My memories from my three years at Brown County—1967 to 1970—are, rather than individual stories, more of a montage of experiences that collectively informed the person I am today. When I think back to those days, the first image that comes to mind is climbing the front steps with my dad and my step-mother, who dropped off my trunk, shook hands with Sister Dorothy, made some lame excuse about having to rush back to the airport to catch a flight, and left me there.
When we girls were first led into the church I was captivated by those awesome carved entry doors, the simple, modern internal furnishings, the elegant and intricately carved wood beams above and the contrasting Gothic exterior. It was the first time I’d been to church and a Mass since kindergarten. A little intimidated, I just followed what I saw all the other girls do, and when they got up out of the pews and stood in line to receive Communion, I did the same. From those humble beginnings, I ended up foregoing sleeping in on Saturday mornings to help Sister Pacelli set up for early morning services. She was one of the sisters who came from Uganda, which was under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. She was about 4’10” and a complete joy to be around, always laughing. We learned later that all of those Ugandan sisters were murdered. I will never forget her.
I spent a lot of time just hanging out with Sister Lawrence in her office/sewing supply room. She was the mother I never had. I thought she was so beautiful. She’ll never know how much I appreciated her friendship and support. My mother, who died at the age of 32, when I was only 5 years old, had been an excellent tailor and seamstress, who designed and made all of her own clothes. Since I was so young when she died, I never got to learn those skills from her, but Sister Lawrence taught them to me. I still remember the dresses I made. One was a simple A-line shift with a bold graphic daisy print, that Sister Marjorie asked me to wear for my role as Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Then I mastered the sewing of a lining in a yellow maxi dress. Still another was a pink ensemble, the top featuring a row of buttons secured by self-fabric loops and the bottom being a gored, flared skirt. I simply loved fabric-shopping and I still do. Sister Lawrence instilled that love in me.
Sister Mary Anthony hated me. Or so I thought. The image of that tiny woman, mop in hand, will stay with me forever. I had waist-length hair in those days, and she would always yell at me that “Your hair is everywhere!” Looking back, I recall that there were many girls with long hair, Debbie Howard and Debbie Pierre to name a few. I wonder now, did she chastise them as well? No matter. I took full responsibility back then for being the reason why she was always having to mop the floors, and I avoided running into her at all costs.
Oddly enough, I have fond memories of spending an entire month-end isolated in the infirmary with the Hong Kong flu. It might have even been a Thanksgiving break, I’m not sure. But I do recall being relieved that I didn’t have to fly home; home being a place of turmoil and unrest. Instead, Sister Raphael and Sister Delores took good care of me. I had three meals a day brought to me on a tray, fell asleep whenever I felt tired, and read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which had been left on the nightstand by some previously ill upper class-woman. It was possibly my first introduction to hippie culture.
I remember going to Dayton and the Wright Patterson Air Force Museum with Debbie Howard and her dad, and then to Dominick’s by the NCR factory for dinner; with Sister Lawrence to Saint Mary of the Woods College to visit Mary Anne Jansen, who later entered the novitiate; to Vanceburg, Kentucky, also with Sister Lawrence and some of the other nuns, where we volunteered by doing chores and such for Father O’Donnell, who tended to the poor in Appalachia and called me Mona Lisa. We slept in an chalet type A-frame house there, and in the evening, the nuns took off their veils and I felt both embarrassed and privileged to see that they had hair of all different styles and shades!
One of my favorite activities was purchasing stationery and other items at the school store on Saturday mornings. I still have a necklace I bought, along with my medals with the brown and blue ribbons and my Scholastic Art Award pin for a pointillism piece I did.
In 7th or 8th grade I won the spelling bee and was scheduled to go to Cincinnati for the regionals. But there had been rioting there and the spelling bee was cancelled so I never got to compete at that higher level. I still love spelling and spent many years at my last job doing copy-editing.
I remember a geography test in which we had to name all the then 127 or so independent nations of the world and getting every single one correct! I remember taking the scholarship test with all those girls from the “outside” and later learning that Gabrielle Fox was the winner. “Who was this brilliant girl from Cincinnati?” She was enrolled the next year and we ended up becoming good friends and remain so, although time and distance have worn away some acuity.
In Jamie and Susie Ford, I found life-long confidantes. We lived together for a time in our youth and then I followed Jamie to Webster College in St. Louis. These days, not only do Susie and I live just 3 hours apart in the Northeast, but I am so fortunate that my winter home here in Charleston, SC is a mere 10 miles away from Jamie! We get together as often as possible. Debbie Louiso is another life-long friend whom I took my children on long trips to visit when they were younger. Now grown, they both have precious memories of their experiences spending time on a farm and so do I.
I could resurrect a thousand images, thoughts, lessons, trials, tears, events, lucky breaks and tragedies from those days, and maybe later I will. But for now, I want to end with a tribute to Sister Agatha, who was a pivotal, guiding force for every one of us. She was stability and creative genius, compassion, patience, beauty, resilience, grace and strength all rolled into one. She continues to be a lantern of love and light in all of our lives and I can’t imagine what life at Brown County would have been without her.
Toni Wallace Ciany
610 Williamson Drive
Mount Pleasant, SC 29464