Pauline J. Shaw, Elizabeth Hayes – Pioneer Franciscan Journalist (Gracewing, Leominster, 2009).

Shaw, Pauline J, Elizabeth Hayes – Pioneer Franciscan Journalist (Gracewing, Leominster, 2009) £14.99; ISBN 978-0-85244-209-8 (paperback) pp. xx + 320


Reviewed by Paul Shaw, SMG Central Congregational Archivist, May 2010



Pope Leo XIII in 1879 spoke of the importance of Catholic journalism in combating ‘irreligious publications’ though this needed to be done in a spirit of  ‘calmness and moderation’ in order to ‘attract and convince’. It might be said that it is a particular quality of this pioneering study that it shows how one remarkably talented religious Sister and founder set out, most single-mindedly and effectively, to follow the Papal direction in this increasingly important sphere of activity. Elizabeth Hayes (1823-1894) was one of those remarkable women who met the challenges to religious faith characteristic of this period by living lives of enormous industry and dedication. In the case of Hayes, this consisted of work as teacher and educationalist; founder (as Mother M Ignatius) of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (1873), in Belle Prairie, Minnesota, USA; and the establishment of the first English Franciscan journal Annals of Our Lady of the Angels, founded in 1874, which survived for one hundred years.

The work of historians such as Carmen Mangion, Susan O’Brien, and Barbara Walsh has done much to place the activities of women religious at the centre of nineteenth-century women’s history; Carmen Mangion has stayed that they were ‘crucial to the regeneration of the Catholic Church in England’ (Contested Identities (2008), p. 147). In Judith Lancaster’s study Cornelia Connelly and her Interpreters (2004), the author has called for a new model for the presentation of biographies of Catholic women religious, which presents them in their full complexity and in the context of their own times. We may reasonably attempt to place and assess this current work in the context of these paradigms. The author states that her work is not ‘a flat chronological biography’, and that it is dominated by a ‘search for facts’ which would draw attention to Hayes’ ‘pioneering role in Franciscan journalism’ (p.xv). She also expresses the hope that Elizabeth Hayes’ surprising absence from most historical accounts of this period will be rectified, and her role in ‘the history of women journalists’ will finally be acknowledged (p.76). 

It may certainly be said that, despite the increased emphasis on the professionalisation of the roles of women religious in the nineteenth century, including their role in education, that their work in the vital role of spreading and defending the Catholic faith through writing and journalism has been little explored. Barbara Onslow in Women of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2000) has drawn attention to the increasing role which women played in this sphere in the nineteenth century, particularly in the burgeoning periodical press.

Moreover, whilst the names of many leading women religious have been the subject of contemporary acclaim and latterly of academic analysis, this certainly does not seem to have been the case with Elizabeth Hayes; even the monumental Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) contains only one passing reference. The author does in fact give a largely chronological account of her subject’s life, starting with an evocative account of her origins as the daughter of an Anglican clergyman in Guernsey, and her career as a member of the Anglican Sisterhood, the Community of St Mary the Virgin at Wantage. Her extraordinary career following her conversion to Catholicism and entry as a Franciscan novice in Glasgow is charted in great detail, including her devotion to the poor and to mission work, leading up to her foundation in Minnesota, and including an extended visit to Rome to establish a Generalate for her new order. In all this, she had her share of challenges and setbacks, including the secession of a group of Sisters in the USA, and the failure of a determined effort to bring Poor Clare nuns from Rome to Minnesota, which she bore with great strength and fortitude. The author notes: ‘she [Elizabeth] integrated her love of Christ with the giving of herself in service to others and nothing was going to deter her’ (p.109). The author is certainly successful in presenting a highly evocative portrayal of Hayes’ personality and career, in the context of the literary culture of the time.

The narrative is presented with great clarity, which entirely vindicates the author’s decision to integrate the biographical elements of the book with an analysis of her literary labours. Her skill in teasing out relevant references from a variety of sources is reflected for example in the account of the most obscure incident in Hayes’ life where she was involved in nursing during the Franco-Prussian War (pp.28-9). In her organisational skills, which are made clear from the narrative, Hayes perhaps inevitably reminds the reader less of her own beloved St Francis than that determined practical religious founder, St Teresa of Avila.

Shaw’s work is firmly based on the diary of Elizabeth Hayes, and on an account by one of her contemporaries, Mother Chaffee, and also includes work in the archives of the Wantage community and six international Franciscan archives, reflective of the great thoroughness of her research. One slight flaw is that the detail of archival sources has to be pursued through footnotes, as the bibliography only includes secondary sources. It must be said however, that the greatest strength of this study lies in its use of one particular source, Hayes’ own published periodical, which has been subjected to an extraordinary depth of analysis and contextual study. This greatly adds to the value of the book in highlighting Hayes’ substantial literary gifts, previously largely unknown to the historical record. That Victorian religious engaged in literary activities was certainly known, two notable examples being the careers of Mother Mary Francis Cusack, founder of the Community of St Joseph of Peace, and Mother Mary Magdalen Taylor, founder of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. The author makes some instructive parallels between the work of the latter and that of her subject. However, the thoroughness with which she analyses the literary labours of Elizabeth Hayes seems unparalleled, and is likely to provide a model for future studies, in addition to providing a vital case study for more general works looking at the role of Catholic women in nineteenth-century literature.

It seems pedantic to point out errors in such a valuable and thoroughly researched book, but inevitably there are a few. The Messenger of the Sacred Heart was the journal of the Apostleship rather than the Apostolate of Prayer, and some of Shaw’s comments about it (p.64) appear to reflect a slight misinterpretation of the account in the biography of Mother Magdalen Taylor by F C Devas (p.249). There are a few curious gaps in the author’s bibliography: the very useful study by Onslow above does not appear, nor is there a reference to Gillow’s old (1885) but still incredibly valuable Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics. Shaw does not seem to know of the work on Anglican Sisterhoods by Thomas Jay Williams, Susan Mumm and others, which means that she does not take account of the possible influence on Hayes of the ‘High Church’ literary culture of Christ Church, Albany Street, Regent’s Park; St Katherine’s Hospital which she refers to does not appear to have played a role in the revival of Sisterhoods (p.4). These are very small points in assessing an immensely valuable study, which gives equal weight to ‘life and works’ and is additionally highly readable. There is a very useful index, and excellent illustrations, though it is a pity that the publisher did not provide photographic plates.