A Catholic Nun Discovers The Gospel
In a private audience with the Pope, Eileen Davies asked to be released from the vows she had taken as a nun more than thirty years previously. A year later her request was granted, and she became a lay Catholic.
She took this step because of growing concern and disillusionment about doctrines and practices of her church, much of which was fostered by studies she had made in the private library of the Vatican. But still she remained close to the church she had served all her life—until one day, back in her native Wales, she learned why she had been impelled to leave the convent. She discovered the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
In her late sixties at the time of her conversion, Eileen Davies has since served a mission in Italy as well as giving devoted service in other Church callings. She is now head of the English department at the Oxford School of Language in Venice, Italy; and in her spare time she travels many miles to bear testimony to people who are studying the gospel with the help of LDS missionaries. As her immensely interesting account indicates, her depth of conviction and gratitude for the gospel is an example to Latter-day Saints everywhere.
After thirty-three years as a nun, it seemed that Eileen Davies (Sister Mary Francesca) had reached the pinnacle of success. As the English representative to the Vatican, she enjoyed esteem and responsibility. Her capabilities as a teacher and governor of over two hundred convents in Italy were well known. She enjoyed audiences with the Pope. What could possibly happen to make her break with the Roman Catholic Church and eventually embrace the restored gospel of Jesus Christ? This fascinating and true story begins in Cardiff, Wales.
Eileen Davies was born in 1901, the youngest of ten children. In accordance with the prevailing custom in devout Roman Catholic homes, one child was selected to follow the ministry. This choice fell to her older brother, Cuthbert. Before he could begin the ministry, however, Cuthbert was killed in 1917, during World War I, at Ypres, Belgium. Eileen was sixteen years old at this time, and her brother's death was the first real sorrow her heart had ever sustained. She secretly felt determined to replace her brother as the family representative to the church. However, it came as a surprise to the whole family when it was announced openly that Eileen had been selected.
Surprise turned to grief in the heart of Eileen's mother. Although Eileen was sixteen years old, she was still her mother's youngest child and, therefore, her baby. Her mother remonstrated against this selection, even saying to the Mother Superior, "Take the other children, but leave me my baby." But the Mother Superior countered by saying, "It is the baby that the Lord wants."
The apprehension of Eileen's mother persisted. Within the next few months Eileen came down with a severe illness, which persisted during the ensuing two years. Her mother gradually began to despair of her life. She reasoned that the illness must have been the judgment of a displeased God. At length, she promised to allow Eileen to enter the convent if and when she regained her health. After her lengthy convalescence, the date was set on March 25, 1921, for Eileen's entrance.
Eileen traveled north approximately 140 miles to Loughborough, Leicestershire, England. She tells her experience in her own words:
"I took a taxi to the convent, as the train was two hours late and there was no carriage to meet me. The taxi stopped outside a huge door in the middle of a very high wall. I pulled the chain that rang the bell and waited the proverbial 'eternity' for the door to open. An old Sister with a sad face like the Madonna of Sorrows appeared. My heart was thumping as she beckoned me to enter. The door closed, and the huge key was turned one, two, and three times. I felt already buried alive! Again the Sister beckoned me, and I followed her through long glass cloisters.
"The windows were covered in black net curtains, and the statues were draped in purple. It was the solemn part of Lent, and the convent was in deep mourning; that day was Maunday Thursday, the day our Divine Savior washed the feet of the apostles before the feast of the Passover. The Sisters were all in the chapel chanting the office applicable to the Holy Week. But in spite of the rigorous silence that reigned, the Mother Superior, hearing of my arrival, came out and received me with open arms. She was a cousin of my mother, and was very stout and jovial, a very wonderful woman, and a good Superior. 'Thank heaven!' I thought. 'At least there is someone here with a heart and a smile.'"
Because her family was so well known to the nuns, the usual three-day wait for inspection was waived, and she was immediately given the cap and frock of a postulant. During the six months that followed, Sister Eileen was required to learn about the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She experienced some difficulty with poverty when her relatives sent her an extra pair of shoes. These could not be given away within the convent. After much thought, the problem was eventually solved when she gave them back to the wardrobe keeper. Since everything belonged in common to the order, permission had to be asked for the use of any item. Regarding chastity, the rule stated that there could be no admission of a boyfriend; one could not touch a Sister, except in a religious embrace, which was to place hands on arms and to kiss the shoulder. Two Sisters were to travel together always. All letters were to be opened and censored.
Being an inquisitive person, Sister Eileen found that her greatest problem was that of obedience. It distressed her at times not to be able to read the newspaper or to talk about things of the world. Because it seemed necessary to give her a special lesson in obedience, she was directed to drive a screw into a picture until told to stop. Then she was instructed to remove the screw and repair the hole. Such lessons taught her to adapt herself, and she gained acceptance of blind obedience.
When the six months were over, Sister Eileen was allowed to begin teaching in the school for two hours a day, during the time of her novitiate. This period of time extended into two years. She was then received by ballot into the order, clothed in the habit of a nun, and given the name of Sister Mary Francesca. In her first official position, Sister Davies was sent to the county of Sussex in England to be the head mistress of St. Joseph's convent school. She soon fell in love with the children and her work. By diligent effort and sound example, she instilled the love of school in her students. They received from her a wealth of practical experience. Due to the popularity of her teaching, the school doubled in size within four years.
Because of her outstanding success, she was transferred further north to a school located at a place known as Barton-on-Humber. Some of her students at St. Joseph's loved their teacher so much that they received permission from their parents to accompany her to the new location. Here she spent six happy years, during which time she helped get the school at Barton on its feet both financially and in terms of enrollment.
At this point she received orders for another transfer. Naturally, she was perturbed about this, but being obedient she did not question the call. She packed her belongings and once more shed tears at being separated from her beloved students.
As the train bore her south to the very bottom part of England, she pondered her next assignment. A ferry ride later, she approached Carisbrooke House on the Isle of Wight, an island in the English Channel. This was to be her new home. Carisbrooke House had been the Dower House of Carisbrooke Castle. Large grounds surrounded the house. Immediately Sister Davies' active mind began to conjure up possibilities for developing the complete student.
By now she had formulated the concept that for a full and rounded education, each student should have development of the physical, social, and intellectual person, all within a religious framework. Also, being a practical teacher, she realized that all work and no play makes a dull student. Soon the grounds around the schoolhouse began to resound to the sights and sounds of net ball, hockey, swimming, hunting, riding, and gymkhanas. Her rules called for five days of study, and weekends of organized athletics and religion. There were no long faces here. Her students adored her and followed her on every excursion whether mental or physical, it made little difference; each was a new and thrillingly different experience.
But now the international clouds of gloom were gathering. It was 1939; Hitler's blitzkrieg (lightning war) had defeated Poland. France was besieged. Anticipating Hitler's bombs, the English moved their children away from the larger cities. Many went north to Loughborough, Leicestershire, and Sister Davies was now reassigned there. Shortly, children came from all parts of the compass to this school, even from as far away as Vienna and Poland. There were 360 evacuees and refugees ranging from two-and-a-half to eighteen years of age.
If ever a teacher had to be inspired, it was now. Sister Davies had to assume the roles of teacher, guide, guardian, confidante, nurse, mother, and father. She was all of these and more for six long war years at Loughborough. Many a night, with school lights out and with the sound of bombs exploding in the distance and their flashes lighting the sky, the children solemnly marched behind Sister Davies into the cellar, with gas masks and pillows in their arms, to spend a night of terror. It is of interest that despite the bombings not one pane of glass in the school was ever broken through bombing.
Since Sister Davies had given of herself to each student as the need and occasion demanded during the long war years, it was only natural that some of the students refused to return to their homes at the end of hostilities. Indeed, this was their home, in some cases the only one they had ever known or remembered. Consequently, some heartrending scenes transpired as parents came to reclaim their children, some of whom were loath to leave. Some of the children did not know whether their parents were still alive. In two cases, final word did not come until four years later. As it turned out, all of the children had at least one remaining parent to claim them.
The war ended in 1945. On the basis of her long and outstanding service, Sister Davies was summoned to Italy. She was to be the English representative to the Rosmenian Order in the Vatican. Her job for the next six years was to travel with the Mother-General and assist in supervising over two hundred convents. These were located throughout Italy and in parts of Switzerland. During this time she had frequent audience with the Pope. Yes, Sister Davies had come a long way, and on true merit. As we look at her at this time, we are led to inquire what could make her break with this church to which she had devoted so many years of her life.
She states that the break really started in this way: During her journeys, she saw much poverty and suffering among the people. At the same time, she was in the midst of great wealth in the church. She felt that this was incongruous and unfair. During her many years of working with the students, she had spared no effort in providing physical and spiritual welfare for her charges. It caused her great concern to be working in the midst of luxury and see suffering and want about her. She sincerely felt that greater efforts could be made by the church to have all things in common. Shortly, a new ruling by the Italian Father-General fed more fuel to the flames. It was that the Nuns of the Rosmenian Order should become more cloistered and contemplative; they were henceforth to cease going out, and they were now to withdraw from the world.
This of course meant that Sister Davies would have to terminate her works of charity on the outside, which to her was unthinkable. Added to this, she began to experience certain apprehensions and fears regarding doctrine, which resulted from studies she made within the private library of the Vatican. As a result of these studies, certain fallacies of function and organization in her church became evident to her. She felt that these did not conform scripturally to the true Church. At first these thoughts were vaguely disquieting, but with further study and prayer they grew to alarming proportions. At length, she knew that she could not continue to think these thoughts and still remain in her official capacity. She felt that the only fair thing to do would be to step down. Reaching this decision caused her great soul-searching and considerable anguish.
Sister Davies thus requested a private audience with Pope Pius XII in which she asked for dispensation (permission to be released from her vows). She would still remain a member of the church, but would try to find a place and circumstances where she could become involved in works for charity. The Pope was obviously moved, and after hearing Sister Davies, he requested her to take a year to consider this decision and not to act hastily nor terminate vows at that time. To this she agreed.
She began to have yearnings to return to England and again teach. Shortly, however, in a sudden policy reversal, the Order closed some of its schools in England. This was a great blow to her. As promised, however, she did wait out the year, and then, more resolved than ever, wired for final papal confirmation of separation from her vows. This was granted, but a note was attached requesting her to sleep on it for a month. About that she says: "I had stayed awake on it for many years. There was no need for me to prolong the agony. My decision was now irrevocable."
She decided to go to London, where she could surrender her habit (nun's clothing) at the convent. Upon her arrival, the Mother Provincial greeted her with tears streaming down her cheeks. "If you must take this step," she said, "God must have some work for you to do in the world that you could not perform in the convent."
"I felt so strange and lonely as I walked to the station, but I knew that I had a mission in life and I courageously set forth to find it," she said.
A new life now began. Eileen's main interest in life had been to work with youth and the underprivileged. It was only natural that she should again turn to such work. She obtained and furnished a large flat (apartment) which she operated as a charity lodging for poor students and itinerants. Before long, however, as she began to tally the count of articles stolen from her apartment, she learned to her sorrow that not all mankind can be blindly trusted. Even her checkbook was taken, and bogus checks in her name began to appear about town. Sister Davies was eventually forced to the conclusion that thirty-three years in the convent had left her ill-prepared for this type of service.
Returning to Italy, she attended the University of Perrugia, where she took a degree in the Italian language. She then received a fine position in Venice where, between the years of 1963 and 1966, she taught at the Oxford School of Languages. During this time, she continued to remain close to the Catholic Church as a lay member, because to the best of her knowledge that church represented the closest contact she had with God. But there were many practices in the Catholic Church with which she did not agree, and the old nagging questions still left her disturbed. She sincerely prayed for guidance, desiring to know the will of God.
It was Christmas time, 1966, and Sister Davies began to think of home. Her sister was living in Cardiff, and she decided to make a Christmas visit. This was to be only temporary, as she planned to return to Venice in January to resume her teaching. On arriving in Cardiff, her first steps took her in the direction of the particular Catholic Church where she had felt drawn to the service of God in her youth. Once inside, she prayed intently, but her prayers were unanswered. The sisters whom she greeted seemed cold towards her, and spiritually she felt arid and empty. Depressed, she left the church and crossed the city to the section of Cardiff known as Rhiwbina, with the intent of visiting her sister. The familiar landmarks loomed up one by one, but as she arrived at the street on which her sister lived, she noted a new church at the corner.
"There was nothing very extraordinary about that, as many churches were built in Cardiff, and I had never crossed the road to look at any of them. But this one was different; it drew me like a magnet, and I felt constrained to cross over and read aloud the name—'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.'"
She suddenly was filled with the desire to enter to find out more. Unable to enter because the building was locked, she went to her sister's home. The impression and desire to return remained strong overnight, however, and the next day she returned and found the chapel open. She entered and asked someone if she could be shown around.
She was intrigued with the classrooms and passages, and, of all things, the gymnasium (cultural hall); next, the kitchen, gleaming and bright, in which one of the LDS sisters was working. The custodian continued the tour into the chapel. Standing there and looking about, she suddenly remembered the words, "If you must leave the convent, perhaps God has some work for you to do which you could not perform here." She was very impressed by this inner feeling. After reflecting upon it, she turned and asked if there was someone who could explain to her what the church could offer spiritually. She was taken to the branch president's office, and there she met President Lawrence I. Taylor. He received Sister Davies and explained to her the basic doctrines of the Church. In a two-hour visit, the president dwelled upon the great apostasy which had robbed the Catholic Church of the priesthood and the right of succession which they claimed.
Suddenly, a great conflict began to rage in Eileen Davies soul, for despite differences with her church and its traditions, the sum of her life efforts strained to tell her that she had been right. Yet, somehow, the words of the gospel rang true as they fell upon her ears. The story of the restoration of the gospel in this day and age sounded remarkably proper and right. However, the ties that bound her to Catholicism were hard to break. She fought hard to justify the position of the Catholic Church, but it was no use. "I knew in my heart that what I was being taught was the truth," she says, "especially when I read, meditated upon, and prayed about the Book of Mormon."
Now, she began to realize that God was offering her a great gift, the answer to all her doubts and yearnings. The only remaining obstacle was the fear of again hurting her family who already had suffered from her leaving the convent. But she realized that it was a far worse thing to fail God, and that she would have no peace until she was baptized into the restored Church.
By now, the time had passed for her to return to Italy to teach in the University. She sealed her future by sending a telegram to Italy stating that she would not be returning to teach. This decision was largely made because, at that time, there was no branch of the Church in Italy. She therefore elected to remain in Cardiff, where she could learn and grow in the gospel.
"The Elders were wonderful, although I am sure I gave them a very hard time with so many questions. But they bore their testimonies with their eyes shining with divine light. I shall always be grateful to them for their loving patience. I shall never forget the sadness in Elder Brent Dickerson's face when he said, 'You'll be baptized on the 11th of February, won't you?'
"I replied, 'Oh dear, no! It is too soon. I want to know everything about the Church before taking such a final step.'
"He answered, 'I cannot tell you everything about the Church. You will go on learning about it all your life, but when you are baptized you will have the Holy Ghost to help you to understand.'
"So I fixed the date for a week later, February 19, 1967. Oh, how happy I was that night of my baptism! I have never experienced such joy and peace. I have always suffered from aquaphobia and have never been able to go under water, but I didn't even think of it that night. I really felt Christ calling me to come to him—not 'on the waters,' but out of the waters of baptism. I felt so clean, and I knew that the Holy Ghost really had taken up residence in my soul. There was a heavenly atmosphere in the chapel that night that not only I but many other people felt and which they have told me they will never forget."
Now came the time of learning for Sister Davies and of her throwing all of her effort into the work. She loved it. Truly, this was the answer to her problems. The great plan of salvation unfolded day by day. After six months of work, prayers, study, and participation, Sister Davies was called to be the Relief Society president of the Cardiff Branch.
It was about this time that the first "all-British" Relief Society conference was held. Sister Belle Spafford and her officers came to Great Britain from Salt Lake City in 1967, and were joined by Elders Mark E. Petersen and James A. Cullimore. The conference was held in two areas, and Sister Davies was able to meet with the sisters in the London meetings. She confesses that she experienced a union of soul and Christian affection that she had never known before. She especially noted and appreciated the messages regarding deep loyalty for family and desire for exaltation as a family unit. Her greatest joy was to mingle with the saints and to love and be loved by them. She constantly commented on how this remarkable oneness reminded her of the scriptural references concerning the early saints. "See how these Christians love one another," stated their persecutors. She enjoys quoting the parallel with the modern restored church: "By this shall all men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one unto another." Her later trip to Salt Lake City only confirmed and heightened her already deep and poignant feelings of love for the members and the restored gospel.
Sister Davies gives daily thanks to the Lord for guiding her footsteps into truth. She says:
"Every day I am more persuaded of the truth. I thank the Almighty from the bottom of my heart for the great grace he has bestowed upon me by bringing me to the knowledge of the restored gospel. There is no greater gift on earth than the knowledge given to us in the Church of Jesus Christ. I pray that I will always be worthy of this special grace bestowed upon me. I know that this Church is the true Church of Jesus Christ. I have loved my Savior all my life—he has ever been 'my God and my all.' It is impossible that he should deceive me. I could never feel so happy and contented with anything that was not the truth. I say these words humbly in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."
This account has been compiled from details supplied by Eileen Davies and from material written by Ray H. Barton, Jr., former president of the Southwest British Mission.
Hartman and Connie Rector, No More Strangers, Vol. 1 p.158