The Divine Sister

Last night I took Chad to see the Divine Sister as part of his weekend long birthday festivities. Inspired by some of the more memorable movies about nuns, this latest Charles Busch comedy is hysterical. The play takes place in Pittsburgh during 60’s, which is crucial because that’s when nuns wore those amazing and iconic black uniforms.

  • White Coif: This is the garment’s headpiece and includes the white cotton cap secured by a bandeau and a white wimple.
  • Black Veil: This element is worn pinned over the coif head coverings and could be worn down to cover the face or up to expose it.
  • Holy Habit: This is the central piece of the garment, also commonly referred to as a tunic.

I attended St Sylvester’s grammar school for eight years from grades one through eighth. Before that I attended St. Clare’s kindergarten. I went to an all boy’s Jesuit High School and then St. John’s University. My entire school career has been spent in one form of Catholic institution or another but it was grammar school that left its greatest impact on my memory.

During those eight years I was taught by many nuns, none as clever as Charles Busch’s mother superior but as crazy as Julie Halston’s character. My principal was Sister Catherine who weighed over 300 pounds. She was a strict nun who didn’t think twice about beating us into submission. I feared her and trembled whenever she came near me, scared to death that she was going to hurt me. I wasn’t a bad student, but I did get in trouble for talking too much. Once Sister Catherine saw me whispering to my best friend, Michael. She came behind me and smacked me upside the head.

“Mr. Spinelli,” she screamed. “Why are you such a chatterbox?”

When I finally graduated, I rejoiced in knowing I was never going to see her again. Many years later, when I was a medical school student, I did a surgical rotation at Staten Island Hospital. It was my job to do preop assessments on all the patients that were scheduled for surgery that day. One morning I received my list and the second name was none other than Sister Catherine Anderson, my former principal and tormentor. My neck immediately became drenched with sweat. My heart palpitated in holy memory of her shouting. I was paralyzed with fear. How could I go into her room and perform a preop examination?

“Get a grip,” I told myself. “You’re a doctor. Act like one.”

As I slowly walked in silent procession toward her room, I prayed that she would not remember me. When I opened the door, she was sitting up with the starched white linen folded neatly under her ample arms. Still quiet obese, she was older with grey hair and layers of folded wrinkled skin under her chin. When I noticed that she was scheduled for a right lower extremity amputation, I was overcome with pity. Having been an uncontrolled diabetic for years, Sister Catherine was succumbing to poor circulation. The robust lioness that roared down the halls of St. Sylvester’s was now a dying breed, the last bastion of my Catholic youth. Upset with myself for having such unholy thoughts, I decided to introduce myself. I gently leaned in toward her plump face and whispered, “You probably don’t remember me, but I was a student at St. Sylvester’s.”

She turned her head around slowly eyed me up and down. She said, “What’s your name?”

“Frank Spinelli” I said.

She rolled her eyes and her nose flared as though she was absorbing my scent. Then she growled, “Mr. Chatterbox, I remember you. You couldn’t keep your mouth shut no matter where I put you.”

I stood there with my mouth gaping open. Scared that she was going to leap out of her bed and maul me, I put my clip board under my arm and backed away from her. As I walked away in shock, I looked back and thought, “Good luck standing on that one leg sister.”

She died later that same year.

I’ll never forget Sister Catherine and all the nuns who taught me at St. Sylvester’s School. Those women dedicated their lives in holy servitude to Jesus Christ, God and the Catholic church. They will remain as mysterious to me as their black habits.



  1. phillip
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    OH, this is a very very touching essay. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. FortWorthGuy
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    In addition to “Jesus Christ, God, and the Catholic Church” she and the other nuns also dedicated themselves to educating you and countless others. As good a physician as you are today you probably can credit a certain amount to their influence. You obviously made an impression on her.

  3. spinellimd
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Very true

%d bloggers like this: