NOT QUITE SISTERS

Reviewed by Flo Goslin, St Michael’s House Services Dublin

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I found this book informative, personal and enjoyable. It covers the history of two Catholic convents in Britain that were home to a large number of women with learning difficulties. It explores the daily life of the residents, and how changes in the Catholic Church and in British social policies the social policies were reflected in the residents’ experiences.

Drama teacher Mary Stuart was asked to hold a class for a group of women from one of the convents. She found them ‘polite in an old-fashioned way’. She felt affinity with the women because she herself had been left by her mother at a convent as a young child and had spent school time in a special class, having been labelled ‘remedial’ because of spelling difficulties.

In Britain in the 1880s, women of religion (nuns) took ‘good works’ very seriously and exemplified the ideals of the virtuous women of the Bible. The Daughters of the Mother of God (the author uses pseudonyms for the religious order and the convents) had two convents in London which were the setting of this book: ‘Angel Convent’ and ‘Mother Convent’. The aims and structures of both convents were the same. They provided a home, a ‘haven from the wicked world’. Some saw themselves as being so pure and good that the convent was a refuge from the outside world, while others were sent to the convent because of their own fall from grace, e.g. unmarried mothers. To remind women of their sins, they had a laundry which served the locality. They had a farm with orchards, poultry and home-grown vegetables. The girls worked on the farms but they were not allowed to speak to the men who ran them.

In 1969, there were a hundred women residents in the two convents. Originally the Catholic organisations had been opposed to Britain’s welfare state and continued to operate independently of it. But following the Second Vatican Council, which brought exciting, and threatening, changes—more inclusion and modernisation—to the convent communities, they eventually entered into a partnership with other organisations in the provision of care. Once the convents accepted DMSS payments for the women residents, convent organisations had to redefine their identity as providers of care, within state policy and legislaiton. Each resident was assessed to ascertain their needs and lifestyles.

Mary Stuart spent eight years working with the women. Some communicated verbally; others used pictures (which are included in the book). Because the convents had been the women’s only home, and few records had been kept, it was the women’s own stories and photographs that provided their personal histories. Although some did feel that they had had some say in going into the convent homes, most of them had been much influenced by parents or guardians. On arrival they had had their haircut and were given convent clothes. For many, there was no further contact with their own family, and convent life became their ‘family’. They were called ‘girls’ by the ‘sisters’ and ‘mother’. There was also a hierarchical structure among the girls—some were given more responsibility and certain chores to do, while others remained with little responsibility.

Although the work in the convents was tough, and life was very structured, it gave the women a sense of security and self-esteem; they felt they belonged to the convent, the Church and the wider community. They had a sense of pride in their work. The women enjoyed working silently alongside the sisters in the laundry—work which was seen as symbolically feminine (cleanliness and purity). Farmwork was seen as dirty and of lower value—more like men’s work.

When allowances replaced the need for farm and laundry income, it became more lucrative to sell the land. Many of the women felt that they lost their identity. How they occupied their leisure time also reflected the changing times. Early in the twentieth century, leisure consisted of two evening hours of conversation, sewing or knitting, perhaps with a sister playing the piano. The liturgical calendar was important, with church festivals celebrated with many rituals. Later on, the women became more involved in activities in their community—drama, bazaars etc. Summer holidays abroad took over from the previous practice of visiting other convent houses. Their leisure activities changed from communal to individual pastimes—TV and cassettes were in individual rooms—and with the loss of communal-recreation, individuals sometimes felt a sense of loneliness. The ‘girls’ had not been allowed to mature or grow sexually—menstruation, relationships, men were not subjects for discussion. Control, denial and fantasy resulted in considerable vulnerability and, in some cases, abuse. They were kept in a child’s role and were not encouraged to take personal responsibility for themselves.

In 1990, with no longer enough nuns to run the convent administration, the mother convent closed and the residents moved into the community. The move occurred within two years, and unfortunately the hasty changes resulted in many of the former occupants feeling abandoned in a world they did not know. Angel Convent continued, for a period of time, to hold adult education classes which the women enjoyed attending. Opinions varied among the women—some wanted to move out of the ‘prison’ of convent life. Some wanted to stay within its security. Others wanted to move, but to maintain the support and contact of staff and friends.

Mary Stuart feels that the voices of people with learning difficulties must be included, and celebrated, in social history accounts. But we must not expect to hear just one voice from all those involved.

NOT QUITE SISTERS: Women with learning difficulties living in convent homes by Mary Stuart. BILD Publications, Plymouth (2002) ISBN 1 902519 86 8. Paperback, Stg£18.95 (plus p&p).

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