2009: ‘Consecrated Women: Crossing Boundaries'

by Carmen M. Mangion, Birkbeck College, University of London

The 2009 History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) conference invited its participants to consider the theme of 'crossing boundaries' and the venue this year was the Bar Convent in York, the oldest convent in England and home to the sisters of Mary Ward.  This is a special year for Mary Ward's congregations worldwide as sisters and friends celebrate the Jubilee for Mary Ward's foundation (1609-2009).  We were proud to hold the conference here and were privileged to enjoy, along with the usual conference events, special tours guided by Patricia Harriss CJ and Christina Kenworthy-Browne CJ of the Grade 1 listed Georgian building (dating from the 1760s) including the convent chapel.  We appreciated the hospitality of sisters and catering staff of the Bar Convent in York.

The first day of the conference aptly began with an illustrated talk by Patricia Harriss on 'Slate-coloured gowns and hoods': the origins and progress of the Bar Convent, York.'  Patricia charted the 'secret beginnings' of Mary Ward's sisters in England to the current day as they continued 'crossing the boundaries into today's secular society'.  Christina Kenworthy-Browne later shifted our focus to Mary Ward's companions, especially Mary Poyntz, who crossed very physical boundaries with Mary Ward as they journeyed along the Alpine crossings - steps that Christina had retraced last summer.  Laurence Lux-Sterritt (LERMA, Aix-Marseille University, France) reminded us of the many 'quasi-religious' early modern English women who made private vows of chastity and obedience to their spiritual directors and whose active role in the English mission at times caused them to be labelled 'unwomanly'.

Several interdisciplinary papers explored the theme of 'crossing boundaries'.  Gweno Williams of York St John University examined the plays written by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73) where female consecration and enclosure were imagined in convent settings.  These secular plays, she reflected, took on 'female self-determination, separateness and effective life choices for women in early modern England.'  Raphaël Ingelbien of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven introduced us to another Protestant English female author, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865),  who sets her short story The Poor Clare (1856) in eighteenth-century England and Belgium and provides a 'subtle, qualified, but in the end surprisingly appreciative portrayal' of religious life in a milieu that is often seen as virulently anti-Catholic. Both these papers crossed the boundaries of Protestant and Catholic, intermingling lay and religious in literary texts.  Claire Renkin from the Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne College of Divinity brought her art history background to The Painted Life of Mary Ward. Through the lens of the visual image, she suggested that seventeenth-century viewers could interpret The Painted Life using the 'ancient trope of mystic marriage, in this case between Christ and the recumbent Mary.' Katharine Sykes of Harris Manchester College, Oxford took us back to medieval England and the double houses of the Gilbertine order and probed the spatial boundaries of convent life using the conflicting evidence found in textual and later archaeological sources.

Women religious, especially Irish ones, crossed national boundaries also.  Jane Kelly, ibvm introduced the audience to Mary Barry, Mother Gonzaga, the founder of the Loreto Sisters in Australia, and explored, through her letters, her internationalism as she managed the relationship between the Australian branch and the mother house in Ireland.  We travelled also to Tasmania.  Jo Brady, RSJ of the Australian Catholic University, Canberra used the Sisters of St Joseph as a case study to examine the 'motivation and impact'  of the Irish women who joined the congregation in the 1930s and their enculturation into Tasmanian society.  Tim Allender of the University of Sydney, NSW took us to India to the foundation of the Loreto sisters from Rathfarnham, Ireland.  Here, as educators they balanced the tensions between the requirements of the state and their own congregation adopting an 'accommodative approach to new female education mentalities emanating' while resisting Indian female schooling strategies.

Andrea Knox of Northumbria University brought us back to Europe and to early modern Spain, where , we see the influence of Irish matronage.  These early modern women religious founded 'significant networks of trade and education' and influenced art, architecture and female learning.  Susanne Malchau Dietz of the University of Aarhus, Denmark used biography to demonstrate the power of the Irish Catholic diaspora through the life of Frances O'Connor (1859-1940), Mother Josephine of the Sacred Heart Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Josephs of Chambéry from Savoy. 

We explored more contemporary issues with Louise O'Reillly's  (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) paper on the development of the international union of Presentation Sisters and the tensions of diocesan and then international amalgamation.   Barbra Mann Wall of the University of Pennsylvania took us almost to the present day with an examination of the U.S. Catholic hospital system, founded by Irish sisters, and the tensions of the involvement of Catholic hospitals in the provision of reproductive healthcare. 

We ended the conference proceedings with a look into the possibilities of future scholarship as Caroline Bowden updated conference attendees on the status of the Who Were the Nuns Project (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: http://wwtn.history.qmul.ac.uk/) which will over the next few years make visible the early modern English nuns who crossed national boundaries in order to become women religious.  

And, as has become somewhat of a tradition at our conferences, we celebrated with a book launch.  This year we fêted the publication of Pauline J. Shaw’s Elizabeth Hayes: Pioneer Franciscan Journalist by Gracewing Press in a reception graciously sponsored by the Department of History, University of York.