Sarah A. Curtis, Civilizing Habits, Women Missionaries and the Revival of French Empire. Oxford, 2010.

Sarah A. Curtis, Civilizing Habits, Women Missionaries and the Revival of French Empire (Oxford, 2010) pp 373.  ISBN 978-0- 19-539418-4

Reviewed by: Phil Kilroy, Trinity College Dublin


This book is a study of three nineteenth-century French religious women, each a pioneer and whose influence reached way beyond France and Europe. In her introduction to the book Sarah A. Curtis offers some wonderful images of these women. Among them, a picture of Philippine Duchesne standing in a field and greeting hundreds of Potawatomie Indians, of Emilie de Vialar opening a pharmacy, clinic and hospital in the heart of the Muslim community in Tunisia and of Anne-Marie Javouhey setting up a village colony in Mana in French Guiana and advocating the abolition of slavery. Each was a member of a religious community. Philippine Duchesne belonged to the Society of the Sacred Heart, founded by Madeleine Sophie Barat in 1800.  Emilie de Vialar was founder of the St Joseph de l’Apparition community and Anne-Marie Javouhey founder of the community of St Joseph of Cluny. Curtis devotes a substantial section to each of the women, presenting their life and work, their lives and achievements.

Although born in France, they lived the major part of their lives beyond its confines. While the Catholic Church in France was their spiritual home and source of their faith, they engaged directly with the new and often stark realities of their mission territories. They made their way in their respective pioneer missions, experienced the clash and contrast of cultures which challenged their own assumptions as well as the values they held as French women. All three were supported by their communities and by their families in different ways, especially financially. Indeed some members of Anne-Marie Javouhey’s own immediate family actually joined her community and worked alongside her.  At another level the three women were agents of France and French culture, and through them French power and influence were extended. This was particularly marked in the case of Emilie de Vialar who received support for her projects from French officials in the areas where she worked, as well as protection in her battles with bishops and clerics. Similarly, Anne-Marie Javouhey received finance from the French government for her several missionary projects, as well as support from the monarchy, both of which were resented by some members of the French hierarchy.

All three women proved to be gifted strategists who learnt quickly where and how to get the best leverage for their own goals. Curtis narrates these elements with style and flair and her text reveals the inventiveness and courage of Philippine Duchesne, Emilie de Vialar and Anne-Marie Javouhey. Sarah Curtis is careful to indicate that these women did not act alone, that they were supported by many women as committed as they were and who were lifelong missionary companions. Indeed this is a book on the history of religious women in 19thcentury France and their impact on the colonies and areas of French influence. While they did not argue for a change in the status of women either in the Catholic Church or in society in general, the actual work they did ensured that this would happen in time. Besides, after the Revolution women religious in France were uniquely placed for pioneer work both within and beyond France, a development Curtis discusses in depth in the Introduction.

While Philippine Duchesne, Emilie de Vialar and Anne-Marie Javouhey were devout Catholics and did not question their faith or the authority of the Church, their strong personalities clashed with bishops and priests over issues concerning their lives and tasks, and over what they considered their proper domain. This conflict of powers, played out in religious roles within the Church, were expressed in clerical claims of jurisdiction or the threat to refuse the sacraments, used as weapons of dominance and sometimes carried out. However, these did not prevent the women doing what they felt called to and they were supported for the most part in this stance by the members of their community. Indeed, the qualities needed for life on the missions demanded independence, strength of character, resolve and commitment. Writing from Senegal, Anne-Marie Javouhey declared she did not want any ‘little women’ (femmelettes) in her community.

This study of three women religious working in mission territories shows how they operated within complex systems of power, both religious and political. These powers often had different goals, but both wanted to extend their empires, spiritual and temporal. Within this context Philippine Duchesne, Emilie de Vialar and Anne-Marie Javouhey built bases for their mission projects by sheer, dogged energy and force of character. By force of circumstances and through their own faith and conviction,  these women learnt how  to exercise real power and independence in a world that did not grant this to women in wider society.

For a study of this magnitude  Sarah A. Curtis has trawled manuscript and printed primary sources, as well as vast collections of secondary material, held in the congregations of the women and in the archives of church and state, within France, in Rome and in the countries where the women lived and worked. She has mastered these extensive and wide-ranging sources and has delivered a text which eminently readable and quite fascinating. Her comments on different aspects of religious life in the nineteenth century are particularly interesting especially since she states at the beginning of her book that she is an outsider,  ‘American and non-Catholic to boot’. This is the strength of her book and it harbours well for rescuing so much religious writing from dull hagiography. This certainly what Sarah A. Curtis has done in this scholarly, refreshing study of three nineteenth-century religious women missionaries.