Humble Women, Powerful Nuns

A Female Struggle for Autonomy in a Men’s Church

Kristien Suenens

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The fascinating story of four ambitious Belgian religious women in a male world

Nineteenth-century female congregation founders could achieve levels of autonomy, power and prestige that were beyond reach for most women of their time. This book recounts the fascinating but ambiguous life stories of four Belgian religious women, hidden for a long time behind a curtain of modesty and mystery. A close reading of their personal writings unveils their conflicted existence: ambitious, socially committed, and audacious on the one hand, suffering, isolated, and dependent on men on the other, they were both victims and promotors of a nineteenth-century ideal of female submission. As religious and social entrepreneurs these women played an influential role in the revival of the Church and the development of education, health care and social provisions in modern Belgium. But, equally well, they were bound to rigid gender patterns and adherents of an ultramontane church ideology that fundamentally distrusted modern society.

This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).

Introduction

PART I  RELIGIOUS REVIVAL, ROMANTICISM AND FEMALE ACTION IN A POST-REVOLUTIONARY AGE: FOUR YOUNG WOMEN (ca. 1820-ca. 1860)

‘Foremothers’, Revolutions and Revival (ca. 1820-ca. 1848)
The female pioneers of the revival
Ambiguous images of women
Aut maritus, aut murus? Between marriage and the convent

Female Religious Entrepreneurship on the Offensive (ca. 1848-ca. 1860)
Religious education: the female voice of the revival
The need for male support
Enterprising and discursive mechanisms
Social and political tensions and female agency

The Spiritual Dialectic of Revival Devotion
“L’ eucharistie peut sauver le monde”
A plurality of devotional practices and ascetic self-denial
A passion paradigm
Female saints as role models

PART II FEMALE AGENCY AT A TURNING POINT: FOUR CONGREGATION FOUNDERS (1857-1867)

Between Longing and Coercion: Spiritual Partnerships
“Une religieuse, c’est une paroisse”: frustration and appreciation
Jesuits: irresistible and unavoidable

Soulmates and Rivals: The Power(lessness) of Female Alliances
The convent as a place of refuge
An alternative family unit: ambiguous female bonding on a micro level
“Autel contre autel”: the limits of a wider female coalition


Mechelen and Rome: Normative Identity and Ecclesiastical Positioning
Sterckx’s pragmatic policy
Basic feminine inspiration
Male implementation
Containing the revival: the struggle with the contemplative legacy
The crowning accomplishment: a Roman approval

PART III FEMALE ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND LEADERSHIP IN AN ULTRAMONTANE CHURCH: FOUR CONVENT SUPERIORS (ca. 1865-ca. 1885)

Between Dream and Reality: Charisma and Numbers
The story behind two typical congregations
“Les Dames illusionnées”: ambitions and criticism

Convents and Castles: An Uneasy Alliance
In the grip of ultramontane elites
A forced turn to the countryside
“Au comble du bonheur”: women for women
The female alliance challenged

Crusading in a Convent Habit
A modern apostolate, conservative ideas
Female agency, the European culture wars and the missionary drive
The inevitability of the crusade: the School War (1879-1884)
The challenge of social Catholicism
Victims and religious entrepreneurs: the spiritual dynamics of ultramontanism

“Pas assez femme”? Female Leadership in Women’s Convents
“Une hostie vivante”: institutionalised self-denial
Internal power balances
Lay sisters: women among women

 “Domina ista valde facunda est”
Female Leadership in a Male Church
A double-voiced ‘conventualisation’
Gender, power and freedom of conscience: the confessor issue
Roman feminism?

Epilogue
The Shaping of Perceptions
Fanny Kestre: an active “femme forte”, a spiritual “âme simple”
Antoinette Cornet: between oblivion and rediscovery
Anna de Meeûs: “trop robuste pour être sainte”
Wilhelmina Telghuys: always independent

Conclusion
A Study in Ambiguity

Timeline

Bibliography

Index of names

Colophon 

Format: Monograph - ebook

384 pages

ISBN: 9789461663276

Publication: July 15, 2020

Series: KADOC-Studies on Religion, Culture and Society 26

Languages: English

Kristien Suenens is a senior researcher and consultant for the heritage of religious institutes at KADOC- KU Leuven.