Convent chronicles: the genius of the mundane

‘Monday 5 January 1942: our pig “Tuurke” is slaughtered’. This sentence can be found in the convent chronicles of the Ghent Sint-Bavo school for girls, accompanied by a comical obituary picture of the bemoaned pig. [1]

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Doodsprentje van ‘Tuurke’ in het kloosterdagboek van de Gentse Sint-Bavo basisschool, 1942.

The dozens of convent journals that the Heritage Centre l Sisters of Charity have under their care today are full of such anecdotal reports. In our opinion, precisely this mundaneness makes them a one-of-a-kind source of use to both local historians and broader historical research. It also makes them an asset in appealing to the public.

International undertaking

The Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary – quite a mouthful – were founded in rural Lovendegem in 1803 by parish priest Petrus Jozef Triest (1760-1836). At the request of the Ghent city council, the young foundation moved to Ghent in 1805 to open a hospice for the terminally ill in the vacant Cistercian monastery on the Molenaarsstraat.

From its Ghent base, the congregation grew to become one of the largest female religious institutions in the country. They developed a range of activities related to care for the sick and the elderly, psychiatric care and both ordinary and special education across Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In 1892, they were the first female missionaries to Congo, and India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Mali were to follow. [2]

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Professie van kandidaat-zusters in de kapel van het Gentse moederklooster, 1953. Op hun hoogtepunt in de jaren vijftig telden de Zusters van Liefde JM wereldwijd 2000 leden. In die periode meldden zich tot drie keer per jaar 25 à 30 jonge vrouwen aan voor het noviciaat.

Mandatory

Each new convent of the Sisters of Charity JM was required to keep a convent journal and chronicle important events. This was already recorded in their first convent rule from 1816: ‘In order not to lose from memory […] [the superiors] will be in possession of […] a chronicle in which the main events will be listed: the construction of new buildings, the Sisters’ anniversaries, etc.’ [3]

These are no personal diaries of individual Sisters. Such expressions of individual nuns’ inner lives were strictly forbidden. After all, they would have been at odds with the monastic virtues of community consciousness, silence and humility cultivated in congregations of Catholic women religious until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). [4]

They are institutional annals or chronicles, written by the mother superior of each congregation.[5] Consequently, over a period of 200 years, successive abbesses and prioresses of dozens of convents in Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Africa and Asia filled books and notebooks with the daily ins and outs of their convent and the associated healthcare and educational institutions.

Although keeping them was a mandatory exercise, the convent chronicles would vary enormously in terms of both shape and content. While the mother superior of the women’s ‘mental institution’ of Beau Vallon at Saint-Servais for instance kept her chronicles in grand, imposing registers, the journal of the oldest Congo mission post of the Sisters in Moanda consisted of a fragile notebook with entries largely scribbled down in pencil.

Some convent annals are real gems, with extensive daily notes accompanied by photographs, prints and letters, such as the chronicles of the Ghent Sint-Bavo girls’ school. Other mother superiors clearly made much less of an effort and limited their contributions to a few sentences per year.

Widespread tradition

The Sisters of Charity were far from being the only religious community to keep chronicles. Indeed, it has been a widespread European tradition in both monasteries and convents since the early Middle Ages.[6] This automatically makes them a very interesting source for longitudinal study and international historical research. Then why is it that only so few historians find their way to this source? [7]

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Fragment uit het handschrift van de veertiende-eeuwse kronieken van het Dominicanessenklooster Töss in Winterthur, Zwitserland. De religieuze aan de schrijftafel is priorin Elsbeth Stagel (ca 1300 – ca 1360).

Hidden

First of all, many religious orders carefully sheltered their chronicles from the outside world. To them, these were internal administrative documents after all. The Sisters of Charity, too, purely passed on the chronicles from one mother superior to the next, so as to quickly inform the latter of the most important events and assure continuity within the convent. The notebooks were even hidden from the other Sisters. Elderly Sisters who visit our Heritage Centre today are often very surprised at the sight of the journal of the convent they lived in for decades! [8]

Anonymous

Moreover, women’s convent journals are always anonymous. This is in line with the humility that was expected of women religious. The Sisters of Charity, for instance, also never mention the writer of the annals by name. Fortunately, their identity can usually be retraced, as it is known who was the mother superior at that time.

Also, the anonymity that was imposed does not necessarily have detrimental effects. Oxford historian Victoria Van Hyning, for instance, believes that the journals’ female authors dared to be more personal in their outlets and the chronicles became somewhat like individual journals as a result. [9]

For example, at the time of the mandatory adjustment to the German time zone in the First World War, chronicle writer Edmunda Lootens (1862-1929) of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ten-Doorn in Eeklo unabashedly wrote on 20 November 1914: ‘Une heure de moins sous la férule allemande’.[10] (‘An hour lost under the yoke of the Germans.’) Sister Edmunda would have probably never dared to say anything nearly as explicit in her own name, and certainly not as a religious woman who was expected to keep her personal opinions to herself.

Trivial

Most researchers choose to ignore convent journals, especially because they find the content too trivial. They fail to see what they can do with this endless stream of chronological notes about Sisters arriving or leaving, about festivities and anniversary celebrations, renovations, visits of public figures, and so on. In truth, they are far from trivial.

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Triviaal of historisch waardevol? Menukaart uit het memoriaal van Thysville van het feestmaal dat de Zusters van Liefde op 28 juni 1948 organiseerden voor het bezoek van de Belgische kardinaal Van Roey (1874-1961) ter gelegenheid van 50 jaar “Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo”.

Local and institutional history

Firstly, the chronicles are a must for anyone wanting to write about the history of a specific healthcare or educational institution headed by the Sisters of Charity. The Eeklo heritage historian Rita Van Hoecke, for instance, frequently drew upon the annals of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Ten Doorn for her book about the girls’ college of the same name. And recently, postdoctoral researcher Joris Vandendriessche consulted the chronicles of the Leuven hospital Sint-Rafaël and the mental institution Salve Mater in Lovenjoel for his institutional biography of the Leuven University Hospitals. [11]

After all, convent journals contain unique, first-hand and first-class information that you will find nowhere else. In 1808, Mother Superior Elisabeth Oosterlinck for instance described the situation when the Sisters for the first time opened the ‘kaemers en koten‘ (rooms) of the women locked away in the Ghent mental institution adjacent to the city’s ‘Zottepoort’ (‘Fools’ gate’), after taking over its management from the city: ‘Het waeren als jonge peerden, die uyt hunne stallen liepen, wij vonden er daer die sprongen als de puyten op handen en voeten, doordat zij zoo verstijfd waeren in hunne leden’. [12] (They were like young horses leaving their stables; there were those among them that jumped up and down on their hands and feet like frogs, their limbs were that stiffened.)

Behind the convent walls

Convent journals also offer plenty of prospects for broader areas of research, especially when studied collectively. An obvious theme, of course, would be female convent life. The word ‘nuns’ often conjures up the image of naive, pious, sentimental souls, but actually very little is known about what these women did, let alone thought.

American historian Anne Winston-Allen, the first to study a collection of chronicles spanning 52 different European convents, stresses that convent journals are one of the rare sources that the Sisters wrote themselves. Consequently, they give us a unique look behind convent walls and they allow historians to approach women religious – and, by extension, women in general – as actors and not just as passive puppets within a misogynistic Church and society’. [13]

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In 1968 ruilden de Zusters van Liefde hun lange habijt in voor een modernere “look”. Dit ging niet ongemerkt voorbij in het dagboek van het Gentse Sint-Bavohumaniora.

 What kind of self-image did these religious women cultivate? What kind of relationship did they have with the outside world and with ‘the Other’ (men, non-Catholics, …)? How did the ways of the convent change over the years? These are just a few of the questions that the convent chronicles can be instrumental in answering.

History of healthcare and education

As the Sisters of Charity – and religious institutions in general – fulfilled a pioneering role in our healthcare and educational history, the convent chronicles are also an indispensable source when it comes to the history of our healthcare systems, gender studies and disability history. That is certainly the case in the context of the early days of psychiatric care, nursing, secondary and higher education for girls, education for the deaf and blind, youth welfare initiatives, care for children with mental disabilities and so on.

Here, too, the chronicles are more valuable to research when studied collectively. An entry that may seem trivial in one convent journal often takes on a very different meaning once you are able to compare and contrast the chronicles of similar institutions – and if you for instance consider the Sisters’ engagement in the area of Dutch-language education systems and the opposition they faced in this regard, or the struggles between sign language and speech methods in their schools for the deaf.

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In 1932 openden de zusters de deuren van Sint-Bavo als eerste Nederlandstalig meisjescollege in Gent. Toen de afdeling Sierkunsten eind juni 1945 een tentoonstelling organiseerde met de werken van haar leerlingen, werd een van de Nederlandstalige uitnodigingen onverrichter zake teruggestuurd met de boodschap: ‘Retour à l’expéditeur. À GAND tous les gens civilisés parlent le français.’ De zuster-directrice kleefde de uitnodiging in het dagboek en noteerde als verzuchting ernaast: ‘Zullen we steeds strijd kennen!’

History of the First and Second World War

During the First and Second World Wars, the Sisters of Charity noted down considerably more information in their convent journals than they otherwise did. Presumably, this had to do with the great disruptions in their lives and fact they were moved to, or forced into, new commitments. In this regard as well, the chronicles contain a wealth of information that is still largely waiting to be discovered. [14]

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Bladzijde uit het ‘oorlogsdagboek’ van de Oudergemse basisschool Saint-Julien, waarin zr. Urbaine Schoofs onderhandelt over de aankoop van een geitje, 1940. Bovenaan vullen de zusters strozakken voor oorlogsvluchtelingen uit Bertem.

Food supply, for instance, was a recurring theme in all of the journals. During the war years, the Sisters not only had to feed themselves, but also their students, patients and hordes of refugees and soldiers. The Sisters had the gardens of their boarding schools and hospitals ploughed to allow them to grow crops there and kept livestock on the former playgrounds.

Seen in this context, our pig Tuurke Bavong also takes on new relevance. During the Second World War, after all, the Sisters converted the inner courtyard playground of the Ghent city school of Sint-Bavo to a vegetable garden with livestock pens. Tuurke, too, walked these grounds. That is, until that fateful day of 5 January 1942.

Audience magnet

Finally, Tuurke brings us to the journals’ last important asset. For many of us, it is the trivial that brings the past to life and makes it recognizable and charming – human, you might say. They are an effective teaser with which to draw in the crowds, whether in stories on social media, in exhibitions or during other public events. It is often the most mundane that turns out to be memorable, or as Roger Cardinal, in the 1980s, so beautifully put it: ‘the peripheral detail which snags at the mind and gently bruises [the] consciousness’. [15]

You will most likely not remember the date of the establishment of Sint-Bavo or the name of its first headmistress, but I am quite sure you will not soon forget about Tuurke Bavong. R.I.P. 

Bibliography

Convent journals ■ The convent journals of the Sisters of Charity are kept in the Heritage Centre l Sisters of Charity in Ghent. On our website you can find an overview of all locations where the Sisters have been active historically (http://www.erfgoedhuis-zljm.org/collecties/zoeken-op-locatie). In principle, any location would have kept a convent journal that you can consult in our reading room. A number of them have already been scanned and are available digitally. For more information, you can contact us via mail info@erfgoed.zvl.org or by calling +32 (0)9 235 82 32.

We would not want you to overlook the journals of other religious congregations either. Great examples would be the chronicles in the collection Cultureel Erfgoed Zusters Annuntiaten te Heverlee (http://www.cultureelerfgoedannuntiatenheverlee.be) and the numerous religious archives kept on KADOC-KU Leuven (http://www.kadoc.kuleuven.be).

The first two parts of the chronicles of the English Augustinians at Bruges have recently been published: C. Bowden, The chronicles of Nazareth (The English Convent), Bruges 1629-1793 (London 2017). The publication of the third part is currently underway.

Study into convent journals ■ Publications that go into convent journals collectively do not yet exist in Belgium. Ghent mediaevalist Steven Vanderputten is currently working on a book about Dark Age Nunneries. The Ambiguous Identity of Female Monasticism (800-1050), for which he is studying manuscripts – including chronicles – from around 40 monasteries in the former Lorraine region. His book will be available with Cornwell University Press from May 2018. Especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, convent chronicles are given an important role in research into (especially late-mediaeval) literary works by women religious. Groundbreaking in this regard have been A. Winston-Allen’s Convent chroniclers: Women writing about women and Reformation in the Late Middle Ages (University Park 2004) and both of the articles by V. Van Hyning, ‘Naming names. Chronicles, scribes and editors of St Monica’s convent, Louvain, 1630–1906’, in: C. Bowden and J. Kelly (red.), English convents in exile, 1600–1800. Communities, culture and identity (Aldershot 2013) 87–108 and ‘Expressing selfhood in the convent: anonymous chronicling and subsumed autobiography’, Recusant history, 32:2 (2014) 219-234.

History of women religious ■ For a historical overview of the lives of women religious, the studies by J.A.K. McNamara, Zusters ten strijde. Tweeduizend jaar kloosterzusters (Nijkerk 1997) and A. Van Heijst, M. Derks and M. Monteiro, Ex caritate. Kloosterleven, apostolaat en liefdewerken van actieve vrouwelijke religieuzen in Nederland in de 19e en 20e eeuw (Hilversum 2010) are very insightful. Although the latter book specifically describes the Dutch situation, it also encompasses several areas of research that can easily be applied to the Belgian context.

Another interesting source would be the themed bundled editions within the series of Metamorfosen, studies in religieuze geschiedenis published by Stichting Echo, an organization that focuses on the history of religious congregations and their institutions in the Netherlands and Flanders (http://www.stichting-echo.nl). Their latest publication is Dienstbaar onder vuur. Religieuzen en de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Hilversum 2016).

[1] Archives of the Sisters of Charity JM (AZLJM), Fonds Gent Sint-Bavo Biezekapel, convent journal, entry: 5 January 1942.

[2] For more information, see K. Leeman, ‘Wie zijn de Zusters van Liefde JM’. 2000. http://www.erfgoedhuis-zljm.org/over-ons/wie-zijn-de-zusters-van-liefde-jm (15 November 2017)

[3] Constitutiën der Zusters van Liefde van Jezus en Maria te Gent (Gent 1816) 81.

[4] The Sisters were also not permitted to write nor receive letters without the consent of their mother superior, who also censored all incoming and outgoing letters. Read about these and other convent virtues commonly shared among the Sisters of Charity JM in ‘Zevende hoofdstuk. Over de geestelijke oefeningen en de verstervingen, het gemeenschappelijke leven en de betrekkingen met de personen uit de buitenwereld’ (On the spiritual exercises and the sacrifices, the communal life and the relations with people from the outside world), in: Constitutiën der Zusters van Liefde van Jezus en Maria te Gent (Ghent 1929) 19-27.

[5] Sometimes, the mother superior would also delegate the journal duties to a fellow sister in the role of secretary. This happened especially in large congregations of more than 100 Sisters.

[6] V. Van Hyning, ‘Expressing selfhood in the convent: anonymous chronicling and subsumed autobiography’, Recusant history, 32:2 (2014) (219-234) 220.

[7] Only within the Anglo-Saxon world and since 2004, a larger number of studies on late mediaeval literary works of women religious have been published, with historians Anne Winston Allen, Victoria Van Hyning and Caroline Bowden taking the lead (see bibliography).

[8] The Sisters of Charity have once made an exception in the case of the annals from the First World War, which they published in a shortened version in 1920 at the request of the Belgian Archbishop Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926): Anima Una : les Soeurs de la Charité pendant la guerre 1914-1918. Gent, Het Volk, 1920.

[9] Van Hyning, ‘Expressing selfhood in the convent’, 220-223.

[10] AZLJM, Fonds Eeklo Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ten-Doorn, convent journals (annals) part 1, 20 November 1914.

[11] R. Van Hoecke, De Zusters Van Liefde in Ten Doorn (1822-1965) (Eeklo 1998). Joris Vandendriessche’s book will be published with the Leuven University Press in 2019.

[12] AZLJM, Fonds Gent Sint-Jozefshuis / Melle Caritas, convent journal (chronicles), 1808.

[13] A. Winston-Allen, Convent chronicles. Women writing about women and reformation in the late middle ages (University Park 2004) xiii-xvi. This American historian was the first one to focus on convent journals in her historical research into the role of women amid the international monastic reform movement of the late Middle Ages.

[14] Convent journals will be the focus of an exhibition on women religious in the Second World War that the Heritage Centre will be organizing in close collaboration with KADOC-KU Leuven in 2020.

[15] R. Cardinal, ‘Unlocking the diary’, Comparative criticism, 12 (1990) (71-87) 82-84, cited in: L. Sangha, ‘Understanding sources: diaries’, The Many-Headed Monster, blogpost 28th of July 2016 (https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/understanding-sources-diaries/).