Honor McCabe, OP, A Light Undimmed: the story of the Convent of Our Lady of Bom Successo, Lisbon 1639-2006, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2007, pp. 278, £20.99 or €28.99
Reviewed by Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London, July 2007
A Light Undimmed comes from the honourable tradition of conventual histories which have for so long provided the bedrock of the research on which academic historians rely for their work on women religious. It is an insider’s view written by one of the members: where the main focus is on telling the story as indeed the title makes clear. However the scope of this account goes further than the title suggests and raises a number of significant issues surrounding the foundation and its survival. It makes a significant contribution to the history of Irish Catholic exiles as well as the history of women religious in Europe.
The Irish Dominican convent at Lisbon founded in 1639 still exists and continues to receive Irish members. The author has herself spent time at the convent and in the process learned Portuguese: both facts which have been put to good use in writing this history. McCabe has meticulously searched archives with connections to Bom Successo, several of them unfamiliar to English scholars and brings together much new material. There are times, however, when in her wish to tell the whole story the amount of detail included is overwhelming and a more focussed analysis would allow her to give a clearer explanation of the development of the convent and its context. Perhaps the knowledge that few of her readers are likely to be able to engage with Portuguese histories led her to set out so much of the background for us. It is, however, an interesting and complex history, weaving together strands from Ireland, England, Spain and Portugal as well as Irish exiles elsewhere in Europe.
From the beginning Bom Successo was a community confident of its importance in its host country. Even in the early years soon after its foundation the nuns were able to put together sufficient resources not only to build, but to commission a series of remarkable paintings based on the Song of Songs which have been attributed to the court painter, Bento Coelho da Silveira.
The membership of the convent changed over time with increasing numbers of Portuguese women joining the Irish, while at the same time it remained well connected with aristocratic and even royal patrons. Bom Successo was fortunate to survive the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 relatively unscathed thus preserving much of its early heritage. MacCabe goes on to explain how the convent was adversely affected by political changes in Portugal and military occupation following the French Revolution and even recovered after a short-lived suppression in 1823. In spite of repeated attempts by Portuguese authorities to attach revenues from religious houses, Bom Successo was able to survive in part due its preserved national identity as an Irish house. The importance of this identity can be seen in the way the convent survived subsequent attempts at closure during waves of political turmoil and revolution over the next 150 years. The relationship with Ireland remained crucial to the survival of the convent. From 1860 when they were having difficulties recruiting sisters from Portugal, the Dominican convent at Cabra (outside Dublin) agreed to send nuns to Lisbon as part of their mission abroad. Additionally when threatened by the secular Portuguese authorities, the nuns at Bom Successo were able to draw on support from firstly, the British representatives in Lisbon and after independence in 1922 from the Irish.
The results of the momentous decisions made in 1956 to accept the changes needed in order to amalgamate with Cabra are well described, although readers (like this one) less familiar with the detail of changes brought about by Vatican II would benefit from further discussion of the effects of change. The complexities of the impact of the revolution of 1974 both on the convent and its educational work provide a fascinating coda to a long survey of this foundation in exile. The continued survival of Bom Successo is a clear indication that there are many women religious who are adaptable, politically aware and skilled in many directions at the beginning of the twenty first century as indeed there were at the beginning of the seventeenth.
This is an account of interest both to the general reader and interested researchers. It contains several useful Appendices including one giving details of the professed sisters. It is to be hoped that given the extensive references to annals and other sources in the course of the book, it may be possible to publish transcripts of key documents. The illustrations add greatly both to the enjoyment and the interest of the book. It is a lavish selection, mostly in colour, showing both the cultural heritage and the history of the convent. I hope that the obvious value of these images will encourage other publishers to be as generous in future.