If ever children had been cursed and left to wallow in anguish that would have been my fellow schoolmates and me during our encounter with a congregation of nuns known as the Missionary Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary Immaculate. All of my other tragic life experiences rolled into one could not have been more traumatic or damaging than what I endured over one year at the private all-boys Catholic hell known as Maison-Chapelle.
The students were mostly boarders but like me when I first arrived, there were some exceptions. It was located in St Boniface, which to this day remains the largest French Canadian community outside Quebec, and a stone throw from the historic St Boniface Cathedral, which burned down in 1968. They never rebuilt it in its entirety but my father was the consultant who re-engineered its great facade to keep it standing all these years since. Anyway, the entire area for maybe 30 city blocks was church property, littered with convents, chapels, seminaries and other religious facilities. One of the most important groups of buildings was the St. Boniface Hospital, which at the time was still operated by the Church and speaks to the fact that certain departments within the church managed to do more good than harm.
My mother had this romantic notion about her having married a Frenchman and one of her desires was that at least one of her children was going to speak French like our father. I suspect that due to the fact that I had so poorly planned the timing of my birth, I had become the family Guinea pig. My father could not have cared less. In fact, I believed he was in opposition but that fact and a solid brick wall would not have stopped my mother when she had a mind to do something. I was about to enter grade 1 for the second time, as I was pulled from school half way through my first year as it was clear that my poor eyesight would not allow me to finish. Optometry was still at the experimentation stage with respect to fitting very young children with glasses but by the time my second school year was approaching, I had Coke-bottle glasses that I am sure were far out of focus. I remember being dizzy from morning to night and constantly falling down or banging into things. I was always breaking them and my father's remedy was to continually wrap black electrical tape around the limbs and that, combined with my skinny frame, made me a sight to behold.
At the time, my parents were not aware that my vision was just a small part of my problems at school. I remember not wanting to go to school, as I was humiliated, being the only one of my peers that had not made it through the first grade, I ask you, who fails the first grade? Had they been aware that regardless of my vision at the time I was also severely dyslexic and I could not function in a classroom in my native tongue, let alone a foreign language, I am sure that they would not have made the decision to send me to a private French school. At the time there was no concept of French Immersion, it was all French - sink or swim.
Before I continue, I would like to say to my beautiful French wife Manuela and all my Francophone relatives or any other culturally sensitive French person that may happen to read this jibber, that I use the term "foreign language", as it applied to me at the age of 6. I am fully aware that our courageous French ancestors settled this glorious land, invented a delicacy known as Poutine, and in less than 3 minutes added an entirely new branch to man's evolution - Métis. It would be much less patronizing for me to simply go back and change my terminology but this is my last chance to lighten up, as this story is about to grow darker.
In any event, I knew no French, or French children other than my cousins whom I saw only during family gatherings and my father never spoke it at home or anywhere else if he could avoid it. He never showed much interest in retaining his French language nor ever spoke it unless he was spoken to.
Regardless of the absurdity of it all, I was pumped up as to how much I would enjoy the new school and on the first day when my father took me to the Mother Superior's office for enrollment, I was beaming with pride. I had an arm full of brand new school supplies and was wearing a new school uniform. To this day, I can shut my eyes and recapture the wonderful aroma of those new supplies, however, my bliss was to be short-lived. I stood silently for a few minutes proudly holding my booty. I remember Sister Superior grinning oddly at me while she and dad spoke but I gave it no mind, as she was a lady of God and all ladies had been kind to me in the past. Things changed suddenly, as the moment my dad left her face darkened. She grabbed my supplies and literally ripped them out of my hands, "You won't be needing those". She was correct and I never saw them again. She dragged me by the arm to my class where I met my new teacher - we will refer to her as "Sister-X". When all your assignments are done on the back of soup-can labels and the first kid to use up his pencil is tied up and left in a closet, sometimes until he shits himself and then kicked and pocked with a yardstick for having done so, there is little need for fancy school supplies. I have no idea as to what the boys in other classrooms were subjected to as we never left our homeroom but Sister-X had a heart as black as her habit.
I remember Sister Superior coming in and out of our class from time to time without ever questioning Sister-X's methods and other sisters would regularly gaze in through the door from so all the boys knew there was no refuge outside our class. She had two nicknames for each of us, which she used to ridicule and as far as I can remember she played few favorites, although the fact that I spoke English and "the English are stupid bastards", I stood out as one of her least favorite. She never used given names unless they fit into one of her malicious limericks but look out if you dared to annoy her, which could be as minor as making eye contact. She would have us lie on our stomach while she bound our hands and feet together behind our backs and then dragged us on our stomachs up and down the aisles between the rows of desks, ranting about what a useless person her victim was. These rituals sometimes went on for long periods, all the while never lifting my eyes, lest I should draw her attention. For the first time, I was not an outcast, as her fury affected us all. She would often, and without provocation, reach down my pants and squeeze my testicles until I was breathless. "You like that Boing-boing?", that was my good nickname and Shit-groin was my other but on occasion I was the Four Eyed English Freak. There was one boy that I felt particularly sorry for. She called him Peach Pie or Shit Fly. I don't know what his real name was but you can be sure that it rhymed in one way or another. He shook with fear when she singled him out and sometimes he would urinate. That would trigger her rage. Her face would light up bright red and she would march to his desk, grab him by the hair, rip him from his chair and rub his face in it. One time while holding him down, she caught a glimpse of me looking in horror. She reached out, pulled me in by the hair and rubbed my face in it as well - I never looked again.
I came to know which boys were left as boarders year-round never going home for holidays, as she would often single one of them out throwing him to the floor. She would kick him with her hard granny-pumps that all sisters wore, screaming about how his family hated him and would never take him back or how she would have to wash his dirty ass until the day she would boot him out onto the street, her spit flying in all directions. I never questioned it at the time but she was obsessed with shit and assholes and for some reason her rants were always in English as though it was the language of hate. Everyone but me was bilingual so she was not trying to hide her meaning. The moment I heard her speaking English, I knew that something terrible was about to happen.
Partway through my year, my mom became ill and went into the hospital for an operation. Although I may have been warned, I don't remember anticipating what was next to come. One day while I was in class, Sister Superior walked in and without a word, dropped a suitcase at the back of the room. That suitcase was mine. From that day forward, I would come to know how truly cruel some humans could be.
At the end of the day after the class had emptied, Sister-x explained to me how being a boarder meant that my family no longer wanted me and it was likely that I would see them less and less until one day never again. I didn't know right from wrong when it came to such matters. She was a person of God and as I had been taught, I trusted her every word. I don't believe to this day that I have ever felt such emotional pain, with the possible exception of the death of my parents.
I will never forget the nights in the dormitory. I knew that the wing of our building where the sisters were living was warm as I had cleaned the floors several times but our dorm was freezing. The students' dorm was one big room with rows of bunk beds and it housed all students of all grades. We were marched in class-by-class and stood quietly by our beds. It was always dead quiet from the moment we entered the dorm. We said a group prayer and climbed into our bunks. By just writing this account, I can feel my despair. How I longed for one of my mom's bedtime stories and for the sounds of my family in the other room.
About 5:00 am a sister would step into the room and loudly ring a large brass bell that she carried. Often, I was already awake as I could hear the sound of her footsteps increasing in volume as she approached down the long hall to our dorm. My heart would start to race as I anticipated jumping out in a panic to get my bed made so I would not be last. We stood at attention beside our beds until our class was called to the showers. The water was colder than the room and the soap had a strange smell, as like most of our supplies they were made by one of the other religious orders. One time, Sister-X decided that I was not washing properly. She grabbed me and washed my backside and privates so roughly that I was left with a bloody rash that was painful enough that I could think of little else for days. Then we combed our hair, brushed our teeth for one minute, dressed and were marched off to the chapel for penitence, however the sisters called it morning prayers. Prayers, consisted of one hour of kneeling on a cold stone floor, hands clasped and eyes tightly shut, while we each prayed. Several Sisters were always on the lookout for any boy who would shift or, God forbid, place his hand on the floor for even a moment to relieve the pain. If you were singled out for anything, you did not eat that day and were sent to Sister Superior's office where you were assigned chores to be done during mealtime, or worse. Hardly a day went by, when someone was not dispensed to the office as it was us boys that did the dirty work. It once happened to me two days running and when I appeared in her office the second morning, Sister Superior asked me if I was hungry. I nodded yes, as one never dared to speak unless told to. She said, " the Load giveth and the Lord taketh away", a typical bit of logic that has been burned into my memory. I prayed hard and not just in chapel; asking God to help my family forgive me so I could go home, never suspecting for a moment that it could be anything other than my horrific sins that had put me there.
If one survived Chapel, there was breakfast, which never changed from day to day. When I first saw it, I thought wow! - rice pudding! It was not to be. There were a few raisins mixed in the rice and it looked milky but it was not rice pudding. It was gritty and had no sugar or cinnamon. Lunch and dinner always changed but it was never good. The bread was always rock hard and the meals were always a soupy slop but we ate it, as the portions were never enough. Looking back, I have concluded that most all of our meals other than breakfast were leftovers carted in from other buildings, ground up and fed to us as slop. Like the soup-can labels we wrote on, our school was the final rung in a world where nothing was wasted.
I am not exactly sure as to how long I was a boarder but after my first year, mom had recovered and we moved to Thunder Bay Ontario, (then known as Port Arthur) as my dad had been transferred. Many years later, I attempted to inform my mom that I felt I had been abused at Maison-Chapelle but I could see that just the notion that I may have been abused was overwhelming her so I never went into the particulars. I had many opportunities while home for weekends and holidays to tell my parents what was going on but I would never have dared to speak out, as I was convinced that I was being punished for things I had done. These events were too traumatic for me to verbalize even if I wanted to and I had no knowledge at the time to suspect that it was not normal. Sister-x had God on her side and I was a 6 year old. I would never have imagined that my parents did not know and approve of what was going on. I believed in heaven and hell and one did not question authority, let alone God.
I left that school less educated than I entered, as Sister-X never let me participate. I could not read a sentence in either language and was entering grade 2 without any skills. I was damaged goods, insecure, wetting my bed and unable to control my emotions. A child learns that he or she is smart, good, strong, kind, because they are told it over and over and I had been told the opposite. As it turns out, I have not done too badly in life but my story is certainly not one of redemption, rags to riches or coming of age. Much of what I lost as a child can never be recovered. To this day, I feel for many of those boys, never knowing laughter or having a family like mine to return to.
The full account of my experiences at Maison-Chapelle will never come to light. Much of it is too humiliating to speak of and would serve no other purpose than to make me feel more like a victim than I actually am. Anyway, I would imagine that my account of events borders on the unbelievable for many. I also admit that there are two sides to every story and sometimes a child's perception of events can be skewed by a lack of basic knowledge and quite often memories can change if repeated. I never started verbalizing these events until well into my 40s and this is the first time I have written any of it down. I don't remember much from public school before or for several years following; however, that year at Maison-Chapelle is burnt into my memory as though it were yesterday and to my knowledge, my recollections have remained consistent from year to year.
I do now and shall continue to carry resentment towards the church and any other person or organization that preaches salvation. If I learned anything during my years of Christianity, it would be that if there were a god all-powerful, he or she would surely have us worship a universal truth rather than dogmatic sectarian gibber. I am grateful to them for having taught me to believe in Mother Nature, a tangible universe and myself. I shall never, financially or otherwise, support the Catholic Church or any other religious organization, as I do not trust their motives. Oh well, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away!
By: Paul Burgoyne