- The Congrégation de Notre-Dame, Superiors, and the Paradox of Power, 1693 - 1796
Colleen Gray has assumed a challenging task of reconstructing the history of a cloistered community that was by design less focused on this world than the next. Gray takes up the story of the nuns of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in 1693, forty years after the community had been founded by the famous Marguerite Bourgeoys, when Bourgeoys handed over leadership of the convent to her successor Marie Barbier. Bishop Saint-Vallier [End Page 563] took advantage of this transfer of power to enforce his authority by way of a written constitution. Since 1676, when the Catholic Church had given official approval, the bishop had the right to draw up formal rules for the conduct of the community, but it was not until Saint-Vallier that any had exercised this right. At first the sisters protested the new restrictions placed on them. They had considered themselves 'women of the parish' who dedicated themselves to God's work in the community. Saint-Vallier mandated that they would henceforth be cloistered, not even permitted to speak to outsiders without permission, that they take formal vows of chastity and obedience to a new hierarchy of authority, and that dowries would be required for entry into the convent. At first, the sisters were outraged and protested these changes, but they had no choice but to submit to the bishop's authority. Gray contends that this did not necessarily mean that the Congrégation de Notre-Dame was oppressed by this change, but she makes this claim by focusing on the spiritual aspect of their life. It would have been interesting if Gray had compared the functioning of the community before and after the leadership of Bourgeoys, but she does not.
Gray argues that, despite the new restrictions, the sisters did retain close ties and were integrated with the larger community in many ways. She has meticulously mined the fragmentary sources available to her, rendered all the more difficult by losses over time and the numerous fires that ravaged the convent over the centuries. She finds that family ties bound the nuns to the secular life, and as teachers of girls they were also connected to the outside world. Furthermore, they had missions in remote communities where the sisters could not be properly cloistered. Indeed, those returning from the less-restricted life at such postings often posed discipline problems for their superior. Also, in more practical ways, worldly connections were unavoidable. The congregation needed to buy supplies and services, often received in-kind property for dowry payments, and sought loans during troubled times. In particular, they were property owners, involved in real estate transactions, renting out their land and hiring men to maintain it.
Gray also examines the power of the convent's superiors, examining three for whom there are historical records - Marie Barbier, Marie-Josèph Maugue-Garreau, and Marie Raizenne. She finds that they did exercise power and may not have always submitted without complaint to the bishop, even though they expressed their outward obedience in a conventional manner. Marie Barbier, in particular, had an extraordinary relationship with her confessor Charles de Glandelet, who supported her in her extreme methods of self-chastisement, which can only be described as cruelly masochistic. I was struck by the emotional intensity of their acknowledgement of each other's insight into their souls, which to this secular reader seemed to go rather beyond mutual religious concern. [End Page 564]
Gray does not want to argue, as she contends that historians such as Marta Danylewycz have done, that life in a convent could be a source of liberation for women. Yet she does see it as an option that could often be more attractive than marriage and motherhood, and that it did have spiritual meaning and purpose. She sees power manifested in the lives of the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, but ultimately concludes that it was...