Jane Tolerton’s new book is a series of interviews with 17 Catholic-educated women ranging from lawyers and businesswomen to politicians and other entertainers. Tolerton’s premise for these nostalgic reminiscences is that “the Catholic women … I had read about or met, had particular distinguishing characteristics … an irreverent sense of humour, a well‑developed sense of social justice, and an ability to stand up and say their piece.” In short, Tolerton enjoys stroppy women. Her previous book on sex education pioneer Ettie Rout may have started a trend.
There will be those who contend her premise that Catholic-educated women are a breed apart fails under scrutiny. Take 17 state co-education success stories or 17 private school educated women and it would be possible to draw similar conclusions. They, too, would possess the humour borne of success, the concept of “noblesse oblige” and the self-confidence to articulate and advance their political or social ideals.
Yet from personal experience I empathise with the view espoused by the author that Catholic-educated women have a distinguishing characteristic. Again, like Tolerton’s, my evidence can be but anecdotal but there seems an ethereal quality ‑ an inner serenity ‑ among the Catholic girls and women that I have met that only mind-altering substances could seem to duplicate.
And therein lies the raison d’être of Catholic schools. After all, they were designed to alter hearts and minds and something much more important than both. As Jane Tolerton notes: “At the state school, one’s soul was not in contention. At the convent school it certainly was.”
The history of Catholic schools in New Zealand is really a history of religious division interspersed with bouts of sectarian excess.
Like most established churches, the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic Church perceived itself under siege. Their enemies ranged from creeping secularism and Darwinist humanism through to their age-old ecclesiastical foes ‑ the dreaded Protestants. The Church was in a state of decline ‑ not so much of its numbers but of its influence on the lives of ordinary people.
This fear was heightened in the new colonies where the strictures of the past and the tightness of the community’s social structures were less influential. As the immigrants established new lives for themselves they re-examined their affinity to the cultural mores of the lands they had left. As a consequence church-going in New Zealand did not match that of the United Kingdom. There seemed an implicit attempt by the settlers to leave the religious and sectarian controversies of the past in the old land. Despite that, religious controversy did flare in New Zealand in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Roman Catholic church had a relatively sedate early history in New Zealand until the early 1870s. At that point the predominance of the Irish Catholic church began to exert itself as it had done in Australia. Cardinal Paul Cullen was the dominant figure within the Irish Church and has been described as “one of the most powerful Catholic ecclesiastics in the world during the nineteenth century”. He had a distinguished academic career, had been the Secretary for Propaganda under Pope Pius IX and oversaw appointments to the vacant sees of Dunedin in 1869 and Auckland a year later.
In 1864 Pius IX had published the “Syllabus of Errors” which was to have a great influence upon the creation of a Catholic education system in both Australia and New Zealand. In effect, this papal edict declared that the education of the young was far too important a matter to be left to the state. Cullen’s appointments of Bishop Patrick Moran to Dunedin and Bishop Thomas Croke to Auckland galvanised the Catholic church in New Zealand. Both looked to the “Syllabus” as their mandate for a more radical approach to Catholic education and Moran was clearly the prime mover.
Patrick Moran occupies a special place in religious history in New Zealand. He was dogmatic, authoritative and highly controversial. Born in Ireland in 1823 and ordained a priest in 1847 he had served the church in Ireland and South Africa before being appointed to Dunedin. Upon arrival he began to promote his twin passions of Catholic education and Irish nationalism. His primary aim was to get the state to support a separate Catholic education system. From there the church could secure its membership, proselytise and promote the Irish question.
To complement these aims Moran also founded the “Tablet” in 1873 and became its first editor. Not content with weekly diatribes against all manner of foes ‑ real and imagined ‑ he stood as a parliamentary candidate as well. But, like his Australian counterparts, Moran found that the Catholic “bloc vote” was the stuff of editorial writers and hopeful political zealots. It never materialised sufficiently for Moran to be elected or any other single‑issue activist for that matter.
Although the Education Act of 1877 was passed with its responsibility to organise a “free, compulsory and secular” education system for all New Zealand children, Moran remained defiant. The Catholic church established a separate education system and preached the message that such schooling was morally superior to that received in state institutions.
The moral superiority of a Catholic education was often raised by Tolerton’s interviewees as being a part and parcel of the dogma taught to them. If that suasion failed there were always those ecclesiastics prepared to deny the Blessed Sacraments to parents who bypassed their local Catholic school for a “godless” State institution.
Moran’s utterances and writings served to polarise the community but the fiery cleric had strong papal support. In 1896 “Apostolicae Curae” was published which exacerbated religious tensions. This papal bull condemned Anglican orders as null and void, thus upsetting a reasonable number of Anglican clergy who had some sympathy for the concept of church schools.
In 1908 the “Ne Temere” decree further isolated the Catholic church by condemning mixed marriages. When combined with the formation of Catholic associations like the Hibernians and church sympathy for Irish nationalism, a distinct Catholic consciousness was obvious. A separate Catholic education system was seen as providing the bulwark for this religious division to be sustained.
Of course there was a protestant reaction. The Freemasons had always regarded the Romish church with hostile suspicion and petty religious discrimination was not uncommon. This found political expression through the formation of the Protestant Political Alliance fired by an often rabid Baptist preacher Howard Elliot. Orange Lodges sprang up to promote the protestant view of the Irish question and unsurprisingly demonstrated a strong anti-Catholic bias.
The height of sectarian controversy occurred in the first two decades of this century when the Orange lodges and the Hibernians baited each other; extremist preachers stumped the country and condemned the Catholic church as “disloyal to the Empire”; an inter-denominational dispute over “Bible-in-schools”; further controversies over the alleged influence of Catholics in the civil service and then, later, similar alleged unsavoury influences of the Protestant Political Association over the Reform Government. For good measure there was even a charge of sedition against Catholic Bishop James Liston, brought to trial in 1922 after the intemperate Liston suggested that English troops were “murderers” for their part in putting down the Dublin Rising of 1916.
The birth of a separate Catholic education system must be placed in the context of these events. There were clerical and laity attempts to exacerbate existing sectarian and political differences to retain their congregations and influence. “Anything that marked Catholics as different had the potential to segregate them from protestants and so place them in a safer environment,” noted religious historian Hugh Jackson.
The combination of all these actions led to some fairly remarkable statistics. Intermarriage between practising Catholics and non-Catholics was uncommon. A significant majority of Catholic children attended Catholic schools. Even by 1950 it was estimated that two out of every three Catholic children attended their denominational school.
It is unlikely that the Catholic hierarchy had the same passion for the education of its young women as it did for its young men. There was a welter of post-school groups and societies designed to keep the young male school-leaver in Catholic company including separate rugby and sporting dubs. Catholic women had much less attention paid to them. The Catholic church may revere women, but it has never treated them as equals. For most priests convent schools were unimportant by comparison and the authority of the visiting father over the teaching sisters was never doubted.
But the church could not be immune from the effects of dramatic social change and galloping secularism in the wake of the depression of the 1930s or the second world war. As Vatican II changed the character of the church so the Integrated Schools Act of 1975 changed the complexion of Catholic schools in New Zealand.
Ironically, these institutions ended up as part of the State education system and yet they were permitted retain their “special character”. This is now an attribute Catholic schools share with other denominational schools, Rudolf Steiner groupings and even a Hare Krishna organisation.
To a large extent, the interviews in Convent Girls re-emphasise that loosening of ecclesiastical ties. Although some interviewees mention an ongoing association with the Catholic church, many rejected the strict discipline of their religious upbringing whilst others have rejected Catholicism in its entirety. If their education taught these women the ability for independent thought and rational appreciation, they used those abilities to also re-assess the relationship and value of the church to them.
And perhaps that is where Tolerton’s book best illustrates the challenge that confronted each of the women. Their education sprang from a doctrinaire and often dogmatic theology. There was right and wrong. Black and white. A religious absolutism at odds with the liberal nature of the times.
Each woman confronted that imposed discipline and placed it against their own concepts and experiences. Some found it renewed their faith; others that it failed their situation. But the majority adapted the church’s message for their particular vantage points.
As incurable optimists each woman has generally professed to taking the best from their convent childhood and adolescence and rejecting the worst. It is a long way from what Bishop Moran set out to achieve but it would seem preferable to a “godless” education.
Michael Laws is MP for Hawke’s Bay. Before entering politics he completed most of the research for a doctorate on the relationship between church and society, 1877‑1919.