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
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
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
Anglican women entered Anglican
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
communities and linked to the parish, often in areas of high unemployment or impoverishment and were typically invited by its priest, who requested their support. There is a long, disregarded history of women religious as parish sisters. Some religious institutes such as the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul were well known for their parish visiting from their arrival in Salford in 1847 into the 1970s; they built ‘strong networks, being known across family generations and by all parts of the community’. O’Brien notes that their ‘Evangelisation and sacramental
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
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
only to see themselves as women but to critique female and male authority and power and challenge women’s subordination to an ideal of religious womanhood that to some, appeared antiquated.
It began with a book
In 1957, the charismatic Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens, Archbishop of Brussels-Malines, spoke at the Congress of States of Perfection 41 emphasising that religious sisters were significant auxiliaries to clergy (as were all laity) in evangelisation. He voiced concern, though, that they were out of sync with modern womanhood and this hindered their
religious institutes, they had historically founded both small and large communities. 95 Others, like the Dutch Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy and the Society of the Sacred Heart, held discussions on community size where advocates of small communities argued that large convents were a deterrent to evangelisation and internal and external relationship-building. A study of the experiences of the Society of the Sacred Heart provides one detailed example of the re-engineering of the local governance structures of community life.