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.
looked 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.
There were many women who had the ‘same idea at the same time’. In
Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism 1850–1900 (London: Hutchinson, 1987),
England, this expansion of religious life was set in a unique framework in a
country that was just dismantling repressive penal laws against Catholics.
Moreover, until the nineteenth
identity of Catholic women religious.
In nineteenth-century England, representations of women religious were
ambiguous and contested from both within and without the convent. The nun
was often the centre of controversy in the Protestant press: sometimes as a
scheming mother superior, other times as a young nun incarcerated against
1 Francesca M. Steele, The Convents of Great Britain (London: Sands, and
Dublin: M.H. Gill, 1902), p. xi. This figure is based on Steele’s calculation of
600 convents with an average of seventeen professed sisters in each convent.
It is not praising a nun to say that she is a good teacher or a good cook (though
these qualities are valuable acquisitions to their Community), but the praise of a
nun is to say ‘She is a good religious’.2
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. As discussed in the previous chapter, salvation –
their own and that of others – was at the core of their way of life as simplevowed women religious. Their
the aegis of a patriarchal
church. Women religious, too, like the moral crusaders Butler and Hopkins,
used their religious identity to buttress their authority.
Women religious exercised their authority in two contexts: within the
convent and in the institutions they managed in the public sphere. This
authority was not universally acknowledged. It was sometimes contested,
oftentimes negotiated and always circumscribed. Gender was central to the
tensions that surrounded the issues of governance and authority. But in
nineteenth-century England, the religious identity
religious life. This chapter questions these discourses and examines women’s
agency in ‘choosing’ religious life.26 Religious life was not a natural option
in a Protestant country where Catholicism was still contested. In addition,
not all Catholic parents welcomed the departure, which could be permanent,
of their daughters from their family circle. Women who encountered
obstacles to their entry into religious life constructed an identity that
legitimated their choice.
Gail Malmgreen, in her examination of the Methodist revival, comments
norm. This new way of leading religious life shifted the
gendered identity of women religious and slowly redefined the
understanding of femininity and religious life.
In England, this expansion of religious life was developing just after the
initial dismantling of repressive penal laws against Catholicism.4 The threat
F.C. Devas SJ, Mother Mary Magdalen of the Sacred Heart (Fanny Margaret
Taylor): Foundress of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God 1832–1900
(London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1927), p. 96.
Comprehensive, comparative studies of women
Contested national identities
and weak state structures in Eurasia
Since their very inception, many of the Soviet successor states have been
beset by ethnic violence, crime, trafficking – in arms, drugs and people –
terrorism, poverty, pollution and migration.1 Most have also faced deeper
problems of legitimacy and ideological drift. To a significant extent these
pathologies can be traced back to the delegitimisation of the entire Soviet
world view, and the lack of any viable replacement. The existence of an
Eighteenth Century to the
Present (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1994), p. 66.
Carol Dyhouse, Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 26; Deborah Gorham, The
Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (London: Croom Helm, 1982), p. 79.
claimed exultantly that female satisfaction was achieved through
selflessness.7 These principles were also inculcated in the training of women
religious in the nineteenth century; they were integral to the development of
chapter will argue, on evanglisation. This does not imply that the work of women
religious was without contemplative content. Many nineteenth-century women
religious found the ‘sustenance’ to perform their ‘works of mercy’ firmly rooted
in their spirituality.
following the directives of the Catholic hierarchy.3 At times, credit for their
achievements has been assumed to belong to male colleagues or
ecclesiastical officials. However, as will be seen in the next two chapters, the
contribution of Catholic women religious to nineteenth