I Wanted to Be a Nun. Here’s Why.

See more photographs and paintings from Mission Mexico HERE

Shockingly, when I was 10, I wanted to be a nun.

Perhaps that wasn’t so shocking, given my environment. I was raised Catholic by a devoutly Catholic mom, whom I adored but could never get close enough to; and by sixth grade, I was firmly ensconced in the Catholic doctrine at St. Bernadette’s school. There, I adored my teacher, Sister Patrick Mary, she of the white wimple, simple pale gray habit, plain face, wide mouth, warm smile.

Sister Patrick Mary taught us that we each had a vocation in life, and our choices boiled down to these three: be a single person; be a married parent; or be a nun, brother or priest. She emphasized that each was a valid choice. Perhaps because she was the role model I was closest to, I was certain that being a nun was my vocation.

“The flourishes of Catholicism offered sweet eye candy to a budding artist.”

Or perhaps it was just due to the continual Catholic doctrinal drilling, with daily Masses required at school, Sunday masses followed by catechism classes (required by my mother), weekly confessions required by my church, and the visual appeal of the religion. There was constant exposure to it: artfully-sculpted Stations of the Cross, lovely engraved lushly-illustrated holy cards, the tactile pleasure and visual appeal of the glittering rosary beads, my sweet little 24K gold cross necklace, my satiny-strapped decorative scapula, the smooth feel of the gold-accented pages in my missal, with its white embossed cover, the calligraphy flourishes and illuminated letters ornamenting each page, sunlight gushing through the church’s vividly-etched stained glass windows. All tempting to a child bored by repetitive Latin recitals of incomprehensible phrases, and sweet eye candy for a budding artist.

By eight grade, my Catholic schooling had ended. My mother concluded that her four children were missing too much of the academic preparation offered in public schools. I unhappily left behind Sister Patrick Mary, and the nest of comfort offered by my small Catholic school, to become a public school student. I became vain: I wanted a curly perm for my straight hair, I began to wear eye shadow with mascara, and best of all, I jettisoned my Catholic school daily uniform: the knee-length plaid skirt, white cotton shirt, grey wool blazer with its pocket insignia, the saddle shoes all went to Goodwill. We shopped for new outfits I could wear, one a day, enough for two weeks without repeating a one. Public school offered choice, and soon my choice of the Convent was forgotten.

“The artful elements of Catholicism have made their mark on me.”

My husband finds it hard to understand why my art is about mission churches, since I long ago abandoned Catholicism. By the time I reached college, I was sufficiently appalled by its restrictive, oppressive teachings and I’d left it far behind me. Or so I thought. In my creative practice today, in my paintings, photographs and calligraphy, the artful elements of Catholicism have made their mark on me. I travel to photograph and paint mission churches in the southwest United States and Mexico, sometimes researching them, always attracted by the rough, textural simplicity of their design elements. In my Mission Mexico series, I’m trying to understand the ambiguity of their origins, and my own drive to create art from the symbols of a religion I abandoned.

Art class painting by Jann Alexander © 2013
An 8th grade impression: Art class painting by Jann Alexander © 2013

After my parents had died, I was sorting through the mountains of cherished crafts and writings they’d proudly saved from their four children. I discovered a painting I’d made in art class, that first year I’d become a public school student, featuring a simple mission-style chapel, surrounded by mountains. I’d completely forgotten about it. But in that drawing, I saw where I was headed, without knowing it. ✥

Though this piece was inspired by the prompt, Ballerina Fireman Astronaut Movie Star, I am clearly none of these. You can see where I ended up through my creative passions—art, photography, writing, design—at my Art + Photo Shop.

What were your childhood inspirations?


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15 thoughts on “I Wanted to Be a Nun. Here’s Why.

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  1. OMG…I’m a recovering Catholic too. Catholic school from kinder through college! It was a good education, but the religious brainwashing was something else. I didn’t rebel until years later. And now, I am drawn to artists and photographers that concentrate on churches. Have you seen the photography here on WP of http://vialucispress.wordpress.com? Amazing photography of churches throughout France.
    I will be in Mexico, Riviera Maya, late November, and I’m already thinking that I want to concentrate on some of the churches in the area to photograph.


    1. Great to hear this, Angeline! Now we have two things in common–white wine and mission churches. I’ll take a look at the site you suggested. When I was in Yucatan, I used an excellent guide (and website) called “Yucatan Today,” to help me track down a number of former pyramids turned churches, along the “Convent Route.” Hope you have good luck there! Check out some of the churches I found in Mexico at my online gallery, Mission Mexico: http://austindetailsart.com/gallery/mission-mexico/


  2. I’m not surprised how your Catholic upbringing infiltrates part of your Muse in your paintings. I’m sure it’s even touched certain values forever. I see it in my partner who abandoned Catholicism in his teens.

    I’m not a believer/religious but appreciate the aesthetics of churches, stained glass window art, paintings and sculptures. Of course, the Church’s powerful influence on literature etc.

    I enjoyed New Mexico when we spent 10 days there. There is nothing comparable in Spanish – Navajo/Hopi Indian culture in Canada.


  3. I was raised Protestant, but I’m fascinated by history and culture of The Church. Without it, we wouldn’t have Bach or the Sistine Chapel or Chartres Cathedral. Nice post.


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