Entering a convent and becoming a nun, giving up your life to God and a regime of worship and good works, might have been done for several reasons in the 19th century. For poorer catholic girls, it was a way to achieve a more comfortable and stable life. For others, it was a way to avoid the institutions of marriage and children. The convent offered an opportunity for leadership and prominent positions unavailable to women outside the institution, and perhaps gave women a chance for creative expression or female education that would not otherwise be offered. Some may have felt a strong calling to devote their lives to God. More monied and prominent catholic families might have expected one or two of their daughters to enter the convent in time-honoured tradition, and a convent dowry was usually less than a marriage dowry so could have been seen as making economic sense.
Amy W and her twin sister were the youngest daughters in a prominent and landed Catholic family, born at the beginning of the 1830s in the south of England. They had six older siblings, including three older sisters. At least some of their childhood was spent in a convent in Taunton, although by the time they were 19 they had been brought home and possibly were in the market for husbands.
Two of their brothers married – one going on to have fourteen children of his own – but none of their older sisters married. They all, along with Amy and her twin, spent their lives in convents serving either as nuns or nuns who had a remit to teach children or penitents.
Amy, on re-entering the religious profession at some point in the 1860s, had the most prominent career of all her sisters. While her twin remained with the Franciscan sisters in Taunton, she became part of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an order that had first come to London in 1841 and gradually founded other convents throughout the UK.
She rose to become the superintendent of their Glazenwood convent in Essex, under a Belgian priest. This institution was effectively a refuge and reformatory for penitent women, and there were 31 inmates at the turn of the 1860s – a mixture of former laundresses, seamstresses, domestic servants, parlour maids, dairy maids, farmer workers and nursery maids. The nuns in this house, with Amy at their head, offered care and instruction to the inmates.
During the following decade, she moved to become the prioress of another Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in Bristol. This institution, set in a former great house, was again a reform school and refuge for penitent women but on a much larger scale than the one in Essex. In this position Amy had an assistant, a choir of 12 nuns, and 12 lay sisters underneath her. There were 127 penitent women and girls in the institution, all employed in laundry and needlework. In many cases these women would have been undergoing penance for loose behaviour with men or prostitution, but those who had undertaken other crimes were also admitted for correction and soul-cleansing.
By the mid-1880s, Amy had moved to the original Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent at Hammersmith in London, and by the turn of the 1890s she was serving at their convent in Blackley, near Manchester in Lancashire. By this stage she was 59, and possibly in less robust health as she did not serve as superioress or prioress, and was instead second in command. This was another institution for penitents, with 20 nuns and 128 inmates.
While one of her sisters had some small amount of money, which she left to Amy, when Amy died at the early part of the 1890s she had nothing to leave anyone. She passed away while serving at the Lancashire convent. Her twin sister continued to live and serve at the Taunton convent until she died in the run up to the First World War.
To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.