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A gif. A picture of a figure on a cross surrounded by spotlights as an arm waves a flowing sheet in front of it.
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyApril 7, 2023

At Catholic girls’ schools, God is a woman

A gif. A picture of a figure on a cross surrounded by spotlights as an arm waves a flowing sheet in front of it.
Image: Tina Tiller

Every year just before Easter, the memory of a production of the Passion of Jesus Christ staged by 17 year-old girls rises from the dead.

A young woman strides across a darkened school hall in a pair of black Glassons bootleg pants, feet shod in Grizzly boat shoes. At age 12, a nun told her she had a resonant voice and she uses it in this instance to casually condemn Jesus Christ to death.

Jesus, with whom all Catholic school girls are on first name basis, is blonde and hanging from a cross wrapped in a sheet. The son of God and therefore God themselves according to Christian doctrine, is a young woman. She is also the deputy head girl and annoyingly good at tennis. The third member of the trio, the Holy Spirit, is appropriately hidden beneath some fabric and does not speak. 

Having been whipped 40 times via sound effect played on the school tape deck, Jesus will shortly give it up and head to the Grey Street McDonald’s for a last supper before term ends.

This memory is resurrected from the depths of a consciousness still soaked in cultural Catholicism every Easter. The striding bootlegged figure is me as a 17-year-old, a student at a Catholic girls high school in Hamilton. It is the late 90s and I have a bowl cut. I did not describe it as such at the time, but photos do not lie. The cut is appropriately Roman for the role of Pontius Pilate, the fifth governor of Judaea and one of the most morally compromised male figures in the bible. 

I have spent many days and nights lately wondering if this memory — me as Pontius Pilate and a cast of young women reenacting a short section of the Passion of Jesus Christ complete with fake crucifixion — is a fever dream. 

I frantically rummaged through plastic tubs in the garage on Tuesday night to try and find evidence of this event in the school year books. There are photos of a parabolic production involving a friend in a unitard as Kermit the Frog and pale faced “businessmen”. We had rubbed concealer on our lips to make sure the audience understood that if you sold wares in a modern-day temple, you would become ill. Incredibly, it’s not the Easter show I’m looking for, but another pseudo-religious performance. 

The photos of that year’s all-girl production of The Crucible are also there. Pilate wasn’t the only morally compromised man I played at age 17. My bowl cut and resonance were put to good use as Reverend John Hale. I remember cramming lines before opening night and now understand where a recurrent nightmare comes from. Unhelpfully, the lines I did not learn back then are able to be recalled incredibly well now. “There is blood on my head! Can you not see the blood on my head,” I wail at the dogs, defrosting their raw meat dinner in the microwave. They are unimpressed.

Despite all of this diligent documentation of the proud tradition of young women playing old men almost constantly throughout high school, no photos exist of bootleg Pilate or Blonde Jesus. Our reimagining of the Passion play at Easter seems to live on only in my mind. 

I messaged Blonde Jesus, first apologising for the random enquiry and then cutting straight to the chase: “Do you remember the time you were Jesus?” Unlike Peter, she denies me only once by first claiming she has no recollection. A few hours later, Blonde Jesus messages back. I’ve broken her as I did in character as Pilate at age 17 and she now remembers the sheet and the cross. “What the actual heck?” she writes. 

I cast the net wider. The old girls network awakens and screenshots of similar memories flood in, many of which can be categorised as graphic and somewhat traumatic. “I was hidden under a massive piece of black cloth and came out from under it doing some kind of interpretive dance,” recalls one person. “It had Trainspotting music,” someone wrote. “Strobe lights?” another queried.

The extraordinary freedom of expression we were given to make up whatever we liked about the holiest figures was granted to us by a predominantly female group of teachers. Not an eyebrow was raised at the prospect of turning the most sacred Christian story into an interpretive dance set to a Prodigy song. Nobody ever questioned whether it was odd for all of us to cosplay as men in the bible. Costuming by Glassons was wholly endorsed.  Part of me thinks I retain these memories because I think they’re subversive. Utterly batshit, yes, but in a school run by an institution that remains patriarchal and homophobic, they now read as an act of defiance.

I have tried many times to explain this Easter pageant to people who did not attend a Catholic school. They look at me as I imagine people looked at Jesus when he started saying he was the son of God. I’m unable to turn water into wine in front of them so they have no reason to believe I’m not a woman on the brink, moments away from tossing a desk and yelling “Not in my father’s house.” Like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I can only offer them my humble account. “Jesus was a blonde tennis player at Easter and in July, Kermit the frog.”

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