Annelies van Heijst, Models of Charitable Care: Catholic Nuns and Children in their Care in Amsterdam, 1852-2002, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2008.

Annelies van Heijst, Models of Charitable Care: Catholic Nuns and Children in their Care in Amsterdam, 1852-2002, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2008. € 99.00 / US$ 148.00. ISBN 978-90-04-16833-6. x + 414 pp.

Reviewed by: Dr. Joos van Vugt, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, February 2009

Since the 1980s, the international historiography on religious institutes, especially those labelled ‘active’ in education or care, has grown considerably. Many convent archives have opened up. Our knowledge of the life and work of religious men and women has greatly increased. However, most studies focus on individual congregations or on individual establishments run by religious personnel. Most studies focus on one country. The result is a multitude of publications on this or that religious institute and a distinct lack of studies which compare and evaluate congregations and their activities, nationally or internationally. Yet it is from comparison that we will gain insight into the historical meaning of nineteenth- and twentieth-century convent life. Personally, the deeper I go into this subject the more I become convinced that the blossoming of convent life between, say, 1800 and 1960 was not a continuation of timeless conventual tradition but rather a distinct phenomenon of the period – in the same sense that the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival is not a continuation of medieval Gothic architecture but a product of the nineteenth century itself.

Why did convent life, especially in its ‘active’ guise, experience such a sudden and spectacular flourishing in the first half of the nineteenth century and an equally sudden and spectacular fall after 1960? Its fortunes suggest a symbiosis with certain social and cultural developments. But which developments? On this point historians have so far failed themselves and their readers. There are as yet no serious discussions and consequently no convincing historical interpretations of modern convent life and on the significance of the huge amount of educational and charitable work that religious men and women performed.

Perhaps the input of strangers is required to break this stalemate and to stir up a discussion which transcends the fate of individual religious communities. For historians it always comes a bit like a shock to have representatives of other disciplines – sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians – enter the field of historiography. Their gut reaction is often rejection: historical studies by non-historians can’t be any good. Often enough, these intruders are indeed to be faulted for their uncritical use of sources or their cavalier attitude to historical detail but some of them are very strong in the broad interpretation of historical facts, much stronger than many historians who swear by the virtues of description – and stick to that.

This is where Annelies van Heijst’s study Models of charitable carecomes in. Theologian Van Heijst is a prominent representative of the ‘ethics of care’-movement in the Netherlands, and well-known for her stance against managerialism and over-rationalization in health care. Her book is, in the final analysis, not about sisters but about care. Nevertheless, she provides much information and many insights in the history and the charitable work of the Dutch congregation of the Poor Sisters of the Divine Child or Sisters of ‘The Providence’. This religious community specialized in the care for orphaned and abandoned children. Van Heijst’s focus is remarkable: she points out that ‘care’ is not a one-way street but a relationship between care-giver and care-receiver. She chooses to emphasize the viewpoint of the care-receivers within the caring relationship. Because of this choice she has to resort to all kinds of personal recollections by men and women who, at one time during their lives, were dependent on the care of strangers. Van Heijst chooses this unusual and hermeneutically difficult perspective because it has always been neglected in historiography and because it refers to much bitter public controversy in recent years. The reputation of religious care-givers has suffered tremendously from the numerous disclosures by former children in ward about harsh treatment, loveless upbringing and even physical and sexual abuse. On the other hand, many people who spend their young lives in homes run by religious sisters and brothers have happy memories and are appreciative of the efforts made to give them a good start in life. Clearly, this is a field of conflicting memories, resentment and appreciation, subjectivity and objectivity, and wildly diverging viewpoints between care-givers and care-receivers. Van Heijst, extremely knowledgeable in both the history of religious institutes and in the modern thinking on the phenomenon, is an excellent clear-headed guide into this emotional and social minefield.

In this review I will not venture to summarize Van Heijst’s insights into caring relationships but confine myself to her conclusions. Her story results in a discussion of three ‘models of charitable care’: charity as one-way action (giving), charity as two-way action (between elite and poor, giver and receiver), and charity as a three-polar dynamics (as a ‘network of generous care’, as a form of giving because God initiated all giving and humans are invited to join in his endeavour, and as a form of participation in God’s generous love). Van Heijst warns that the perspectives of care-givers and care-receivers are not easily reconciled. Historians of charity should integrate both perspectives and allow for negative and positive evaluations as the inevitable outcome of this kind of caring relationships. Charitable care is ethically ambiguous, and at all times a fallible human enterprise.

Everyone who is interested in the charitable work performed by religious institutes in the last two centuries should read this book. It is a gold mine of insights. But do not expect a quick and easy read. Van Heijst is thorough and wordy. Per aspera ad astra.