Authors: Rebecca Winters
The Holy Mother had kept news articles about the prominent members of the family over the years. Constance Norwood was the daughter-in-law of the late Lord Edmond Norwood, former ambassador to Japan. The elder son, Philip, was one of London’s leading barristers and retained his father’s seat in the House.
More recently it appeared Jeffrey Norwood was destined for great things as well since he’d recently been made Commander over the Mediterranean Forces of the Air Command in Africa. Because of his genius with planes, he was consultant to the minister of air craft production and met frequently with England’s beloved Churchill, almost a saint in the Holy Mother’s eyes.
When Michael was brought to the convent by his desperate father, the Holy Mother vowed that she would do all in her power, relying on God, to see Michael cured. It was a debt she wished to pay his father for many reasons. The day of his arrival, however, she seriously doubted that anything could be done for the boy.
He was barely five years old and catatonic, suffering complete withdrawal.
The child had not responded to anyone, not to his loving aunt, not the father he idolized. No doctor or friend could bring him around. And it was no wonder with one so innocent and small. One minute he’d been playing contentedly with is mother, the next minute bombs screamed overhead destroying the room and his mother at the same time. The shock of losing her in such a brutal manner was too much.
In utter despair Jeffrrey Norwood had turned to the Holy Mother for help, hoping that in the solitude of Castle Combe, away from the long arm of Nazi tyranny, the boy could be rehabilitated along with many other shell-shocked children housed in the convent.
From the very moment Catherine saw the dear child, the devoted nun was drawn to his angelic face and spirit, and looked after his wants and needs day and night. Slowly, carefully she worked the miracle the father had prayed for and the prognosis had been reversed.
After a few difficult months, she was able to win his confidence and trust. It came as no surprise that Michael ended up loving her with all his heart. There was something especially endearing about the cherubic smile of the boy, something that touched all the sisters, but in particular Sister Castherine. And there was no question that the nun’s appealing qualities found their way into his heart.
Loving little children came as naturally to her as living and breathing. She could create happiness out of desolation with one story, bring a smile to the face of a grief stricken child with one word or a song. The children worshipped her.
She had many attributes and was selfless. Those qualities made her a model nun.
During those months of love and attention, the boy and the nun had become inseparable. They could be seen most afternoons in the early spring playing on the green, lying on the grass at the water’s edge, picking out shapes in the clouds or holding hands as they walked through the fields and woods alive with pink and white rhododendrons. They were as close as any mother and child could possibly be. Perhaps too close.
When Catherine first became aware that she was seeking his company too often, preferring to tend to him rather than carry on some of her other duties, she had come to the Holy Mother seeking help and advice. This pleased her that Catherine recognized what was happening. Unfortunately Catherine hadn’t had enough time and was not sufficiently strengthened to detach herself before Michael’s father had taken him home.
Comander Norwood had kept in constant touch over those first critical months, inquiring about the progress of his son. When the Holy Mother felt the boy was recovered enough to be reunited with his father, the little boy--normal and happy once again--went back to Norwood. Both were obviously delighted to resume the family relationship. But Catherine was devastated by an ache which could not be soothed.
The nun said nothing, did nothing outwardly to show her distress, but the Holy Mother could see things beyond the naked eye and knew of the nun’s struggle, her suffering. Michael had been gone from the convent for a month now, and each day Catherine’s complexion paled a little more because she’d learned to love him.
If his father were bringing bad news about Michael, she was tempted to keep it from Catherine for it would break her fragile heart. The situation was precarious for several reasons.
It would be a tragedy if her attachment to Michael grew so great it rendered her incapable of giving the valuable service she was born to. There was no question in the Holy Mother’s mind that it was best to keep any news of Michael from Catherine, good or bad.
Jeffrey pressed on the gas, but the never ending dips and round-abouts prevented the car from taking flight. It wasn’t until the Cotswold stone walls of the convent came into sight that his taut body relaxed. ” Phil?” he called over his shoulder. “We’re here!”
Philip sat up and blinked. “What time is it?”
“Why didn’t you waken me sooner? I could have driven. You’re the one who needs the rest.”
“No. I’m feeling better than I’ve felt in a week. I hope Jens got through.”
Both men directed their attention to the serene and picturesque setting of the ancient citadel. Two geese bobbed complacently on the waters of the meandering brook that ran lazily near the motherhouse.
On his first day home, Michael had been insistent that his father see the drawings of the geese which swam there daily. He and Sister Catherine had made many of them, and there were other pictures of rabbits and fawns, as well. Some of them were extraordinarily good. Jeffrey knew why and his mouth turned up at the corners.
Michael had told him of the high wall which he could see now enclosing the courtyard, and how Sister Catherine ran below him as he pretended he was a plane in flight. And just in case he should crash, she would be there to save him.
Jeffrey’s smile disappeared and the grim expression returned. Save him. That was the whole reason for this sudden nocturnal trip into Wiltshire, one he’d never supposed to make again.
He brought the car to a halt and the two brothers jumped out. Philip pulled at the cord of the bell at the side of the locked gate. After a minute it was opened by an elderly caretaker. They followed him to the double wooden doors of the immense convent. Presently a middle-aged sister cautiously opened them and bowed. “I’m Sister Margaret.”
Jeffrey inclined his head. “Sister, excuse this untimely intrusion, please. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Jeffrey Norwood and this is my brother, Philip Norwood.”
“We’ve been expecting you. Come in.” Jeffrey smiled with relief at Philip and they followed her into a dimly lit entrance hall. “Sit down, please.” She indicated several chairs near a statue of the Virgin. “I’ll tell the Holy Mother you’re arrived.” She lumbered across the bare hallway and knocked at a large, paneled door.
They were both aware of women’s high, pure voices singing from a little distance off. Philip turned around, straining to hear more. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
Jeffrey nodded. “The Holy Mother told me the sisters sing the Holy Office every morning. I asked her about it when I was here before. What a terrible waste that no one hears them.”
“To us, perhaps,” Philip mused, “but they’re singing for God. You can hear the fervency in their voices.”
Jeffrey was pensive. “To me a nun has always been a mystery. She hovers between being a half woman and a sexual non entity, if you know what I mean. I used to feel sorry for them. Remember when Father would take us to church in Hammersmith and how the sisters could be seen behind the grilled gate?
“I used to press my face against the bars and watch them as they walked in the garden. I couldn’t imagine a life like theirs. One in which one had no freedom to go where one wanted, to accomplish what had to be done. Now I sometimes wonder who is free and who is the prisoner.”
Philip nodded in quiet understanding. His brother had been in hell for the last year. The Holy Mother had to come through for him now. Philip could read Jeffrey’s mind. He knew it hadn’t really occurred to him that the Mother Superior might refuse his request. When Jeffrey wanted something, he went after it with zeal. If she denied his request, Philip didn’t want to think of the consequences.
“It’s a whole other world here,” Jeffrey continued. “You’d never guess a ghastly war was raging out there. Thank heaven for this sanctuary of refuge. I can’t forget that in the scheme of things, the sisters were here for Michael when he needed help.”
“Nor I. When you brought him home, the change in him was unbelievable. I’m very curious to meet this nun.”
“No more than I,” Jeffrey murmured, then stood up as Sister Margaret approached, indicating they could see the Holy Mother now.
The office was fairly large and the furnishings simple. The Holy Mother smiled from behind the desk and stood up. “Come closer, my sons.” They walked toward her and sat down.
“Holy Mother,” Jeffrey began, “allow me to introduce my brother, Philip Norwood.”
“How do you do, Sir. You look like your father, a fine man.”
“I’m pleased to meet you at last.”
Jeffrey was impatient to get on with matters. Philip could feel his unrest, but the Holy Mother had set the pace of the interview and it was best to let her lead.
She looked from one to the other with searching eyes. “About an hour ago we received a call from your manservant, indicating we could expect you some time this morning. Obviously this visit has something to do with little Michael,” she conjectured, and her brown eyes shone with compassion. She noted the commander had aged in the last month. There was a tightness about his eyes.
“Yes.” He stood and began pacing the floor, unable to contain his nervous energy. “Holy Mother,” he began, and leaned over her desk, his hands gripping the solid oak for support. “Michael is seriously ill in a hospital in Norwood. When I took him back home a month ago, he was perfectly well and happy. But two weeks ago he came down with the grippe and has gone downhill steadily. It has developed into pneumonia and he grows weaker every day.”
“What a tragedy, my son! We’ll say special prayers for him.”
“I’m afraid he needs even more than that. When he drove home with me, he began talking about a certain sister. At first I didn’t pay much attention. He was chattering incessantly about everything, and I had a hard time keeping up with him. But it became clear before we ever reached home that he’d formed a special attachment for one sister in particular. He refers to her as Sister Catherine.”
Philip saw how the woman blanched at the mention of Sister Catherine’s name. He also saw the veined hands clasp the crucifix suspended around her neck. He looked at Jeffrey, but his brother was deep in his own thoughts.
“She was the one responsible for his remarkable recovery, wasn’t she?”
“Yes,” the woman nodded, almost unwillingly Philip thought.
Jeffrey’s hands dug deep into his pockets and he straightened. “Michael has never stopped hoping, not for one second, that Sister Catherine would come to see him. She has become an obsession, Holy Mother. He loves her.”
The head nun stood up. Her five foot figure seemed bigger than life. “Mr. Norwood.” She smiled. “All the children who come here form attachments to the sisters. These are not ordinary times with the war on. We have over three hundred children to take care of here from all over England as well as the continent—victims of shock—like Michael. It’s a normal thing for them to find security among the convent dwellers.
“Michael was a more challenging child then most because of his deep withdrawal. Though Sister Catherine was most definitely the one responsible for the good done, many other sisters were instrumental in helping him recover from the loss of his mother.”
“But I’m not talking about a temporary attachment, Holy Mother. The love Michael feels for this sister is all consuming!”
Seeing her so perplexed, he turned to Philip. “Tell her about the night Elinore tried to get Michael to sleep.”
Philip cleared his throat. “The child is inconsolable without Sister Catherine. Several nights ago my wife tried to comfort him, without success. It was an evening none of us will forget. The boy obviously misses Sister Catherine much more than anyone has guessed.”
“He doesn’t even talk about his mother any more,” Jeffrey added in a low voice. “He adores this sister now, and since the illness he has called for her over and over again. At the hospital yesterday, he was delirious for a while and began talking to me as if I were she, crying hysterically. His world has caved in again without her. That’s why we’re here. If something isn’t done right away to make that boy secure, he’s not going to make it.”
“My son, this is shocking news, but what can I do?”
“Philip and I both feel that if Sister Catherine could be allowed to come back to Norwood and visit Michael in the hospital, it would be the medicine he needs to fight the infection. I honestly believe Michael has given up.”
Philip lowered his head when he heard his brother pleading.
“He doesn’t care if he lives or dies while the light of his life is here inside these cloistered walls. I’m begging you to allow this sister to go to him and make him well. I know he’ll recover if he can see her and talk to her again. He’s homesick for her. If you could hear the things he has told me. He’s even gone so far as to ask me why she can’t be his mother.”