Life Transformed for New Zealand Nun
Janet Therese Molloy
From the journal of Janet Molloy of New Zealand comes the moving story of her years as a nun and her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Since several members of Janet's family whom she loves and respects are devoting exceptional service to the Catholic Church, severing herself from such a heritage was a difficult decision.
Drawing from the record she has kept of her life, she moves rapidly from the time she was a normal giggly girl into the deep spiritual experiences of a sensitive young woman making monumental but very lonely decisions. Her story exemplifies the joy we can receive when we have lived true to convictions received through the Holy Spirit, no matter what the cost or how difficult the decision may have been at the time.
I was born of wonderful parents in October 1945, in Auckland, New Zealand, and was baptized a Catholic when only a few weeks old. My primary schooling was at the local parish school, where I enjoyed the excellent teaching and strict discipline of the sisters of St. Joseph.
St. Mary's in Auckland was the scene of my secondary school days, under the strict supervision of the sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. It is a beautiful old school with great traditions where my mother had received her training also. In 1960 I graduated to Form IV, and this was the beginning of my most enjoyable school year. My teacher was young and inexperienced, so with the help of my friends I endeavored to give this good nun plenty of excitement. For example, we lined the ceiling of our classroom with squashy grapes which plopped down at intermittent intervals. We were the funniest, smartest girls—or so we thought. Often our conversation showed a lack of respect for Sister. One day I went a little too far and put a tiny dead mouse on her chair. The next day I found myself in the principal's office being threatened with expulsion from the school. I came away a rather frightened, remorseful girl.
The next year was a more serious one for me. I had a new teacher whom I loved and I did everything I could to cooperate with her. As the end of the school year was approaching, however, I felt concerned because I did not know what I was going to do with my life. Sitting at an office typewriter did not appeal to me and the nursing profession too had lost its attraction for me.
One day, a very close friend of mine (a nun) asked me if I had ever considered giving my life to God in a special way, as she had done. My reply was a definite negative. Strangely enough, though, I went home that night and knelt by my bed and really prayed from my heart for the first time. Our family had always made a practice of family prayer at night, but this consisted of reciting several decades of the rosary. As I knelt there in the dark, fingering my rosary beads, I prayed to God for guidance and courage. Suddenly I felt a deep sense of peace and a closeness to God.
As the days passed by I grew more serious and reflective. Finally, I decided to make an appointment to see the mother superior of the order of nuns who had taught me. I felt that this was what the Lord wanted of me.
I was approaching my sixteenth birthday and I knew that this was the minimum age requirement to enter the convent. Reverend Mother was a petite woman—quite striking to look at. Her beautiful Irish complexion camouflaged her middle age. At the end of a thorough interview, this sweet woman looked at me kindly and told me that I could enter the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy as soon as I could arrange it. The tears which had held back until this time suddenly streamed shamelessly down my face, and as Reverend Mother kissed me goodbye, telling me to come on the following February 2, I felt a great surge of joy and peace inside me. I felt that this was what the Lord wanted me to do. My parents were extremely surprised at my news, but they felt very proud of me and in no way tried to prevent me or dissuade me.
On Friday, February 2, 1962, at 3:00 P.M my family drove me over to St. Mary's Navitiate, the training house for the new arrivals. Seven other girls older than myself were arriving that same day. After being welcomed by Reverend Mother and our future novice mistress, we were ushered into a side room where we donned the severe black habit and sheer black veil. This was to be our mode of dress for ten months while we studied the teachings of the Catholic Church and learned about convent life and the holy rule of the Sisters of Mercy. We were called "postulants" during this period. Our duties were as follows: We rose at 5:45 A.M. to thirty-three tolls of a bell, and twenty minutes later we were required to be in the chapel to recite the psalms of the office of the blessed Virgin Mary. From 6:30 until 7:00 A.M. we sat quietly in our priedieux (kneeling desks) and meditated on points of doctrine. This was followed by holy Mass. After Mass we took turns at preparing the porridge, toast, and tea for thirty nuns at breakfast. When the bell sounded, each nun would arise, genuflect before the altar, and with the others walk slowly in single file, hands clasped and eyes downcast, into the refectory for our first meal of the day. The rest of our day was spent in studying, lectures, and prayer, until 9:00 P.M. when the grand silence began.
My first year in the Order of Our Lady of Mercy was a really hard one. Under the strict discipline of my novice mistress I became less boisterous and more serious. My most vivid memory of convent life is of constant humiliation. Having to listen while my faults were explained was difficult for me, but I am thankful for those years which taught me to know myself as I am and not just as I would like to be.
On October 20, eleven of us (all postulants) were received as "brides of Christ" into the order as novices for a further two-year training period before taking vows. Dressed in bridal dresses and veils, we walked up the aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral as the choir sang "Veni Sponsor Christi" ("Come, Spouse of Christ").
For the following two years we were engaged in domestic work in the laundry and kitchen. Twice a day our work was interrupted for lectures on doctrine. During this period of intense spiritual training we were not permitted to leave the convent premises except on urgent business, nor could we read or study anything of a secular nature. These were indeed serious and reflective years for me.
When the two years had passed we were again permitted to solicit approval of the community of nuns to take vows and be full professed members of the order. During the profession ceremony our white veil was replaced by a black one and we each received a brass crucifix to wear in the belt. The most significant part of the ceremony was our individual reading of our vows. Each of us in turn read aloud her pledge to live a life of "poverty" (by which we renounced our right of ownership), "chastity" (by which we relinquished the right to marry) and "obedience" (by which we were no longer subject to our own will, but to that of a superior). My profession motto was imprinted on my vows—"Elegi Abjecta" ("I choose to be an abject"). I desired to continually remind myself that without the Lord's help I was nothing.
A few weeks later we were assigned to Monte Cecilia Convent, which was surrounded by Catholic churches, convents, and monasteries and (ironically) looked down onto the Auckland Latter-day Saint Stake Center. For two years we traveled by day to Loreto Hall Teachers College; then in the evening, back at the convent, we received additional spiritual training. In December 1966 I graduated with my teaching certificate plus a diploma of moral and dogmatic theology.
In January 1967 I received my first teaching assignment—at a parish school in an Auckland suburb. My forty little children were a source of great joy and satisfaction to me. Our old classroom glowed with their handcrafts; our free periods were spent in sitting in the field singing to my guitar.
It was at this time, after several years of experiencing slight doubts that I began to have serious doubts as to whether the life of a nun was my true vocation. (Despite this, I in no way challenged the authenticity of the Catholic Church.) I felt that I could not exist without having children of my own. And how could I go through life—lonely in spite of companions—only able to see my family one hour each month, although they lived close by? I found too that I was becoming far too harsh on myself as far as the reach for perfection was concerned. I demanded an unrealistic amount of dedication from myself, and when inevitably I fell short at times it was difficult for me to forgive myself. There were other doubts also, but I tried to ignore them because I suspected they were motivated by weakness. I desperately wanted to be a strong, disciplined, and courageous person who would not give in to selfish and worldly desires. I seemed to hear a voice saying: "Sister, this life is not meant to be easy. You have sacrificed things of the world. Don't give in to disheartenment and weakness. Be strong and put up with opposition." But as the days and weeks went by, my doubts became stronger; and after much prayer I knew that I must have the courage to leave that way of life. After some personal opposition, I returned to secular life in June 1967.
The adjustments which followed were often almost more than I could bear. I had become a real introvert and very sensitive. I missed the religious routine of the convent, and often at night I would cry for hours because I felt I had made a wrong decision in leaving it. In retrospect, I recognize these feelings as instigated by the adversary.
Eventually I found a job as a receptionist typist and very slowly began to gain confidence. Dating was a frightening experience. I was very naive by worldly standards and just longed to meet someone who was spiritually minded. Then one evening at a dance I met a young man who seemed very different from the others. We communicated well and it thrilled me to find someone who did not smoke, drink, or swear, and who had high standards. It was several weeks before I discovered in horror that this man was a member of the "Mormon" Church.
We both realized the unhappy consequences of a marriage between two people of such opposing faiths. Each time we were together we would discuss religion, and it was obvious that neither of us was about to change his beliefs. It seemed inevitable that we would have to end our friendship, as we were becoming serious about each other. I went to services of his church, and although I was impressed by the spirit of the people, the doctrines seemed to me ridiculous. So after a rich and exciting year together we finally had to part.
It was a very sad time for me. Occasionally I would go to the LDS Church just to see this young man again. I had made friends with a member of the stake presidency and his lovely wife, and I spent many enjoyable hours in their home. At this time there were two fine missionaries staying at the president's home and they engaged me in deep discussions about religion—but I was very defensive of my Catholic beliefs. These elders impressed me with their enthusiasm and gentle spirit, but I always assured them most definitely that I could never embrace their faith.
One day the missionaries invited me to attend their quarterly stake conference and, after much persuasion, I consented. Unknown to them, my only motive was that I wanted to see my former sweetheart again. As I listened to the speakers that day and felt that undeniably strong spirit of the LDS gathering, I felt some of the Catholic draining out of me, leaving me extremely confused. As I was leaving the chapel, one of my missionary friends came up to me and said: "Jan, I will be leaving New Zealand in just ten days' time, as my two years are up. I would love to have the privilege of baptizing you before I return." I was extremely shocked at such a request; but I was touched by the sincerity and gentle spirit which emanated from him, so I just thanked him for his concern and told him I could never give up my strong beliefs.
At home that night, however, I prayed desperately to the Lord asking him to take away the very strong doubts that were welling up in my mind about the Catholic faith. I was afraid that my love for my young friend was influencing my desire to share his beliefs, and this worried me. Seeking help from the scriptures, I picked up my New Testament and read isolated passages from different parts. To my amazement, everything I read seemed to reinforce the teachings of the LDS Church.
I prayed so very hard that night and all the next day! My doubts about the Catholic faith were very strong by now. In fact, I believed the LDS Church was true. But I knew that I would not only have to believe—I must really know in my heart that it was true before I would ever have the strength to give up all that I had dedicated my life to and expose myself to the shocked reactions of family and friends, who certainly would think I was trying to change my beliefs to suit my romantic notions.
On the following day, while I was even more convinced, I felt I still could not make the tremendous decision involved in joining the Church. But I was about to receive help. While working at my desk, I received a phone call from a friend who told me that my former sweetheart had just become engaged to another girl. This was a startling surprise to me, but it was not as surprising as my reaction. Suddenly things seemed to fall into place. Instead of feeling hurt and disappointment, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of joy and peace. I wanted to run out into the main office and shout for joy. It was as though part of the veil had been removed for a tiny second and I was able to see into the future. It became obvious to me that I had not met the right man for me yet, as the Lord had great things ahead for me to do. Now I knew what it meant to have a testimony of the truth, for I knew with all my heart—without any doubt at all—that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true Church. It had been unmistakably revealed to me by the Holy Ghost. My new conviction and courage was and always will be a miracle to me—I cannot explain it.
The following weeks were full of change. Just three days after that miraculous day in my life I was immersed in the waters of baptism. Immediately afterwards I was confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and received the gift of the Holy Ghost. My family were deeply shocked and distressed, and it almost broke my heart to see their deep hurt and their fear for my soul. They are so wonderful and so strong in their own belief in Catholicism that it was inconceivable to them that any member of our large family could renounce the faith—especially one who had been a nun. Only a miracle could have brought me through the heart-rending weeks and months which ensued, but my testimony was so very strong that I could not deny it or compromise in any way.
It especially distressed my family that I would join the Church before I had even received any formal teaching about it. Although a spiritual testimony is powerful to the recipient, it is difficult for him to describe it. I admitted to my family that I had not learned everything about the Church, but I told them I could not deny its truth. Certainly if I had not known it was true I would not have put myself or them through the agony of that period.
Six months after my baptism I left New Zealand to attend Brigham Young University, and the following two years preceding my graduation in May 1972 were the most wonderful and action-packed years of my life. That beautiful university is indeed the Lord's and I felt the spirit there. On my first morning on campus I was overcome with the wonderful spirit which pervaded. Refined and well-groomed students rushed to and fro making cheerful comments to each other. Such a beautiful spirit! The chimes played "There is an Hour of Peace and Rest." The gospel meant so much to me and I thirsted for knowledge about it. I thrilled to study it in all its aspects under trained spiritual priesthood holders. My major field of study was in the social and family sciences, and I was very motivated to learn as much as I could. The more I studied, the greater my testimony of the gospel became. Everything I learned seemed to fit into the one eternal whole and I experienced a great sense of peace.
Sometimes Latter-day Saints ask me how I feel about the years I spent as a nun. I feel that I had been guided to train as a nun, even in a temporary situation. In those six years my spiritual nature was formed and a concern for deeper things was initiated. That is where I learned to pray, meditate, read, and study the scriptures. But for this training, I fear I would have been a very worldly person and I seriously doubt if I ever would have been attracted by the truth. In fact, I can't imagine what I would have been like if I had not had those years.
In January 1971 I was privileged to receive my endowments in the Salt Lake Temple. This was a very choice experience for me. When I left that beautiful house of the Lord that day, I knew as I had never known before that there is only one Church on this earth today in which the truth can be found, and I knew I had found that Church. Perhaps because of my unusual background, I experienced no doubts or difficulties—everything fitted into its place. The doctrine of the preexistence (so new to me) was the most beautiful doctrine I had ever heard of; and it thrilled me then and still does to know that I lived with my Heavenly Father before coming to this earth. My life now had so much more significance and meaning, and the joy I felt was inexpressible.
I am so thrilled by the encouragement one receives in the Church—such a positive attitude prevails, with no practice of humiliation. It is a way of life akin to our real natures—cheerful and loving. The gospel is consistent with fun, happiness, and real joy.
Before returning to my homeland in June of 1972, I had the privilege of visiting Nauvoo, Carthage and Liberty Jails, Adam-ondi-Ahman, and many other places of historical significance to Latter-day Saints. I will never forget the feeling I experienced as I sat in the room at Carthage Jail where Joseph Smith, our beloved Prophet, was martyred. Each of the visitors in that room with me that day experienced that same feeling, and we left in tears. How lucky we were to know the truth!
Since returning to New Zealand, I have been privileged to work for the Lord at the Church Distribution Center for the South Pacific at Auckland, New Zealand, with fifty other choice Latter-day Saints. As I witness the programs and progress of the Church and the great spirit of this latter-day work, again my testimony is greatly strengthened. I know that the Lord's work will never fail. It thrills me to see the progress of the Church in my homeland.
As I review these past four years, I am overwhelmed by the many wonderful blessings I have received. I know with all my heart that this Church is true because it has been revealed to me by the Holy Ghost. I also know this with my mind, because I have studied the gospel and have satisfied myself that it is without error. I know that God lives and I love him with all my heart and feel very close to him. He is indeed a loving Father. I know that Jesus Christ is our Savior. I know also that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God. I know this with all my heart. I know that we have a living prophet leading the Church today, and I love and sustain him as such. And I sustain all the authorities of the Church. I can say with all my heart that I know these things are true and not merely that I believe them. For this knowledge, I will always be grateful. I leave this testimony and witness of the truth in the sacred name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hartman and Connie Rector, No More Strangers, Vol. 2 p.171