Leaving God for God: The Daughters of Charity 1847-2017

by Susan O’Brien, DLT, £25

From their founding in 1633, the Daughters of Charity have occupied an unusual place in the Catholic world. They have never been nuns, despite the famous white-winged headgear (ditched in 1964) and the quasi-monastic observances, rather an organisation of lay women living in communities. This bucked the post-Tridentine trend which only had much tolerance for enclosed orders of women who took solemn vows. An “ability to sustain ambiguities” shaped the movement’s identity.

Up to the 1789 revolution, with the exception of forays into Spain and Poland, the Daughters remained on home turf in France, but the century witnessed significant expansion. Salford was the first English port of call, in 1847, but harassment and hostility brought this experiment to an end in less than two years. Better days followed in Sheffield from 1857 and, by 1900, there were 37 houses in England, and six in Scotland, pursuing a range of ministries – among them home visits, education, residential care, nursing, and a special interest in the care of deaf children.

Susan O’Brien locates the Daughters’ success in the context of the wider patterns of Victorian philanthropy. A “mixed economy” of service was in vogue and this allowed Catholic groups to gain a respected place in civil society. It even allowed for the provision of state funding for Catholic enterprises.

By the 1950s, everything seemed set and membership was at its peak. In the following decade, the trends stemming from Vatican II appear to have gone down well with most of the Daughters, but recent years have seen a steep falling off in vocations and the closure of many houses. However, the Daughters of Charity continue to combine their Vincentian identity with a rare talent for responding to the shifting social needs of Britain. They have found a sympathetic but rigorous historian in O’Brien.

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