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
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
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
) and Sisters M.
Bernard (Maria Kelly) and M. Gertrude (Mary Ledwith), along with Mary
McHale (who later became Sister M. Juliana), passed their teaching
examinations in 1849. She proudly announced that ‘these were the first
Catholic certificated Mistresses in England’.42 In 1855, the annals of the
Birmingham Sisters of Mercy noted that ‘Rev Mother Sr. M. Catherine and
Sr. M. Camillus went to Nottingham for the purpose of obtaining
government certificates for teaching’.43 Annals of the Derby Sisters of Mercy
noted that three sisters were sent to Our Lady’s Teacher
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
was damaging the lay–
clerical relationship and that parishioners could use it to manoeuvre
against their clergy.
Lay women led the way in managing local gossip. John O’Sullivan
problematised women’s unruly words and actions during the 1840s
and 1950s. His unpublished diaries and writings, including a training
manual for novice priests, relate numerous instances of female gossip
and what he liked to categorise as disorderliness.49 Although women
gossiped about almost every aspect of parish life, they sometimes
targeted other parishioners, and even other women, with
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
could resist heteronormative Catholic patriarchy
and, instead, craft something different, at least in their fantasies.
Of course, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century convent
was not just a place of fantasy but also of real loving relationships
between women. The most common relationship between nuns was
that of mother–daughter, with older nuns and Mother Superiors literally viewing themselves as mothers of novices. Writing of superiors,
Mother Leahy of Cork remarked in 1843: ‘she is your mistress, she is
your mother, and what is more, she is a mother