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, LA, 2007. ISBN: 0-8071-3237-3; ISBN 13:978-0-8071-3237-1, (hardback), xii-138 p.
Reviewed by Claude Auger, Dominican University College, Ottawa, October 2007.
In the realm of ecclesiastical history, the publication of primary sources has a long and distinguished pedigree harking back to the Maurists and still kept alive by the Bollandists, among many others. The Methodical School of history of the nineteenth century, intent as it was on being able to reach an “objective reconstruction of the facts,” gave us books and collections that form the backbone of many a university library. But in the last fifty years, interest for making manuscripts available to a larger public has not enjoyed the same popularity. And in the field of history of women religious orders and congregations, the emphasis was definitely on sources from the medieval era. This is why the publishing of Voices from an Early American Conventis to be saluted, especially that the sources it offers us constitute an interesting reading in their own right.
Through this collection of their writings, Marie-Madeleine Hachard of St. Stanislaus and her sisters (Marie Tranchepain of St. Augustine, Marguerite Bernard of St. Pierre, Jeanne Melotte of St. André, and the anonymous authors of obituaries and annals) speak with their own voices: those of women of the eighteenth century, born in relatively privileged families of Normandy and Brittany, members of the educating order “par excellence” of the French Ancient Regime, transplanted in American soil for almost a century (Québec, 1639) and arriving in Louisiana to educate and instruct the girls of this nascent society.
The collection edited by Emily Clark brings together three types of documents: a series of four letters from Marie Madeleine Hachard to her father, a Rouen merchant; six obituary letters, recounting the lives and deaths of some of the original members of the New Orleans Ursulines; and the account of the Eucharistic procession organized by the nuns when they moved to their new convent in 1734. The inclusion of six illustrations (between pages 92 and 93; one wonders why they were not included in the pagination, being printed on the same paper: a last-minute change from glossy stock, maybe?) helps the modern reader to get a better image of the Ursulines’ lives in Colonial New Orleans. A note on the translations used supplies details on the manuscripts’ provenance and the respective work of the women who, at various times, edited and published these documents, and an appendix resumes the “Publication History of Hachard’s Letters” (pp. 131-132). Clark edited the whole collection, as well as translated the obituary letters, the only material never published before.
But Clark has done more than the work of a translator or an editor. By bringing together these quite different sources, she created a collection of documents that illuminate the lives of the pioneer religious women in the United States (although for the period considered, the New Orleans Ursulines were subjects of the king of France and members of the diocesan Church of Québec). By providing scholarly yet intelligible introductions, Clark places these documents in the context of their time and highlights their contribution to the history of Colonial Louisiana, of women, of women religious. Indeed, scholars of religion and history are provided with primary material that they will be able to use while researching areas as diverse as the development of Eucharistic devotion in the United States, or the place of women of colour, free and enslaved, in French Louisiana.
This reviewer would have liked the editor to go one step further, and publish the original French texts along with their translation. In doing so, Clark would have allowed researchers to have direct access to the material without having to resort to a trip to New Orleans. By providing only the translated version, the publishers send a mixed message as to their intended audience: the general public may find the introductory material (including the footnotes) to be sometimes highly technical (such as the discussion about processions, pp. 119-124), and the scholars will miss the possibility of comparing the Ursulines’ own writings with their translations, and will not be able to identify French words or expressions that could have sparked other avenues of research, or a deeper understanding of what Clark has summarized in her introductions. The sisters’ voices are being heard, but remain muffled through the mediation of translation into a foreign language.
It’s worth mentioning that Emily Clark has published another book on the same community, almost simultaneously, Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834(The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2007, xvi-288 p.). The two complement each other very well, to the point that it begs the question: since the primary sources in Voices From an Early American Conventwere published in translation only, why were they not appended to Masterless Mistresses? This way, for example, the reader would have access to the list of Ursulines, provided as Appendix 1 of the latter (pp. 265-270), which would make some passages of the former easier to understand. But academia does have its publishing requirements. In any case, the purposes of the two books are different enough to warrant two publications, given that one is collection of sources, the other, an in-depth social study of the community in its New World surroundings.
Emily Clark is to be congratulated for offering us not only a remarkable study of the New Orleans Ursulines, but also some primary material to allow other scholars to mine the rich field of women religious history. Merci, Madame Clark.