Carmen M. Mangion, Contested Identities: Catholic women religious in nineteenth-century England and Wales, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2008. £55.00, ISBN 9780719076275 (hardback), pp. xiv-282
Reviewed by: Claude Auger, Dominican University College, Ottawa (Canada), May 2009.
Having studied Anglican religious orders for her masters’ thesis, Carmen Mangion decided to explore the Catholic congregations of women religious which, starting in the 1830s, began to live and work in England and Wales. The author chose to explore how women religious’ identities were “formed, maintained and modified” by the sisters themselves; and in doing so, she also shows how these identities were perceived, challenged and reinforced by the Church and the society of their time. The result is Contested Identities, a book remarkable by its depth of scholarship, its engaging prose and its careful analysis of a phenomenon, the establishment of 113 different orders and congregations of women religious, which would profoundly transform the life of English Catholics and their church. The publication of Carmen Mangion’s book, following by six years Barbara Walsh’s Roman Catholic Nuns in England and Wales 1800-1937 (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2002), will make women religious in 19th century England and Wales impossible to ignore by scholars writing about Victorian Britain. Both publications cover a lot of the same material, but with particular accents that make them complementary, not redundant. Walsh’s emphasis is on institutions, with a special attention to geographical and socio-economic factors; Mangion focuses on people, with a special attention to socio-religious factors and the constructs of gender, class and ethnicity. But the characteristic that sets Contested Identities apart from many books on women religious is the choice, made by the author, to study and report on properly religious factors involved in the founding, growth and expansion of feminine religious life. Although this may sound like a truism, the historiography on women religious has focused so much on their contribution to society and their professional roles that their life as religiously-motivated members of intentional communities linked by publicly professed vows is sometimes neglected. Carmen Mangion succeeds not only in examining these elements, but also at integrating them in her overall study. For example, in exploring the reasons for choosing religious life (chapter 2), the author chose to study first the spiritual dimension of the calling to religious life (p. 60-64), and her findings are exposed in a very astute way. Likewise, the chapter about Evangelising (chapter 4, p. 111-134) comes before the one on Professionalising (chapter 5, p. 135-147). My only regret is that there is an imbalance in these chapters: although the author wants to describes the situation in the fields of education, hospital work and social service, both times the first area receives the lion’s share. Another strength of the book lies in how the author never studies women religious in a vacuum, but as members of Church and society. In her study of the religious calling of individuals and of the corporate identities of congregations, Carmen Mangion situates women religious in the various networks they were part of, which also often overlapped: ecclesiastical, familial and educational. In order to be able to rely on factual data, Mangion compiled different databases, selecting ten congregations to be studied in depth. The author chose many that were influenced by the Jesuits (Notre Dame de Namur, Faithful Companions of Jesus, Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Daughters of the Heart of Mary, St. Joseph of Annecy), as well as three that are representative of the “Sister of Charity” model, Vincentian or not in its inspiration (Religious Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle, Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul). Unfortunately, no community representative of the Franciscan or the Dominican tradition was included in the sample, even if both spiritual families inspired the founding of many English congregations (between 1830 and 1900, at least six Franciscan and two Dominican). In her discussion of the vocational path chosen by graduates of teachers’ colleges (p. 86-87), the author, following Kim Lowden, suggests that the matriarchal culture of the sisters-run schools influenced the choice of many graduates to dedicate their lives as teachers, either as religious women or as lay persons. I would suggest that a patriarchal view of women vocation also played a role here, since Catholic teachers, lay and vowed, were expected to remain unmarried. Surprisingly for a book published by a University press, there remain some typos and inaccuracies; such as p. 104: Louis Grignion de Montfort, not Simon de Montfort; and p. 122: the Sisters of Notre-Dame de Namur never had convents in Canada. The author mentions other fields that need more research: an in-depth study of the contemplative communities (p. 3, n. 5); the relationship between congregations of women religious and individual bishops (p. 43). She also highlights the need to research more the Catholic Church and religious life in Wales (p. 245); I would like to add that Scotland is also a particularly neglected area in the British Isles when it comes to the study of the Catholic Church in general, and of religious communities in particular. Contested Identities is one of the finest books published about the history of English Catholic women religious. By the breadth of the research, the clarity of the writing, the logical exposition of the different areas touched upon by the author, it will remain a model in the growing historiography of women religious, not only in Britain, but across the world.