Colleen Gray, The Congrégation de Notre-Dame, Superiors, and the Paradox of Power, 1693-1796, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2007.

Colleen Gray, The Congrégation de Notre-Dame, Superiors, and the Paradox of Power, 1693-1796, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2007. £20.99,    ISBN 978-0-7735-3284-7 (paperback), pp. xvi +250.

Reviewed by: G. M. Betros, Australian National University, December 2009

Colleen Gray’s examination of power in the eighteenth-century convent begins with the imposition of cloister upon the Congrégation de Notre Dame of Montreal.  Taking the Congrégation as her case study, Gray’s work ‘explores and affirms the undeniable power of the institution and the women within it’ (page 9), asking important questions along the way about the origins and nature of this power, changing perceptions of it, and its ramifications for the community’s members. Her suggestion that even enforced cloister could be empowering reflects the complex and often contradictory experience of power that underpins this study.

This is the third work on the Congrégation in this second series of McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Religion. Patricia Simpson’s 1997 and 2005 publications charted the history of the Congrégation and its founder, Marguerite Bourgeoys, between 1640 and 1700. The second volume looked at the difficulties Bourgeoys faced in obtaining recognition of a non-cloistered community dedicated to female education. Gray picks up the story in 1693, tracing the Congrégation’s trials, and occasional fortunes under three of its superiors in particular: Marie Barbier, Marie-Josèphe Maugue-Garreau, and Marie Raizenne. The book’s two sections survey different manifestations of power both within and beyond the community. Part One, focused on the institution itself, investigates the Congrégation’s ‘private life’ and its links with the outside world through its teaching, spiritual, and economic activities. Part Two examines power in the lives of the Congrégation’s superiors through their election, daily duties, and spiritual experiences.

A convent fire in 1768 destroyed most of the community’s archives, leading Gray to rely on a close reading of such sources as the Congrégation’s rule and a multi-volume history published in 1910-13. The author’s innovative use of these and surviving archival documents provides a worthwhile model for other scholars faced with this not uncommon problem. Imaginative set-pieces, describing the process of voting for a new superior, or the daily ritual of locking the convent door lend colour, if not always conviction, to the account, while twenty-four images, including letters, portraits, and plans of the convent, add a welcome visual element.

One of the most pressing problems that could face an eighteenth-century convent was that of securing its future. As Elizabeth Rapley’s work has shown, a community’s viability depended on such factors as its capacity to manage its finances and to attract new members.[1] Gray’s second chapter shows just how adept this particular Congrégation was at the former. In the aftermath of the 1768 fire, when the community was relying on loans and charity for survival, it still managed to purchase the Île Saint-Paul (now Nuns’ Island). This acquisition, like its other dealings with government and society, offers for Gray clear proof of the Congrégation’s ‘power’.  Here we also find one first ‘paradox’ as the institution’s sacred power became mixed with the profane in its exchanges with the secular world.

Given that the ‘power’ of a religious institution must at least partly reside in these future prospects, the declining appeal of the religious life however receives less attention than it should. In discussing one superior’s entry to the Congrégation, Gray writes that, ‘This was a decision, by the way, that increasingly fewer women made in the eighteenth-century colony and a situation that would not change as the century advanced[,]’ (page 87). Yet there is little further consideration of the issue; the average entry age of the Congrégation’s other sisters is mentioned chiefly to provide a comparison with that of superiors. Changing times were also having a noticeable impact upon community life. Gray observes ‘a long-standing discipline problem within the community’ exhibited in ‘unhappiness and discontent among certain members’ (page 109). In 1766 for example, two women fled the convent in the middle of the night, later pleading overwork and mistreatment. Their superior, writing to the bishop about the incident, complained that, ‘There are everywhere difficult spirits to govern; but it seems that the times authorize them to break the yoke of authority;’ (page 96).  While Gray later revisits the conflict with reference to the question of social background, more time is spent dissecting the formalities of the superior’s correspondence with the bishop than exploring her claims.

Part of the reason for this may lie in the fact that this is primarily a history of the institution and its supervisors, a focus apparently influenced by ‘the nature of the sources’ (page 6). Yet reference to documents such as the bishop’s interrogation of one of the escapees suggests that other voices are also there to be heard. As Gray notes, the incident provides insight into both the inner workings of convent life and the difficulties a superior could face. A more rigorously balanced approach could have developed this insight even further. Details of the punishment of one Sœur Martel, another runaway, are similarly relegated to the endnotes. Here we learn that the nun was deprived of her voice in assembly and forced to wear ‘a petticoat and short cape until it would be judged appropriate to return her holy habit to her’, a punishment whose severity led her to complain to the bishop (pages 213-14, note 156). Further analysis of such incidents would extend our understanding of power relations not only within the community, but between its members and the wider church hierarchy.

It is this focus however that permits new insight into the lives of ‘ordinary institutional superiors’ (page 70), this study’s most important contribution. In Chapter Four, ‘Becoming a superior’, Gray discovers that noble birth was not always necessary to attain this position, suggesting that the power it bestowed was available to anyone with the right qualities. Here Gray also sets out to challenge previous claims about the appeal of this power, claims that she believes risk mistakenly identifying nuns as early feminists. While perhaps reading too much into certain interpretations, Gray’s analysis of superiors’ correspondence affirms that these women were guided not so much by a thirst for power as a thirst for God.  Here Gray also reveals that some women found the role of superior to be a ‘heavy burden’ (‘pesante charge’), a finding that further develops her thesis about the paradoxical nature of a power that could bring both privilege and disadvantages.

The book concludes with an exploration of the unusual form of power bestowed by the mysticism of Marie Barbier, superior from 1693 until 1698. Here Gray explores the personal—and public—power brought by bodily mortification, as well as the power wielded over Barbier by her spiritual director and biographer, Charles de Glandelet. Although Gray concludes that their close relationship was mutually beneficial, a more critical approach to the sources was required in a case where so much was at stake for their authors.

With just over 140 pages of text, itself interspersed with numerous tables and maps, the study feels rather brief, even with the addition of two appendices listing all of the Congrégation’s sisters and superiors between 1693 and 1796. While such information provides a useful point of reference, the book’s length, and the division of its chapters into sections and subsections (some of no more than a paragraph) show its origins as a doctoral dissertation, as does a sometimes overly conscientious grounding in the broader literature on women religious.  Its thematic organisation also leads to a degree of repetition: an account of a series of loans made to the community on page 51 for example is repeated on page 63. Meanwhile, the investigation as a whole would have benefited from further discussion of the broader contexts. There is comparatively little on the early history of the Congrégation which, although covered in the work of Patricia Simpson, would have been helpful. More could also have been made of the events which provide a backdrop to the community’s history in this century. We hear throughout of the threat of British invasion during the Seven Years War, of the Conquest, of the American invasion of 1775, and of the French Revolution, all of which seem to have had appreciable impact on the Congrégation and its members, but which for the most part remain discreetly in the background. Moreover, there is little comparison with other female religious communities in Canada making it at times difficult to assess what was either unique or typical about this particular one.

Overall, Gray offers a thoughtful, and often original contribution to the history of women religious in this period, and particularly that of superiors.  The author has unearthed some fascinating detail and the study’s focus on power puts forward an intriguing approach to the daily transactions—internal and external—of convent life. The book furthermore provides valuable material for comparison with studies of communities in Europe and elsewhere in a century that is all too often overlooked in light of the renewal of the female religious life in the one that followed.

[1]   See for example, Elizabeth Rapley, ‘Profiles of convent society in ancien régime France’ in Hubert  Watalet (ed.), De France en nouvelle France(Ottawa: Les presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1994),  pp. 129-46.