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The Impact of Religious Women in Twentieth Century Canada

Academic Discipline: Canadian History
Course Name: History of Canadian Women
Assignment Subject: The Role of Religious Women in 20th Century Canada
Academic Level: Undergraduate-fourth year
Referencing Style: Chicago
Word Count: 2,018

When Canadian women in the twentieth century became nuns and entered convents, they believed they would achieve a sense of independence and fulfillment. Canadian women chose the religious life for many different reasons, however. Becoming a nun and escaping behind the walls of religious institutions was an easy decision for some, but others did struggle with their choice. A religious life allowed women access to employment in the public sphere rather than remaining at home as housewives and mothers. In addition to fulfilling work, religious women had more educational opportunities, but this did involve giving up other aspects of life. Canadian nuns represented a femininity like nurses or teachers and, indeed, working in these professions nuns and sisters performed many of the same duties that their secular counterparts did. Religious women were essential to hospitals and schools, but women were expected to give up traditional feminine roles—including motherhood. Although sexuality was believed absent from a nun’s life, it was a key factor in a woman’s decision to join or leave their religious order. It was not uncommon for women to regret choosing a life of celibacy, and they often felt the calling to leave their vocation and return to a secular life. While the question of a feminine identity was challenged by women who did choose the religious life, they nevertheless had a huge influence in Canada in the twentieth century.

Embarking on a religious life meant something different to each woman. In the Roman Catholic and Anglican religions, the terms “nuns” and “sisters” were used interchangeably, but the specifics of these titles differed. Elizabeth Smyth explains how both terms indicated that these women accepted the call to a life of service to God, taking vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Nuns, however, lived in prayer and cloister, taking permanent and solemn vows, while sisters took “simple” vows and interacted with the public through education, healthcare, and social service. Sisters achieved a sense of accomplishment by working with the public, using their talents to serve others. This type of work was acceptable because they remained in the sphere of ‘women’s work’ according to their feminine qualities and abilities. If secular women chose to work, either for financial need or for a sense of independence, they usually quit after marriage when they had a husband to support them. Middle class women became nurses or teachers, which were occupations thought to make women better mothers. In times of limited employment or recession, men wanted to be the primary breadwinners and working women threatened this position. For single women, becoming a nun or sister was a way to obtain employment and support themselves without threatening male workers. Non-Catholic girls who wanted to become teachers, nurses, or social workers could do so through a secular education, but Catholic girls ultimately found these careers linked to the role of nun. This was because these positions within Catholicism were performed by nuns, and religious orders provided educational opportunities appropriate to these occupations. In a time when limited opportunities restricted their education and employment possibilities, girls were willing to remain celibate and obedient lives to find personal or professional fulfillment. For some women, however, the Catholic Church was not a chance for independence, claiming that:

I was not ready to be out on my own, to go to a public college,

to interface with men, to do the adult thing. I felt so–so,

not handicapped, so young. I felt so inexperienced. I think

I felt the convent subliminally as another womb; as another

home, as another place to protect me from making decisions

on my own and challenging my relationships with men,

which I was just really fearful of.

For some, the safety of the convent was truly an escape from a competitive, unstable and discriminating society. Many women were not wholly convinced that they could support themselves, financially, psychologically, or emotionally. If they had to leave the safety of their childhood homes and survive as single female adults, they found reassurance in the stability and protection of the convent.

Nuns gave up the traditional roles of wives, mothers, and homemakers, but were still required to learn and perform domestic duties. Convents served many purposes: they housed hospitals, schools, and orphanages, while serving as a residential home for nuns and sisters. In Montreal in 1905, Tania Martin revealed that 324 women made up the religious community in one convent, caring for 185 of the elderly, 340 orphans, and 60 girls, with the total population reaching 1000 by the turn of the century. This enormous responsibility for the care and comfort of sick, abandoned, or needy people was daunting, but just like secular women, their jobs were made easier by the introduction of new technologies. Laundry and kitchen appliances, domestic god-sends to busy housewives, were also welcomed by religious women and allowed them to perform their duties with equal efficiency. Nuns did not have a traditional family to look after, but their immense responsibilities required the same conveniences and assistance that other women received. The homes of nuns and sisters may not have provided a traditional sense of “home” to care for, but Elizabeth Smyth argues that they belonged to a central home. Large buildings, known as “Mother Houses” increased in Canada during the twentieth century, emphasizing the importance and stability of religion and the women who joined and worked within the community. The abandoned children, elderly, and sick who lived in the Mother Houses were the beneficiaries of the natural nurturing which nuns provided. They were the perfect women to bring up motherless children: their vocation restricted them from having children of their own, but to make sure their feminine talents were not wasted, raising orphans was an essential duty. Nuns were praised in their efforts to rescue those children deserted by their unnatural parents, and for instructing them in their studies.

In the 1940s and 1950s Quebec hospitals were in financial difficulty. Operating costs were very high, and there was an increased demand for more institutions with enough beds for an increased number of admissions. Aline Charles explains that hospitals had difficulty hiring lay people who were frustrated with long hours, low wages, and rigid authority. For hospitals to function efficiently, nuns were hired because they performed unpaid work. The church presence was essential in the operation of these hospitals: religious orders owned more than two-thirds of public hospitals in Quebec, and nuns made up about twenty percent of hospital employees. The strict guidelines imposed upon women within the church followed them in their hospital duties as well. Idleness was unacceptable—nuns were expected to be of use at all times, even drawing their last breath on the job. This dedication was dramatically different from the lay employees who complained of working long hours. For religious women, there was never enough work that could be done.

In contrast to laywomen, the tasks appointed to sisters in the healthcare environment were often those of the domestic kind, such as making jam, preparing toast, or washing dishes. It was as if they were being allowed to experience the kind of domestic life traditional women experienced in their own homes. A woman who gave up being a housewife was still encouraged to nurture her natural domestic talents: not for a husband and children, but for patients and those who required their services. These secular duties were balanced by religious acts: darning socks, decorating a holy statue, sounding the morning bells, or praying for the community. The secular and religious duties performed by sisters were inseparable; everything was God’s work, and all sisters were responsible to fulfill their loyalty to God by performing any type of duty they could. The independence that women hoped for upon entering religious life, however, was not what they expected. Obedience, poverty, and chastity were the key traits for religious women, requiring that they perform all tasks appointed to them, and earn little to no pay. Salaries were not granted to the nuns in these Quebec hospitals. Charles explains that a service contract was signed between the religious community and hospital that stipulated a lump-sum paid to the community in exchange for the work performed by the nuns. Between 1946 and 1957, one hospital paid twenty-five dollars a month to the community, who dispersed the money accordingly. Withholding of individual wages was a condition of being part of the religious order, but lay workers would never accept unpaid labour. It was not until the 1970s that sisters received salaries and benefits that made them equal with the lay workers, not only concerning wages, but in following hospital rules as well. They had regular working hours, coffee breaks, sick leave, and could be fired for any reason. These changes meant there was no special treatment given to either group of workers, and sparked debate regarding the amalgamation of spiritual and secular duties. Although sisters were not used to being treated as regular employees, they were forced to accept salaries in order to continue their life’s work. The financial independence women had hoped for upon entering the religious community was achieved, but sisters faced difficulty with their financial situation. Abbot describes “the bleeding” of sisters occurred due to resources being drained by a top-heavy senior membership. Although they were receiving pay, younger women had no authority over their salaries or allowances, and were in for a future of poverty if superior members continued to oversee finances and wages.

Joining religious orders and being employed gave women more independence in the public sphere, but this did not necessarily ensure financial security. Younger women were not satisfied with being treated like children, and many decided to leave the Church. As the twentieth century progressed, women found affirmation in new professional roles, and many abandoned the option of joining religious life. The demographic of religious women was considerably older: of Canada’s 36 000 Catholic nuns, 57 percent were over sixty-five, and half of this number was over seventy-five. Only 1.4 percent was under thirty five. By 1993, the death rate of nuns was around twelve percent a year, which contributed to an endangered representation of women in religious orders due to lack of interest in convent life and fewer recruits. Not only did religious life fail to attract new members, but existing nuns frequently left.

Although religious ideology and expectations required that nuns and sisters give up sexual activity, husbands, and children, these women were still paradoxically viewed as entirely feminine figures. Many women joined the Church because they did not want to be traditional wives or mothers; they wanted to escape dysfunctional families, traumatic experiences, or wanted financial stability and employment. Often the freedom they expected as single working women was not achieved, because they were required to live by the three main virtues of the Church: poverty, obedience, and celibacy. The rule to abandon their sexuality was easy for some initially, but as younger women matured they discovered sexual feelings and the desire for the same experiences as secular women. Women who were dissatisfied with the restrictions placed upon them by the Church frequently left, and the 1960s saw a rapid decline in the number of women recruited to and remaining in many religions. The statistics given by Stark and Finke reveal that because the twentieth century offered more opportunities outside of the Church for women, they no longer felt it necessary to join. All women benefited from increased professional and educational opportunities, and becoming a nun offered no special incentives for women. A nun working as a nurse alongside a laywoman was considered equal and received no added benefits in the workplace; if a woman chose to be a nurse or teacher, she could do so without committing to a life of poverty and obedience to superiors. By the middle of the twentieth century Canadian women decided that being a nun was not the path to independence and security that it once was, and ultimately discovered that they could experience education, employment, love, passion, marriage, and motherhood by escaping the lure of the convent.

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