Emily Clark, ed., Voices from an Early American Convent: Marie Madeleine Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727-1760, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2007. $16.95, ISBN 13:978-0-8071-3446-7 (paperback), pp. ix + 138.
Reviewed by: Barbara E. Mattick, Florida State University, October 2010
Voices from an Early American Convent: Marie Madeleine Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727-1760is a slim volume, but one packed with insights about the first women religious in what became the United States and the role of women in early American life. In this volume, Emily Clark presents the first English translation since 1974 of letters written by Marie Madeleine Hachard, a young novice from a convent of Ursuline nuns in Rouen, France, who went to New Orleans in 1727, along with eleven other sisters, to help “civilize” the settlement. While many women’s orders in the eighteenth century were enclosed, meaning that they lived apart from the rest of the world, the Ursulines were among the earliest religious orders of women that allowed sisters limited interaction with the world outside their convent walls through teaching children, caring for orphans, ministering to the sick in hospitals or overseeing women in prisons. The Ursulines’ religious rule allowed them to teach girls.
It was with this task in mind that the twelve French Ursulines, including the young Hachard, went to New Orleans in 1727, only nine years after the city’s founding. During those nine years, it became clear to the local officials that the town needed the civilizing influence of women religious. French Daughters of Charity were sought originally, but when they could not be spared from the many demands for their work in France, the Ursulines were called upon. Their leader was eager for missionary work among the Indians. The Hachard letters show that, despite the strong efforts by the colonial officials to get the sisters to run hospitals and prisons, the Ursulines were able to devote most of their time to their chosen task, teaching. Their desires were met, but to their surprise their students included not only white girls and Indians, but also black slaves. Hachard’s letters show that the sisters accepted slavery as a way of life in the context of the New World, but reveal little of what they thought about the institution personally.
Clark’s volume includes five letters Hachard wrote to her father between February 1727 and April 1728. Her letters give an account of the journey to New Orleans, description of the fledgling city in the wilderness of the new French colony of Louisiana, and her impressions of her experiences as a young novice about to take her final vows. The letters provide a vivid picture of life on the frontier. Hoping they would inspire other young women, her father published his daughter’s letters in the original French in 1728. Other editions were published in French, and it was not until 1974 that the letters were translated into English and published privately in limited quantities. The small run made the English version difficult to find and largely unknown to scholars. Clark’s translation remedies this difficulty.
Clark, however, does far more than provide a new translation. Her informative footnotes explain technical aspects of Catholicism for non-Catholics and her brief introduction supplies a contextual understanding of the Ursulines, colonial Louisiana history and the circumstances that led to the sisters’ arrival in the colony. Perhaps most importantly, she broadens the understanding of women’s history beyond the standard view of the role of women in America that is based on the experience of Protestant women in New England. This view was established in the 1960s, during the early years of the development of the discipline of women’s history in the United States. Unlike Protestant women in the American colonies, the Ursulines, who were the first women religious in what is now the United States, were not subject to the usual constraints placed upon other women who were ‘wives – or future wives – daughters, or servants’ (p. 5). As Clark further states, ‘In the strongly patriarchal society of eighteenth-century France, such women represented a paradox. Indisputably feminine, they sidestepped the roles of wife and mother that essentially defined their gender and eluded the male authority to which those roles were subject’ (p. 5). The availability of the translated letters also makes possible a broader realization that Catholic sisters were educating girls and women to be good Catholics in early eighteenth-century Louisiana decades before the Northern Protestant ‘women of the Republic’ described by Linda Kerber in Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America began to teach young girls and boys to be good patriots in the newly formed United States (Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1980).
Besides the five Hachard letters, Voices from an Early American Conventalso includes six ‘circular letters of deceased women’, obituary letters written by the mother superiors after nuns in their convents died. The obituary letters often include personal information rarely found in obituaries for women in the eighteenth century. Among those included in the volume is the letter for Hachard, who died in the summer of 1760. Another additional offering is the first-hand account of a 1734 procession of the Ursulines and their students, white, black and Indian, as well as the local church and civil officials, accompanied by colonial troops. All processed to the new Ursuline convent that after seven years had finally been completed. According to Clark’s introductory remarks to this section of the book, the procession was a way for the Ursulines, who had forestalled having to work in the hospitals and prisons and had successfully devoted most of their efforts to teaching, were once again able to assert their independence, in accordance with their holy rule, a document that sets women religious apart from other women.
The Louisiana State University Press published Voices from an Early American Conventin 2007, the same year the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, published Clark’s book, Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834. For the latter, Clark received the Distinguished Book Award at the 2010 Conference on the History of Women Religious. One might ask why two separate publications would be necessary. The answer lies in focus. The larger work, Masterless Mistresses, references Hachard’s letters only a few times in telling the larger story of the Ursulines’ work in Louisiana. The individualized attention given the letters in Voices from an Early American Conventprovides the entire text of Hachard’s letters, thus making the young nun’s observations readily available for scholars of a wide range of topics. In both publications, Clark has contributed significantly to our understanding of colonial New Orleans and the role women in general, and women religious, in particular, have played in shaping American history.