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
edited volume The Education of the Novice , a collection of lectures given to fifty novicemistresses in 1955, began by remarking that novitiates posed different problems from those of fifty years earlier. He noted that ‘revolutionary changes’ in society required novicemistresses to become a ‘bridge’ between the life of the secular world and the life of the cloister. Her role was to ‘inculcate firmly the essentials of religious life while interpreting the particular customs and regulations of the convent to the mentality of the newcomers’. He referenced Modern Girls
say goodbye to them and I remember being taken to a door … the NoviceMistress said ‘You are now going into enclosure.’ Well. So I raised my body, straightened my back and thought ‘This is it’ … and in I went but I can’t remember feeling happy, not even sad, I wasn’t homesick or anything um because you know this, I was coming home, home. 23
But, of course, the ministries of teaching, nursing and parish work usually required sisters to leave their convent spaces. When outside the convent, enclosure was consciously performed in embodied ways: through distance and
Between 1598 and 1800, an estimated 3, 271 Catholic women left England to enter convents on the Continent. This study focuses more particularly upon those who became Benedictines in the seventeenth century, choosing exile in order to pursue their vocation for an enclosed life. Through the study of a wide variety of original manuscripts, including chronicles, death notices, clerical instructions, texts of spiritual guidance, but also the nuns’ own collections of notes, this book highlights the tensions between the contemplative ideal and the nuns’ personal experiences. Its first four chapters adopt a traditional historical approach to illustrate the tensions between theory and practice in the ideal of being dead to the world. They offer a prosopographical study of Benedictine convents in exile, and show how those houses were both cut-off and enclosed yet very much in touch with the religious and political developments at home. The next fur chapters propose a different point of entry into the history of nuns, with a study of emotions and the senses in the cloister, delving into the textual analysis of the nuns’ personal and communal documents to explore aspect of a lived spirituality, when the body, which so often hindered the spirit, at times enabled spiritual experience.
powerful posts: the superior and the novicemistress. 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
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
Enlightenment, automata, and the theatre of terror
isolation and habitual
obedience of the convent quite early on in her account of life at
Longchamp. On the morning of taking her vows, she is undressed by the
novice-mistress and her fellows:
hardly gone out before the novice-mistress and my fellows
entered; my religious habit was taken off and I was dressed in
religious. Women who entered religious life in the 1940s had some awareness that being a ‘nun’, as discussed in Chapter 1 , included ‘dying to the world’ and the sacrifice of familial and friendship relationships. The formation period, the postulancy and the novitiate, trained women to interact in convent spaces. Like other forms of professional training at the time, it was rigorous, structured and rooted in social-class-based ideals of deference that were an everyday part of private and public life. 28 Tutored and guided by a novicemistress, the formation process
beliefs and positions.
One last example will suffice to illustrate this point: the narration of
the strange events which occurred in 1634 and 1635 around a new
recruit, Dame Aloysia.
Whilst a mere postulant at Ghent in October 1635, Aloysia
German found her evening prayers disturbed repeatedly by three
knocks against her oratory. In ‘great alarm’, she referred to her novicemistress, who tried to reassure her and advised her to calm her overactive imagination and nerves. On 3 March 1636, her perceptions
were verified by another Sister, who also heard the three knocks