Anselm Nye, A Peculiar Kind of Mission: The English Dominican Sisters, 1845-2010, 2011, Gracewing, Herefordshire. £25.00, ISBN 978 085244 763 5 352 (hardback), pp. xiv + 338.
Reviewed by: Margaret Susan Thompson, Syracuse University, June 2012
Through numerous papers, talks, and reviews, Anselm Nye has established himself as a leading authority on the history of Catholic women religious in the UK. With A Peculiar Kind of Mission, his book-length history of the five English communities of female Dominicans who merged to form the English Congregation in 1929, Nye demonstrates in long form his capacity of detail, narrative, analysis and interpretation. This excellent work is based upon extensive archival research, as well as extraordinary familiarity with published primary and secondary materials. The result is a volume that is of great value to scholars of religious life and British Catholicism, as well as to general readers interested in the history of sisters.
Nye begins his account with the life and ministry of founder (later Mother) Margaret Hallahan, who introduced active Dominican religious life into Britain and led the congregation she established at Stone until her death in 1868. Along the way, we meet many of her companions and coworkers, as is the case with the founders of subsequent communities at Stroud, Leicester, Harrow, and Portobello Road (London). Nye is able to combine his admiration for the strong individual contributions of women like Hallahan with awareness that community is always a collaborative enterprise. Thus, the biographical detail he has managed to unearth about relatively minor figures in each foundation, as well as throughout a timespan covering over a century and a half, is not only impressive but essential to the account he provides.
In both the stories of the five foundings—and, perhaps more impressively, as the stories begin to overlap and then merge as the twentieth century progresses—Nye carefully delineates both the common threads and particularities of the various communities (and even local houses), as well as personalities. While at times the specifics can become almost overwhelming, they are essential to keep reminding readers that, although traditional religious life placed too much emphasis on uniformity, it was individuals who entered and persevered.
While Nye is unquestionably an admirer of the women he is writing about, he is not reticent to include controversy and difficulties in his account. Thus, we learn about women who left their congregations, disagreements in the ranks, initiatives that failed, and disputes among persons and groups that sometimes lasted for years. Such matters are often omitted from books like this, but Nye refused to present an overly rosy picture.
Thus, to this reviewer, at least, the three strongest sections of the book deal with complex and controversial eras in the Dominicans’ history: the formation of the English Congregation in 1929, the dissolution of the two-tiered membership (choir and lay) in the post-World War II era and the period since Vatican II. Each of these sheds light (implicitly, but sometimes explicitly) not only upon the specific Dominican experience, but also on that shared by many contemporaneous congregations. Thus, in telling the story of the Congregation, Nye emphasizes the initiative role of the hierarchy in the move, the resistance of even some of the sisters who acquiesced, and the ongoing pain and tension that ensued from the merger, some of it lasting decades. Even a photograph of the five superiors who gathered for the deliberations leading to merger was carefully chosen: illustrating, by their ‘somewhat anxious faces’ (as the caption puts it) their uncertainty about the wisdom of the enterprise. [picture 9A, in the pictorial section between pages 178-179] Nye notes that membership took about 30 years to return to pre-amalgamation levels, while many sisters continued to identify with their original foundation of entrance until well after Vatican II. [Here, it should be noted that similar resistance to merger happened in other amalgamations, including several in the US such as those of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the Sisters of Mercy of the Union. The latter occurred in the same year, 1929, as the English Congregation’s establishment. It is surprising, then, that extraordinarily well-read Nye relied on only one source, and perhaps the most legalistic one, to provide the Mercy comparison (Catherine C. Darcy, The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas: The Canonical Development of the Proposed Governance Model, Lanham ,MD: University Press of America, 1993), rather than the two more substantive ones: Justine Sabourin, The Amalgamation: A History of the Union of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of the United States of America (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1976); and Regina Werntz, Our Beloved Union: A History of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1989).]
Nye’s discussion of the lay sister issue, primarily in chapter seven, is short but excellent, and addresses an issue that, again, many scholars omit. Again, he focuses primarily on the human, rather than the legalistic, dimensions of the matter, noting that the anachronistic juridical position of women who could not participate in community governance, despite the essential nature of their roles in the community. He also does not shy away from referring to those persons who opposed the change until it was mandated by Vatican II. And, most interestingly, he indicates that, in the aftermath of the 1965 erasure of class distinctions, some formerly excluded individuals actually served in positions of leadership, often with distinction and apparently with appreciation from their peers.
The section on the half century since Vatican II focuses on the increasing diversification of ministries, the difficult decision to suspend or close many corporate endeavors, the decline in membership and the aging of those who remained. Yet this is anything but a sad or depressing account. Instead, Nye emphasizes the courage and creativity with which the sisters face a new and both frightening and exciting church and world. The sisters expand both their educational and geographic horizons, pursuing higher academic degrees in special education and theology, while taking their talents to places as disparate as Ireland and Bodø, Norway.
Nye concludes by declaring that ‘There is no question that this particular expression of Dominican life deserves to survive, but no certainty that it will.’ (312) This mixture of positive assessment and realism permeates the entire book. A Peculiar Kind of Mission is a significant and substantial addition to the history of British religious life, and one that makes a range of important contributions to our understanding of the contributions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic sisters.