Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we interview 2017-18 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink recently spoke with Mary Frances Coady, who spent September and October 2017 at the Collegeville Institute as a short-term Resident Scholar. Frances Coady is the author of numerous books and teaches professional communication at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project, which you titled in your application, “The Practice of Perfection.” I see you have a 2009 book of short stories with this same title. Is this a revision or extension of that book?
The book of short stories you refer to is called The Practice of Perfection and is the first book published in what I am calling a “quintet” of fictional works. The second, Holy Rule, was published in 2016. The others are in various stages of the writing-and-publishing process.
The fictional universe for the most part is a convent and a girls’ school called St. Monica’s, and some of the characters reappear from one book to another. I’ve just finished a novel, so far untitled, that moves into the mid-1960s. I’m currently working on the life story of a very old nun who is born in the late 19th century, and rounding out the “quintet.” There’s a collection of short fiction that I am also working on, most of it featuring some of the characters in the other books that particularly interest me.
How did you come to write about nuns? Why did you choose to set the book in 1959, which was more or less the height—and precipice, one might say—of religious life?
My fiction ranges from the early 20th century to the 1970s. The 1950s and 1960s are dramatic because of the rapid changes in society that took place in just a few years. The changes were especially rapid in the Roman Catholic Church, and within the Church, none more so than in communities of nuns.
What do you think about other books of fiction, or drama and films, about religious women?
Of the ones that come to mind, most treat nuns as stock characters (she-demons, sweet and simple little-girl types, over-the-top caricatures). There are a few notable exceptions. The play and film Doubt treated nuns seriously. The novel In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, based on the lives of the Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in England, is rightfully considered a classic. A very recent novel, The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, deals intelligently with nursing nuns in the early twentieth century.
You have written two biographies of mystics Georges and Pauline Vanier. What is it that you find inspiring about their spiritual quest?
They were part of a very long spiritual tradition, the Christian mystical tradition. They were also prominent in Canadian public life, and through it all their spiritual life only deepened, in spite of worries, fears, and the other normal problems that beset most people. After her husband’s death, Pauline joined their son Jean in the community called L’Arche, which he founded for intellectually disabled adults, in France. To my mind, that move of hers in the early 1970s marked in a deeply symbolic way–though not without frustration and uncertainty–the concrete living-out of the couple’s combined life of Christian service.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
I’ve just finished Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, and I’m now reading Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.
Did you find inspiration at the Collegeville Institute?
At Collegeville, I liked the sense of community among the scholars as well as the proximity to Saint John’s Monastery and University. I particularly liked having the opportunity to participate in the monks’ liturgical prayer.