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.
Typically, the impediments were scrupulously used to screen postulants, but
exceptions were made in certain circumstances.
Forming a novice
especially if the candidate was not known to the congregation.10 The final
step, an interview with the local superior or novicemistress, was critical; she
determined whether the candidate might have the requisite attributes for
religious life and allowed her to enter the congregation as a postulant or
dismissed her as having ‘no vocation’.
Once the candidate was past these hurdles, the real testing began. The
edited volume The Education of the Novice , a collection of lectures given to fifty novicemistresses in 1955, began by remarking that novitiates posed different problems from those of fifty years earlier. He noted that ‘revolutionary changes’ in society required novicemistresses to become a ‘bridge’ between the life of the secular world and the life of the cloister. Her role was to ‘inculcate firmly the essentials of religious life while interpreting the particular customs and regulations of the convent to the mentality of the newcomers’. He referenced Modern Girls
say goodbye to them and I remember being taken to a door … the NoviceMistress said ‘You are now going into enclosure.’ Well. So I raised my body, straightened my back and thought ‘This is it’ … and in I went but I can’t remember feeling happy, not even sad, I wasn’t homesick or anything um because you know this, I was coming home, home. 23
But, of course, the ministries of teaching, nursing and parish work usually required sisters to leave their convent spaces. When outside the convent, enclosure was consciously performed in embodied ways: through distance and
constructed hierarchy of women managing women. Most pontifical-rite
congregations developed highly centralised hierarchical structures and
systems of administration. The mother superior and her council, which
usually consisted of at least one mother assistant, a bursar and a novicemistress, were responsible for managing the internal affairs of the
congregation and the novitiate. They directed the purchasing, building and
maintenance of physical structures including their convent and the
institutions under their care. They supervised the staff of various institutions
religious. Women who entered religious life in the 1940s had some awareness that being a ‘nun’, as discussed in Chapter 1 , included ‘dying to the world’ and the sacrifice of familial and friendship relationships. The formation period, the postulancy and the novitiate, trained women to interact in convent spaces. Like other forms of professional training at the time, it was rigorous, structured and rooted in social-class-based ideals of deference that were an everyday part of private and public life. 28 Tutored and guided by a novicemistress, the formation process
which she understood as an impediment to entry into religious life. She read
in the newspaper a small article written by Georgiana Fullerton about the
newly founded Poor Servants of the Mother of God, which accepted pious
women with a religious vocation but limited means. In 1871, she travelled to
London to meet Frances Taylor, founder of the congregation.37 Two years
later, she was a professed sister and by 1875, as Sister Mary Gertrude, she
was the assistant and novicemistress of this growing congregation. The Poor
Servants of the Mother of God, founded in
religious life were leading to the ‘emancipation’ of women religious. But did she consider that a good thing? Speaking to novicemistresses on a training day in the early 1960s, she underscored the difficulties that women religious faced, inside and outside the convent and in the ‘critical eyes of the world’. Disparaging female religious who were ignorant of world problems, she instead expected them to be aware of the major ‘crisis of their times’: atomic weapons, strike mentality, ‘atheistic communism’ and the break-up of family life. At the same time she regretted the
Deceased Sisters (1935), pp. 107–8.
62 SND: ‘Clapham Annals II: Notre Dame in England’, 1851–1860.
63 SMG: I/D ‘Beaumont’, 1875, p. 24.
64 Cecil Kerr, Memoir of a Sister of Charity: Lady Etheldreda Fitzalan Howard
(London, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1928), p. 20.
in Brighton. Potter found that she did not quite ‘fit’ with the Mercy style
of spirituality. Her novicemistress believed she was better suited to a
contemplative life. Mary Potter left the Sisters of Mercy in Brighton
and eventually became founder of the Little Company of Mary.65
reunite with others from their congregation: novicemistresses, fellow
classmates from the novitiate and former work colleagues. This was the time
and place to revitalise their physical and spiritual energy and renew old
The convent was another important geographic space; it was the smaller
unit of congregation life and, for the majority of women religious, the
location of their daily lives. The convent was where they lived, worked,
prayed and recuperated from their labours alongside other women with
similar beliefs and aspirations. These daily