Emily Clark, ed., Voices from an Early American Convent: Marie Madeline Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727-1760. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. 138pp. ISBN: 0807132373. Reviewed by Nathaniel Wiewora, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Emily Clark has made a career out of examining how a small group of Catholic nuns traveled from France in the eighteenth century to set up a religious community in the Mississippi Valley. Her most recent work, Masterless Mistresses (2007), studied how the New Orleans Ursuline community transformed as their piety came into conflict with slave society, Spanish colonial rule, and Protestant hostility. These Ursuline nuns operated a school that educated all free girls, ran an orphanage, administered the colonial military hospitals, and taught the slave population of colonial New Orleans. This aggressive catechesis combined with social outreach produced a large and thriving Catholic community, including a significant Afro-Catholic population. In this edited volume, Clark intends to use the voices of the nuns and their contemporaries to reveal the character and influence of this religious community.
Voices from and Early American Convent is a further glimpse into this cloistered community through a collection of letters and other contemporary documents. The bulk is represented by the letters of Marie Madeline Hachard, written to her father. Hachard was the youngest of the original twelve nuns who set up the New Orleans Ursuline community. These letters, written over the course of a year, cover Hachard's entrance into the Ursuline community, her travels to Louisiana, and her initial impressions there. Hachard found the time to write this small collection of letters because she had yet to become a fully professed nun. Her father later published his daughter's letters for the edification of young French women. However, the letters themselves were not published in English until 1974. Clark's volume aims to mend the hole with the first wide-spread English translation of these letters.
The subjects Hachard covered in these letters ranged from the eternal to the quotidian. Hachard relayed to her father the difficulties she and her fellow nuns had in their travels to Louisiana. The nuns had trouble securing lodging, making their travel connections, staying healthy, and coexisting with loud and obnoxious travelers. At one point in their journey, the nuns claimed to be partaking in a vow of silence so they would not have to speak a particularly annoying traveler. Ursulines strongly focused on catechesis and evangelism, Hachard paid particular attention to the spiritual well-being of New Orleans residents. She was especially concerned with the morals of women, and she found both their dress and morals lacking. Hachard's letters also have a personal and intimate quality. She often reaffirmed her desire to become a nun and rejoiced in the opportunity to do what she considered to be God's work.
The final portion of this edited collection contains a set of obituary letters written by the mother superior on the occasion of each nun's death. In many cases, they are the only written record of the women who entered the New Orleans Ursuline community. Most of the letters Clark included followed a common form. All of the letters described the manner of the nun's death, their exceptional spiritual qualities, and some biographical information. The inclusion of the nun's spiritual virtues was intended to encourage other young women to enter the order. Within this form, some personal details flesh out the lives the women lived before they became nuns. There are instances of families discouraging the women from becoming nuns. Often included within the letters were the nun's birth names, before they were renamed as nuns. Many other ideas demonstrate the retention of the identities of individual Ursulines. Most notably in this collection, she included obituary letters for Hachard and for the original mother superior.
Also in this final portion is a description of the first public Eucharist procession carried out by the New Orleans Ursulines in 1734. The procession of 1734 celebrated the much-delayed completion of the Ursulines' home. Upon arriving in 1727, they cloistered themselves in the home of a wealthy patrician. Thus, in 1734, the Ursuline community had to physically transfer themselves, their belongings, and the trappings of the convent to their new locale. They modeled their procession on a seventeenth century ceremony staged by Ursuline nuns in the town of Dijon. This public, elaborate form of procession was designed to communicate the eternal nature of the convent's political authority in the area. The consecrated host led the procession and was the central focus of all the participants and watchers. Women took the lead in this ceremony, as all nonclerical men were excluded from the processional. The nuns processed alongside women and girls across the racial and social strata.
With the first widespread English translation of many of these documents, Clark has a number of historical aims. First, the letters of Hachard and her contemporaries in colonial New Orleans provide insight into the lives of women largely silent from the historical record. Clark's collection successfully fills this gap and without the book many of the evangelistic and spiritual endeavors of the Ursuline nuns would be forgotten. Clark further aims, with less success, to demonstrate the early efforts by the Ursuline nuns to evangelize to African slave women. As Clark has stated in her previous work, this open evangelistic effort is one of the lasting influences of the New Orleans nuns. With a focus on evangelizing African women and girls, the nuns left a multigenerational legacy of an Afro-Catholic community. However, the collection of documents provides no direct sources to support this claim. Clark also wants the reader to see Ursuline efforts at universal education, with which African women and girls acquired access to an education that they otherwise would have not received.
Voices from an Early Convent is a useful and well-edited collection. Clark succeeds in providing many useful explanatory notes throughout the text. She defines concepts specific to the nuns' environment and explains the themes within their actions. These notes and the helpful introduction make this a book useful to both scholars and students alike. Scholars of gender history will find a collection of documents that reveal the social, physical, and cultural dynamics of an all-female cloistered life. Scholars of political culture will find women making bold public statements. Scholars of American religion will find within this book a useful set of sources to teach against a New England bias. Clark's translations are easily accessible, the recovered correspondence personally engaging, and the overall picture allows for great academic and religious exploration.
Nathaniel Wiewora, University of Delaware