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Penser l’histoire religieuse au xxie siècle

 | 
Yves Krumenacker
, 
Raymond A. Mentzer

Modesty and autonomy

« Double voiced » female religious in nineteenth-century Belgium

Modestie et autonomie Les religieuses à " double voix " dans la Belgique du XIXe siècle

Kristien Suenens

Résumé

Les fondatrices et supérieures féminines des congrégations religieuses dans la Belgique du xixe siècle développaient un discours et des attitudes qui pouvaient être caractérisées comme « double voiced ». D’une part, elles se conformaient et elles supportaient l’idéal social et clérical des femmes humbles, obéissantes et souffrantes. D’autre part, cette position leur permettait facilement de créer des opportunités pour agir et pour renforcer leur pouvoir et leur autonomie. Cette ambivalence dans la vie des religieuses belges est examinée d’une triple perspective, basée sur une analyse des documents personnels de trois fondatrices belges. Premièrement, l’accent est mis sur la manière dans laquelle la spiritualité postrévolutionnaire d’expiation, de souffrance et de réparation pouvait être un moyen de réaliser des ambitions féminines. Deuxièmement, les partenariats « double voiced » entre religieux, femmes et hommes, confirmaient et défiaient l’image traditionnelle des hommes sages et dominants et des femmes naïves et dociles. Finalement, l’attitude des femmes religieuses face à la politique cléricale restrictive de la deuxième moitié du xixe siècle était une combinaison intéressante d’une mentalité ultramontaine intransigeante et des stratégies opportunistes pour renforcer leur propre autonomie.

Texte intégral

  • 1 André Tihon, « Les religieuses en Belgique du xviiie au xxe siècle. Approche statistique », Revue (...)

1As in many other European countries, the number of female religious institutions and nuns grew spectacularly in nineteenth-century Belgium. After decades of suppression and state control during the regimes of the Enlighted Austrian Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790) and the French revolutionaries (1792-1801), the first signs of a revival were already apparent in the early decades of the century. Between 1808 and 1824, the numbers of nuns nearly doubled (from 1,617 to 3,135) and over 100 new convents were founded. The expansion accelerated after Belgian independence in 1830, resulting in more than 30,000 nuns and nearly 2,200 women’s convents by 1900, making little Belgium, even in absolute numbers, one of the premier centers of female religious life in Europe1. Nuns became important players in the Belgian Catholic Church and in society, with a major role in the Catholic education system, health care and a wide range of social services.

  • 2 Allegonda J.M. Alkemade, Vrouwen XIX : geschiedenis van negentien religieuze congregaties, 1800-18 (...)

2The « female factor » and gender tensions associated with this impressive phenomenon remained hidden, however, for a long time behind a double curtain of historiographical neglect in church history as well as in feminist inspired historiography. Until the 1970s church history, on the one hand, had a nearly exclusive focus on institutions, clerical structures and famous – and often male – figures in church history. Feminist historians, on the other hand, refused for a long time to take into account the interaction between religion and female agency, characterizing religion as an exclusively suppressive factor in women’s lives. It took until the last decades of the twentieth century before some innovative publications presented the first scholarly analyses of the history of female religious in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Alkemade for The Netherlands, Langlois for France, Rocca for Italy, O’Brien for England, Clear for Ireland and Ewens for the United States were among the first to present coherent and thorough studies2.

  • 3 Yvonne Turin, Femmes et religieuses au xixe siècle : le féminisme en religion, Paris, Nouvelle Cit (...)

3Later on, inspired by cultural and anthropological « turns » in historiography, questions rose about the « lived reality » of the female religious and the interaction between religious history and women’s and gender studies. The new perspectives resulted in publications focusing on the diverse religious, ecclesiastical, social and gendered identities of nineteenth and twentieth centuries religious women. Illustrative titles like Femmes et religieuses dans le xixe siècle (Turin), Religious Women: Bride, Mother, Sister (Eijt), A Female Counter-Culture in Modern Society (Werner), Unlikely entrepreneurs (Wall) and Contested identities (Mangion) revealed the multiple facets and tensions of the position of nuns in a male-dominated church and society3. An important conclusion recurring in all these research analyses was the intriguing paradox that seemed to be inherent to nineteenth-century Catholic female religious life. On the one hand, the women religious were strictly contained and controlled in the clerical structures of a Catholic Church dominated by men and in a social and clerical discourse shaped by the ideal of humble, obedient and subordinate women. On the other hand, nuns and sisters, and especially the female founders and superiors of religious congregations, had opportunities for agency, development, self-fulfillment and power that were out of reach for most of the laywomen of their time.

  • 4 J. Eijt, op. cit., p. 35 (My translation from Dutch).
  • 5 The female founders that will be studied in this contribution were part of the subject of my docto (...)

4In the late twentieth century, Dutch historians and theologians have characterized this dominant tension by the concept « double-voiced » : the plural discourse and attitude of female religious both confirming and bypassing nineteenth-century gender and clerical patterns of male dominance and female submission. Developed by anthropologists and feminist literary critics influenced by the discursive turn of post-structuralism, it was proposed as a useful tool for research into the history of religious women as well, because : «  […] it offered the possibility to better understand their ambivalent attitude with regard to Catholic doctrine and hierarchy : on the one hand, it was a question of going along ; on the other hand, there was contradiction4 ». In this essay, I intend to analyze how the double-voiced concept was applicable to the history of female founders of religious congregations in nineteenth-century Belgium. By closely reading letters, spiritual notes and personal diaries of three women religious, I want to present a nuanced study of their discourse and attitudes from a threefold perspective5. The spiritual language of passion, penitence and atonement characterizing the nineteenth-century religious revival will be an initial research slant. Second, the ambivalent gender relationships between nuns and male advisors and supporters will be examined. Third, the focus will be on the interesting interaction between the discourse and attitudes of women religious and the increasingly ultramontane and intransigent Catholic Church of the second half of the nineteenth-century.

A spirituality of suffering and power

  • 6 Jan De Maeyer and Staf Hellemans, « Katholiek reveil, katholieke zuilvorming en dagelijks leven », (...)

5Nineteenth-century female religious life in Belgium – as in other regions struggling with the legacy of the French Revolution – was intensely marked by the spirituality of the post-revolutionary religious revival. The Catholic Church in the regions that would constitute Belgium in 1830 was traumatized by the anticlerical impact of the Revolution that had caused the destruction of its age-old social privileges and prestige. Immediately after the revolutionary era ended, a religious revival emerged. During the Napoleonic regime (1801-1814) and the period of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1814-1830), the first signs of this phenomenon were already visible : old and popular devotions, confraternities, processions and pilgrimages were revived and new associations and congregations were founded. But it took until Belgian independence, when the liberties of the Constitution put an end to decades of state control and restrictions on religious life, before the revival reached its full force6.

  • 7 V. Viaene, op. cit., p. 186-189. Norbert Busch, « Die Feminisierung der Frömmigkeit », in Irmtraud (...)
  • 8 For an introduction into the debate on the feminization thesis, see : Patrick Pasture, « Beyond th (...)

6The language of this nineteenth-century religious life was permeated by a passionate desire to suffer and to atone for the « insults » of the Revolution in particular and for secularization, apostasy and the religious indifference of modern society in general. By doing penance, Catholics not only wanted to console the suffering Christ and identify themselves with his Passion. Their piety of penance and atonement had a prominent social focus as well : the restoration of the position of the church in society. International research confirmed that this emotional, affective and penitent spirituality was especially appealing to women and women religious in particular, praying and suffering for their offended heavenly groom7. It was one of the key aspects of the so-called feminization theory that gained popularity in Church history during the 1980s and 1990s, claiming that nineteenth-century religion was characterized by a feminization of religious worshippers and (non-ordained) persons and a « feminine », emotional and affective religious discourse and devotion. An analysis of the spiritual discourse of nineteenth-century Belgian nuns shows a clear match between this affective spirituality of penance and atonement and the ethos of submission, self-denial and suffering that dominated female religious life. However, the research also challenges some stereotypical presumptions – the exclusively passive or dolorous character of nineteenth-century « effeminate » devotion or the opposition between female emotionality and male rationality – already criticized and nuanced in recent historiography8.

  • 9 Watermael (Brussels), Archives of the Religieuses de l’Eucharistie (ARE), Cahier des Lettres 3, An (...)
  • 10 About the history of this devotion, see : Luc Dequeker, Het sacrament van mirakel: Jodenhaat in de (...)

7In 1857 Anna de Meeûs (1823-1904), the female founder of an elite Eucharistic congregation, l’Institut de l’Adoration Perpétuelle (Institute of Perpetual Adoration), in Brussels, instructed the members of her order to suffer for the sins of nonbelievers and anticlerical enemies : « […] souffrez et priez pour eux, pour réparer les insultes de l’indifférence à N.S.J.C.9 ». As a former pupil of the Paris boarding school of the Dames du Sacré-Coeur (Religious of the Sacred Heart), she was strongly marked by the revolutionary traumas recounted to her by the French teaching nuns of the Paris institution. The spiritual identity of her own congregation became one of self-denial and atonement. She made « Tout pour plaire à Dieu, rien pour me satisfaire » into her personal motto and choose « Violatae caritatis reparation » as the device for her congregation. The Latin emblem was a direct historical reference to the Brussels legend of the « Miracle du Saint Sacrement », a medieval story of the sacrilege of consecrated hosts that was the foundation for centuries of Eucharistic worship and militant anti-Semitism10. Anna de Meeûs established her congregation next to the memorial chapel of this medieval legend, strategically using it as a strong metaphor for her post-revolutionary ideal of penance and atonement.

  • 11 ARE, Cahier des lettres 1, de Meeûs to Cogels (19.07.1862).
  • 12 ARE, Rapport de l’Archiassociation (1854), p. 5.

8This clever recovery of a medieval exemplum suggests that the nineteenth-century spirituality of penance and atonement that appealed to religious women was not exclusively passive, emotional or submissive – stereotypes often used in the nineteenth-century discourse on femininity and in contemporary critiques of the « effeminate » Catholic piety of the time. The language of penance and atonement spirituality could be a powerful instrument in negotiating opportunities for female religious agency, self-fulfillment and influence. For Anna de Meeûs, suffering was not only a passive passion, but also a call for action : « On n’est du reste pas ici-bas pour jouir, il faut apprendre à jouir dans la souffrance pour réparer les insultes et pour rechristianiser la nation11 ». This re-evangelization mission not only inspired her to found a religious congregation, it was also the driving force that fostered the foundation of an international Eucharistic confraternity, « L’association de l’Adoration Perpétuelle et de l’Œuvre des Églises Pauvres » (Association of Perpetual Adoration and the Work of the Poor Churches). The association was created, expanded and supervised by the nuns of her congregation and combined the promotion of a Eucharistic penitential devotion with an international service that provided poor churches worldwide with liturgical objects and materials. At the end of the nineteenth-century, the association was elevated to the status of an international arch-association, had its seat in Rome and counted 200 000 women and men among its members. In the annals of the association, Anna de Meeûs, clearly stated that she did not limit the promotion of her spirituality of Eucharistic suffering to women : « Ne doit-il pas aguerrir le jeune homme contre les tempêtes de son âge, et le former à des vertus mâles et solides ? 12 ».

  • 13 Leuven (KADOC), Archives of the Dienstmaagden van de Heilige Harten (ADHH), nr. 13. Les châtiments (...)
  • 14 ADHH, nr. 16. Verest Manuscript, p. 67.

9Another example of this double-voiced discourse was noticeable in the spiritual writings of Wilhelmina Telghuys (1824-1907). In 1868 she founded the Dienstmaagden van de Heilige Harten (Handmaids of the Sacred Heart), a congregation in the city of Antwerp that combined a teaching apostolate with an orphanage and a laundry institution for poor and destitute girls. Inspired by the nineteenth-century atonement spirituality, she combined Marian and Christocentric elements to present herself as a consoler of Christ : « […] comme votre tendre mère, si dévouée et courageuse dans ses douleurs, j’essuie par baisers les larmes que les pêchés vous ont causées13 ». But at the same time, the identification with Mary and the intimate relationship with Christ provided her with opportunities to claim a position as a female founder and source of authority : « J’écris ce règlement, m’abandonnant totalement à Son inspiration […], qu’elles y soient si attachées qu’elles considèrent la moindre infidélité comme une désobéissance directe à la personne de Jésus Christ, par qui je leur transmets ces ordres14 ». Submission to the inspiration of Christ became a means to legitimize her position in her congregation and towards clerical authorities. The double-voiced spirituality of penitence and self-denial that seemed to confirm religious women in their passive and submissive position, also created a setting for a female voice and position of importance and autonomy.

Nuanced gender relationships

  • 15 Rome, Archives of the Dames de Sainte-Julienne (ADSJ), 1.3/3. Kestre to Dechamps (17.10.1871)

10Similar mechanisms could be discovered with regard to the relationship of the female founders with their male confessors or advisors. Founding a new religious congregation required the help of male clerics. Secular or regular priests were an essential partner in the legitimation of the institutions and their normative frameworks as well as in the negotiations to obtain recognition from the clerical authorities. The discourse in the letters between religious women and men both endorsed and contradicted the traditional image of wise and experienced men guiding spiritually immature and naïve young women. On the one hand, the women were longing for spiritual assistance and a male partner to lean on. In that sense, they conformed willingly to the existing social and clerical gender patterns and hierarchies. Fanny Kestre (1824-1882), founder of the Brussels congregation of Dames de Sainte-Julienne (Ladies of Saint-Julienne) in 1870, after years of personal spiritual struggles and conflicts with male confessors found comfort and support with the Redemptorist Victor Dechamps (1810-1883). Kestre was a passionate woman, a visionary, but also an original and charismatic organizer of catechism courses and retreats in the Belgian capital. Often criticized because of her impetuous and stubborn character, she willingly placed herself under de care of Dechamps, who was appointed bishop of Namur in 1865 and archbishop of Malines in 1867. In most of her letters, Kestre presented herself as « la très humble et soumise fille de votre eminence », stressing her female modesty and spiritual and physical fragility and asking for « paternal » support and comfort15. Kestre often suffered from illnesses, contracted but survived a cholera infection and had a chronic injury to her arm. In that sense, her profile matched the nineteenth-century stereotype of the weak feminine nature.

  • 16 ADSJ, 1.3./3. Kestre to Dechamps (ca. 1860).
  • 17 ADSJ, 1.4. Dechamps to Kestre (20.10.1870).
  • 18 For an historical analysis of Dechamps’s character and term of office, see : Vincent Viaene, « De (...)
  • 19 ADSJ, 1.4. Dechamps to Keste (10.11.1865).

11At the same time, this image and discourse of fragility and docility was a gateway by which Kestre tried to assure herself of a strong male ally. She did not refrain from demanding Dechamps’s total dedication to her and her congregation, nor from boldly accusing him of neglect when his support did not meet her expectations. Referring to the famous spiritual bond between Francis of Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal, the seventeenth-century founders of the Visitation Sisters, she wrote to Dechamps : « Est-ce ainsi que St François de Sales a agi avec Ste Chantal et cependant vous avez promis pour moi, d’être ce qu’il a été pour elle ?16 » Dechamps often answered Kestre’s assertiveness with some irony : « Vous m’êtes une occasion de pratiquer la condescendance si recommandée par St. F. de Sales, mais elle aussi doit avoir ses limites17 ». But, generally speaking, he was flattered by her attention and tried to support her and defend her against some of his male colleagues with less sympathy for Kestre’s determined behavior. In many ways, Dechamps was Kestre’s spiritual father, but their gender relationship was much more nuanced than that. The archbishop of Malines was himself a troubled and emotional soul. He was often overburdened with his difficult position as a clerical leader in times of « culture wars » and the tensions within the Catholic Church in the years surrounding the Vatican Council of 187018. Health problems, doubts and fragility were not the monopoly of women or religious women. As Kestre leaned on Dechamps, the Archbischop found in Kestre an emotional partner as well, to whom he could turn in hours of distress or loneliness : « Puis, à certaines heures, le soir surtout, quand je sens le besoin de débander l’arc, c’est-à-dire de reposer la tête, je n’aurai plus personne, je serai seul […]. Priez pour moi19 ».

  • 20 ARE, Extraits traitant de l’origine, de Meeûs to Boone (29.07.1851).
  • 21 Leuven (KADOC), Archives of the Flemish Jesuit Province (ABSE), 4.2.6. Jean-Baptiste Boone, nr. 12 (...)
  • 22 ARE, Cahier des lettres 1, de Meeûs to Cogels (17.08.1853)

12A same pattern of gender hierarchy as well as gender complementarity was apparent in the relationship of Anna de Meeûs with her male advisor. In very similar terms as Kestre, de Meeûs exposed her spiritual doubts and fragility to her male confessor, the Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Boone (1794-1871) : « […] j’enviais surtout le bonheur de Sainte Chantal d’avoir trouvé quelqu’un qui comprit si bien les besoins de son âme20 ». Boone was a famous preacher, pamphleteer and promotor of Catholic organizations in Brussels. He helped de Meeûs in fine-tuning her religious vocation and in convincing her family of her choice for convent life. Yet at the same time, she herself had something to offer Boone. In the 1850s he was struggling with feelings of depressions and found in care for de Meeûs and in her youthful enthusiasm a new aim in life : « Cette bonne œuvre réveille donc la dévotion de mon enfance, de ma jeunesse et de mon scolasticat. Je reviens en quelque sorte à moi ! Je suis triste d’y avoir pensé si tard […]21 ». It gave de Meeûs the opportunity to claim Boone as her spiritual father and to prevent him from investing energy in other occupations. In a letter to one of her early companions, she made plans to keep Boone as close as possible : « Vous ne pourriez croire combien une absence pourrait l’entrainer à en faire d’autres22 ». She exploited her position as his humble spiritual daughter with success. First, Boone was a useful ally in escaping from the marriage plans of her family. Second, he was de Meeûs’s gateway to the Ignatian tradition that matched very well her ambitious plans for international spiritual promotion and action. Third, Boone opened the doors to the broad and powerful network of the Jesuits and was an important stimulus for the consolidation of her congregation. Boone would focus entirely on de Meeûs’s congregation and association for over a decade, until de Meeûs herself quite brutally broke off the cooperation because the aging Boone no longer had a place in her plans and ambitions ; it is very illustrative of their relationship that both confirmed and bypassed stereotypical gender and clerical patterns.

An ambivalent use of containing clerical politics

13Submission to a male advisor and spiritual partner offered these women comfort as well as opportunities to realize their own ambitions, without formally contesting existing social and clerical hierarchies and structures. A similar double-voiced discourse and attitude characterized the female founders and superiors when dealing with the general clerical politics of the second half of the nineteenth century.

  • 23 Anne Jacobus, « De vrouwelijke religieuzen (1834-1914) », in Michel Cloet (éd.), Het bisdom Brugge (...)

14The rapid growth of female convent life from the beginning of the century onwards and its impact on a diverse range of social provisions had been very important for the revival of religion and the Catholic Church in Belgium. Its unprecedented and unregulated expansion, however, was also a cause of concern for diocesan authorities. In the dioceses of Ghent and Bruges, for example, standardized diocesan rules for female congregations were issued by mid-century to make uniform, rationalize and supervise the large and diverse group of female religious communities. In 1878, Archbishop Dechamps of Malines published his Instructions aux communautés religieuses, announcing stricter instructions for enclosure and limiting and controlling the contact of nuns with their families, with people under their care in their apostolate works and the secular world in general. Moreover, most of the diocesan women’s congregations were forced to accept a male priest as director, acting as deputy of the bishop alongside the female general superior23.

  • 24 C. Langlois, Le catholicisme au féminin, p. 85. G. Rocca, op. cit., p. 189.
  • 25 Emiel Lamberts, « Het ultramontanisme in België 1830-1914 », in Emiel Lamberts (éd.), De kruistoch (...)

15This « conventualization » of female convent life in the second half of the nineteenth century was not limited to Belgium24. It not only marked the end or the containment of the spontaneous convent revival of the early nineteenth-century, but also corresponded with a more general mentality shift in ultramontane Catholicism of the 1860s and 1870s. « Culture wars » between the Catholic Church and anticlerical, modern or secular forces all over Europe reinforced intransigent and isolationist reflexes within the Church. The secular world became more and more of an enemy for Catholics, turning « ultra montes » toward the papacy in Rome for hope, inspiration and adulation25.

  • 26 ADHH, nr. 183. De Beukelaer to Taylor (12.09.1884).
  • 27 ADHH, nr. 69. Reports (22.04.1873, 20.04.1875). Antwerp, Archives of the Diocese of Antwerp (ABA), (...)

16From a general perspective, superiors of diocesan congregations had no choice but to accept the new regulations and restrictions. An analysis of their letters and personal notes, however, offers a more nuanced and at the same time ambiguous image of their dealings with ultramontane church politics. First, it would be wrong to qualify these restrictions merely as rules that were « imposed » by the clerical authorities. In many cases, female superiors actively encouraged the intransigent ultramontane siege mentality and the evolution towards a stricter convent life. Convinced themselves of the decadence and hostility of the secular world and frightened by anticlerical attacks and critiques, they turned to the security and the isolation of the convent. In 1884, in the middle of a fierce ideological School War between Catholics and Liberals in Belgium, Telghuys allowed one of her sisters to write a letter to her friend Fanny Taylor, superior of a female congregation in England : « Que puis-je hélas ! vous dire, aujourd’hui que nous vivons dans un pays barbare ? […] Ici, grâce à Dieu, tout va encore assez bien, jusqu’à ce que peut-être la révolution nous chassera ! Il ne faudrait donc pas, chère rév. Mère, être étonnée qu’un beau matin nous nous trouvons devant la porte d’une de vos maisons !26 ». Already in the 1870s, Telghuys had started building high walls around her convent complexes in Antwerp and Kontich to shield her sister communities from the outside world. With the same purpose, she also bought most of the houses surrounding her convents and restricted the admittance of laypersons to the convent and the contacts of her sisters beyond the convent walls. In 1879, her congregation stopped teaching boys in accordance with the new prescriptions of Archbishop Dechamps, stipulating that it was unsuitable for nuns to teach boys beyond the age of their first communion27.

  • 28 ADHH, nr. 58. Legrelle toTelghuys (25.10.1881).
  • 29 ABA, File Dienstmaagden H. Harten, Telghuys to Dechamps (18.11.1879).
  • 30 ABA, File Dienstmaagden H. Harten, De Molder to Dechamps (19.03.1880).

17But Telghuys’s isolationist actions were much more than a conformation of clerical instructions. By implementing the new prescriptions, she also created opportunities to reinforce her own position and autonomy. Shielding her convents from the outside world also limited the impact of benefactors and parish priests on her congregation. Especially in Kontich, where the congregation occupied the castle of one of Telghuys’s old friends, the instructions of Dechamps were a perfect legitimation to stop the meddlesome interference of the former chatelaine28. In Antwerp, Telghuys’s aforementioned decision to stop teaching boys was in direct opposition with the policy of the local parish priest, Bogaerts successor Felix De Molder. As with many other teaching congregations, Telghuys, at De Molder’s request, had expanded her teaching apostolate at the beginning of the School War to be able to attract as many children as possible to her Catholic schools. But she soon realized that this placed a heavy organizational and financial burden on her congregation. She again used Dechamps’s new convent rules to legitimize her decision to stop teaching the boys of the parish. Accentuating the importance of « la sainte solicitude » of her convents, she freed her congregation from a part of the teaching costs and efforts29. Telghuys’s double-voiced use of clerical rules that essentially had a containing or even repressive character enabled her to accentuate her autonomous position. In a letter to Archbishop Dechamps, De Molder even characterized her as « […] cette Abbesse, qui est en guerre avec tout le monde »30.

  • 31 ADSJ, 1.3./3. Kestre to Dechamps (13.09.1881).

18In Brussels, Fanny Kestre developed a very similar strategy. Confronted with attempts by the diocesan authorities to appoint a regular confessor to her community, she sent every one of them away by stressing her loyalty to Archbishop Dechamps’s new instructions : « […] Votre Grandeur a stipulé lui-même que les prêtres ne peuvent pas se faire entrer dans les couvents31 ». She would only accept the spiritual support of Dechamps himself, something he, flattered by her attention, would eventually agree to, even if it was in contradiction with his own instructions. Only after the death of Kestre and Dechamps, in 1882 and 1883 respectively, would an official confessor and male director be appointed to the congregation.

Concluding remarks

19As all these examples have shown, nineteenth-century nuns were not confined to a position of mere submission or dependence. Their attitudes and discourse had a double-voiced tone of self-denial and obedience on the one hand and autonomy and power on the other. It offered them the opportunity to negotiate a very interesting position of female agency within the boundaries of the nineteenth-century church and society. Still, some important remarks have to be offered. First, this privileged position was only accessible for religious women at the top of congregations : founders, general superiors and their immediate entourage. Most of the ordinary sisters under their « command » were bound to a strict convent hierarchy and a tightly scheduled daily order that did not leave much room for personal initiative or autonomy. As was pointed out in several of the above-mentioned international studies, convent life did offer nuns some possibilities for spiritual self-fulfillment and professional development. But access to a « niche » of negotiating, double-voiced power with men and clerical authorities remained the privilege of the high-ranking women at the top.

20Second, the double-voiced discourse could be a means for creating possibilities for female agency, but equally well, it confirmed and even promoted stereotypes of the humble, submissive and obedient religious woman. By stressing the ideal of the suffering and modest pious women and the need for isolation from the secular world, leading female religious could push their sisters and the laywomen under their care in orphanages, schools or pious confraternities into a straitjacket of subservience and self-abnegation. The tragic story from one of Telghuys’s sisters is a perfect illustration of the ambiguous outcomes of the double-voice discourse. In 1872 Telghuys sent a serious reprimand to one of her sisters, Soeur Thérèse Oeyen (1843-1872), accusing her of a headstrong character :

  • 32 ADHH, nr. 5. Telghuys to Oeyen (1872).

Après votre orgueil qui en effet s’est rendu maître de votre volonté, vous aurez à combattre en premier lieu ce faux esprit d’activité qui vous absorbe. Vous êtes affairée de tout […]. Je surprends toujours en vous la préoccupation des choses qui ne vous regardent pas […]. Tachez de vous vaincre et de vous adapter à l’obéissance et l’abnégation32.

  • 33 ADHH, nr. 58. Telghuys to De Molder (7.06.1872).

21Sœur Thérèse was following a teaching course at the boarding school of the Ursuline Sisters of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Waver. In the winter of 1872, she suffered from a nasty cough for weeks. In accordance with the words of Telghuys, however, she did not want to bother anyone with her health problems. Eventually, she died, totally worn out by a fatal pneumonia, without even informing Telghuys of her illness. Her tragic death turned Sœur Thérèse from a stubborn sister into an exemplary religious. Telghuys praised her as an « exemple de pénitence, de résignation et de piété »33. In doing so, she clearly accentuated the ideal of the humble and suffering religious women. It was a discourse that had enabled her to legitimize and secure her own autonomy and power, but that fundamentally hampered the opportunities of others.

Notes

1 André Tihon, « Les religieuses en Belgique du xviiie au xxe siècle. Approche statistique », Revue Belge d’Histoire Contemporaine, 1976, n° 1-2, p. 32. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were almost 130 000 female religious in France, 40 251 (1901) in Italy, 40 030 in Spain, 50 000 (1908) in Germany, 8 000 (1901) in Ireland and 10 000 in England and Wales. See, respectively : Claude Langlois, « Les effectifs des congrégations féminines au xixe siècle », Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France, n° 164, 1974, p. 53 ; Giacomo Martina, « Italia. Gli istituti religiosi in Italia dalla Restaurazione a la fine dell’800 », in Giancarlo Rocca (éd.), Dizionario degli istitituti di perfezione, Rome, Ed. Paoline, 1978, p. 217-233 ; Soledad Miranda Garcíá, Religión y clero en la gran novela española del siglo xix, Madrid, Pegaso, 1982, p. 257-258 ; Margaret L. Anderson, « The Limits of Secularization : on the Problem of the Catholic Revival in Nineteenth-Century Germany », The Historical Journal, 1995, n° 38/3, p. 647-670 ; Susan O’Brien, « A Survey of Research and Writing about Roman Catholic Women’s Congregations in Great Britain and Ireland (1800-1950) », in Jan De Maeyer, Sofie Leplae, and Joachim Schmiedl (éd.), Religious Institutes in Western Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Historiography, Research and Legal Position, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2004, p. 109-110.

2 Allegonda J.M. Alkemade, Vrouwen XIX : geschiedenis van negentien religieuze congregaties, 1800-1850, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Malmberg, 1966. Claude Langlois, Le catholicisme au féminin : les congrégations françaises à supérieure générale au xixe siècle, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 1984. Giancarlo Rocca, Donne religiose : contributo a una storia della condizione femminile in Italia nei secoli xix-xx, Rome, Ed. Paoline, 1992. Susan O’Brien, « Terra Incognita : The Nun in Nineteenth-Century England », Past & Present, 1988, n° 1, p. 110-140.

3 Yvonne Turin, Femmes et religieuses au xixe siècle : le féminisme en religion, Paris, Nouvelle Cité, 1989. José Eijt, Religieuze vrouwen : bruid, moeder, zuster : geschiedenis van twee Nederlandse zustercongregaties, 1820-1940, Hilversum, Verloren, 1995. Yvonne Maria Werner (éd.), Nuns and Sisters in the Nordic Countries after the Reformation : a Female Counter-Culture in Modern Society, Uppsala, Swedish institute of missionary research, 2004. Barbra M. Wall, Unlikely Entrepreneurs : Catholic Sisters and the Hospital Marketplace, 1865-1925, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2005. Carmen M. Mangion, Contested identities : Active Women Religious in Nineteenth-Century England and Wales, London, University of London, 2008.

4 J. Eijt, op. cit., p. 35 (My translation from Dutch).

5 The female founders that will be studied in this contribution were part of the subject of my doctoral research on female religious in Belgium in the nineteenth century. For more information on their life stories, see : Kristien Suenens, Humble women, powerful nuns. A female struggle for autonomy in a men’s church, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2020 (forthcoming).

6 Jan De Maeyer and Staf Hellemans, « Katholiek reveil, katholieke zuilvorming en dagelijks leven », in Jaak Billiet (éd.), Tussen bescherming en verovering. Sociologen en historici over zuilvorming, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 1988, p. 171-200. Vincent Viaene, Belgium and the Holy See from Gregory XVI to Pius IX (1831-1859) : Catholic Revival, Society and Politics in 19th-Century Europe, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2001.

7 V. Viaene, op. cit., p. 186-189. Norbert Busch, « Die Feminisierung der Frömmigkeit », in Irmtraud Götz von Olenhusen (éd.), Wunderbare Erscheinungen. Frauen und katholische Frömmigkeit im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Paderborn, Schöningh, 1995, p. 209. Paula Kane, « ’She offered herself up’ : The Victim Soul and Victim Spirituality in Catholicism », Church History, 2002, n°1, p. 87-91. Richard Burton, Holy Tears, Holy Blood : Women, Catholicism, and the Culture of Suffering in France, 1840-1970, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. XVI-XVII.

8 For an introduction into the debate on the feminization thesis, see : Patrick Pasture, « Beyond the Feminization Thesis : Gendering the History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries », in Patrick Pasture, Jan Art, and Thomas Buerman (éd.), Gender and Christianity in Modern Europe : Beyond the Feminization Thesis, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2012, p. 7-33 ; Tine Van Osselaer and Thomas Buerman, « Feminization Thesis : A Survey of International Historiography and a Probing of Belgian Grounds », Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique, 2008, n°2, p. 497-544.

9 Watermael (Brussels), Archives of the Religieuses de l’Eucharistie (ARE), Cahier des Lettres 3, Anna de Meeûs to Caroline Cogels (12.08.1858).

10 About the history of this devotion, see : Luc Dequeker, Het sacrament van mirakel: Jodenhaat in de Middeleeuwen, Leuven, Davidsfonds, 2000.

11 ARE, Cahier des lettres 1, de Meeûs to Cogels (19.07.1862).

12 ARE, Rapport de l’Archiassociation (1854), p. 5.

13 Leuven (KADOC), Archives of the Dienstmaagden van de Heilige Harten (ADHH), nr. 13. Les châtiments du péché.

14 ADHH, nr. 16. Verest Manuscript, p. 67.

15 Rome, Archives of the Dames de Sainte-Julienne (ADSJ), 1.3/3. Kestre to Dechamps (17.10.1871)

16 ADSJ, 1.3./3. Kestre to Dechamps (ca. 1860).

17 ADSJ, 1.4. Dechamps to Kestre (20.10.1870).

18 For an historical analysis of Dechamps’s character and term of office, see : Vincent Viaene, « De ontplooiing van een ’vrije’ kerk (1830-1883) », in Jan De Maeyer et al. (éd.), Het aartsbisdom Mechelen-Brussel. 450 jaar geschiedenis, Antwerp, Halewijn, 2009, II, p. 35-99.

19 ADSJ, 1.4. Dechamps to Keste (10.11.1865).

20 ARE, Extraits traitant de l’origine, de Meeûs to Boone (29.07.1851).

21 Leuven (KADOC), Archives of the Flemish Jesuit Province (ABSE), 4.2.6. Jean-Baptiste Boone, nr. 1223. Commentary by Father De Buck.

22 ARE, Cahier des lettres 1, de Meeûs to Cogels (17.08.1853)

23 Anne Jacobus, « De vrouwelijke religieuzen (1834-1914) », in Michel Cloet (éd.), Het bisdom Brugge (1559-1984). Bisschoppen, priesters, gelovigen, Bruges, Westvlaams Verbond van Kringen voor Heemkunde, 1985, p. 427. Jan Art, Kerkelijke structuur en pastorale werking in het bisdom Gent tussen 1830 en 1914, Kortrijk, UGA, 1977, p. 68. Victor Dechamps, Instructions adressées aux communautés des religieuses du diocèse de Malines, Mechelen, H. Dessain, 1874.

24 C. Langlois, Le catholicisme au féminin, p. 85. G. Rocca, op. cit., p. 189.

25 Emiel Lamberts, « Het ultramontanisme in België 1830-1914 », in Emiel Lamberts (éd.), De kruistocht tegen het liberalisme. Facetten van ultramontanisme in België in de 19de eeuw, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 1984, p. 50-52. Vincent Viaene, « The Roman Question. Catholic Mobilisation and Papal Diplomacy during the Pontificate of Pius IX », in Emiel Lamberts (éd.), The Black International. The Holy See and Militant Catholicism in Europe, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2002, p. 143-175. Christopher Clark, « The New Catholicism and the European Culture Wars », in Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser (éd.), Culture Wars. Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 21-23.

26 ADHH, nr. 183. De Beukelaer to Taylor (12.09.1884).

27 ADHH, nr. 69. Reports (22.04.1873, 20.04.1875). Antwerp, Archives of the Diocese of Antwerp (ABA), File Dienstmaagden H. Harten, Telghuys to Dechamps (18.11.1879).

28 ADHH, nr. 58. Legrelle toTelghuys (25.10.1881).

29 ABA, File Dienstmaagden H. Harten, Telghuys to Dechamps (18.11.1879).

30 ABA, File Dienstmaagden H. Harten, De Molder to Dechamps (19.03.1880).

31 ADSJ, 1.3./3. Kestre to Dechamps (13.09.1881).

32 ADHH, nr. 5. Telghuys to Oeyen (1872).

33 ADHH, nr. 58. Telghuys to De Molder (7.06.1872).

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