Tag Archives: hospital sisters

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Identities on the Italian Peninsula

by Joseph George Akl

On September 29th, 2023, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of varieties of religious life on the Italian peninsula. Four invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all 44 participants prior to the online meeting:

  • Mary Harvey Doyno, “Roman Women: Female Religious, the Papacy, and a Growing Dominican Order,” Speculum 97, no. 4 (2022): 1040–72.
  • Thomas Luongo, “Catherine of Siena’s Advice to Religious Women,” Specula 3 (2022): 99–124.
  • Ashley Tickle Odebiyi, “Betwixt and Between: The Formation of Non-Cloistered Religious Women’s Identities in Rome, 1400-1600,” 2–31. This unpublished chapter is from an upcoming monograph.
  • Thérèse Peeters, “To Overcome Distrust: Three Religious Initiatives by Genoese Women,” in Trust in the Catholic Reformation, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 231 (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 182–229.
    • The introduction from this publication (pages 1-36) was also circulated for additional context.

Each paper focused on the question of identity using the Italian peninsula as a case study. As is often the case with non-cloistered religious women, the issue around nomenclature was central. However, the aim of the discussion was not to box-in (or, in a manner, cloister!) these women, but to uncover their multifold identities and find non-cloistered religious women in sources where they have been overlooked.

Mary Harvey Doyno, associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Religious Studies at Sacramento State University, centered her discussion on the growth of the universal convent of San Sisto envisioned by Pope Innocent III and achieved by Honorius III (with the help of Dominic of Caleruega). She argued that, by considering Cecilia of Rome’s Miracula beati Dominici alongside the extant charter evidence from Santa Maria in Tempuli, she was able to give more visibility to Roman women religious and Dominicans, albeit one that was tied to the attempt to cloister all of Rome’s women religious.

Thomas Luongo, associate professor of history and the director of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Tulane University, focused his short presentation on the loaded question of Catherine of Siena’s identity as a woman religious. He asked what Catherine’s conception of her life and vocation was, and if we can even speak of a formal vocation when discussing Catherine’s identity – one that is completely idiosyncratic. Lunogo argued that Raymond of Capua’s life of Catherine positions her as following the Dominican order, even suggesting her as a friar, an identity that fits into Catherine’s advice of claustration to some women while never cloistering herself. Catherine’s lifestyle was an impossible one and Luongo added that if we try to make it work, pushing Catherine into the box of laity or of religious life, we ignore the tension at play.

Next, Ashley Tickle Odebiyi, assistant professor of history at Arizona State University, focused her discussion on the bizzoche of Rome and how, though each bizzoche house was associated with a different order, such as the Benedictines, Franciscans, or Dominicans, these women had networks and identities that crossed the borders of the male orders. Despite the limited extant documentation for some of these houses, Odebiyi has found commonalities between the Roman bizzoche in their clothing, affective piety, and service to the poor – a lens she believes is important to apply to the study of non-cloistered religious women in general, drawing on similarities between beguines, beatas, bizzoche and others.

Finally, Thérèse Peeters, author of Trust in the Catholic Reformation, asked what role did trust play in the post-Tridentine Church in general, a period characterised by distrust, especially of female religious. This distrust was exemplified by Genoa’s seventeenth-century magistrato delle monache which supervised and controlled female religious life in the city. Peeters examined three religious groups, the Turchine, Medee, and Brignoline, that, despite this climate, arose during the period in Genoa. She discussed the interplay between trust and freedom, with the freedom of choice, spirituality and movement increasing the women’s view of the trustworthiness of their own religious project, while similarly increasing the distrust of those whose support they needed. Peeters found that a higher level of trust was necessary for the women religious who acted publicly, while lower levels of trust were needed for religious groups who kept a lower profile.

The discussion began with Alison More asking about the interplay between identity and order. Mary Harvey Doyno answered that she is trying to understand this very thing. San Sisto is associated with the Dominican Order but it is clear that the friars did not think of it as theirs, at least not in the modern understanding of affiliation. At opportune times the friars point to San Sisto as an example of women in their order, but the relationship is never fully clear. Thomas Luongo also answered saying that, of course, Raymond of Capua did not wish to make Catherine a friar, this is impossible, but just as Mary Magdalene was a model for some, Catherine was made into a model for the friars. Luongo wished to underscore the difficulty (or the missing-the-point) of trying to clarify identities with labels.

Adrian Kammerer next asked two questions. First, he wanted more information on Amata from Cecilia’s Miracula who had spirits expelled from her by Dominic of Caleruega, as she does not seem to be cloistered even later in the writings. Second, he wondered if the charters from Santa Maria in Tempuli discussed by Doyno complicated not only the distinction between nuns and other sisters, but also the one between conversae and other sisters. Doyno answered that though she wished she had more information on Amata, it is not clear what becomes of her from the documentation. As for the second statement, she agreed that this understanding can be broadened to include semi-religious women, and how she was interested by the abbesses’ attempts to nod to a larger community of women, outside of the smaller community of nuns. The fact that this larger community was involved in guarding the convent’s patrimony is understood by Doyno as a red flag for Innocent III or Honorius III, aiding the idea of a universal convent.

Maiju Lehmijoki Wetzel asked if it was too radical to assert that the Dominican Order did not exist before women were involved. Doyno answered that, though radical, the statement identifies that the institution, and therefore perhaps the identity, is formed around a process of including everybody but giving women a clear, contained space. Luongo specified that even during Catherine of Siena’s life, the identity of the order was still being articulated. There is a clarity organisationally for men that does not exist for women. It is this lack of organisation for the women that brings these questions. However, Luongo added that if one digs deeper, there is a variety in the friars’ identities as well, which could also bring a (diverse) range of issues.

Michèle Mulchahey stated that in the discussion on the tension between the cura monialium and mendicancy, scholarship focuses on the friars’ relationships with women, but, with women being cloistered, there were also the problems linked with property and ownership. Would this not be a real stumbling block to including women into the order? Doyno agreed but added that in her reading of the situation, the convent of San Sisto really remained under the control of the papacy, who had asked Dominic for assistance. So there were no real issue of the properties of women creating a problem with the friars’ mendicancy during the thirteenth century. Luongo wondered if, by Catherine’s time, there is a sense that this concern has folded into the situation concerning the Dominican Reform. He added that it is often forgotten that during Catherine life there was a female Dominican community in Sienna that interacted with Catherine and the mantellate.

Sioban Nelson asked Doyno to explain her comment that the Church needed this universal convent to grow. Doyno responded that though there was a resource element to this need, Innocent III had the idea to create a Church for the entirety of Christendom and to be able to articulate authority in this way. This amorphous growth is what she conceptualised when stating that this was needed for the Church to grow.

Carla Thomas asked if we should think of Catherine having a vocation in her time or are we projecting a modern notion onto her when saying this. Dr. Luongo suggested that “vocation” is probably a term we are using with a modern sense and that it is not entirely applicable.

Isabelle Cochelin asked if these women were allowed to choose their confessors or spiritual advisors. Peeters answered that the smaller of the three female groups in Genoa, the Medee, had this choice and they often picked the Jesuits. The cloistered women in Genoa had this decision made for them. Odebiyi gave the example of Santa Francesca who chose two confessors in her life, neither one coming from the Benedictines of Mount Olivet with whom her house of bizzoche was affiliated. Doyno was unsure and said that the sources seem to suggest that Dominic was selected for the women rather than the other way around. Luongo answered that even though Catherine made everything seem like a choice, the choice of confessor was made for her. However, she had a close relationship to Raymond of Capua, who berated Catherine’s early confessors in his work.

Michael Hahn enquired as to when the term “Dominican” is first used as well as asking if we are perhaps imposing a modern identity onto the period when using the terms “Dominican” or “Franciscan” to speak of the orders. Doyno answered that the appellation “Order of Preachers” was used during Innocent III’s reign and that Amanda Power has dealt with this historiographical issue for the Franciscans. She answered that thinking about the historical narrative being fabricated when we connect these non-cloistered religious women to the mendicant orders is important, as Alison More has written, but this fabricated narrative also gives us the false sense that there is a coherent identity for the mendicants earlier than there was. Odebiyi added that her sources use the terms Third Order of Saint Francis and then pinzochere in the same documents, which complicates the understanding of these women’s identity. This is why she has opted to simply use the term bizzoche instead of tertiaries. Michèle Mulchahey added that the earliest use of the term ordo in relation to the Dominicans was to designate their propositum and refered to their preaching.

Delfi Nieto-Isabel summarised the major themes of this meeting’s discussion asking if we are boxing in the non-cloistered religious women when trying to categorise them and impose identities onto them. She asked if this was a heritage handed down to us by the Church authorities of the period and if, ultimately, these are useless categories, even when thinking across the north-south European border. Doyno agreed and brought to light the fact that this confusion does not happen with male groups, and Odebiyi added that this categorisation comes from the sources, which can obscure real commonalities between groups. Peeters specified that for the women she studied, categorisation depends on the type of project the women were trying to set up. Sometimes a fluid identity can serve a group. Luongo added that not all had access to Latin, through which many ideas were spread, which can lead to some of the regional divides

Jeanne le Ber (1662–1714): A Recluse in New France

by Laura Moncion

Walking into the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montréal, Québec, one could be forgiven for overlooking the simple marble plaque attached to the north-eastern wall. This marble slab marks the place where in 2005, amid much pomp and ceremony, were placed the mortal remains of Jeanne le Ber, the first known recluse of New France.[1]

Jeanne lived in a period when Ville-Marie was filled with non-cloistered religious women. Many of them were associated with the Hôtel Dieu hospital, or the teaching sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, the foundations of which are attributed to two women, Jeanne Mance and Marguerite Bourgeoys, both non-cloistered religious for much of their lives. These women are considered today as important figures in the history of Montréal. 

Jeanne le Ber is less well-known, despite her recognition and status in her own time. Among several texts written about her, the earliest surviving is a spiritual biography written by the Sulpician Father François Vachon de Belmont (1645–1732) and sent in 1722 to his superiors in Paris as part of a report on sanctity in New France.[2]

According to Belmont’s biography, Jeanne was born into one of the more wealthy and respectable families of Ville-Marie. Her godparents were Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the governor of the colony, and Jeanne Mance herself. She was educated at the Ursuline house in Québec City, where, Belmont writes, she developed a particular interest in penitence and devotion to the Eucharist. Around the age of fifteen, her parents brought her back to Ville-Marie in order to enter the marriage market. Rather than accept any of the proposals made to her, or join a monastery or another female religious house, Jeanne ended up living in reclusion in her father’s house for around fifteen years. At age seventeen, she took a vow of chastity, valid for five years, and at age twenty-two a vow of perpetual virginity. Belmont frames these fifteen years as a period of transition, with Jeanne moving more and more decisively away from worldly interests—although he admits that she did not give them up completely. As a key reason for Jeanne’s choice of individual reclusion over life in a monastery, Belmont cites her aversion to a vow of poverty and desire to keep her own fortune in order to continue donating to the charitable causes of her choice.

Her biography describes how she used some of this money to build a chapel next to the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, with a special cell behind the altar, where she could live in close proximity to the Eucharist. She entered that cell to live permanently in approximately 1695, at the very symbolic age of 33. On this occasion, Belmont includes a comment from Marguerite Bourgeoys, praising Jeanne’s promise of devotion. As a church recluse, Jeanne spent her time in prayer and devotional reading, conversation with the sisters of the Congrégation through her cell window, and manual work embroidering liturgical vestments, some of which still exist today.[3]

In one of several medieval hagiographical tropes carried over into this later biography, Belmont describes Jeanne as willingly suffering from physical illnesses, refusing to add a garden to her cell space for fresh air or to light a fire in her room against the cold. He also writes that she wore hair shirts and performed several food-related ascetic practices, such as fasting, eating on the ground, and refusing wholesome food while happily drinking foul-tasting medicines. In October 1714, Jeanne died of one of these illnesses. Her body lay in state for three days in the chapel of the Congrégation Notre Dame, before being buried in the family plot. Borrowing another hagiographical trope, Belmont’s biography claims that two women were healed of scrofula, and one other of a persistent migraine, after visiting her tomb. 

Much of Jeanne’s biography is engaged in the argument that she consistently turned away from the world. Belmont’s narrative, however, includes references to the ways in which religious women could be part of the colonial project of New France. Jeanne’s prayers, one of which was written on a battle standard, apparently vanquished a fleet of invading English ships. One of the women healed by Jeanne’s tomb is described as Indigenous, suggesting the complex history of colonialism and Christianity in Canada. Moreover, Belmont’s purpose for writing this biography is explicitly to show God’s favour bestowed on French settlement in the “New World”. Jeanne’s biography contains many references to European devotional cultures and themes from medieval hagiography, but it cannot be divorced from its historical and geographical context.

The life of Jeanne le Ber demonstrates the longevity and adaptability of reclusion as one of many non-cloistered options for religious women. It also suggests a broad horizon of options for women’s religious lives in New France, and an understanding of how religious women and their forms of life—from hospital and teaching sisters to recluses—are all intertwined.


[1] New France was the French colony established on Turtle Island (North America) in the mid-sixteenth century, which forms the basis of today’s Canadian province of Québec. Ville-Marie was the settlement which became Montréal, located on the traditional and unceded land of several Indigenous nations, principally the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Huron-Wendat, the Abenaki, and the Anishnaabeg (Algonquin) peoples.

[2] François Vachon de Belmont, “Éloge de quelques personnes mortes en odeur de sainteté à Montréal, en Canada, divisé en trois parties” in Rapport de l’archiviste de la Province de Québec (1929–1930) pp. 144–166. Available online here: https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2276299. For more on Jeanne le Ber, see esp. Dominique Deslandres, “In the Shadow of the Cloister: Representations of Holiness in New France” in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800, ed. Allan Green and Jodi Bilinkoff (2003); Françoise Deroy-Pineau, Jeanne le Ber: La recluse au cœur des combats (2000); https://margueritebourgeoys.org/jeanne-le-ber/ and https://reclusesmiss.org/wp/jeanne-le-ber/

[3] https://www.maisonsaintgabriel.ca/collection-objets/