For many years the secret doings of the convent have been known only to a select few, leaving the rest of us to ponder what strange and wonderful things might go on behind those walls. Can we really believe the picture painted by such movies as Sister Act, Sister Act 2 and... oh... some other ones with nuns in them? Or is there something more sinister going on? The Sound of Music - that's got nuns in it, hasn't it? Anyway, it's easy to imagine something weird and unusual taking place - something that might perhaps involve armies of genetically engineered clones, alien time travel technology and stolen military sonic weaponry. Can such fears be warranted?
Well no, of course not. That would be fricking nuts. Nevertheless, the truth is no less extraordinary (well, actually it is considerably less extraordinary, but it's still mildly interesting). Architect Roger Gimp has spent the best part of his life designing and building convents for the Catholic Church. Now retired, he has finally broken a lifetime of silence to explain that convents are nothing more or less than highly efficient nun factories.
Like myself, you were probably under the impression that nuns grew on trees, but you are sadly mistaken. I know - it came as a bit of a shock to me, as well. It turns out that for many years - possibly longer - nuns have been manufactured by the church to specifications that were first laid down by St Paul in his letter to the West Lothians.
Nun production traditionally passed through several distinct phases. First, the raw materials were melted in giant ecclesiastical furnaces and then poured into earthenware moulds. After five days, these moulds would be broken open and the rough, unfinished forms would emerge. These would then be turned on lathes and hand finished by highly skilled deacons. Finally, the completed nun would be sent to the local bishop, who would personally bless each one and draw on a smiley face in crayon.
The process was not without its drawbacks and many nuns left the workshop with serious flaws. Some of them didn't even make it out of the front gates before they fell apart at the seams. Others went berserk, started talking backwards or simply exploded on the launch ramp. Even those that didn't suffer from severe defects would rarely ever live to a ripe old age. The average life expectancy of a nun in the middle ages was just four months, due mainly to a combination of rising damp, sunspot activity and 'nunfever' - a particularly virulent disease that wasn't finally wiped out until last Wednesday. Add to this mix a hostile and ignorant public that would lynch a nun as soon as look at her, and you begin to see the problems that those early manufacturers encountered. There was a constant demand for new nuns - a demand that established methods of production simply couldn't handle.
The industrial revolution was to change all that. Prior to mechanisation a convent had just been a place to store nuns when they weren't being used, but the new buildings became much much more. They were places were nuns could be serviced and repaired. More importantly, the introduction of new technologies such as steam power meant that convents were capable of mass-producing nuns at a rate previously unknown. In fact, they were so effective that for the first time in history there was a nun surplus, which led to problems of overcrowding. Many were turned loose to fend for themselves in the wild, displacing populations of native woodland creatures such as the red squirrel. The government was eventually forced to introduce measures to control their numbers, including hunting with dogs, the use of pesticides and aerial bombing from zeppelins. They also initiated the Nun Tax to act as a disincentive to production, but it was still many years before numbers were down to manageable levels.
But nun quantity is only one consideration - quality control has always been of equal concern. Regulations state that a nun must be sufficiently holy to carry out her duties - a measurement generally referred to as her 'God Quotient' or 'GQ'. This value is determined by a number of different factors, chief amongst them being environment, education and wind speed. However, the most fundamental determinant is the quality of the raw materials from which she is fashioned.
Nuns are made from a varied mix of raw materials, including granite, saltpetre, aromatic spices and a special ingredient known only to the Pope, but which many people believe to be some sort of mayonnaise. These ingredients must be of the highest quality, as any impurities affect the GQ. In fact, in former times it was not uncommon for the GQ to register as a minus figure, meaning that the nuns were technically evil. Instead of going out into the community to perform charitable works for the poor and needy, these bad nuns roamed the countryside causing mayhem and eating babies, until they were finally cornered and stabbed to death with sticks, or walled up in cellars.
It wasn't until the 1950s that the evil nun problem was finally resolved. Step forward Roger Gimp, a young ambitious engineer who at the tender age of twenty-three had already made something of a name for himself by designing a revolutionary new process of lard purification. Thanks to his efforts, evil lard had been almost completely eradicated, and the process was already making serious inroads into the problem of delinquent margarine. As most people will remember from the basic chemistry they learnt at school, lard has almost identical properties to nuns, so it was only natural that the church should approach Gimp with their little problem.
Gimp was not a devout man and was initially reluctant to take the commission. As a young boy he had been frightened by a curate who had leapt out of a bush as he was on his way home from school, and so he was not unnaturally suspicious of religious types. Hymnbooks always made him sneeze and cassocks brought him out in a rash. Nevertheless, after being offered a fat pile of cash, he shut himself up in his garage and got to work. When he emerged six months later - older, wiser and considerably paler - he was confident that he finally had evil nuns licked.
The result is the modern nunnery we see today: efficient, economical and over eighty percent more holy than the dark satanic convents of old. Today's nuns are considerably less dangerous and troublesome than their forerunners, and people are far less inclined to beat their brains in with rocks when they see them walking down the street. So let's take a moment to celebrate the work of Roger Gimp, for it is thanks to his sterling efforts that modern nuns are sedate and harmless creatures, like the ones we see in Nuns on the Run and all those other films with nuns in. Thanks Roger.
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