Fanny Allen - Biography - Conversion

Conversion

Allen was educated at Middlebury Seminary, and had an interest in science. She was not raised with a high regard for religion, and no consideration of religion was made in her education. Her father was a skeptic of organized religion in the same philosophical camp as Thomas Paine, and her step-father regarded the affectations of the religious people of his time and era as "pretentious".

In 1801, Penniman was appointed Collector of Customs for Vermont, at which time the family moved to Swanton. Four years later, when she was 21, Allen asked permission of her parents to go to Montreal. She stated that her intention was to continue her education by studying French, but her true motive was perhaps an intellectual curiosity about the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, even though she had never heard anything but disparaging vilifications of it. Her parents consented to sending her to Montreal, but first required her to be baptized by the Rev. Daniel Barber, an Anglican priest of Claremont, New Hampshire, and later to be a convert to Catholicism himself. Allen, who was strongly irreligious at the time, strongly objected, but consented in order to please her mother. However, she was scolded by the Barber for laughing during the entire ceremony.

She became a pupil of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame at Montreal in 1807. Allen would soon convert to Roman Catholicism, her conversion reportedly effected by a supernatural experience. The story goes that a nun asked Allen to place some flowers on the altar of the congregation's chapel, also asking that she make a prayer in recognition of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle. Allen smiled at the request, and had no intention of honoring it. When Allen attempted to step into the sanctuary, however, she supposedly found herself unable to do so, as if she were blocked by some invisible force. After three futile attempts, she was filled with conviction of the Real Presence, and fell upon her knees in adoration. She did not immediately inform her teachers of this event, however, but waited some time before making a confession and a formal rejection of her Protestantism.

Allen received instruction in the Catholic faith and was re-baptized by the Rev. L. Saulnier, a parish priest in Montreal, since it was determined that her earlier baptism was invalid due to a lack of proper disposition, namely her ability to properly assent to the sacrament. It was at the reception of her First Communion that she fixed upon the idea of entering the religious life as a nun.

Her conversion to Catholicism was regarded as remarkable in Vermont, an area in which the Catholic Church had scarcely any influence at that time in history. Her conversion was all the more remarkable for her decision to become to a nun as well. In reaction, her parents promptly withdrew her from the convent and attempted to distract her from the idea of religious life with lavish parties and handsome suitors. They even enlisted the help of a "High Church" Episcopalian acquaintance to attempt to convince her that the Episcopalian church would be a better match for her. All of these attempts at dissuading Allen had little effect, even prompting a friend of hers to remark, "It is astonishing how terribly in earnest Fanny is! She certainly believes in the Catholic religion with all her heart, though how a person with her extensive information and splendid talents can receive such absurdities is a puzzle to common sense!" Allen did, however, agree to her parents that she would wait a year before taking action, during which time she lived with them in Swanton.

As soon as that year ended, she returned to Montreal, but had not determined what religious congregation she wanted to join. When Allen visited the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal with her mother, she was immediately struck by a painting that was hanging above the altar of the chapel there. The image was a representation of the Holy Family. Allen, amazed, remarked to her mother that the image of Saint Joseph matched exactly the appearance of the man who had saved her from the river creature at the age of 12. "Oh great St. Joseph," she exclaimed, "it is indeed you, the foster father of Jesus, the husband of Mary, who came to save me from that monster, to preserve me from death that I might enjoy the benefit of knowing, loving, and serving my God. It is right here, mother, it is with the sisters of St. Joseph that I wish to spend the rest of my life."

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