In the Habit of Independence: Cross-Border Politics and Feminism in Two World War I Plays by Sister Mary Agnes

Article excerpt

This article examines the life and playwriting of Sister Mary Agnes who wrote a large oeuvre of plays, largely for girls, while living and working in Winnipeg's St. Mary's Academy between 1909 and 1928. It examines her biography, religious order, and professional work in order to elucidate the bold political positions expressed in two of her plays, "A Patriot's Daughter" and The Red Cross Helpers: A Patriotic Play. It endeavours to answer the question, what made it possible for a Catholic nun living in the heavily charged political environment of Winnipeg at the time of the First World War to express views that were contrary to that political environment and to do so in plays for young high school girls?

Cet article porte sur la vie et les oeuvres dramatiques de Soeur Mary Agnes. Entre 1909 et 1928, Soeur Agnes a vecu et travaille a la St. Mary's Academy a Winnipeg. C'est durant cette periode qu'elle a compose un grand nombre de pieces de theatre destinees surtout aux filles. Cet article analyse sa vie, sa congregation religieuse et son travail professionnel afin d'illustrer les positions politiques hardies exprimees dans deux de ses pieces : << A Patriot's Daughter >> et The Red Cross Helpers : A Patriotic Play. L'objectif de cette etude est de repondre a la question suivante : comment expliquer qu'une religeuse catholique vivant dans l'atmosphere politique tendue de Winnipeg a l'epoque de la Premiere Guerremondiale soit capable d'exprimer des opinions allant a l'encontre des politiques de la periode et de le faire par le biais d'un theatre pour jeunes collegiennes?

Sister Mary Agnes wrote more plays in Canada than did any woman of her generation. She published and performed by far the greatest majority in Winnipeg at St. Mary's Academy, a long-established Catholic girls' school, run by the Quebec Order of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary to which she belonged. One source estimates she penned nearly 70 plays. (2) This, in and of itself, is genuinely remarkable. What is even more remarkable is the fact that two of these plays, "A Patriot's Daughter" and The Red Cross Helpers: A Patriotic Play, works that bookend the First World War, are politically charged theatre that put her directly at odds with the dominant community in Winnipeg at the time. The content of both plays is provocative because of the ways in which it critiques or dismisses the British Empire, unabashedly celebrates American ideology, and endorses a woman-centred view of the world.

What made it possible for a woman living in Canada in this social and political climate to voice such adversarial, potentially volatile views in plays that were written to be staged by high-school-age girls? To understand what liberated Sister Agnes to write such plays is to imagine the complicated social, political, and religious location she occupied and how it positioned her as an outsider in Winnipeg. She was an American-born Irish-Catholic nun married to a French-Canadian order. She remained an American citizen all of her life. Given that both Irish-Catholic and American histories have been formed, to a great extent, out of their resistance against the British, Sister Agnes would have been well versed in the discourses of political independence and understandably alienated from British-identified, Protestant-run Winnipeg during the First World War. A missionary who stayed relatively briefly in most places, she was always an outsider, living in semi-seclusion in the all-female community of a convent. Her sense of autonomy and entitlement to express herself was fostered by this unique environment. In Winnipeg she lived in pastoral, privileged Crescentwood, where she rose to the highest ranks of her profession, teaching university courses and mentoring the daughters of Winnipeg's first families to enter a social and professional milieu that produced the most successful suffrage movement in the country. Her literary voice and career were condoned by her order and her plays were recognized by them as part of her religious obediences. …