Dr Ann Power gave the March 2022 CHAS talk about the Sisters of St Brigid in Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow on Wednesday 16 March at 8pm. The talk was also be live-streamed via Zoom and Facebook. and unfortunately we had an incident of hacking which resulted in the final piece of the talk not being viewable for viewers.

Ann holds a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin and a BA and MA from Carlow College. She is the author of ‘The Brigidine Sisters in Ireland, America, Australia and New Zealand, 1807-1922‘.

More commonly known as the Brigidines, the order was the first of the 19th century phenomenon of simple-vowed congregations that spread rapidly throughout Ireland. It was founded in 1807 in Tullow by Daniel Delany, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin.

These congregations were the driving force that built ‘an unparalleled network of educational and care-giving institutions’ for the Catholic Church not only in Ireland but in the Americas and Australasia.

While today’s diminishing number of Brigidine Sisters have sought new ways of being open to society’s needs, Dr Power will look at Brigidine history to explore and give a secular perspective on aspects of their lives, not as educators but as consecrated celibate women religious. The talk provides brief insights into a way of religious life that was hidden from the public eye; for instance, on chastity, asceticism, lesbianism or, as it was known, ‘a particular friendship’, and social class within the convent.

Dr Power noted in relation to chastity, the then accepted understanding of the Catholic Church was that ‘the state of the nun is holier than the state of the wife’. Chastity was regarded as the means to spiritual perfection. In seeking perfection, the sisters practised an asceticism where they voluntarily undertook the practise of an austere self-denying penitential life; for example, self-flagellation. Because that journey to spiritual perfection could be affected by a loving friendship between two sisters, it led to a fear within the convent authorities of it becoming a ‘particular friendship’. The taboos and enforced prohibitions against it were a constant in all convents. Undeniably, the fear of lesbian relationships, the ‘scandal of the particular’, seriously affected religious life.        

Another relationship, the social class distinction between the choir and the lay sisters, was often too strongly and unkindly insisted upon. The former taught in the schools, while the latter, who were of a humbler background, were responsible for the domestic functioning and labours of the convent. The class distinction ended in 1953 at the insistence of Australian mother general Mother Chanel Gough (1953-71) and was much to the chagrin of some of the Irish superiors.

Still, becoming a Brigidine sister in the 19th and early 20th century provided a safe and, most probably, fulfilled existence in an all-female organisation. It gave the sisters a means to centre on their spiritual life, to have respect, and a role either of domestic service in the case of the lay sisters or in the case of the choir sisters a recognised profession and an opportunity for leadership and advancement. In the latter case, these were opportunities not available within society in general at that period.

To view Dr Powers talk is available to view and listen at here or on the CHAS YouTube channel.

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