Material Calling

As a Franciscan nun, you’ve hardly any earthly complications to distract you from your immaterial calling. No clothes to speak of, just a couple of identical brown habits. No books of your own beyond your breviary and maybe a bible and a missal for Mass. No knick-knacks or mementos or shelves to put them on. Standard-issue everything, and not much of that. In addition, a blanket of silence wraps this spare world from morning till night—almost no talking anywhere most of the time. 

The entrance door to any convent opens onto floor polish—lustrous wood or tile and that not at all faint scent of soap and polish. Mount Alverno Provincial Motherhouse for the Franciscan Sisters of Penance and Christian Charity fits the pattern perfectly—really exceeds it in olfactory pungency, what with Sister Delfine’s masterful Theater of Motherhouse Cleaning Operations. The seemingly endless corridors whisk into gleaming and pungent circles of shine, their surface reflecting the surroundings like a mirroring stream anytime a window is near. Walking the corridors brings to your nose a brisk olio of cleaning and polishing agents—piney soaps, florally-inflected cleansers, oily resins, and sundry waxy whiffs of floor-coats.

The Provincial Motherhouse is a recent addition to the top of this mountain. Bright white and up-to-date, this multi-leveled construction with California tile roofs sprawls at the center of the rocky hilltop, housing more than 100 nuns and would-be-nuns. Beyond the convent and its parking lots, the mountain remains wild out to the cliffs at its edges, with dusty acres of dry grasses, hardy succulents, and aridly undersized junipers and mini-pines. The rangy complex extends out from a vaulting high-roofed chapel and bell tower. At the front of this large central building are offices, classrooms, parlors, patios, visiting halls and guest rooms. At the back side on the main floor are two refectories on opposite sides of an industrially equipped kitchen. Beneath, on the floor below, are extensive laundry facilities next to a big garage, delivery loading docks, and, a short distance away, a few small storage sheds. From the chapel and the center of the main building, long and narrow extensions reach in opposite directions:  one to the south lined with cells for the professed sisters, and another to the north for the novitiate. Unadorned, ascetically white, and starkly angular, the whole place says:  lift your eyes aloft to the heavens; keep your mind in the clouds and off the details. But such a clean-sweep can—paradoxically—make every little thing pop with tangible energy. Take smells for example. 

If you didn’t come in the front to the parlors and offices of Mount Alverno, but rather walked the circular drive around to the back side, it’s not so much corridors and piney floor polish. This morning, I’ve finished the digging and weeding that Sister Noella assigned me on garden duty. I’m out back putting away my shovels and hoes, with a nice stretch of time to myself before chapel and the chanted procession of Psalm 50 down the halls to the refectory for lunch. A stone’s throw from the shed where I stow my tools, Sister Regina’s giant, infernally hot open-air laundry-room sends out billows of steam. Where I stand, the air sizzles with laundering. Smells of spicy-soaping, steamy-rinsing, bleached and burnt-baking cottons, wools, denims, nylons, and linens fly through the air, as laundering stuff makes its way from one gleaming and grinding machine to the next. Along with varieties of cleansing and searing cloth, the air circulates a medley of smells from the hot, roiling metals that are bouncing, rinsing, spinning, tossing, clamping, and pressing item after item, from dirty and rumpled to clean, smashed, and smooth. 

Careful to remain below the radar to enjoy my meandering free time, I turn the back corner by the laundry, past the loading docks where trucks full of furniture, food, soaps, office supplies, or who knows what periodically pull in and deliver their requisitioned wares—along with stinging smoke and carbon monoxide chugging from their idling engines. 

In the convent garage around to the side, with its door panels open for the day, the provincial autos line up ready for use if needed:  the magisterially silver Buick sedan, two nondescript greenish Chevy station wagons, two smaller Ford two-doors—one blue and one brown—and at the far end, the tiny gray Fiat—a little mushroom alongside a row of stately garden shrubs. Slimy spots on the cement floor emit tickles of gasoline and other petrol and car-wax products that bring to mind service stations. Last month I was on garage duty and worked on the fleet of cars, checking their oil and gas, washing them inside and out, sweeping and tidying the whole place. Open any car door here and out floats an almost-sweet scent of vinyl seats and plastic knobs and buttons that hovers aromatically with the petrol. Or, if it happens to be a door of the Buick, a smoother, dusky whiff of leather, even a hint of small handles made of actual wood. 

One floor above the garage, Sister Wilma’s kitchen bangs and whirrs with busy sounds of lunch preparation. Whiffs drift out the windows and doors of that kitchen almost any time of day. A huge slow fan from the high ceiling wafts out billowing smells of yeasty bread, tasty beef bits crackling in giant pans, sizzling onions and peppers spitting in grease, along with the smooth salty sniff of potatoes. Rising to the ceiling and high windows and back, random floating hints of cooking can flit their way down otherwise odorless hallways—to one side, past the somber provincial business offices; to the other, toward the novitiate classrooms, maybe even ascending pristine stairs toward the chapel. 

A sliding door down along one hallway, when shut tight, effectively bars kitchen smells from the enclosed patio. Opened, the door leads to where Sister Noella’s prize roses fill the air with aromatic esters above their garden beds. At the near end, the petals of huge pinkish-white blooms, big as oranges, let off an almost-citrus scent that whispers for a moment and then disappears. Further on, crimson clusters throw off something deeper and sweeter, a juicy ripe apple or red wine. At the far end, draping from their trellis, pale Cecile Brunner buds quiver in the slightest wind and blow their savory cinnamon under the eaves of the alcove at the far side. The tangy sweetness sometimes even trails out the patio’s far door to drift down the staid hallway past the provincial offices of business, accounting, and administration.

Each hallway eventually reaches a stairway to the chapel. I go up the novitiate stairs and enter from the side. Clouds of frankincense from the six a.m. High Mass still hang below the vaulted ceiling these many morning hours later. Smoky wisps catch sunbeams above the pews. I inhale a heavy dose of the leftover sacred smoke. Sneeze a few times. Cough. Then head to the tall back door of the chapel that opens onto the high part of the mountain top.

The south end of the San Francisco Bay shimmers below distant peaks of snowless mountains. I breathe deeply. Leaving the wide outdoor entranceway to the chapel, I stroll down to the eucalyptus grove along the cliff at the edge of the property. Look out over urban California humming below. Breathe again. Sniff the gentle menthol in the air beneath the young trees after last night’s rain. 

Dianne Dugaw

Dianne Dugaw has published scholarly articles and books in addition to creative stories in magazines including Blueline, Soundings, Slippery Elm, and Mount Hope. Professor of English and Folklore at the University of Oregon, she lectures and performs in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Her recording, “Dangerous Examples—Fighting & Sailing Women in Song” ( presents ballads from her book, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650–1850 (UChicagoP, 1996). Her childhood on a Pacific Northwest ranch with a musical and religious family and her early convent experience inform her interest in women heroes and her storytelling.

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