Rosa Bruno-Jofré, The Missionary Oblate Sisters: Vision and Mission, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2005. $18.87CDN, £18.95 UK, $29.95 US, ISBN 0-7735-2979-9 (Paper); pp xi-220; illustrations, tables, maps, notes, index.
Reviewed by: Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, Purdue University North Central, September 2007
Rosa Bruno-Jofré has undertaken an ambitious project in The Missionary Oblate Sisters: Vision and Mission. The author not only seeks to write the early history of the Missionary Oblate Sisters in Canada, but she also endeavors to understand the difference between this community’s foundation myths and the reality of their lives in the early part of the twentieth century. This is no easy task and Bruno-Jofré has carefully combed through the surviving documents and listened to oral testimony to bring this engaging history to light.
The Missionary Oblate Sisters is the history of this community’s foundation and growth from 1904 up to 1930s. The author also examines the various missions of the Missionary Oblate Sisters throughout Canada, with a particular emphasis on Manitoba and Quebec. Furthermore, Bruno-Jofré deals with the legacy of the early history and its affect upon the sisters living through the 1960s to the present, as the community reexamined its past in response to Vatican II’s charge to rediscover its charism. The community also looked to the past to reassert its own identity in the wake of political and social changes within Canada. Bruno-Jofré, while considering the myths and realities of the past, works to answer difficult questions regarding a religious community’s collective memory and identity at the same time engaged in matters relating to the purpose of history of women religious.
The history of women religious has matured over the last several decades beyond localized community history designed for insiders, or the members of the particular religious community. While community history has not been abandoned as this volume indicates, new questions, borrowed from women’s and religious history, are now asked. This is evident in Bruno-Jofré’s efforts to understand how and why the Missionary Oblate Sisters were founded as well as who were the central figures in this community’s development.
In 1904, Archbishop Monseigneur Adélard Langevin of St. Boniface established the Missionary Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart and Mary Immaculate with the purpose of serving the French Canadian Catholics of Manitoba. At the beginning of this project, the author found that the current community did not fully understand the nature of its own foundation and Langevin’s motives. Bruno-Jofré asserts that the community was established “as a form of ‘protestation’ in the aftermath of the Manitoba school question” and to combat Anglicization of the common schools. (p. xv) The author uncovers the reality of the foundation period where a male clerical authority imposed his will upon a group of young women in order to fight his own religious battles in Manitoba. Convinced of the rightness of his cause, Langevin pushed for the foundation of the Missionary Sisters. He handpicked young women to establish and lead this new community, despite their own religious wishes to the contrary. Bruno-Jofré’s discussion of Ida Lafricain’s painful personal struggle against Langevin’s desire as she became the head of this new community exemplifies the forceful nature of the Archbishop. Lafricain had no interest in joining this new community and was happy living and working in Montreal with her close friend, Délia Tétreault, in the École Apostolique (a missionary school for women intended for the African and Chinese missions). Langevin not only pressured Tétreault to convince Lafricain to leave Montreal, but he also persuaded Lafricain’s confessor, Father J. Emile Foucher to accept the call to missionary work in Manitoba. Ultimately, Lafricain did enter the Missionary Oblate Sisters and became Sister St. Viateur. Langevin’s relationship with the new community did not end with the collection of its first members. He wrote its first constitutions and assumed a close fatherly relationship with the sisters, directing its spiritual identity long after the foundation period.
Bruno-Jofré’s treatment of Langevin’s role at the foundation of the community is significant in that the author shows that the Missionary Oblate Sisters did not exist in isolation. This community came into existence because of the larger political-cultural changes in Manitoba dealing with issues of national, religious, and cultural identity (i.e. French versus Anglo Canadian and Catholic versus Protestant identities). The author also asserts that the community developed in direct correlation to the presence of specific male clergy. Here, Bruno-Jofré points first to the large role Langevin played in the community’s foundation, but she also focuses on the part played by subsequent Oblate Fathers after the Archbishop’s death to mold the community into a subordinate role to the priests’ missionary goals. The community was also shaped in part by the religious climate of the larger Roman Catholic Church. Bruno-Jofré continued to make this point as she moved the discussion of the Missionary Oblate Sisters into the 1920s. At this point, the community dealt with the changes demanded by Rome after the release of the revisions of the Code of Canon Law in 1917. During the mid 1920s, Father Louis Péalapra, the sisters’ chaplain and confessor, wrote new constitutions, which observed the changes of the 1917 canon law. The Missionary Oblate Sisters’ constitution became more “formal and legalistic” and Péalapra refocused the sisters’ purpose away from their founding aims of educating French Canadian youth and towards “assist[ing] the priests and missionaries [the Oblate Fathers]” in their various missions. (p. 63)
Bruno-Jofré’s investigation into the foundation of the community and its original constitution and revised drafts is one of this work’s major strengths because the author does not simply provide the reader with an account of the subjugation of female religious by their male counterparts. While the discussion does illuminate the manner in which the male clergy fostered the sisters’ dependence on the Oblate Fathers for an identity and mission, the author is careful to show the nuances of community life. Bruno-Jofré points out the disagreements and struggles within the community that went into shaping its identity. Furthermore, the author notes that the sisters had affection for Langevin, Péalapra, and the other Oblate Fathers even as they chafed against some of their decisions. Bruno-Jofré’s discussion of the residential schools for Aboriginal children in particular is an interesting example of the complex relationship with the priests.
Bruno-Jofré concludes her study of the Missionary Oblate Sisters by returning to a discussion of the gap that exists between the myth and reality of the community’s history. She rightly acknowledges the difference between what the community sees as its history (and why that matters to them), and what outside scholars recognizes as a factual account of the congregation. Here again is a strength of this work. This study can serve as a model for other scholars attempting to discern the reality of the past among documents that tell of a glorified past. It also gives a clear understanding of the development and shaping of a woman as she entered religious life at the beginning of the twentieth century, up through the changes brought on by the code of canon law in 1917. A reader’s lack of knowledge of Canadian history and the Manitoba School Question may hinder understanding of the sisters’ significance; this however, is a minor point, which does not detract from the overall positives of this work.