Abstract: Leaving Ireland forever, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Institute handed over their lives to provide a Catholic education for Victorian children. This study reveals their never-before disclosed stories of past lives of austerity and acceptance. As individuals and as part of a community, these women managed the many constraints Catholic religious life expected of them, successfully carrying out ‘God’s Job' in their own particular way. A diverse body of literature drawn from sociology, philosophy, historical and religious studies informs my analysis and supports qualitative interview material. The Sisters speak with pride regarding their life-efforts and with resignation concerning the difficulties they faced. First-hand accounts from twenty-four Presentation Sisters, five former members of the Institute, as well as several people interested in the Institute, provide understanding of the nature of religious life, and record the different ideals which motivated the Sisters in their care for children and the socially disadvantaged. Most importantly, like historical accounts, women’s voices tell of the personal struggles of living ‘to order. 'As members of the Presentation Institute, and by adjusting to the changing demands of church, state and community, the Sisters prove they retained a sense of self. This thesis examines the varied experiences of ‘being chosen' and answering a religious vocation. Individuality survived as women negotiated their approaches to ‘the calling' despite Novitiate training tailoring their very selves to work for God. Some Sisters were more forthright than others, some more daring, while a great many succumbed to pressures in their life of acceptance. The work they achieved by building and running Victorian schools, while handling huge class numbers, was often under-estimated. This thesis also explores how, under Vatican II’s insistence, the Sisters grasped every opportunity to emerge from restricted lives to re-position themselves in society. The interplay of individual women gave the Sisters themselves power, as well as the Institute as an organisation. This study contributes to religious and historical discourse regarding women considered ‘chosen, 'professional women, and women ‘apart, 'who grew from the expectation of a humble sense of self to confident, outspoken people able to tackle different missions: in effect, women of unsung heroism.
Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy [to the] Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora.
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