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.
looked at the developing identities of women entering
religious life. Women’s religious congregations in England, as in other parts
of the world, entered a period of dramatic growth in the nineteenth century.
There were many women who had the ‘same idea at the same time’. In
Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism 1850–1900 (London: Hutchinson, 1987),
England, this expansion of religious life was set in a unique framework in a
country that was just dismantling repressive penal laws against Catholics.
Moreover, until the nineteenth
been no comprehensive work done to calculate the number of women
who entered religious life in nineteenth-century England, although various
studies exist, including this one, which include a calculation of the number of
women religious who entered specific congregations.
her will and now and again as an innocent led astray by the manipulative
schemes of the Catholic clergy. The Catholic press and internal convent
documents offered a different depiction of women religious. The Catholic
press represented nuns as pious, obedient, subordinate
The Western quest for origins received an initial formulation in the recognition of a philological relationship between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and other languages of Europe. Already in the Enlightenment, there was much speculation regarding India, its culture, language and peoples. Many of the uninformed assessments of this time would resurface in subsequent Orientalist scholarship, Romantic mythography, nineteenth-century linguistic science, and race theory. Excited by the linguistic affinity between Sanskrit and other languages, Orientalist scholars fostered the comparative science of religion and mythology that developed a vision of an Aryan race as the originator of Indian and European culture. The belief in Indo-European origins further spurred European interest in Vedic Aryan sources. The chapter focuses on the work of Voltaire, Herder, German Romantic mythographers and Max Müller, who established a vision of the Aryan through their reading the Veda and posited Sanskrit scripture as an alternative to the Bible. Speculation regarding the Aryan provided a means whereby Indian history could be used to create a fresh historical tradition that expressed specifically European political and ideological interests. What Europeans sought in India, the chapter argues, was not Indo-European religion but a reassessment of Judaeo-Christianity.
The Catholic Truth Society published many histories of women religious and religious institutes in the nineteenth century. This chapter examines the expansion of these religious institutes, paying special attention to the growth of simple-vowed congregations in England. Monasticism survived after the Reformation in England but evolved in a unique manner owing to Henry VIII's formation of the Ecclesia Anglicana with himself at its head. The growth of the numbers of women entering religious life in England was influenced by a variety of factors, but one was pivotal: women were attracted to religious life. As Susan O'Brien has established, the initial migration of women's orders from the continent marks the beginning of a new phase in the history of religious life in Britain. The next phase of religious life in England began in 1830, with the arrival of the first of the 'modern orders', the Faithful Companions of Jesus.
Convent documents such as necrologies and biographies reinforced the standard tenets of nineteenth-century femininity by highlighting the obedience and piety of women even when faced with family opposition to their entering religious life. These two discourses, the Protestant one that argued that women entered religious life under duress and the Catholic discourse of a 'higher calling', had one thing in common: both dismissed the agency of women entering religious life. The chapter questions these discourses and examines women's agency in 'choosing' religious life. The role of the clergy was particularly important in the early years of a congregation's existence, before educational institutions and kinship relationships began to play such an important role in introducing women to religious life. Religious institutions were stamped with the congregation's special spirit of evangelisation and were essential for the growth of Catholic missions in England.
Mary Heimann's comprehensive analysis of Catholic devotions in nineteenth-century England suggested that increasingly 'more Catholics heard mass, received communion and made confessions, and did so more often; confraternities and other religious societies multiplied in number and grew in membership'. The formation that occurred in a postulant and a novice created the basis of the identity of women religious. In religious congregations, two ceremonies marked the most significant events in the life of women religious: the ceremony of reception and the profession ceremony. The public nature of the clothing ceremony offered an important opportunity to promote the Sisters of Mercy and religious life to a well-to-do crowd of Catholics and Protestants and to encourage future postulants and benefactors. Just ten years after the Catholic Emancipation Act, this clothing ceremony garnered a good deal of positive publicity for the Roman Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy.
The efforts of women religious in encouraging religious practice and devotions were essential in the battle against 'leakage', and women's congregations had an important role in the work of salvation of nineteenth-century England and Wales. Women's Catholic congregations often concentrated their efforts on women and children. The medium used most often by women's congregations to evangelise the Catholic family was education, although their efforts in health care and social welfare also aimed to place the Catholic faith at the heart of the family unit. This chapter examines women religious as religious activists and links the services they performed to their religious identity. The missionary identity of women religious was a facet of their religious identity: they were active in both domestic and international missionary work. The chapter also examines their missionary identity as missionaries in England, the home mission field.
The labour of women religious in the fields of education and health care and in the provision of social services was intricately linked to their missionary and professional identity. Religious activism, even if parochial, extended the boundaries of their identity and propelled many women religious into roles as administrators, educators and health care professionals. As Kathryn Gleadle observed in her work on nineteenth-century British women radicals and Unitarians, 'Evangelical notions of women's religious and moral vocation were reconciled uneasily with the notion of the female professional.' Approximately seventy per cent of the women's religious institutes located in England and Wales had education as a primary focus in the nineteenth century. Although religious education was certainly an important aspect of Catholic education, the English bishops convened at that First Provincial Synod were adamant that secular education should be 'modern' and competitive with that in non-Catholic schools.
This chapter examines how the family metaphor was utilised by women's congregations and adjusted to mould the behaviour and attitudes of women religious. The family metaphor was useful and perhaps even lived in some convents, but as congregations grew, the more useful tool used to assimilate a disparate group of women was a corporate identity. As missionary entities, women's congregations expanded from their origins on the continent and in England and Ireland, to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa. Particular friendships were discouraged because congregation leaders believed they could presage the denouement of religious life on an individual and, more detrimentally, a corporate level. Although particular friendships were taboo, camaraderie and merriment did have their place in the convent. The pattern of convent expansion suggests that there was limited competition with regard to convent locations as the needs of Catholics in England were so great.