Chapter 6 illuminates the relationship between lay Catholic women and priests. This chapter demonstrates that the relationship between priests and women was one of both closeness and conflict. Interactions between women and priests were complex, often defined by struggles for power and influence. Priests and lay women denounced each other at mass; meanwhile, women used oral traditions and legends in rural areas to poke fun at their priests and undermine clerical authority. By writing letters to bishops and priests in which they complained about their own parish priests’ behaviour, literate women used their words to challenge the authority of the priest.
This chapter analyses some of the issues surrounding the identity of women religious and their authority and governance. It examines the source and nature of the authority that congregations and women religious wielded in the public sphere. Almost three-quarters of the simple-vowed congregations that made foundations in England in the nineteenth century were pontifical rite. Susan O'Brien hailed this papal form of government an 'important innovation' as it allowed a female superior general to receive her authority directly from Rome. Many bishops supported the authority of women religious to manage their congregations. In some narratives, it is the collaboration of bishops and mother superiors that resounds through the texts. Women religious, however, faced with intransigent bishops or clergy, used the tools at their disposal to manage episcopal and clerical authority.
The Catholic Truth Society published many histories of women religious and religious institutes in the nineteenth century. This chapter examines the expansion of these religious institutes, paying special attention to the growth of simple-vowed congregations in England. Monasticism survived after the Reformation in England but evolved in a unique manner owing to Henry VIII's formation of the Ecclesia Anglicana with himself at its head. The growth of the numbers of women entering religious life in England was influenced by a variety of factors, but one was pivotal: women were attracted to religious life. As Susan O'Brien has established, the initial migration of women's orders from the continent marks the beginning of a new phase in the history of religious life in Britain. The next phase of religious life in England began in 1830, with the arrival of the first of the 'modern orders', the Faithful Companions of Jesus.
Katie Cannon's famous work Black Womanist Ethics begins with arguments aimed at establishing the existence of a 'Black woman's literary tradition' and the cultural specificity of black women's writing. This chapter traces a trajectory away from representing women's literature as 'everywoman' in cultural form towards a recognition that literature may embody rather the specific, the located and the particular. The work of Kathleen Sands carries the engagement of feminist theology with women's writing into a new epoch in which a cautious engagement with critical theory is brought into dialogue with the liberative traditions of religious feminism. Sands outlines how Christian theology has sought to protect itself from knowledge of evil using two main strategies. She terms these the 'rationalist' and 'dualist' responses. Sands approves her adoption of a Foucauldian analysis which rejects alien moral absolutes and which locates knowledge and power in the discursive activities of dominating or subjugated groups.
This chapter examines how the family metaphor was utilised by women's congregations and adjusted to mould the behaviour and attitudes of women religious. The family metaphor was useful and perhaps even lived in some convents, but as congregations grew, the more useful tool used to assimilate a disparate group of women was a corporate identity. As missionary entities, women's congregations expanded from their origins on the continent and in England and Ireland, to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa. Particular friendships were discouraged because congregation leaders believed they could presage the denouement of religious life on an individual and, more detrimentally, a corporate level. Although particular friendships were taboo, camaraderie and merriment did have their place in the convent. The pattern of convent expansion suggests that there was limited competition with regard to convent locations as the needs of Catholics in England were so great.
Convent documents such as necrologies and biographies reinforced the standard tenets of nineteenth-century femininity by highlighting the obedience and piety of women even when faced with family opposition to their entering religious life. These two discourses, the Protestant one that argued that women entered religious life under duress and the Catholic discourse of a 'higher calling', had one thing in common: both dismissed the agency of women entering religious life. The chapter questions these discourses and examines women's agency in 'choosing' religious life. The role of the clergy was particularly important in the early years of a congregation's existence, before educational institutions and kinship relationships began to play such an important role in introducing women to religious life. Religious institutions were stamped with the congregation's special spirit of evangelisation and were essential for the growth of Catholic missions in England.
This chapter considers the relationship among class, ethnicity and identity in nineteenth-century religious congregations by first examining the social status and the national origins of religious institutes. Some of the native English congregations offered a model of religious life that differed from that existing in French, Belgian or Irish congergations founded in England. The chapter examines the social composition of select congregations and congregation leadership to discern further nuances to the relationship between class, ethnicity and leadership. Women from the English gentry and aristocracy did enter active, simple-vowed congregations, but preferred French, Belgian or Irish congregations rather than native English congregations. Among those women who were professed as Faithful Companions of Jesus, there was also a slightly higher proportion of Irish-born lay sisters than in the convent population. Fifty-five per cent of the lay sisters were Irish-born but only forty-eight per cent of the population was Irish.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book argues that religious belief provided nineteenth-century Catholic women religious with the tools to transcend the normative boundaries of femininity and to redefine the parameters of womanhood. It looks at the developing identities of women entering religious life. Women's religious congregations in England, as in other parts of the world, entered a period of dramatic growth in the nineteenth century. The book explores various identities of women religious in order to bring to the forefront the lives of women who established and managed significant Catholic educational, health care and social welfare institutions in England. It shows how religious activism shaped the identity of active, simple-vowed Catholic women religious. The book develops the working identities of women religious.
Roman Catholic women's congregations are an enigma of nineteenth century social history. Over 10,000 women, establishing and managing significant Catholic educational, health care and social welfare institutions in England and Wales, have virtually disappeared from history. In nineteenth-century England, representations of women religious were ambiguous and contested from both within and without the convent. This book places women religious in the centre of nineteenth-century social history and reveals how religious activism shaped the identity of Catholic women religious. It is devoted to evolution of religious life and the early monastic life of the women. Catholic women were not pushed into becoming women religious. On the basis of their available options, they chose a path that best suited their personal, spiritual, economic and vocational needs. The postulancy and novitiate period formed a rite of passage that tested the vocation of each aspirant. The book explores the religious activism of women religious through their missionary identity and professional identity. The labour of these women was linked to their role as evangelisers. The book deals with the development of a congregation's corporate identity which brought together a disparate group of women under the banner of religious life. It looks specifically at class and ethnicity and the women who entered religious life, and identifies the source of authority for the congregation and the individual sister.
The efforts of women religious in encouraging religious practice and devotions were essential in the battle against 'leakage', and women's congregations had an important role in the work of salvation of nineteenth-century England and Wales. Women's Catholic congregations often concentrated their efforts on women and children. The medium used most often by women's congregations to evangelise the Catholic family was education, although their efforts in health care and social welfare also aimed to place the Catholic faith at the heart of the family unit. This chapter examines women religious as religious activists and links the services they performed to their religious identity. The missionary identity of women religious was a facet of their religious identity: they were active in both domestic and international missionary work. The chapter also examines their missionary identity as missionaries in England, the home mission field.