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.
in spiritual life which at one and the
same time empowered and confined them’.1 This book argues that religious
belief provided nineteenth-century Catholicwomenreligious with the tools
to transcend the normative boundaries of femininity and to redefine the
parameters of womanhood. This is not to say that these redefined parameters
were all empowering; women religious willingly accepted many of the
strictures of the Roman Catholic Church that subjected them to its
patriarchal structure and sometimes limited their actions. Yet women
religious had more authority and
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
Catholicwomenreligious. As Kathryn Gleadle observed in her work on
nineteenth-century British women radicals and Unitarians, ‘Evangelical
notions of women
identity of Catholicwomenreligious.
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.
’s thesis, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2000).
While this thesis was written about public attitudes towards Anglican women
religious, many of the points discussed, and particularly this one with respect to
the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, would have been applicable to
15 Anne Frances Norton, ‘The Consolidation and Expansion of the Community of
St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, 1857–1907’ (doctoral thesis, King’s College,
London, 1978), p. 197; James Spurrell, Miss Sellon and the ‘Sisters of Mercy’:
An Exposure of the
Work of Andrew F. Walls (Orbis Books, 2012 ); B. Hellinckx, F. Simon and M. Depaepe,
‘The Forgotten Contribution of Teaching Sisters: A
Historiographical Essay on the Educational Work of CatholicWomenReligious in the 19th and 20th Centuries’, Studia
Paedagogica , 44 (Lueven: Lueven University Press, 2009 ).
Being Irish in nineteenth-century Scotland and Canada
S. Karly Kehoe
. My opinion is somewhat different to those
expressed by Carmen Mangion and Susan O’Brien. See Mangion, Contested
Identities: CatholicWomenReligious in Nineteenth-Century England and Wales
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) and S. O’Brien, ‘French nuns in
nineteenth-century England’, Past & Present, 54 (1997), 142–80.
6 S. K. Kehoe, Creating a Scottish Church: Catholicism, Gender and Ethnicity in NineteenthCentury Scotland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010); S. K. Kehoe, ‘Irish
migrants and the recruitment of Catholic Sisters to Glasgow
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 Catholicwomenreligious to nineteenth
gendered space of early Chicago’, The Catholic Historical Review, 90 (2004), p. 475.
56 Susan O’Brien, ‘French nuns in nineteenth-century England’, Past & Present, 54:1
(1997), p. 142.
57 Carmen Mangion, Contested Identities: CatholicWomenReligious in NineteenthCentury England and Wales (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2008.),
58 Susan O’Brien, ‘Coda – missing missionaries: where are the Catholic sisters in
British missiology?’ Unpublished paper delivered at the 4th annual Consecrated
Women Conference, Divinity Faculty, Cambridge University, 16
attractiveness to Catholic women. It was
within these congregations that Catholicwomenreligious expanded the
parameters of women’s identity by edging private religious activity into the
public space. Nineteenth-century England provided unprecedented
opportunity for these women, and the nineteenth-century English Catholic
Church was uncommonly liberal in the freedom it allowed new and existing
congregations. It comes as no surprise that women were limited in the roles
they could play and in the public action they could take, yet women were
empowered to begin the institution