Irene Mahoney O.S.U, Lady Blackrobes: Missionaries in the Heart of Indian Country, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado, 2006.

Mahoney, Irene O.S.U, Lady Blackrobes: Missionaries in the Heart of Indian Country, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado, 2006. $16.95 (US), ISBN-13: 978-1-55591-617-6  (paperback) pp. xiv + 330.

Reviewed by: Elizabeth M. Smyth, University of Toronto, February 2008.

The call of the mission field has been a central theme in the history of women religious.  This is certainly the case in the history of the Order of St Ursula, a community founded by Angela Merici in Brescia Italy in 1535.  Merici and her companions dedicated themselves to their own salvation and to the education of girls and young women.

It was the call of the missions that brought the first group of French Ursulines to New France in 1639.  Led by Marie Guyart, known in religion as Mother Marie de L’Incarnation, the Quebec Ursulines quickly recognized that European methods of education were not well suited to the education of aboriginal children and soon, their aboriginal mission became a mission to the daughters of the French colonists.  Almost 250 years later, the educational mission of the Ursulines of Toledo Ohio suffered a similar fate.  Irene Mahoney’s book Lady Blackrobes: Missionaries in the Heart of Indian Country documents and analyzes the work of the Toledo Ursulines among the North Cheyenne in Montana – a mission that began in 1884 and ended in 1972.

In Lady Blackrobes, Mahoney constructs a history of the ‘flawed enterprise’ (ix) that was the Ursuline’s mission in Montana.  She presents her analysis through a brief introduction, a chronology and map of the mission sites, eighteen chapters richly illustrated with invaluable archival photographs and a conclusion.  Thirteen pages of endnotes document the extensive diocesan, religious and government archives consulted in the creation of this text.  A bibliographic note and index compliment the text and illustrations.

Mahoney foregrounds the primary purpose of the mission as evangelization.  She writes, ‘To save the poor ignorant souls from the fiery pit of hell was a powerful motive that enabled missionaries to endure loves of heroic hardship’ (x). And hardships the Toldeo Ursulines did definitely endure.  Physical and spiritual isolation, the challenges of death, disease and famine, the ever-present threats of fire, as well as societal, interpersonal and ecclesiastical conflict are documented in every chapter of this study.

Much of the book is focused on the life and work of Mother Amadeus Dunne, the founder and overseer of the ill-fated mission.  Although viewed by some contemporaries as ‘a second Marie of the Incarnation’ (136), Mother Amadeus was a flawed leader.  Mahoney describes her as a heroic woman ‘whose reputation rose larger than life,’ and whose ‘accomplishments never matched her vision’. (282)  While Mother Amadeus may have had the best of intentions, her lack of judgment and sensitivity to cultural differences – even within the North American Ursuline family – caused her missions to flounder.  This is dramatically illustrated by her trip to the Quebec Ursulines.

 In 1893, Mother Amadeus and two companions, Sister Angela Lincoln and an aboriginal young woman, Watzinitha traveled on a ‘begging trip’ throughout the United States and Canada in hopes of adequately resourcing the Montana missions.  Included in their stops were visits to the Ursuline convents of Quebec City and Trois Riveres.  Mother Amadeus successfully recruited three francophone sisters from each convent to join her missions.  None of the recruits persevered.  Not only were there ethno-linguistic difficulties but also tensions in the application of the Ursuline rule and the educational traditions it represented.  This unhappy segment of congregational history illustrates a familiar story line: how do monastic lifestyles get translated into frontier living?  How are different forms of the living of a religious life accommodated within a religious congregation?  If the leadership of a congregation could not cope with such internal issues, what hope did they have of dealing with the larger and more complex issues when euro-centric pedagogies and practices confront aboriginal cultures?

Writing a contemporary analysis of mission activity among indigenous peoples – especially a history of one’s own congregation’s involvement  – is a challenging task that Mahoney meets with scholarly rigour.  She is well credentialed to write this book.  She is a member of the Order of St Ursula and Professor Emertia of English at the order’s College of New Rochelle.  She is a widely published playwright and novelist who have turned her considerable intellectual talents to biography and history.  She is the author of many works on the Ursulines and their missions including a 1989 edition of the writings of Marie De L’Incarnation and two studies of the Ursuline missions in Asia: Swatow: Ursuline Mission in China (1996) and A Far Country: Thailand Mission (1999).

Lady Blackrobes makes a significant contribution to the history of women religious.  Like any good study, it raises as many questions as it answers.  First, how can the voices of aboriginal peoples be effectively integrated into the histories of educational missions?  How did the young aboriginal women, such as Watzinitha who accompanied Mother Amadeus to Quebec view their experience of Ursuline education?  Second, how does the experience of the Ursulines in Montana compare to that of other congregations of women religious who undertook aboriginal missions in the American and Canadian West?  Third, how do contemporary scholars of congregations whose work intersected with the Ursulines in Montana, such as the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, analyze the experience of the Ursulines?  Fourth, how do secular historians of the American West, such as Susan Armitage and Sioban Nelson, analyze the work of these robed frontier woman?  Finally, to what extent does the mission experience differ by gender?  This study provides both the impetus and rationale for a much needed gender-based comparative of the iconic notion of the “Blackrobe” on the frontier.  To what extent does gender impact on frontier leadership?  On organizational culture?  On recruitment and funding?  These are just some of the many provocative questions that Mahoney’s fine study raises.