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Contested identities

Catholic women religious in nineteenth-century England and Wales

Carmen M. Mangion

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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Carmen M. Mangion

texts used to instruct women religious on the means of achieving perfection. Perfection was not only represented in a religious sense but also linked to ideas of gentility, decorum and, by default, class. Class is central to studying religion in nineteenth-century England,5 and it follows that class is relevant to our understanding of identity and women religious. Another important dimension to this analysis of identity is ethnicity, especially as forty-one per cent of the women who entered religious congregations in England and Wales were Irish-born.6 The

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Carmen M. Mangion

orders’ unseemly because they performed their work outside the cloister and in public spaces.3 Given the importance of a non-cloistered existence to her teaching sisters, Billiart wished to protect them from the caprice of episcopal authority.4 The conflict over authority and governance5 that arose between Julie Billiart and Bishop Demandolx was not particularly unique; stories of similar conflicts are part of convent tradition in many religious institutes.6 Active congregations of women operating in nineteenth-century England and Wales provided a different setting for

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Carmen M. Mangion

Introduction Roman Catholic women’s congregations are an enigma of nineteenthcentury social history. Over 10,000 women,1 establishing and managing significant Catholic educational, health care and social welfare institutions in England and Wales, have virtually disappeared from history. Despite their exclusion from historical texts, these women featured prominently in the public and the private sphere. By examining the lives of women religious within a historical context and assessing their contribution to the growth of Catholicism, the influence of their

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Carmen M. Mangion

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 1 Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism 1850–1900 (London: Hutchinson, 1987), pp. 11–12. 236 Contested identities 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

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Carmen M. Mangion

Catholics for experienced women religious to develop and manage educational, health care and social welfare institutions. These institutions were marked with the congregation’s special brand of evangelisation and were essential for the growth of Catholic missions in England. The missionary identity of women religious was a facet of their religious identity: they were active in both domestic and international missionary work.22 This chapter, however, will examine their missionary identity as missionaries in England, the home mission field. The labour of women religious in

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Carmen M. Mangion

. This developing identity did not eliminate other identities, such as daughter, sister or even wife and mother, but these former identities receded as the identity of ‘nun’ advanced. The family discourse, so integral to nineteenth-century ideals and conduct, did not disappear; instead, it was utilised by women’s congregations to develop the corporate identity of women religious. This chapter will examine 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

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Carmen M. Mangion

served to build awareness of, and in some cases, an attraction to, active religious life. This chapter will look in more detail into individual women’s lives and explore the factors that encouraged their entry into religious communities. The previous chapter explored the dramatic growth of religious life in the nineteenth century, which fuelled not only by the substantial numbers of women entering religious congregations, but also by the increasing number of requests from bishops, clergy and lay Catholics for experienced women religious to develop and manage

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Series:

Alec Ryrie

more to follow. Meanwhile, Guise used her French reinforcements to fortify Leith, the port which has since been swallowed by Edinburgh but which was then a separate town. This provoked genuine alarm, and brought some significant newcomers to the Congregation’s ranks: in particular James, Duke of Châtelherault, the heir to the throne. Châtelherault’s commitment to the religious cause was always lukewarm, but that of his son, the young Earl of Arran, newly escaped from gilded captivity in France, was passionate. Buoyed by these new 162 TOOC08 162 29/3/06, 2:27 PM

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Carmen M. Mangion

1 Becoming visible I see plainly that they are not what we want, and that they have half our idea, but only half. I do not regret stopping for I learnt a great deal in my visit. It is curious how many people have had the same idea at the same time.1 Frances Taylor’s comment, written to Lady Georgiana Fullerton after her 1869 visit to the religious congregation of the Maids of Christ, was an astute one: it suggests that the expansion of women’s congregations in the nineteenth century was dynamic, not only in England, but also in parts of Europe.2 There were many