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Conference Report: Historians of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) 2017 Annual Conference



Bridget Harrison and Alison More

The annual History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland conference was organised by the H-WRBI ( and was held at University College, Dublin over the 8th and 9th of June 2017. Day one of the conference boasted a wide array of panels organised thematically. A  Papers covered several historical eras, from the medieval period to the recent past.   Questions were taken immediately after each paper, enabling audience members to travel between concurrent panels.   After a short introduction from the conference chairperson, Deirdre Raftery (University College, Dublin), the ‘Writing Women Religious’ panel began. Chaired by the archivist for the Society of the Sacred Heart, Barbara Vesey, it examined representations of female religious congregations created both by their members and by those outside of their communities. A standout paper from this was Christine Anderson (Xavier University, Cincinnati) Sister Justina Segale’s Ireland’s Easter Day’ which examined the transnational identity of the early twentieth century American Catholic Church, framed by an Italian-American Sister’s interest in the Irish 1916 Rising.

During ‘Women Religious and Their Work’ Ine McHugh (IBVM General Archives) gave a fascinating talk on how the papers of a former superior, M. Michael Corcoran, were deliberately archived in such a way as to shed light on contemporary conflicts during her tenure. In the concurrent panel, ‘Sources: Digital, Documentary, Film’, Maynooth University’s Jacinta Prunty outlined the challenges of using archival sources to create a history of Magdalene asylums. She gained this insight during the preparation of her upcoming book Our Lady of Charity in Ireland, 1853-1973 (Dublin: Columba Press, 2017). Independent film-maker Edel Robinson then gave a talk on the production and reception of documentaries made by Irish Catholic missionary societies in the mid-twentieth century. Most intriguing was her note that Archbishop Charles McQuaid insisted that footage of a caesarian section be censored in the Dublin release of the film, hinting at differing priorities and between the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the women religious on the ground.

After lunch, the conference continued with one of two talks entitled ‘Sources and Interpretations’ . Each of these papers explored how various women religious’ actions were interpreted by their contemporaries, and how their legacy developed. Bren Ortega Murphy (Loyola University Chicago) gave an excellent talk entitled Dressing for Success’ in which she discussed the consequences of women religious foregoing religious attire and examined the semiotics of formal and informal uniforms in this context. She gave particular insight into the risk of fetishizing piety by keeping the habit, and the implication that the appearance of religiosity could supersede action in the public consciousness.

Susan O’Brien (University of Cambridge) gave the keynote address. Tying her talk into the launch of her new book, Leaving God for God: the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Britain, 1847-2017 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2017) O’Brien outlined the methodology she used when producing a history of the Daughters of Charity in England. Her address gave an overview of the history of this community, before delving into the use of public and archival sources, the difficulties in creating a history spanning 150 years, the sensitivity of addressing recent clerical abuse scandals and the challenges of giving voice to a multiplicity of experiences. The speech was engaging, detailed and balanced and attendees were excited about her new book which can be purchased here:

Despite addressing what could be seen as a narrow topic, the conference was noteworthy for the diversity of subjects and approaches represented. The organisers’ decision to include papers addressing women religious globally, rather than focusing exclusively on Britain and Ireland as had been done in previous years, helped assure that the talks were varied and illustrated broader transnational connections. The conference theme ‘Sources and the history of women religious, medieval to modern’ gave a central focus, while still attracting speakers from a broad range of disciplines and professional backgrounds. The mix of academics, archivists and independent researchers also assured varied and lively discussion of the material presented, both during the formal panel discussions and in the breaks between.

Bridget Harrison is a 3rd year Ph.D. student based at Queen’s University Belfast, currently researching cultural representations of women religious in nineteenth-century Ireland. Her research is generously funded by the AHRC as part of the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership.


Day two of the conference continued to offer a variety of panels organised by theme. As we had discovered on the first day, this facilitated complex discussions of issues that transcended limitations of both time and geography, which continued during coffee and lunch breaks. Again, questions were taken immediately after each paper to allow participants to move between panels held in adjoining rooms. The offerings of the day were grouped into ‘Archives and Histories’, ‘Sources and Interpretations (II-III)’, and ‘Founding, Financing and Sustaining’.

As any scholar of women religious knows, taking a flexible and multi-disciplinary approach to sources can often yield new and surprising insights. Kristof Smeyers began the first panel by discussing his work on a database of female stigmatics. In his paper, ‘Between Saints and Celebrities’, Smeyers both introduced the phenomenon of stigmata, and illustrated the complexities of exploring the roles this phenomenon played in female sanctity. In particular, Smeyers discussed both the challenges faced by his project team and the ways in which non-traditional archival material (including the occasional envelope of fingernails) can shed light on the cultural history of the promotion and popular response to mysticism.

The next two papers in this session explored written sources. Roberta Anderson introduced writings from the final years of the Monastery of the Glorious Assumption of our Blessed Lady. Founded in 1565/7 in Brussels, this community had a long and complex history. Fears of suppression by revolutionary forces brought this community back to England in 1794, where it existed until its eventual closure in 1976. Anderson’s paper concentrated on the final years of the community in which the sisters faced difficulties including responding to the liturgical changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. At the same time the sisters were far from removed from the secular world and greeted England’s 1966 World Cup win with the words  ‘Deo gratias! Deo gratias.’ The session closed with Veronica O’Mara’s paper, which explored the tradition of textuality among pre-modern religious women. Focussing on a psalter linked with Syon Abbey bearing the names of two Birgittine nuns, O’Mara demonstrated some of the glimpses of the literary and intellectual culture of convents that are revealed in manuscripts.

The second session on sources began with Alison More exploring the ways in which official order histories have been used to obscure the vital and vibrant role that women religious played in the pre-modern world. This was followed by Bronagh McShane’s insightful commentary on the difficulties in constructing a history of Irish women in early modern Continental religious houses. Focussing primarily on the Dominican convent of Bom Sucesso in Lisbon, McShane explored the ways that unexplored records and sources can contribute to our understanding of early modern Irish women in exile. The session closed with Nuria Jornet-Benito and Concepcion Rodre­guez-Parada introducing the exciting work of the network ‘Spiritual Landscapes’, a project that explores the transformation of women’s religiosity in the Iberian kingdoms. Here, they both introduced a confraternity book (the Libre de Confraria del Roser del any 1489) and discussed its potential uses for a broader investigation of devotional societies.

In parallel sessions, scholars explored various insights into the world of religious archiving. Barbara Vesey and Eibhlis Connaughton explored the challenges of balancing expectations of researchers and community as a lay archivist in a religious order. Jennifer Head spoke about women religious and the sciences, leading to numerous twitter posts about a ‘Flying nun’. Caroline Watkinson challenged the mythology of passivity and renunciation to examine convents as political institutions. Other scholars focused on convent finance. Again, papers showed that some issues and concerns transcended temporal borders as Sarah Moran examined the ways in which account books from Court Beguinages in the early modern Low Countries offered insights into both the daily life and social role of beguine communities. Catriona Delaney examined finances in the modern world, with a particular focus on the Presentation Sisters in Ireland.

As with day one, the conference included an impressive and enlightening diversity of sources and subjects relating to the history of women religious. The mix of both disciplines and approaches helped to illustrate the many contributions that women religious have made to all aspects of society., often while appearing to remain on the margins. The broad appeal of our discussions both in the panels and elsewhere is indicated on twitter, with #nuntastic often appearing alongside #HWRBI17. The live tweets allowed the Dublin experience to be shared by absent H-WRBI colleagues and nun-enthusiasts throughout the world.

Alison More’s research investigates the intersections between social and religious culture of in Northern Europe from 1250 to 1450. She is particularly interested in the evolution of female quasi-religious groups, especially those whose history is often ignored. This is explored in her forthcoming book, Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities.


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