What If My Mother Had Become a Nun?
At first glance the question posed in the title seems absurd since it invites the immediate riposte: then you wouldn’t even be here to speculate on it. What I am really trying to get at is the type of life my mother would have lived had she been persuaded to enter a convent in her youth.
A little background is required to see how it might have been. My mother, Nora Hanlon, was one of nine children (seven girls, two boys) born to a rural family in Fountainstown, Co. Cork. In spite of its name, the place was not really a town but rather a scattering of farms, large and small, along a valley that ended in a beach. My grandparents lived in a cottage that lacked electricity and running water on a miniscule agricultural holding where they cultivated a few root crops and raised chickens and goats. Walking was their only means of transportation; they could never have afforded a horse or a bicycle and certainly not a “motor car.” Since “the acre,” as they called their plot of land, was inadequate to sustain a small family, let alone a large one, my grandfather’s principal source of income came from labouring for the “gentlemen farmers.” The large farmers were almost all Protestants. The Hodder family stood out as one of the most prominent and their name had an unsettling Cromwellian colonist ring to it. Nor had the passing of the ages dimmed their penchant for condescension. The legacy of 17th century depredations and dispossessions still lingered in the social and economic relations of the region.
My mother and her siblings attended Fountainstown National School, a one-teacher operation located about two kilometers from their home. Five or six years of basic schooling was all they received. (The photograph shows Fountainstown School pupils with their teacher in 1924. My mother is second row, fifth from the right). What was there to do at the end of it? Emigration or domestic service, those were the choices, at least for the girls. Four of my mother’s sisters took the emigrant ship, while those who stayed at home went into service with wealthy families. Domestic work remained a major occupational category for women of limited education during the early decades of Irish independence. And many continued to engage in such work after they married or joined a convent. A life in religion was open to women of all social backgrounds, but that was not the route that my mother took – and it was probably just a well. Sometime during the 1930s she met my father, Ted Titley, and I suspect that she was impressed with his prowess in the boxing ring. He was a middleweight champion and even fought on the national team. After a lengthy courtship, they were married during the Second World War.
Nuns and their convents were everywhere in Ireland at that time and they had a stranglehold on the education of Catholic girls. And the two colleges that trained Catholic women as elementary school teachers were owned and operated by the Sisters of Mercy. Had my mother entered a convent, she would not have been trained as a teacher nor have been placed in charge of a classroom. Professional work of this sort was the preserve of choir sisters, who came from economically secure families with the resources to educate their daughters and provide them with a dowry. For women of my mother’s background, a life in religion meant becoming a lay or coadjutrix sister -- a class of servant nuns whose inferior status in the convent paralleled that of scullery maids in the secular world.
The lives of lay sisters remain largely unknown. Historians of women religious tend to ignore them since they just don’t fit into the conventional heroic narrative. Elizabeth Rapley is the exception here in devoting an entire chapter to the subject in her A Social History of the Cloister (2001). I encountered documentation on lay sisters in various archives and libraries as I researched Into Silence and Servitude (2017) and became intrigued even though they were not central to my inquiry. Imagining my mother’s life had she entered a convent intensified my interest. One consequence is that since completing the book I have been preparing a paper on the topic in the American context under the working title: “Convent Class Struggle: Lay Sisters, Choir Sisters, and Social Hierarchy in American Religious Life.” The paper is one of several that engage me at present and requires further research. An excerpt without the footnotes is provided here:
Distinctions in dress, work assignment, educational attainment, and opportunities for advancement defined the difficult relations between choir and lay sisters. Nor were matters helped by the often harsh treatment of the latter by the former. Shortly after the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in Missouri, a local priest, Father Edmond Soulnier, observed that the lay sisters were being treated “like negro women.” Relations between the regulars and the tertiaries/lays among the Sisters of Charity of Providence were not always easy. An 1898 circular from the Superior General warned: “In some houses the tertiary sisters are not treated with enough charity; they are spoken to in a harsh manner; we fail in delicacy towards them.” Around 1904 a Pastoral Visitation Report on the Ursulines in San Antonio, Texas, advised the mother superior to “treat the lay sisters with more kindness” and to lessen their exhausting work schedule.
That the recruitment of coadjutrix sisters in America was challenging is not difficult to understand, a fact noted by the Sisters of St. Joseph as early as the 1860s. Congregations determined to maintain the distinction were compelled to make recruiting drives to Europe and later to Latin America. Once the Sisters of Charity of Providence were established in the Pacific Northwest they began to recruit local English-speaking women to the ranks of their choir sisters, a practice that eroded the French-Canadian character of the community in time. But they continued to rely on Québec to supply them with lay sisters. And so differences in status based on social class and education were accentuated by ethnicity and language. Sister Rosemary Dillman, in recalling these differences, admitted that the choir sisters looked down on the lay sisters who usually spoke little English upon arrival in the Pacific Northwest.
Posted: 17 November 2017