Deirdre Raftery and Elizabeth M. Smyth (eds.), Education, Identity and Women Religious, 1800–1950: Convents Classrooms and Colleges (London: Routledge, 2016).

Deirdre Raftery and Elizabeth M. Smyth (eds.), Education, Identity and Women Religious, 1800–1950: Convents Classrooms and Colleges (London: Routledge, 2016) ISBN: 978-1-13892354-6 (hardback), pp. xi, 221.


Reviewed by Melanie Carroll, Doctoral Candidate, Syracuse University, October 2016.

This edited collection consists of eleven chapters that increase and diversify existing research on the history of women religious. As mentioned in the foreword, written by Dr. Carmen Mangion, the chapters highlight many significant contributions made by women religious in the expansive field of education. Mangion also notes that the text is significant not only for its historical content, but for the different methodological approaches taken by the contributors. The discussion of methodological approaches continues in the introduction written by Deirdre Raftery and Elizabeth M. Smyth who observe that while research on the history of women religious is improving, the historical inaccessibility or invisibility of archival holdings has only recently started to change. This book will be useful for understanding women religious and their involvement in foreign missions, national educational systems, national and global health care, and more. This illustrative and multi-faceted work widens the historical lens and provides a more balanced view of how these complex systems developed and grew with time, given the support and dedication of Catholic Sisters.

In the opening chapter, ‘Coming to an edge in history: writing the history of women religious and the critique of feminism’ (pp. 6­–30), Phil Kilroy draws from a variety of historical and contemporary sources that exemplify patriarchal and misogynistic practices implemented and reinforced by the Catholic Church. Kilroy displays how Christian women and Catholic women religious experienced oppression by the Church and the ways male clergy exerted control over women religious. Additionally, Kilroy explores how women resisted this control, often to their own detriment, and came into conflict with male clergy. Those working on the topic of patriarchal and misogynistic systems of oppression will find this chapter particularly useful.

In ‘From Kerry to Katong: Transnational influences in convent and novitiate life for the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, c. 1908–1950’, (pp.31–42), Raftery considers the transnational implications of the Infant Jesus Convent at Drishane. Originally located in France, the Infant Jesus congregation expanded to include missions in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. With international growth came the need for English-speaking Sisters. The result was the opening of a boarding school, novitiate and convent at Drishane in 1909. Raftery states, ‘Convents and novitiates were transnational spaces, influenced directly by the transmission of ideas and culture that travelled across countries and continents’ (p. 32). Missionary teachers at the convent were worldly, knowledgeable and shared their experiences with young eager women. Boarders influenced by the worldliness of missionary Sisters aspired to be like them and desired similar experiences for themselves. Missionary Sisters fulfilled an important role in securing new entrants for foreign missions and fostered the expansion of the vast networks of Infant Jesus missions around the globe. Raftery draws from a variety of resources including convent, novitiate and mission annals, as well as oral histories. Excerpts from the latter were particularly enjoyable to read and complemented the other data sources.

In ‘Continuity and change within the Toronto Convent Academies of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Loretto Sisters, 1847–1950’ (pp. 43–59), Elizabeth Smyth offers a comparative analysis of the experiences of two congregations working to broaden the educational landscape in Toronto. The Loretto Sisters from Ireland and the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet from France immigrated to Toronto with the goal of advancing educational missions and promulgating the faith. Smyth’s exploration considers the significance of maintaining identities in a new nation with ever changing needs. Smyth provides examples drawn from the field of education to represent how each congregation responded to the vast changes that occurred during this time period. She addresses how Sisters faced the complexities of maintaining congregational identity and charism whist simultaneously adapting to changes in religious life, and the education and expectations of women in society overall.

In ‘Sister-physicians, education and mission in the mid-twentieth-century’ (pp. 6–77), Barbara Mann Wall discusses the educational experiences of women religious who specialized in the medical field and served in international medical missions. Many Sisters in these congregations held professional positions including as physicians, obstetricians and surgeons. Although not absolute, Mann explains that advanced degrees and high-level professional skills afforded some Sister physicians power and authority in professional occupations, and within the Church. Male physicians, largely unaccustomed to women in positions of power, were not always receptive to female physicians in leadership roles. The stratification of women in the workplace created gender-based conflict as men and women vied for occupational authority.


In the overview of her chapter ‘Sisters as teachers in nineteenth-century Ireland: The Presentation Order’ (pp. 77–98), Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck pays particular attention to content derived from the ‘Stanley Letter’, a document outlining the framework for what would become the Irish educational system. The denomination based system placed governance at the local level. Presentation Sisters administered many of the schools in the educational system and were subject to state and local inspections. Of the Presentation Sisters, Nowlan-Roebuck writes, ‘Women who joined the Presentation Order were nuns: nuns who opened, organized, and taught in schools that cultivated the tender minds of children, instructing them in the duties of religion’ (p. 84). Their identities as women religious and teachers were distinctly entwined. Nowlan-Roebuck uses archival materials, including primary source documents such as the ‘Constitutions’ and the ‘Directory’, to paint a vivid picture of what a Presentation school and classroom might have looked like, and how the students and Sister-teachers interacted.

In ‘Sisters and the creation of American Catholic identities’ (pp. 99–116), Margaret Susan Thompson draws from extensive archival materials and hundreds of primary source documents to explore the assimilative processes of congregations of women religious in America. In America, congregations faced transformative changes in culture, ethnicity and language as part of the assimilation process. Thompson exemplifies the complexities that ensued as Sisters in America negotiated cultural retention and assimilation. Thompson notes that although some congregations embraced cultural and ethnic influences, thus evolving into multi-ethnic, bi/multilingual communities, others resisted multiculturalism and held steadfast to the cultural, ethnic and linguistic customs of their homeland. Of these Thompson writes, they ‘retained determinedly ethnic identities long after it was appropriate or even practical’ to do so (p. 106). Thompson’s inclusion of multiple perspectives on the assimilative processes, or lack thereof, provides helpful insight on American women religious.

In the chapter, ‘“Have your children got leave to speak?”: The teacher training of New Zealand Dominican Sisters, 1871–1965’ (pp. 117­–34), Jenny Collins discusses the expansion of Irish Dominican Sisters’ educational ministries in New Zealand. Motivation for this expansion derived from their desire to ‘ensure the success of the Church’s educational mission: the reproduction of religious values and the social and economic advancement of Catholic pupils through access to and success in the state examination system’ (p. 119). Irish Dominican Sisters strove to maintain congregational continuity while simultaneously adapting to circumstances associated with ministering in a new country. Foundational practices were modified and adapted to fit the changing and evolving needs of the congregation in New Zealand. The chapter demonstrates how apprenticeship systems utilized in Ireland were augmented and formalized in New Zealand as Sisters strengthened their pedagogical skills, enabling them to attain state certification. Collins includes excerpts from daily schedules indicating how teaching Sisters structured their days and balanced professional responsibilities within religious life. Dominican Sisters, like many others, employed an ‘on the job’ training model. New teachers were placed in elementary classrooms under the supervision and training of veteran teachers. Collins utilizes archival and oral histories to chronicle how this global initiative impacted the Dominican Sisters.

Louise O’Reilly, author of ‘Great changes, increased demands: education, teacher training and the Irish Presentation Sisters’ (pp. 135–59), examines this congregation’s responses to governmental mandates established to improve the Irish National Educational System. The National Education Board required all teachers, including teaching nuns, to have teacher certification. New to such accountability standards, nuns resisted these initiatives for a variety of reasons. Some felt that mandating nuns to attain teacher certification questioned their intelligence, capabilities and professional qualifications, while also requiring them to deviate from longstanding traditions. The greatest challenge however was that failure to comply threatened their ability to continue ministering in schools. In an uneasy decision, the Presentation Order began amalgamating and establishing central novitiates that prepared women for religious life, while simultaneously preparing them for the teaching apostolate. O’Reilly reveals how these transformations unfolded, and emphasizes the Order’s initial opposition and resistance to change. The Order’s prevailing concern pertaining to amalgamation was that centralization would dismantle the Order and weaken congregational traditions and patterns of inner congregational authority. O’Reilly suggests that further scholarship is needed to more fully understand how Presentation Sisters were professionally trained.

Chapter nine, ‘The situational dimension of the educational apostolate and the configuration of the learner as a cultural and political subject: the case of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions in the Canadian Prairies’ (pp. 160–82), by Rosa Bruno-Jofre explores how the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions (RNDM), negotiated the intersectionality of the Church’s cultural and political ideologies given their unique relationship with the people and their apostolate in the missions. The three Canadian Prairie missions discussed include Grande Clairière, Brandon, and Lac Croche. Sisters ministering in Grande Clairière served French Canadian and First Nation children. In this mission, a strong sense of religious values and shared cultural experiences brought the community together. The church, school and community functioned as one. The mission at Brandon was located in an urban setting and served residents from a variety of nationalities. Brandon was similar to Grande Clairière in that both missions were unified by a strong sense of Catholic identity. Residents embraced distinctive characteristics of the faith, and had a sense of belonging within, whilst maintaining their cultural identity. Bruno-Jofre calls this a ‘sort of multi-culturalism’ (p. 174). The mission at Lac Croche, located at an Indian Residential School functioned quite differently. The school, primarily serving local Cree Aboriginal children used forced assimilation, emphasized conversion and suppression of native cultural identity. Sisters at Lac Croche had significant differences with male missionaries administering the institution and left the school after seventeen months (p. 172). According to Bruno-Jofre Sisters helped residents of Grande Clairière and Brandon to develop a strong Catholic identity, and both communities embraced membership in God’s family and membership in the church. In contrast, she argues that the mission at Lac Croche was less successful because when individual and familial identity is suppressed, ‘Building the Catholic self’ (p. 175) becomes enormously difficult.

‘A path to perfection: translations from French by Catholic women religious in nineteenth-century Ireland’ (pp. 183–98), by Michele Milan studies the contributions made to the literary world through translation services provided by nuns. As English literacy increased, the necessity for translations from French to English became vital. Milan suggests that as translators, female religious were active participants in transnational and cross-cultural networks. Milan states, ‘Female religious translators played a significant role in the translation of two main types of French Catholic writings: devotional-spiritual literature, and writings dealing with religious life’ (p. 184). Congregations such as the Ursulines and Sisters of Mercy translated works for the benefit of lay people as well as religious communities and in doing so they helped create a devout Catholic community. Milan argues that translation positioned Sisters as agents of literary dissemination even though the names of Sisters were often not included in translated works. Sisters remained ‘often anonymous—and perhaps more accurately ‘near anonymous’ on the title page’ (p. 191). Title pages would include names of congregations but rarely, if ever, the names of individual Sisters. Milan concedes that this is representative of the nature of religious life: recognition was offered to communities, but not to individuals.

In ‘Loretto education in Australia: the pioneering influence of Mother Gonzaga Barry’ (pp. 199–214), Jane Kelly focuses on educational contributions made in Australia by the Loreto Community and Mother Gonzaga Barry, whom Kelly describes as ‘a remarkable religious leader’ (p. 199). As Kelly exemplifies throughout this chapter, Barry possessed leadership traits that were well recognized by others. These leadership characteristics lead to her being asked to establish a convent in Australia in 1875. Under Barry’s leadership, the congregation opened boarding schools, day schools, poor schools and the Catholic Teachers’ Training College. Mother Gonzaga was an ardent writer and made frequent contributions to the school’s magazine, Eucalyptus Blossoms. Given Mother Gonzaga’s knack for writing, it is no surprise that she put pen to page in this fashion. Eucalyptus Blossoms was instrumental in dispensing congregational news and information to growing transnational networks.

A definitive strength of this volume includes the impressive and accomplished list of contributing authors whose meaningful scholarship and contributions enhance the research on the history of women religious. This volume is particularly valuable for professors designing syllabi geared toward collegiate study in the social sciences and humanities. The volume explores a variety of interests including the history of education, higher education, and Catholic education. The volume also encompasses scholarship relating to international education, translation history, religion, women and gender studies, and more. Those seeking to know more about the contributions made to the field of education by women religious will surely find this volume rich in offerings.