My first real experience with nuns was well before my Catholic school days began back in Yonkers, New York.
Our parish, Christ the King, had any number of small charities that it undertook. One of those was at Rosary Hill, the home for terminally ill cancer patients founded by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of the celebrated American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
A convert, Rose became Sister Alphonsa of the Dominican Sisters and she and her fellow sisters served destitute cancer patients.
The rules at Rosary Hill were simple: the sister could never show discomfort at the disfigurement brought about by cancer; their patients could not be used for medical research; and no money would be accepted for their care.
Christ the King parish contributed bandages for the patients the sisters served, and I got to ride along with the Old Man when he made deliveries to Rosary Hill of the parishioners' handiwork.
It was at Rosary Hill that I saw a man ''puffing'' on a cigar that he inserted through a hole in his throat as one of the sisters took care of him.
I also remember that the sisters seemed to think that a little boy accompanying his Old Man to Rosary Hill was quite a treat. They asked me if I was a good boy and attentive at holy Mass. I lied, of course.
I've gained a lot of respect for sisters since those early years. And I'm sick of the image of nuns and their garb being used for laughs.
I guess the straw that broke the camel's back happened when two women dressed as nuns sat behind me at a football game and got sloppily spiffed while spewing out a litany of sexual double entendres. Or maybe it was the three male bozos at a local charity event dressed as nuns and belting out tunes from ''The Sound of Music.''
I'd like to add that I'm not talking about characters portraying nuns in theater or movies. I'd like to add that, but I won't. Because 90 percent of the time it's being done to get cheap laughs because the talent involved isn't creative enough to write a good line. Almost uniformly, the goal of the nun's habit is to make fun of the image of sisters and sisters themselves.
I'm for getting rid of it all. No exceptions. We don't make exceptions for white comics in black face or Little Black Sambo cartoons. We shouldn't have to make exceptions for nun costumes.
They were hot items this past Halloween. Not only was it the usual stuff -- faux habits worn for laughs -- but there were some special treats as well. At stores owned by Spencer Gifts, you could get a ''Fallen Angel'' habit. This was a nun's garb tailored to be sexy. Or, you could get the ''Thank You, Father!'' nun's habit -- where you could attend your Halloween party dressed as a very pregnant sister.
When asked if these might be considered offensive, the manager at the local store replied that they were all in fun. And some of his best friends are Catholic. And he knows a priest personally. So it goes.
Spencer Gifts are omnipresent in malls, specializing in all things scatological, as well as dribble cups, posters and lava lamps. Halloween costumes of nuns are a seasonal offering.
Like the day when donning black face was finally discarded to the dustbin of a racist past, it is my fervent wish that wearing faux nun habits for laughs will be similarly marginalized. It's ugly, it's anti-Catholic, it's offensive and it's insulting to the hundreds of thousands of nuns who unselfishly served not just Catholics, but anyone anywhere.
Including a guy who smoked cigars through a hole in his throat.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.