Bart Hellinckx, Frank Simon & Marc Depaepe, The Forgotten Contribution of the Teaching Sisters, A Historiographical Essay on the Educational Work of Catholic Women Religious in the 19th and 20th centuries, Leuven University Press, 2009.

Bart Hellinckx, Frank Simon & Marc Depaepe, The Forgotten Contribution of the Teaching Sisters, A Historiographical Essay on the Educational Work of Catholic Women Religious in the 19th and 20th centuries, Leuven University Press, 2009, ISBN 978 90 5867 765 5 (paperback), 125 pages.

Reviewed by: Sr Barbara Jeffery, Sisters of Mercy, Bermondsey, London, January 2011.

This essay sets out to highlight the literature that is available for studying the contribution made to the teaching profession by various religious orders in the 19th and 20thcenturies.  From the outset, the authors are very clear in what they are able to cover in a brief work and what must be left to others to investigate.  They do not include Anglican orders in their essay or missionary education in Africa or Asia.  They also limited themselves to those publications produced between 1985 and 2009. Their aim was to reflect on the amount of research that has been carried out over the last twenty-five years and in this they have been most thorough and diligent.  They highlight the fact that more research needs to be done in this area and particularly in the methods used by religious to instruct and educate their pupils.

The authors have produced a large bibliography of thirty-eight pages in length which gives a vast coverage of this subject from many different angles.  However, there are various aspects that they highlight for further study including the training in teaching, and indeed nursing too, in Third World countries; the methodologies to teach subjects such as Domestic Science and Music; the exploration of Industrial Schools and Night Schools run by many religious; the use of text books in the schools particularly those written by the religious themselves; the involvement of sisters in “special education” and the role of the religious in the professionalization of teaching itself. This last area would need to be studied from multiple angles.  As they suggest such areas as the training of the religious as teachers is worth more investigation; the career patterns and the development of a life-long career by some sisters; the specialisation of the work of the sisters and the connection to their corporate identity and finally their relationship with associations and unions of teachers.

I found the stated aims and objectives of the authors very clearly set out on page 11 and found that they kept to them throughout their essay.  They pointed out that religious have been investigated in a scientific manner, they have also formed part of a study in the history of education itself and later on it some researchers decided that a more secular approach should be taken to include such elements as political, social and economic forces. Another area that gave ample material for research was the visual resources such as photographs and the architecture of the buildings themselves.  Indeed there was an interesting account of Christine Trimingham Jack’s work which investigated the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Sydney, Australia through the architecture, furnishings and location of the school.  Some felt it was necessary to interview the religious to ensure that these stories would not be lost for future researchers.  Another aspect that was highlighted was that the pupils’ reactions to being taught by religious should also be recorded.  I found it interesting while reading the essay that several myths around religious and education were proven to be false.  It seems that contrary to belief, the secondary school system for girls in 19thcentury France had been built up through schools run mainly by nuns and lay women teachers.  It also appears that women religious in Prussia continued to provide secondary education for girls after 1890 up until the First World War.  Again the authors point out opposition was levelled at the movement for higher education for women in North America and Ireland until it was shown that the Catholic Church was being left behind in this development. The authors commented on the use and the drawbacks of school histories published for Jubilees of schools.  These tended not to investigate the educating role of the religious but act more as a diary of events for the school.  Any history written about the particular congregation tends to be more historical than analytical and therefore has a limited use for researchers.

Educational philosophy was examined in a number of different ways – one being, looking at the Charism of the founding sister of a religious congregation and examining how this influenced the teaching sisters of her congregation.  Congregational constitutions were also examined and any teaching manuals, textbooks written by the sisters and promotional materials. Christine Trimingham Jack went on to investigate how the actual physical building could have a bearing on the education of the pupils within it.  It was a most unique and interesting way to evaluate the educational philosophy of the congregation.  Another area the authors suggest that would bear fruit for researchers would be to investigate the motivations of the congregation in providing education.  Are they competing with rival providers?  Are they trying to secure their own place in the educational landscape?

Educational content has been highlighted as an important area for researchers and some research has taken place to examine the types of textbooks provided for pupils. Some researchers have looked to see what subjects were given pre-eminence in the schools run by religious.  Others investigated the nature of the curriculum and came to the conclusion that it was there to inculcate good breeding and Catholic culture.  The “hidden curriculum” also provided an area for investigation, although it is difficult to analyse and quantify such aspects as behaviour, attitudes and values that religious sisters inculcated in their pupils.

In conclusion, the authors note that in this field of research there is still a long way to go. They recommend that new studies look at the educational philosophy of our teaching congregations, the curricula provided within the classroom and the methods used by the religious to instruct their pupils.  They also suggest that the influence of the Holy See on the teaching congregations should be investigated.  May researchers use this essay as an incentive to delve further into the influence and efforts of the teaching sisters throughout our world.