John Watts, A Canticle of Love: The Story of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, John Donald, Edinburgh, 2006. £20. 0-85796-659-4
Reviewed by M.M.Mc Carron, July 2007
The spirit of mission which fired nineteenth-century France penetrated religious institutes, monastic and traditional, as the founding of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception illustrates. The author, John Watts, pays attention to origins and traces the emergence of this Congregation from the thirteenth century charism of Francis of Assisi to its fifteenth century expression in religious communities throughout Europe, and to one of central interest in this story, a religious community in Tourcoing in north – east France. It became Notre Dame des Anges in 1632 and its ministry responded to the needs of the local people who had offered religious Sisters an invitation to care for the education of local girls and to continue the health and social care of the recently closed hospice which became the new convent.
From this beginning, Watts sets out the history of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, building it upon a metaphor taken from St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures where Fire, Earth, Wind, and Water represent the steps of the journey. The Sisters of the Tourcoing community were affected by mission and possibly understood it in terms of being outside Europe. One in particular had sought permission to pursue mission but her dream led her with a companion to the margins of Europe itself. It became a mission to post – Reformation, poverty – stricken, immigrant – swelled Glasgow in Scotland. Sr. Adélaide Vaast in her mid thirties had been joined by Sr. Véronique Cordier, still in her twenties and a lay woman, Mlle Constantine Marchand. They arrived in 1847.
This was the nucleus of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. The apparent understanding was that a new Congregation was to be established and that for Adélaide and Véronique there was to be no returning to Tourcoing. They were the forerunners of a fresh birth, a further founding, a mini – charism to be shaped by the context to which they felt missioned. The freedom to respond was made possible by the needs of the official Church where its priests and Bishops actively sought women religious to put in place a perceived essential support of education within local Catholic communities. In this the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were very successful as they developed their education system in response to both Church and State needs. Watts gives great detail on this aspect and this will be most useful to those engaged in the history of education in Scotland. However this success compromised the primary goal of care for the most needy and those in prison and was to be a continuing concern.
There is similar detail on the life of the community and in particular the identification and acknowledgement of times of distress. There are instances of difficulty caused by personal mental illness either in leadership or within the community itself. Leadership itself remained a problem with Véronique leaving Scotland after ten years and setting up another Congregation in Jamaica, from where she begged to return to Tourcoing, and gained re admittance after much negotiation and where she was to spend the several and final years of her life. She had made two foundations before the age of forty, each distinguished by its own Rule and Constitutions. Adélaide died in an epidemic in Glasgow at the start of the new mission.
A characteristic seemed to be the going out in groups of three on specific invitation and with little thought of the future. The community in Jamaica never grew to more than twelve and when it reached seven, all but one agreed to be affiliated with a similar Congregation in Allegany, New York, so losing all contact with Glasgow. Another small group went to the United States as late as the eighties. It did great education and care work for about ten years but was reduced to two Sisters, of which the only American – born member was one. However mission in Africa was becoming rooted with eleven communities in Nigeria which has now become a Province and inevitably more distant from Europe where a small group of elderly nuns are the remnant. To sustain the link a deliberate effort has been to bring African Sisters to Europe, not only for studies, but to share the responsibilities of sustaining the European group and the Congregation generally. In the African dioceses, the Sisters participate fully in the needs of the local Church and under its direction.
The book has a set of useful appendices and one gives a table of openings and closings of communities which makes it easy to identify the four moments described by St. Francis in his Canticle. Interviews were thorough and administered within the European group which is the most fruitful source of a European Congregation with a relatively short life to date. There is plentiful documentation although total numbers at any one period are not included. A map of Scotland would have been a help for those not familiar with the country.
The author is married with six children and living in West Scotland. He shows a remarkable empathy for what is becoming a more painful story. He is part of an urgency to record the history of modern religious institutes which are in rapid decline. These stories are also a comfort to religious institutes in general. They touch upon factors of faith and society over which religious have little control and offer some explanation for the seemingly unavoidable. Appendix Six explains that Tourcoing itself lay derelict for years: six of its remaining nuns were absorbed into another Congregation of the Augustinian tradition. The convent was vacated finally in the 1990s giving historians of consecrated life an indication of its present situation on the continent of Europe.