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4 Evangelising The Sisters shall on the first day of every year make a renewal of their vows to excite in their hearts an increase of fervour in the service of their Heavenly Spouse by so solemn a recollection of the obligations they have contracted.1 This passage from the constitutions of the Religious Sisters of Mercy reminded the Mercy sisters of the significance of the work they performed in the ‘service of their Heavenly Spouse’. This was their solemn obligation, and the renewal of their vows each year was meant to revitalise their efforts towards their

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Catholic women religious in nineteenth-century England and Wales

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.

educational, health care or social welfare institutions. Religious institutions were stamped with the congregation’s special spirit of evangelisation and were essential for the growth of Catholic missions in England. These developments in Catholic women’s religious life 4 5 6 Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 226. Mrs William Grey, Old Maids; A Lecture (London: William Ridgway, 1875), p. 5. Mrs William (Maria Shirreff) Grey (1816–1906) was an early promoter of women’s education. Anglican women entered Anglican

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were more empowered than has been acknowledged by historians. They were active agents in manipulating their world and shaping their individual future as well as the future of their congregations. The evangelical nature of their ‘call’ led them beyond the boundaries of their convent grounds; they were fervent evangelisers, spreading the Catholic faith to those they educated, nursed and cared for. The growth of the numbers of congregations and convents in the nineteenth century attests to their utility, their drive and their success as evangelists. Part I of this book

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objectives were clearly articulated in congregation constitutions which decreed that women religious laboured ‘for the salvation of souls’. As women religious, they were called to evangelise. Connecting these activities to their missionary identity is straightforward, but adding to their cache of identities a ‘professional identity’ can be, problematic and discomfiting. This difficulty is not associated solely with Catholic women religious. As Kathryn Gleadle observed in her work on nineteenth-century British women radicals and Unitarians, ‘Evangelical notions of women

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effective evangelisers. They were critical to their working identities, as evangelisers and professional women, as will be examined in Part II.

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elevate public morality.8 These women, while supporting nineteenth-century notions of femininity, became archetypes of women’s agency, authority and power.9 Female voices such as theirs were not the norm, yet they successfully challenged other Christian men and women to join in their efforts. Women religious supported similar notions of femininity but their religious activism and evangelisation, as has already been discussed in previous chapters, was more subtle.10 They were exemplars of women’s authority despite the restrictions of a communitarian lifestyle lived under

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linked to their role as evangelis-ers. Another related factor was their professional identity as educators and health care professionals; this is discussed in Chapter 5. The final part, ‘Corporate identities’, begins in Chapter 6 with the development of a congregation’s corporate identity which brought together a disparate group of women under the banner of religious life. Chapter 7 looks specifically at class and ethnicity and the women who entered religious life. The entry of a diverse group of women into simple-vowed congregations had many implications for the

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cushioned by a ready-made convent plus immediate postulants, one of whom, Lady Barbara Eyre, funded many of its philanthropic efforts.72 Available sources of funding and postulants were important if convents were to expand their services and evangelise among the working classes. This, after all, was for most congregations their primary responsibility. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur founded their first convent in Penryn, where Cornwall’s dissident tradition was strong and Catholics numbered a small handful.73 They opened a boarding school and a poor school in Penryn

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