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Religious Orders: Women

Religious Orders: Women

In 1771 the wealthy Catholic woman Nano Nagle paid for a foundation of the French Ursuline order in her native city of Cork, the first new convent in Ireland since the early seventeenth century. It proved to be a very significant event. Over the next century and a half, Irish women of means and ability created an immense network of institutions that became indispensable to the functioning of the Irish church and Irish society. In the process they were instrumental in constructing the devout, modern Irish-Catholic culture.

The significance of their lives and work has been much debated. They have been described variously as powerless subordinates who carried out the wishes of their male superiors, and also as resourceful women who took advantage of an opportunity (given to few women at the time) to create, finance, and run institutions, thereby effecting real social and religious change. Contemporary women have held them responsible for disseminating and inculcating a powerful gender ideology that continues to limit women's cultural authority and personal autonomy. In fact, all these assessments are valid. However, to focus exclusively on their subordinate position within the church or their maintenance of the traditional gender hierarchy is to overlook their influence on the world in which they lived. The women's orders helped to transform church and society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a consequence, it is impossible to discuss religious and cultural change in Ireland without discussing women religious.

Nineteenth-Century Growth

In 1750 there were just twelve houses of religious women in Ireland, which belonged to four old, established orders that had managed to survive despite two centuries of legal proscription and harassment. By the late eighteenth century, however, great change was under way, precipitated by canonical modifications in the organization of women's communities. In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV issued a precedent-setting ruling that conceded (after centuries of pressure) the right of religious women to form a new style of uncloistered, socially engaged women's community, ending the era of enforced enclosure in place since 1299. Although freedom of movement was still restricted, the new congregations did afford women the right to undertake a range of religious and charitable activities within the community.

Wealthy Irish women (like many other women of their class in Europe at this time who sought a life dedicated to philanthropic work) were quick to take advantage of this development. In just a few decades they revitalized the religious life for women. Old religious orders like the Dominicans (who became prominent educators of the daughters of wealthier Catholics) and the Poor Clares (who took up the institutional care of orphans) were revived, and dynamic new Irish congregations (whose ministry was primarily to the poor) were formed. The most important of these were Nano Nagle's Sisters of the Presentation, founded in 1775; the Sisters of Charity, begun in 1815 by Mary Aikenhead; the Loreto Sisters (an Irish foundation of Mary Ward's Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary), founded in 1820 by Frances Ball; the Sisters of Mercy, created by Catherine McAuley in 1831; Margaret Aylward's Sisters of the Holy Faith, founded in 1867; and the Medical Missionaries of Mary, founded by Marie Martin in 1936. In addition, many European congregations made foundations in Ireland, including the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Saint Louis Sisters. Following the establishment of the first houses, branch foundations were made, gradually expanding the convent network throughout Ireland between 1775 and 1850. By 1900 there were 368 convents in the country, belonging to thirty-five different orders. Numbers of vowed women continued increasing until the middle of the twentieth century, and at their peak they comprised almost 75 percent of the total Irish Catholic workforce of priests, monks, and nuns.

Institutional Development

From large and imposing buildings (often the most prominent local landmarks) in Ireland's cities and towns, the women's orders developed and managed large and complex enterprises. During the first half of the nineteenth century out-of-doors relief to the sick and poor was a principal occupation of the Irish orders. They were later quick to utilize state subsidies to develop institutional care. Orphanages, industrial-training schools, reformatories, hospitals, hospices, and asylums (for the blind, the aged, the homeless, the mentally impaired, and those marginalized in other ways) all appeared in increasing numbers after 1850.

During the last half of the nineteenth century some orders took up nursing, managing their own private hospitals and health-care facilities as well as providing nurses at state institutions. They did not undertake professional medical or nurses' training, however, until well into the twentieth century after the canonical prohibition on the study of medicine (1917–1936) was rescinded. Their relatively recent access to professional training notwithstanding, by the twentieth century women religious managed to own, operate, and staff Ireland's major hospitals.

Perhaps their most significant work was in education. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, women's orders accepted state funding to establish a network of national primary schools and, later, secondary schools. After 1922, with the full financial and ideological support of the new southern Irish state, women religious came to control Catholic female education in the country.

Finally, the expansion of Irish orders outside of the country that had begun in the nineteenth century (principally in North America and Australia) continued in the twentieth. Irish women religious played a prominent role in the missionary movement, starting new orders and opening new convents in Africa and Asia.

Twentieth-Century Decline

The decade of the 1950s proved to be the high-water mark of devotional Catholicism in Ireland. Thereafter, the conventual movement suffered a precipitous decline. Though religious life had long been a fulfilling and highly sought-after avocation for women—a chance for many to hold positions of responsibility and authority not available to them in secular society—by the 1960s it no longer offered the opportunity it once had. A century after women began to demand access to education, employment, and political and civil rights, Irish women's lives were irrevocably changed. And in the increasingly secularized world within which those lives were lived, the conservative brand of Catholicism that the women's orders helped to create now came under scrutiny. Women's educational and professional credentials were no longer a luxury but, in some cases, a necessity, and in this regard women religious fell far short. Long eschewing the need for advanced education and training, relying instead on their moral and spiritual authority, women religious now seemed to be illeducated, poorly compensated, and seriously outdated vestiges of a society that no longer existed. Burdened by archaic restrictions on their personal freedom on the one hand, and by a serious (and highly critical) reinterpretation of the benefit and impact of their work by young Irish women on the other, the Irish women's orders began to contract in the 1960s. By the 1980s they were forced to begin closing convents around the country in response to the sharp decline in their numbers. The Irish witnessed again what had not been seen in a hundred and fifty years—towns without convents.

SEE ALSO Devotional Revolution; Education: Women's Education; Nagle, Honora (Nano); Overseas Missions; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Secularization; Sodalities and Confraternities; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704)


Clear, Caitriona. Nuns in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. 1987.

MacCurtain, Margaret. "Godly Burden: The Catholic Sister-hoods in Twentieth-Century Ireland." In Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, edited by Anthony Bradley and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis. 1997.

Magray, Mary Peckham. The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750–1900. 1998.

Mary Peckham Magray

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