat. It was the day for an outing for the children, so our objectives had to be combined. I made tabernacle veils, shined candlesticks, played organs and all the while taught catechism from morning until night. The days were as beneficial to us as to the children. But the strange and somewhat hilarious happenings cried out for written expression. The little personal essays that resulted were fun to write and were acceptable to editors who began asking, "Why not something on the what-goeson-in-convents theme?" These were fun too, though more difficult and tricky, because of possible misconceptions of readers and the innate reticence of Sisters, including me.

My first book was as much of a Topsy as all the articles had been. One day I came across a box of old letters written to me by my mother over a period of twenty years. Spasmodic research in our Illinois State Reference Library (I was often sent along as companion for some Sister working on a thesis) plus the letters and incessant questioning of my parents on their ancestry and their own early days turned into a biography that I called With Love From Mother (Christopher, 1947). It was illustrated by the author. I do not deny that the book was amateurish; yet it served the purpose for which it was written. That it was published was surprising enough. That it was marketed, reviewed, and read by an appreciative if limited public seemed phenomenal. All of the work involved was of interest and benefit to me, and the writer-publisher-reader contacts continue to be rewarding.

In fact, one of the rewards was that it got me into a class on Creative Writing one summer. The Dean said No when I applied for admission. I did not have the prerequisite-a sentence-structure, paragraph-writing course listed in the university bulletin. Should I stay out of the class or should I divulge my writing secret that I had hoped to keep forever from the English Department Dean and his learned cohorts? I told all. "You may enter the class," said the Dean. It was my first course in creative writing and it was a difficult one. But at the end of it I received the prize--a passing final grade. During subsequent summers in journalism classes at Notre Dame, Professor Withey showed me what I should do if I wished to write and a lot that I should not have done-an heroic task that he again assumed voluntarily during my struggles with the Lourdes book.

It was my good fortune to have the summer of 1950 for travel and study in Europe. An editor had asked me to do an article or two for his magazine, so when I returned I did just that and no more. But the writing virus must have been secretly at work because in 1954, Marian Year, I wrote a piece about Lourdes. A few months later, a publisher asked me to do a book on the subject. Of course (privately) I said No. My superior said Yes, which immediately involved me in a frantic search for source material on Lourdes. Books, pamphlets, papers, and letters poured in from many of the States, from Canada, England, Belgium, and especially from France. During the remainder of that busy school year and for the next, I read, wrote, and rewrote more words about Lourdes than I had ever thought possible for two people to do in ten years. I must have had all the handicaps known to man. One of these was the reading of those French books since I knew no French except the little that seeped into my subconscious through a sort of osmosis--by way of Latin and Italian. Then happily, Jeanne, a French-American, came into my life. She knew her French, but was puzzled by the English idiom and by medical and technical terms. On another happy day during a regular coaching session with Elena, a recent bride from Italy, I was inspired to ask her if she could read French. "Si, Si, si Ma sicuro," she replied. But Elena put the French into beautiful Italian. She read it to me and wrote pages of it in her fine Italian script with ever increasing insertion of words in English. My notes those days were a queer mixture, indeed. However, the translators improved rapidly in their translating. And so did I. The book, This Place Called Lourdes (Regnery, Chicago; Burns Oates, London; 1957) got finished, and all of us have lived happily ever after.

Postscript. A small biography of Blessed Imelda Lambertini, translated from the Italian, lies quietly in my file. There was a request for it, too, which later became let's wait and see.

Manuscript and I are waiting.

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


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