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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.

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impediments. Typically, the impediments were scrupulously used to screen postulants, but exceptions were made in certain circumstances. Forming a novice 91 especially if the candidate was not known to the congregation.10 The final step, an interview with the local superior or novice mistress, 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

in Contested identities

did not believe she was.6 Additional factors complicated the debate. As mistress of the novices, Ursula Hewick wrote in October 1624 to inform the archbishop that Cotton had told her she liked neither the abbess nor the convent, and that she prayed God not to be accepted. Although there is no record of any initial reluctance, she had come to conceive a strong dislike for the religious life, which Hewick feared would be the cause of much trouble if her profession went ahead as planned, on 10 November 1624.7 The novice was therefore put on probation, but by February

in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century

habits and a properly equipped cell for each new nun. This cost 500 florins (equivalent to 625 livres tournois) per novice. In 1600, Brussels received five novices, at a cost of 2,500 florins for their clothes and the furnishing of their cells; in 1603, 2,000 florins were dedicated to the provision of four new novices, in 1605, 1,500 florins for three new novices and in 1608, 2,000 florins for another four novices.6 Of course, new nuns meant new dowries for the communities, but their entry into religion had an initial cost; although these were only occasional 79 MUP

in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century

constitutions of Paris highlighted the crucial importance of ‘the right education of Novices’, upon which ‘all good order & discipline & true Religion doe depend’.25 The novice mistress supervised them and acted as an elder sister who taught her younger siblings how to behave in the family and how to serve it well. The abbess and her council therefore chose her amongst the more experienced and achieved professed Sisters: she was to be able ‘to gain Soules by words, but more by example’. Under her care, novices learnt to sing and to say the divine office, to perform all

in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century

powerful posts: the superior and the novice mistress. Superiors were ‘good shepherds’, the leaders of religious communities who ensured that vows were fulfilled and the rules were observed.75 They were confirmed by a male ecclesiastical superior after their election by secret ballot, but in diocesan institutes, they could also be appointed by the local bishop and, in very special circumstances, selected by postulation.76 They directed the community’s dayto-day affairs and oversaw the spiritual development of the community, and The recruitment of women religious 97

in Creating a Scottish Church

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 novice mistress, 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 and

in Contested identities

reunite with others from their congregation: novice mistresses, 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 friendships. 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

in Contested identities

’.24 Cecelie Price was said to mortify her body ‘by the rigour of austeritys, fasting, chain bracelets, hair cloath and the like’.25 Mary Mounson, mistress of novices at Ghent, ‘dyed alive, being nothing but skin and bone’; she suffered ‘strong agonys’ through the use of ‘hair Cloaths, braceletts, Iron Chains and sharp disciplins’. Catherine Wigmore also used those instruments of penance regularly.26 Mary Ignatia Coningsby was more inventive, and although she frequently wore iron chains and bracelets, ‘she had the hidden art to mortify her poor old body 3 or 4 ways

in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century
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) 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

in Contested identities