Jobs I Have Loathed II: The Convent Switchboard

switchboardWhen I started my studies at Mount Mary College in the Fall of 1976, I was so grateful to be back in an academic environment that I could have kissed the ground beneath the Arches. My summer job at Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company had paid very well, but the best benefit I received was a fervent and unswerving gratitude for the privilege of being back in school.

My parents expected the Maloney children to contribute half the cost of our college tuition, and my industrious siblings had never failed to do so, working at all manner of hellish jobs in order to meet this obligation. (In those days, a well-paying summer job provided more than enough money to pay half of a college tuition bill; when I began my studies, tuition at Mount Mary College was 1,495.00 per year. Marquette University, where my brothers went, charged 3, 490.00 per year.) Because my summer job had paid well, I had enough money for my first year of college, but I knew that I would need another job to pay for the three years to follow.

When we were in school, my parents considered school to be our job, and we were discouraged from taking on other jobs during the school year, which was fine with me. Work-study jobs were an exception; perhaps because they were on-campus and sometimes even related to school work, we were allowed to apply for work-study.

I chose to do so. I loved being at Mount Mary and so I figured that any job I would get there would be better than a job in another dreaded insurance office. Work-study pay tended to be generous, since the money was coming back in the form of tuition anyway, and the recipients of that money were already members of the community. My plan was to work steadily throughout the year at my work-study job at Mount Mary and bypass altogether the horrors of the summer job that no doubt awaited me otherwise.

I applied and was accepted; my assignment was to man the main switchboard–the central locus of communication for both the College and the Convent. (The School Sisters of Notre Dame, who owned and operated Mount Mary College, also lived on campus, in the convent.) I was in charge of answering both inside and outside calls, routing all calls to the proper recipient. One buzz from the console meant “outside call,” and I would plug in the proper cable and say in my most musical voice, “Good Morning, Mount Mary College, how may I direct your call?” Two buzzes and I would plug in and say “Switchboard.”

The best thing about my new job was that the nuns didn’t mind if we read during the slow times. I was always willing to take the early morning shift on Switchboard, because that meant fewer calls (often, the College was closed during those early hours and so I was fielding calls only for and between the nuns, who weren’t heavily into phone chat). Fewer calls meant that I was basically being paid to read novels and even sometimes for doing my reading for class. In my early days on Switchboard, I spent a good bit of time congratulating myself for my excellent job-finding skills.

sb4As the first few months passed, I got better at managing the board. It’s hard to picture now in the days of smartphones and wireless technology, but an old-fashioned switchboard is an an intimidating thing to behold. The Switchboard was a sizeable box covered with holes into which cables were plugged in order to receive calls. The machine would buzz, and my task was to grab a cable, plug it into the proper opening, and speak into my headset. Once the caller identified his need, I then pulled his cable out of the hole it was in and plugged it into the hole he wanted—for example, the business office, the library, or the dining room. If the call was a personal call for one of the nuns, I had to hold the caller in his spot while I “rang for” the desired nun.

There were a lot of nuns in that convent at Mount Mary College, and each nun was identified by a system of bells. If the caller asked, for example, for Sr. Georgeann, I had to ring Sr. Georgann’s bell code, which was 1-2-2-1. Throughout the halls of Mount Mary the bells rang “bong/bong-bong/bong-bong/bong.” Whenever the bells rang, every nun pretty much stopped dead in her tracks to listen for her code. Once Sr. Georgeann, for example, verified that yes, that was her bell, she then had to find a phone, pick it up and call the switchboard. Once I answered and heard a breathless voice say, “This is Sr. Georgeann,” I would pull her caller’s cable and plug him into the phone from which Sr. Georgeann was calling. Multiply this activity by the seventy or so nuns at Mount Mary, add the typical number of outside calls to the College, and the Switchboard could be a very busy place.

Keeping all those cables straight and plugging people into the right ones was an art, but especially important was the learned ability to answer every call quickly, routing and connecting calls calmly even if the number of callers on “hold” was escalating fast .  After a few months working the quiet morning shifts, I had more or less mastered the intricate system, and had settled in happily with this job. Then I got promoted. The students who had been handling the Board during the busy afternoon hours were making mistakes, and the nuns were missing calls. It was time for a shakeup, and I was first choice to take on the busy shift. My reading-on-the-job morning shifts were apparently over.

Switchboard at the busy times combined the stress of rush hour with the technology of a 1940’s era television set. Toss in a few nuns who had just been cut off from their much-awaited phone call from home, some outside callers who insisted that they wanted to speak with the head of the archeology department (Mount Mary had no archeology department), and you have a recipe for steady panic, flop sweats and disaster. Several moments from that time stand out for me.

nuns1One afternoon, a bevy of nuns visiting from the Mankato, Minnesota Motherhouse landed at Mitchell Field, the main airport serving Milwaukee. Their leader phoned Mount Mary (from a pay phone in a public phone booth) for directions to our campus; her call was answered by me. I have such a poor sense of direction that I have been known to get lost going from one building to the next, and when I took my Driver’s License Exam, I had to put a big blue ring on my left hand so that when the Instructor said, “Turn left,” I would know which way to go.

Yet I was the woman in whose hands rested the fate of these unfortunate travelling nuns. When I realized that I was being asked for directions to Mount Mary, I pleasantly said to the Lead Nun, “Please Hold,” and immediately plugged a cable into an outside line so that I could call my mother. When she answered I gasped, “Mom! A bunch of nuns need to get from the Airport to Mount Mary. What do I tell them?” My indefatigable mother told me to take out a piece of paper and write down everything she told me, which I did. I hung up on my mother and plugged back into the Travelling Nuns. “Hello, Sisters, here is what you do,” I said calmly, and told them everything my mother had just told me. Grateful, the Lead Nun chirped, “See you soon!” and hung up just as an outside call buzzed in. “Good afternoon, Mount Mary College,” I pattered smoothly. “OH MY GOD,” I heard my mother gasp, “I should have told you to take I-94 West, not I-94 East! Get back on the horn with those nuns and turn them around!” “MOM!” I yelled back. “They hung up! They’re on their way! Where are they going to end up?” Silence. Then, my mother’s voice, deliberately calm. “Well, either Lake Michigan or Chicago.”

This was not good news. I had no way to contact the nuns once they hung up, and so my only recourse was to pray that they stopped to ask more questions prior to entering either the lake or Chicago. I prayed that my shift would be long over when the wandering nuns hit the proverbial fan. I was, in fact, off duty when those bedraggled nuns eventually found their way to Mount Mary, three and half hours later (the trip should have taken about 30 minutes). I never asked any questions about their adventure, figuring that my best strategy was to lay low and hope it all seemed funny to them by the end of their stay. If it did, I never heard about it.

There were several such anxious moments at the Switchboard during peak hours. As I continued to work the busy shifts, I discovered that fast thinking in stressful situations wasn’t necessarily my strong suit. I developed a habit of unplugging from particularly unfriendly callers—calls in which I was required to be ever-pleasant and ready to apologize my very existence if need be—and letting off some steam by saying what I really had felt like saying all along. This practice was helpfully cathartic, until the day I unplugged a rather nasty call from Sr. John Ignace in the Business Office and said in my quietest and most deadly voice, “You can go straight to Hell, Sr. John Ignace,” only to realize that I hadn’t completely unplugged the call. Sr. John Ignace was not amused. Early morning and late night shifts were suddenly more available to me after that.

I had not worked many night shifts when I started on Switchboard, but right before the Christmas Holidays, they started to show up on my schedule. The night shifts ran from 5 p.m. to midnight, and since nuns were not known for their late-night partying, the switchboard got very quiet every night by about 9 p.m. When calls did come in for the nuns, especially around Christmas time, it was essential to connect the caller with the nun. The sisters longed for those phone calls from family, and stopped with every bell that rang to listen for their code. To miss such a call was unthinkable, and I took this responsibility very seriously. Some girls on the Board would ring a sister’s bell once or maybe twice, then give up. I was always willing to keep that caller on the line as long as I could in hopes of finding the desired sister. My reward consisted in those times when a breathless sister picked up a phone after her bell code had rung four or five times, so grateful I had held on while she got out of the bathtub or back from the chapel. I liked working the nights.

That changed the week that Mount Mary College’s President at the time, Sr. Mary Nora, returned from a trip. Sister Mary Nora was a large woman, and for reasons mysterious to all of the students, she was confined to a wheelchair. Whereas the majority of the sisters at Mount Mary College were rather heroically kind and patient, Sr. Mary Nora was not known for her patience or her humility. When she attended Mass in the Chapel at Mount Mary, she always sat in the back because of her wheelchair, but when time came for communion, it was very important to her that she be the first to receive. Most of the students knew to hang back from the communion line until Sr. Mary Nora had whizzed up the center aisle to receive, but once in a while, some poor soul who hadn’t received the memo would step into the communion line before Sr. Mary Nora had received. It was not unheard of that such a person could be physically pushed off her feet by the whizzing wheelchair of Sr. Mary Nora; it was not a mistake that anyone made twice.

I don’t know what Sr. Mary Nora’s personal struggles were, and I was young at the time and inclined toward the absolute sorts of judgments that the young are liable to make. But Sr. Mary Nora did not like me, and I did not like her. By the time I started handling the night shift on Switchboard, we had encountered each other a few times already.

Our first encounter occurred in my first months at Mount Mary; one of the sisters had become a good friend to both my older sister and my father. A dear woman with a good soul, she had discussed with my family the sad state of Mount Mary’s current fundraising initiative. Listening to this discussion, it occurred to me that Marquette University, the bigger University across the city from Mount Mary, never had any trouble raising funds. Mount Mary was a college for women, and I surmised that one of its main obstacles when raising money was the fact that women control a lot less of the money supply in our culture. This seemed deeply unfair to me, and already a bit in love with my College, I decided to right this injustice by writing an editorial for the Milwaukee Journal, castigating my fellow citizens for not doing more to support the education of women.

Sr. Mary Nora was not pleased. In fact, she was enraged. Convinced that the editorial would actually damage the College’s prospects (as it turned out, an incorrect assumption), she summoned me to her office for a personal inquisition. More than anything, Sr. Mary Nora wanted the name of my source. Who had “spilled the beans” to me about the lackadaisical status of the capital campaign? There was no way I was going to tell her who my source was; that poor dear nun would have had her head served to her on a plate. Despite every bullying tactic she could think of, Sr. Mary Nora was unable to get the name out of me, but she never forgot me after that. When the College hosted an annual dinner for the main donors, each class sent as its representative the student with the best grade point average for the year. I was that person in my year, but the number two girl was invited instead. Sr. Mary Nora made sure that I knew the reason: I wasn’t “a suitable representative” of Mount Mary College.

Thus it was that when I was the night girl on switchboard and Sr. Mary Nora returned from her latest trip, I was surprised to be summoned by Sister Herself that first night. I heard her wheelchair whizz up to the steps just outside the Switchboard Office, and then I heard her distinctive voice: “Girl? Girl?” Gingerly, I removed my headset and crept around the desk, poking my head out the door to see Sr. Mary Nora sitting there in her wheelchair. When she saw me, she frowned and said, “Oh. You.” I raised an eyebrow, wondering what on earth she wanted and why she hadn’t simply called the Switchboard rather than go to all the trouble of wheeling over.

I found out right away what the reason was. It was bedtime for Sr. Mary Nora, and she needed to get her nylon stockings off. That, apparently, was my job. When Sr. Mary Nora told me to roll her stockings down from her thighs, over her pudgy knees and over her blue-veined feet, my first thought was, “She is joking.” Of course, she was not joking, and looking back over the years, I can’t think that this was any more pleasant an experience for her than it was for me. I did as I was told, and I remember being shocked more than anything by the fact that Sr. Mary Nora didn’t shave her legs. Once the task was accomplished she turned her chair and whizzed away, without even a “thank you.” I slowly walked back to my desk and thought to myself, “Whoa. This was NOT in the job description.” I didn’t want to have to take off Sr. Mary Nora’s stockings again, ever. I had no idea who to talk to about this, but supposed my complaint would have to go to Sr. Gertrude Mary, a sweet but somewhat dotty nun who was putatively in charge of the girls who worked the Switchboard. I didn’t want to go to her, though, because I didn’t want to have to explain to sweet Sr. Gertrude Mary that I didn’t want to undress nuns, and didn’t think it fit my job description. Even though Sr. Gertrude Mary was about 55 years old, and I was 18, I felt as if she was too young somehow for this information.

Two days later, I reported for work at the Switchboard; it was a Monday and it was the afternoon, so I knew that there would be no “disrobing assistance” calls from Sr. Mary Nora. This was a considerable relief to me, as I still hadn’t decided what to do about my situation. Possibly because I was distracted that day, I dropped several calls and caused more than my share of trouble in so doing. Toward the end of my shift, a personal call came in for Sr. Joselma, an unpleasant nun who received very few personal phone calls. Years after I graduated from Mount Mary, I found out that Sr. Joselma came from a very big family in Wisconsin; they lived on a farm and Sr. Joselma was considered unmarriageable. (She was not an attractive woman, in that she resembled a toad.) Her parents sent her to the Sisters as a way to get rid of her. Of course, I didn’t know any of this that day at the Switchboard; I knew only that Sr. Joselma was an unpleasant woman with a hair-trigger temper.

Sister received a personal call that day, and I lost the call. I not only lost the call; I failed to get the name of the caller. Understandably, this was a huge disappointment to Sr. Joselma, and she was very angry with me. I heard a great deal from her about her anger, and in fact she threatened to make sure I lost my job on Switchboard altogether. Now, what with losing nuns in transit, being called upon to remove nylons from hairy-legged nun, and being in general under-appreciated (in my opinion, of course), I was feeling fairly fed up with the job. The alternative, however—losing work study meant being thrown again into the gulag Summer Job Experience—was worse. I ended my shift that day with Sr. Joselma’s threat ringing in my ears, and sorrowfully began my walk home through the cold winter twilight.

Head down and forlorn, I stepped into the busy intersection of Center Street and Swan Boulevard. Just as I stepped out into the street, a man turning right was momentarily blinded by the sun’s glare on the frost crusting his windshield, and his sizeable sedan hit me full-on.  Literally thrown out of my shoes, my body sailed a few feet and landed, shoeless and with an impressive thump that knocked my breath out.

Unable to catch my breath, I was pretty sure I had been killed, and desperately tried to say the Act of Contrition, a “clear the decks” prayer you want to say before the Particular Judgment—basically, a “Boy Am I Ever Sorry” prayer before meeting up with God. Not only could I not breathe, however; the only prayer I could remember was our family’s grace before meals, which hardly seemed suitable. This rumination all took place in a real time miasma of black panic, as I was sure I was actually dying right then.

ambulanceWhen the crash happened, I must have made quite a noise, first hitting the car and then hitting the pavement, because people ran out from their houses and businesses on the street and started yelling a lot. Someone threw a blanket on me and somewhere in there I got my breath back, which turned out to mean (a) I was not going to die right then and (b) I was in a great deal of pain. There there were sirens, and an ambulance, and a trip to the hospital that I barely remember. I was very much alive, but I had a rather seriously banged up leg, and would need bedrest, then a leg brace for several months, and rehab for my knee.

There was no way I could fit my now heavily braced leg behind the desk of the Mount Mary Switchboard. The driver of the car that hit me was distraught, and owned up immediately to being at fault. My brother, by then an attorney, talked to his insurance company and retro_vintage_black_white_happy_money_woman_poster-r0522e118a05e4a0a8a8bd5109523a6c0_we1qq_8byvr_512they eventually offered a settlement. In order to assess lost wages, my brother had to call Sr. Gertrude Mary and ask for an estimate of those wages. Dear Sr. Gertrude Mary made a very generous estimate of how many hours I would have worked—especially considering that Sr. Joselma wanted me summarily fired that very day—and the money from that accident paid my share of my entire second and third year tuition at Mount Mary College. My knee hurt a lot, the brace was uncomfortable, and rehab was no fun at all, but I was nonetheless pretty happy about the way things turned out. Getting hit by a car was more fun than any job I had ever had, and a leg brace was a small price to pay for getting at least two of my summers back.


4 thoughts on “Jobs I Have Loathed II: The Convent Switchboard

  1. Hi, I have loved reading your “Saintly” blog. Mel and Marbeth are friends of mine, Mel was the best man at our wedding. Being a graduate of MMC this report was especially interesting. The names of the nuns mentioned brought chills to my bones. You wrote about them SO correctly. Thank you for making me laugh with my diet coke, first thing in the morning. Keep them coming!!!!!

    Mary and Mike Quinn


    1. Thank you so much for this! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear that someone has read my blog and is enjoying it. Often when I am writing, I think, “Oh, no one is going to be interested in my silly anecdotes.” So hearing that you can relate really inspires me. Thanks for taking the time to tell me this. It means a lot to me!


  2. Anne:

    I read this while Karen was getting ready to head to the airport. She heard me laughing hysterically and wanted to hear the tale. I recounted your story from memory as I drove her, and she laughed so hard it brought tears to her eyes. Nice job!



    1. This comment just absolutely made my day. Thank you! I am eager to get back to writing in the blog; things at my Real Job are a bit crazy right now, but I have every intention of getting back to the blog once June arrives. Comments such as this one are what keep me writing. Truly. So thank you again!


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