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08-08-2010 09:54 PM


This is the story of three women who were once nuns. Although they took their vows for life, they found they couldn't keep them. How have they rebuilt their lives, and what has happened to their faith?


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DOOGUE, Geraldine




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The Nuns' Story


This is the story of three women who were once nuns. Although they took their vows for life, they
found they couldn't keep them. With the spotlight this year on Australia's most famous nun Mary
MacKillop, this program tells a very different story about religious life. It's a story about love
and devotion, commitment and compassion, but it's also a tale of loss and abandonment. For despite
their enormous contribution as teachers, nurses and community carers, many nuns were forsaken by
their church when they left. So how have they rebuilt their lives? And, what has happened to their

Story producer: Dina Volaric

Story researcher: Francoise Fombertaux

More Info

This program may raise personal concerns for some viewers.

If you are feeling distressed and would like to talk to someone, you may wish to contact one of
these counselling services:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

For more information about the lives of former nuns please see The Paradox of Service: The Welfare
of Former Nuns (please note this website is external to the ABC), a special report released by the
Victorian Women's Trust in 2009.

To enquire about obtaining a copy of this program please contact ABC Program Sales 1300 650 587 or


Geraldine Doogue - Presenter

Hello there, thank you for joining me for a story that presents the little known account of what
happens to nuns when they leave their orders. With the spotlight this year very much on Australia's
most famous nun, Mary MacKillop, soon to be canonized as our first saint, our program tells a very
different story about religious life, a very moving one. It tells of three different women who were
once nuns. It explores why they entered religious life, why they left and what happened when they

Anne Love - Formerly Sister Anne Gabrielle

I grew up on the North Coast of NSW in a small country town and I was the youngest of six children.
We were very devoted, devout Catholics. We said the rosary daily in our home and both my parents
were very active in the church. I used to love going into the church and sitting in the church and

I had like an inner searching, "What does God want me to do with my life?" I felt the calling and I
felt yes I had the highest ideals and I wanted to make a difference in the world. You know, I
wanted to do something for God.

Paula Hyndes - Formerly Sister Mary Paula

My father was a huge influence on my life. I was the eldest daughter. As a girl growing up dad and
I would do the dishes after tea and he'd tell me about his good memories of the monastery.


Paula Hyndes followed in her father's footsteps when she joined a religious order. At 14, he'd
joined the Marist Brothers, but left after 6 years.


He became a schoolteacher and he retained a great devotion to the Catholic Church. And my mother
had been through convent boarding school. She also was very much a Catholic. So we all the six
daughters all went to Catholic schools and Holy Communion, confirmation, everything.

It was a great compliment when the nuns who taught you in secondary school invited you to join the
convent. And there was some very, very inspiring women who taught me.

So I also eventually became a nun.

Meryl Tracey - Formerly Sister Mary Jovita

My mother left us when we were little children. She was advised to leave my father because he was
an alcoholic. I loved him dearly but when he was on the spirits his personality changed and he
became very violent.


Meryl Tracey found refuge amongst the nuns who taught her at school.


I loved the Sisters very much. Sometimes those nuns used to have to chase me home because I'd still
be hanging around pretty late in the afternoon.

One of the Sisters used to call me her Brasso kid because I used to help her in the church cleaning
all the brass. And I'd hear all the hilarity coming over from the convent and I used to - I
remember one day seeing two nuns chasing one another around and a lot of hilarity. That made an
impression on me, the happiness of them. I just felt that I wanted to be one of them. I wanted


I remember saying goodbye to my parents on the day I entered, and all my sisters. They brought me
up to Melbourne from Bendigo. It's a very beautiful setting the novitiate. It's very beautiful
gardens. Very Gothic sort of buildings with cloisters.


Paula entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1960. She was only 17 years old.


I was told, as my parents were leaving that I would never return home again. So that was hard. I
couldn't go home to my parents' death-bed.


I was 21 when I entered the convent and then I went into the novitiate. We did a year of postulancy
dressed in black, and then we came back to the novitiate and we were given the habit and a white

It was very regimented and organised to a timetable and everything was very ordered and we kept a
rule of silence. Silence was all day unless the Superior gave us a time of recreation, and then at
10 o'clock at night there was the Great Silence where you did not speak from 10pm right through the
night. That was to promote communication with God.


This was my cell when I was a religious nun. In this corner was an iron bed, a single bed of
course, and a bedside table which had a pottery jug and a wash bowl, and a little cupboard for
putting a few things in; we didn't own much, so we didn't need much storage. Sometimes you'd hear
someone crying in their cell and you felt compassion; that you would've liked to knock on their
door, see if they were OK, but it wasn't allowed so ...

Outside you could see the nuns walking around and in the morning, before dawn, you could hear the
rosary beads clattering as the nuns quickly walked over to the chapel at 5.30am.

And also then once a month you would have, the chapel would be darkened just with candles, and
one-by-one we'd each go up to kneel at the altar and sort of say a sin that we had committed in
front of the whole community, maybe 80 people.

The older nuns had had a very hard upbringing in the Order and they felt it was good for us to
suffer that too. And one particularly told me that, "We got it tough, you're going to get it tough


Well we had to take another name, a saint's name, so it was really our identity was put aside. And
then we had various penances. There were penances and little acts of mortification that we had to
perform. And a lot of times spent in self-examination, which was the path to holiness and

And we had the rule of obedience which was you know blind obedience where we obeyed. We did what we
were told to do, but without ever questioning.


When you take the three vows you actually take up a vow of obedience which says you will never make
your own decisions. You will always have to ask permission. We had to ask permission on the first
day of the month to borrow pens and pins and needles, scissors. So we knelt beside the Mother
Superior to beg her permission to be able to just use day-to-day things for that month.


In 1966, Meryl Tracey, also joined an order - the Sisters of St Joseph. She was 17. Despite her
girlhood longing to be a nun, in the end, leaving home was a hard step to take.


It was very difficult to leave because I had the most wonderful friend, boyfriend throughout my
secondary years. He was devastated and I was devastated at leaving too. We received the habit and
the white veil of a novice. And that's when our training to be a religious commenced in earnest.


Like others, Meryl struggled with the vow of obedience.


I remember when I was a second year novice we were forbidden to leave any clothes soaking in
buckets in the laundry. And I was down there after breakfast one morning doing my washing. We used
to wash in buckets. And I got an urgent call to come immediately. They were short of help in the
bakehouse and could I come and help them.

Well I had all these clothes. So what did I do with them? I shoved them in a bucket. So I was sent
for by the Mistress of Novices. And I really got a lambasting, and she said, "And what have you got
to say for yourself?" So I looked up at her and I shouted at her, "I can't do the impossible!" For
my penance I had to eat my main meal on my knees in the refectory.


It was quite strict in those first three years. I did have a friend who felt so bullied she did
commit suicide. I think a lot of it for us was exhaustion and physical and mental exhaustion. Not
being able to go on and she desperately wanted to be a nun and stay working in the Order.


At this time Paula was training both as a nun and as a nursing sister at Melbourne's Mercy


The physical part of nursing it was very demanding. You didn't have hoists, you lifted every
patient. You ran. The sisters were working towards building a public hospital, the maternity
hospital from our labour, which they did.

I enjoyed it but I still felt I'd like to go out in the alleyways where I lived. One nun did some
work with the poor, that was all.


In the early 1960s, the Vatican II Council called on the members of religious orders to respond to
a changing world; to consider what they had to offer an increasingly secular society.


Pope John 23rd said let us open the windows and let in the fresh air. I sort of had a spiritual
renewal at that time and I did clinical pastoral education at the Royal North Shore Hospital. And
we did a lot of group work there, and so I began to get to know myself a little bit more.

It was a long time of soul searching, studying the documents of Vatican II. Of meeting together and
saying you know, trying to discover now how can we put this into practice. How can we put these
things into practice, and the habit was one thing that came into question.


We started to modify the habit in 1969. We used to wear a big crucifix in our belt. Well that was
replaced by a smaller crucifix which we wore around our neck. The headgear changed slightly and the
hemline came up a bit.

And then eventually the veil went. And you could just wear the dress of the day. A simplified dress
of the day. Nothing too extravagant.


Changes in dress made it easier for nuns to take part in the life around them. In 1972 Paula began
a degree in social work and, whilst studying, experienced a whole new world.


We were much freer after Vatican II. We grew our hair short and our skirts, could get a current
drivers license. I didn't have a car but the nuns dropped me off at the university. And we were
studying human development and a lot of psychology and a lot of social work subjects which was
really, really enlightening to me about the human person and the need for certain things in your
life for happiness and fulfilment so you can make a contribution to society, have a happy life. So
these things were really very important.

And I was seeing big changes in my community where I was seeing big changes in my community where I
was having less respect for the superiors who were in charge and I wanted to make my own decisions.

I had written to the Pope himself for release from my vows which explained why I was leaving. That
I went in as a young girl, very naïve. Times had changed. I could see a role for a Christian woman
in the world and that's what I wanted to do.

I'd bought a few clothes. I wasn't very good about fashions having worn black and white all my life
almost. I had $600. They felt that was average to give people when they were leaving. And they'd
said to me, what else can we give you? But I had no idea what the world was like. But I had grown
my hair so I said a hair dryer.


It was 1973 when Paula Hyndes finally put 14 years of convent life behind her.


I said goodbye where I lived in the convent. And as I said goodbye to a couple of them they gave me
a hug and said: Paula, I'd be leaving too if I could face supporting myself. I felt sad for them
and they were a bit older than me. There were some beautiful women I lived with and worked with.
But once you leave the door shuts and they don't contact you again.


Meanwhile, still with the Josephites, Anne Love was wrestling with her own decision.


There was always sort of some sort of a feeling within me that was unease. And whenever I said
anything to anyone I was told that that was a temptation of the devil. And so I hung on thinking oh
yes that's right. So I just pursued the path to holiness.

And during that time I sought God. And said okay God what do you want me to do? And at the end of
it I knew that the decision I needed to make was to leave the Order.


In the 1970s Meryl Tracey took final vows and qualified as a teacher.


Well I taught mainly in small country towns, western country towns in Queensland. And a lot of
those places had boarding schools attached to them, and so I taught primary school children.

And I'd walk around the streets of that little town. And I'd look at the people in their homes and
see them all interacting and all sitting together. And it caused a deep pain in me, and I
experienced for the first time a vast loneliness within me.

I just accepted things. I really believed God had called me to religious life, and this is
religious life. This is what God had called me to. So wear it, tough. This is it girl.


Anne Love spent 25 years with the Sisters of St Joseph. She finally made the break in 1983.


I was 21 when I went in and I was about 45 when I left. So that's not a really good time in life to
change direction. So I was placed in the position of having nowhere to go and no employment. So
that was a really very, very scary time being virtually here I am out on my own and I don't know
what I'm going to do. It was very traumatic actually.

When I first moved into a flat on my own all I had was the four bare walls. I had nothing else. No
curtains on the windows, nothing. But it was then I experienced the love of friends and the love of
individuals. And some of these were in the Catholic Church, and people from the Uniting Church
Newtown gave me things and gradually you know I had a chair to sit on. I had a knife and fork, I
had some cutlery. I had a fold-up bed, things like that.


No longer able to work in pastoral care, Anne fell back on her earlier training as a teacher.


It was very difficult when I went into certain Catholic Schools as an ex-nun. When it was found out
the attitude towards me seemed to be different. I felt that I was then classified as the ex-nun and
the conversation would sort of change if I came into within hearing. Things like that.


A few years after leaving her convent, Paula Hyndes married. Her husband was a former priest. They
had three children, and they struggled financially.


Because my husband is an ex-priest he had no qualifications for jobs and we found it hard.
Philosophy and theology doesn't get you an average job. And I had three babies quite close together
so I couldn't always work.


Paula's situation was not unusual. She's since discovered that many nuns who left religious life in
the '70s and '80s have also suffered hardship.


It seems a great injustice, especially for the women of the church because we outnumbered the men
10 to 1 in membership of the workers in the Catholic Church in religious life. That they and it is
just so common the story that they left with virtually nothing.


Meryl Tracey remained true to her vows, despite her doubts about religious life. She was still with
her order when her old sweetheart reappeared.


This beautiful friend that I went with through my teenage years. 35 years later our paths crossed.
And all the years I was in religious life I'd tucked him away in a deep recess of my heart, as I
was very, very fond of him. And then to meet after 35 years and to discover to our mutual joy that
regard, that love we had for each other hadn't died, it was still there and very much alive still.


Her former boyfriend was married, but his wife was in a nursing home. She had a form of dementia
and no longer knew him.


And then I came into his life. So he said he had hope again. He was thinking he had nothing to live
for any more. And he pressured me to leave. Now at that stage I was uncertain and I'd say to him,
look I can't say 'yea' or 'nay' because as always I wanted to be sure and I wanted to do the right
thing. I wanted to do God's will.

Sadly he died. He just dropped dead of a massive coronary before I could say to him, "Yes, I am
leaving, and yes, I will come to you."


I left because I felt that this was God's leading. And I did pray that God would send me a husband,
because I did. That's one of my regrets now is not having had a family around me, particularly at
this stage of my life, as I live alone now.


Anne's working life was too short to allow her to save much for retirement. In her early '70s, she
lives on the aged pension and these days she's an active member in her local Baptist church.


I have just graduated with an advanced diploma in Christian counselling. I just love being with
people. I suppose you could say in a way I am still living out my vows and my commitment to people
and my service to people.

I have a great relationship with God. That's one thing I do thank God for in the convent. I learnt
a lot about prayer, about meditation, about contemplative prayer. And I actually feel closer to God
now than I ever did.

I live by faith. All my clothes are St Vincent de Paul clothes, two dollars each, or what's given
to me. So I've learnt to live by faith. Because I've had to depend on God for everything - and God
has shown himself faithful.

I have found love and acceptance where I am now, and because I have no natural family, the people I
am with now they are my spiritual family, and I look on them as my family.


Meryl Tracey spent over four decades with the Josephites and still visits them. In her final years
with the sisters she began to wonder where her unhappy childhood had led.


Later on I realised that perhaps I really didn't have a genuine vocation. Perhaps what I was
seeking was that nurturance that security, that safety, happiness. So there was a lot of
unconscious motivation when I entered the convent.

I loved the Sisters, I loved them dearly, I still do. But I just felt I don't really belong. I
can't live this life any more. I felt if I stayed something in me would die. But it took me over
ten years to discern because I wanted to do God's will.


By the time Meryl was finally ready to leave her order, policies for those leaving religious life
had changed for the better.


When I first told the sisters I'd be leaving they conducted a beautiful ritual farewell for me;
they called it 'a ritual of transition'. So that touched me very much. There were tears all round
on that day, but um, so I treasure that, and as part of that ceremony I was presented with this
small bust of Mary MacKillop when she was a young woman. So um, that's very precious to me, very


Meryl's order also supported her financially, paying her rent and other expenses, during a 3 year
transition period before she formally left the Sisters of St Joseph. Today she runs the pastoral
care program at a Catholic retirement home in Toowoomba.


I've had wonderful opportunities in the Josephite order to develop myself professionally,
spiritually. So I have no bitterness. Yes, sadness for leaving, but I knew that I had to do this.
Scripture says, 'choose life or death'. I put before you life or death, choose life. And I knew I
had to choose life.

End Card

In 2009 the Victorian Women's Trust found that many former nuns are suffering poverty, loneliness
and emotional pain.

The Trust is negotiating with Catholic Church to achieve just outcomes for these women.