Women Religious and Their Work of History in Canada, 1639-1978: A Starting Point for Analysis

By Smyth, Elizabeth | Historical Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Women Religious and Their Work of History in Canada, 1639-1978: A Starting Point for Analysis


Smyth, Elizabeth, Historical Studies


1 This paper is part of a series which analyzes the historical significance of the work women religious in English Canada. The author acknowledges the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The author thanks the Leadership Teams and the Archivists of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Toronto, the Religious of the Precious Blood and the Ursulines of the Chatham Union, as well of the Archivists of the Congregation de Notre Dame, for providing access to the records analyzed here. Thanks to colleagues in the study of women religious, the members of the Womprof Network, and the anonymous CCHA reviewers, for their comments on earlier versions of this work.

In her 1994 work, American Women Writers and the Work of History 1790-1860, Nina Baym argues that the contributions to the writing of history made by pre-Civil War American women have been largely disregarded. Her study illustrates the ways in which women's work in the writing of history and historically-based literature "testifies powerfully to the inadequacy of current gender-based distinctions between the public and private spheres, of beliefs that cults of true womanhood or ideologies of domesticity confined female literary behaviour to overtly celebrating or subtextually undermining women's domestic incarceration." (1)

Baym describes her subjects as "Christian republican women." She reports that through their "work for women, for the nation, for God ... [they] participated[d] directly and extensively in the print discourses of the national public life." (2) It is apparent that Baym has defined Christian as Protestant for she overlooks the historical writings of Catholic secular women in general, and of women religious in particular. Had she chosen to include these Christian women, especially the latter, within her sample, she would have found herself questioning even further "current gender-based distinctions between the public and private sphere."

This paper draws attention to the diversity of the historical writings by women religious in Canada, using the arrival of the first women religious in Quebec as a beginning and 1978 as an ending date. The latter date was chosen as representative of the implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the changes in the demographic profile of the religious communities and on the eve of the impact of the feminist scholarship on historical writing.

While women religious are recognized among the first women drawn to teaching, nursing, and social work, their role as writers of history, especially the history of women, is not. With the 1639 arrivalof the nursing religious of the Augustines de La Misercorde de Jesus and teaching Ursulines, the historical writings of women religious began in Canada. The Ursuline Mere Marie de L'Incarnation was one of the first social historians of New France. Contemporary historians of French Canada, especially recent feminist historians, and historians of French-speaking religious orders, have taken inspiration from the words of Marie de L'Incarnation, that "writing reveals to us our mysteries." (3) Through an analysis of the writings of these women religious, historians have come to learn more about their lives and the wider secular and ecclesiastical communities in which they operated. While there is a large and growing body of scholarship on French-Canada and Quebecbased orders, there has been limited research done on the orders of English Canada. This paper begins to fill this void.

Curiously, the first work of fiction by a Canadian-born author is Judith Hart Beckwith's St. Ursula's Convent or the Nun of Canada, published in 1824. This work appeared some seventeen years before three members of the Congregation de Notre Dame began to work with the schools of Kingston, Upper Canada. The following year (1842) saw the arrival of the Irish Presentation Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy in St. John's, Newfoundland. These were quickly followed by another Irish order, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who came to Toronto in 1847 and the Sisters of Charity of New York, who began their work in Halifax in 1849. …

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