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.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book begins in with the evolution of religious life in England, paying particular attention to early monastic life, and then continues with an analysis of the growth of women's religious congregations in England. It compares women religious of England and Wales with Irish, French, North American and Australian women religious to provide an understanding of the similarities and differences in religious life. The book considers how the training for religious life shaped the identity of women religious. It presents the development of a congregation's corporate identity which brought together a disparate group of women under the banner of religious life. The book looks specifically at class and ethnicity and the women who entered religious life. It concludes by identifying the source of authority for the congregation and the individual sister.
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.
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.
Mary Heimann's comprehensive analysis of Catholic devotions in nineteenth-century England suggested that increasingly 'more Catholics heard mass, received communion and made confessions, and did so more often; confraternities and other religious societies multiplied in number and grew in membership'. The formation that occurred in a postulant and a novice created the basis of the identity of women religious. In religious congregations, two ceremonies marked the most significant events in the life of women religious: the ceremony of reception and the profession ceremony. The public nature of the clothing ceremony offered an important opportunity to promote the Sisters of Mercy and religious life to a well-to-do crowd of Catholics and Protestants and to encourage future postulants and benefactors. Just ten years after the Catholic Emancipation Act, this clothing ceremony garnered a good deal of positive publicity for the Roman Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy.
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.
The labour of women religious in the fields of education and health care and in the provision of social services was intricately linked to their missionary and professional identity. Religious activism, even if parochial, extended the boundaries of their identity and propelled many women religious into roles as administrators, educators and health care professionals. As Kathryn Gleadle observed in her work on nineteenth-century British women radicals and Unitarians, 'Evangelical notions of women's religious and moral vocation were reconciled uneasily with the notion of the female professional.' Approximately seventy per cent of the women's religious institutes located in England and Wales had education as a primary focus in the nineteenth century. Although religious education was certainly an important aspect of Catholic education, the English bishops convened at that First Provincial Synod were adamant that secular education should be 'modern' and competitive with that in non-Catholic schools.
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.
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 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.