Some Thoughts on the Good Shepherd Sisters and their Founder
Among the hundreds of religious sisterhoods that constitute Catholic female monasticism, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd have a particularly odious reputation. Their role in operating institutions for the incarceration and punishment of women who strayed from the Church's narrow code of sexual morality has earned them the title “Gestapo of the convent system." In the Ireland that I grew up in they ran no less than four of these asylums, including an enormous one in my place of birth, Cork city. In this brief essay I will examine the origins of the Good Shepherds and the ideas of their founder which, remarkably, shaped their practices in Ireland until the 1990s when the entire system collapsed in scandal. The country was shocked to learn that hundreds of “fallen women" who had never been convicted of a crime were being subjected to slave labour in the highly profitable commercial laundries run by the Sisters.
The tradition of placing women who lived sinful lies under religious discipline can be traced back to late Medieval Europe. At that time the Catholic Church began to establish convents that functioned as refuges or asylums for “public sinners" – women who were principally, though not exclusively, prostitutes. The refuges were generally named after Mary Magdalen, the beata peccatrix of the Gospels and a favourite saint of the Middle Ages. The saint offered hope of redemption: she symbolized the problem of female sexuality and offered proof that it could be subdued. The “discovery" of her body in Vezeley, Burgundy, in 1265 popularized the cult of her veneration and did wonders too for the relic and pilgrimage industries. Following the Council of Trent Catholic religious establishments became increasingly specialized and differentiated. New congregations made their appearance that had “wayward women" as their specific mission. The most enduring of these entities was the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, founded in Caen, France, in 1641 by Oratorian preacher Jean Eudes. In the words of one of his admirers, Eudes wished to lift “trembling souls over the quicksands of temptation" while inspiring them “with ideals of self-denial and mortification." He drew upon Italian precedents in the monastic tradition but his practices were harsher and more repressive, reflecting perhaps the spirit of le grand renfermement of the 17th century. While founding the Congregation of the Refuge, the Blessed Virgin allegedly revealed to Eudes that the Sisters should be clothed in white to symbolize their personal purity and “the earnestness they should have in purifying souls stained with sin." The Sisters also wore black veils.
By the close of the 18th century there were 12 Congregation of the Refuge convents in operation but they were closed during the French Revolution in a general suppression of monasticism. The convent at Tours was the first to reopen in the aftermath of that upheaval. In 1825 it chose as its mother superior a remarkable young woman, Rose Virginie Pelletier, who went by the religious name Marie de Sainte-Euphrasie, or Mother Euphrasia in English. In 1829 Mother Euphrasia was invited to Angers by the local bishop to establish a new Refuge convent. Her energetic leadership in Angers soon led to new foundations and in 1835 she persuaded Pope Gregory XVI to create a central governing body or generalate for the network of convents she had created. Most of the older Refuge convents rejected the unified governance structure and continued to operate under local episcopal control. In effect this division made Mother Euphrasia the superior of a new religious order that became known as the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers. The two congregations had identical purposes but the Good Shepherd convents soon surpassed their rivals in number, expanded internationally and were before long the major custodians of “wayward women" on several continents.
Mother Euphrasia considered the work of her institute to be unsurpassed in its moral stature: “…the daily, hourly martyrdom of conflict with Satan and sin – the struggle with evil in its most hideous form." The Good Shepherd congregation was not for everyone. An aspirant had to be a “woman of irreproachable life" from a family “equally stainless." She had to be strong and healthy and “free from any notable physical defect."
The Sisters were cloistered, meaning they could only leave the convent in exceptional circumstances. They followed the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of St. Francis de Sales. In addition to the usual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they vowed to work for “the salvation of the souls of erring girls and women."
The Good Shepherd philosophy as articulated in the extensive writings of Mother Euphrasia, assumed that women turned to prostitution not because of poverty but because of moral turpitude. The institutional response, therefore, was the imposition of a regimen of penitence that had three components: 1. repentance, or regret at having sinned 2. penance, or a sanction to expiate the sins 3. resolve, or determination to avoid future sins Penitence could lead to forgiveness and a recovery of a lost state of purity. Isolation from the world and daily religious exercises would protect the “penitent women" from further sinful lapses. Work too was central to monastic discipline as devised by Mother Euphrasia. The founder considered hard labour a form of penance and prayer and instructed the Sisters to “inculcate habits of industry and economy as most efficient preservatives against many dangers and temptations," since idleness was the “mother of vice."
The harsh regimen of drudgery and devotions prescribed by Mother Euphrasia in the elaborate rules she devised for the congregation reflected her belief that suffering was a virtue: “…without suffering, detachment from self nor union with God can never be attained …souls cannot be saved without suffering…" The road from perdition to purity, then, was paved with suffering for the penitents. But suffering was to be the lot of the Sisters too since their personal salvation required such a sacrifice.
What would become of penitent women once purified through the suffering of monastic discipline? Should they return to society or remain in the convent asylum? Mother Euphrasia was quite clear that a lifetime under the watchful eye of the Good Shepherds provided their best hope for salvation: “The greater number of our children we know desire to return to the world. The thought that they will once more exposed to the danger of going astray…is a sorrow for a Religious. We should then, make every effort to induce them to remain in the asylum opened for them by Divine providence where they are assured of the grace of a happy death."
Yet she recognized that some penitents by their behaviour might impede the spiritual reformation of others and ought to be dismissed. Expulsions were not unknown and were usually the result of insubordination, violence, refusal to participate in religious rites, or having “particular friendships" – the convent euphemism for lesbian relationships. The motivations for entering, leaving or staying varied greatly with individual circumstance. It seems that some women used the convents as places of refuge in times of distress. For those who decided to remain until the moment of “happy death," or were persuaded to do so by the Sisters, the order and security of the asylum may have been preferable to the limited options available during the industrial age to older “women of dissolute habits."
One of the achievements of which Mother Euphrasia was most proud was the creation at the Angers convent of a system of spiritual promotion for penitents that could lead to a status similar to that of professed religious. A penitent who wished to advance in this way had to demonstrate sincere remorse and good conduct over a period of time. She could then become a Child of Mary, agreeing to stay in the convent indefinitely. After two years of successful probation at this rank, she could proceed to the next level by becoming a Consecrate. Consecrates, also known as the “class of perseverance," wore black serge dresses, white bonnets, and silver crucifixes around their necks. The intensity of their religious fervour was often noted, in particular their penchant for self-mortification. They were trusted by the Sisters, helped supervise the penitents, and were placed in charge of the newly arrived to initiate them into the rules and rituals of the institution.
The ultimate step on the road to virtue was to become a Magdalen. This was a privilege reserved for those about whose moral reformation there could be no doubt. Magdalens, or the Sisters Magdalen, were separated from the penitents and lived lives of silence, solitude and prayer. Needlework and the manufacture of religious paraphernalia took the place of labouring in the convent industries. In her Rule and Observances for the Sisters Magdalen, Mother Euphrasia laid out a path “from penance to perfection and finally to heavenly beatitude" based on the rule of the Carmelites, a congregation noted for its austere practices. The Magdalens took the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and wore the coarse brown dress of the Carmelites and a black veil that gave them a distinctive appearance. Mother Euphrasia expected of them “a great spirit of penance, abnegation and mortification in all their actions." One of their admirers had this to say about the Magdalens: “Many are heroines of penance. The world which finds it so easy to imitate their sins, dares not compete with their tears . . . Crucified to the world, to self, to the temptations and inclinations of their human nature, they live a life wholly given up to God and perfection."
The convent at Angers became the novitiate of the congregation as well as its headquarters. It was from here that small groups of sisters were sent out to establish new houses, usually at the request of a local bishop. By the time of Mother Euphrasia's death in 1868 there were no less than 110 convents worldwide. A foothold had been established in every continent, although the institutions tended to be concentrated in Western Europe and North America. By 1937 there were 340 convents in all housing 10,000 Sisters and over 80,000 penitent women.
Cohen, Sherill. The Evolution of Women's Asylums Since 1500. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Nicq, Augustin and Henri Pasquier. La vénérable Marie de Ste Euphrasie Pelletier, Fondratrice de la Congrégation du Bon-Pasteur d'Angers. Paris: Hachette, 1901.
Mary of St. Teresita. The Social Work of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Cleveland, OH: Cadillac Press, 1938.
The Rule of St. Augustin and the Constitutions for the Religious of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers, 1890. Kessinger Publishing reprint.
Rules and Observances of the Sisters Magdalens of the Good Shepherd of Angers (1901). Kessinger Publishing reprint.