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