Changing habits, Margaret Tennant

Mary Potter’s Little Company of Mary – The New Zealand Experience 1914-2002  
Ann Trotter
Bridget Williams Books/Little Company of Mary, $39.95,
ISBN 1877242314

It may be a sign of the times that sisterhood – of the religious community, rather than the feminist variety – has been attracting significant local scholarship. In addition to Jessie Munro’s beautifully-crafted Story of Suzanne Aubert, which elaborated upon the early history of the Sisters of Compassion, we now have Michael Belgrave’s The Mater (2000), highlighting  the work of Auckland’s Sisters of Mercy, and Margaret McClure’s Saving the City (2002), on the Anglican Order of the Good Shepherd. If one adds to their number Ruth Fry’s 1993 history of the Community of the Sacred Name in Christchurch and, now, Ann Trotter’s history of the Little Company of Mary, we have an engaging cluster of works on women who chose, for predominantly religious reasons, to live, pray, and labour together in communities.

This is not to say that these orders were enclosed and narrowly contemplative: what makes their stories attractive, and as important for the history of welfare as for historians of religion, is their social role in the wider community. They were part of a world-wide expansion of religious sisterhoods over the 19th century, a movement which placed increasing emphasis on action and mission in religious experience.

Some of these orders came to have specialised skills and causes to which they applied their ministry world-wide: while most of the orders which appeared in New Zealand focused on teaching, the Catholic Order of the Good Shepherd (and, to some extent, the Anglican order of the same name) focused on the rescue of women in moral danger; the Little Sisters of the Poor cared for the destitute elderly; and the Little Company of Mary,  one of the last to arrive in New Zealand, specialised in the care of the sick and dying. Their history therefore tells us a good deal about changing demands and emphases in health services and about the public/private divide, as well as the role of women within the Catholic church.

The Little Company of Mary has elements in common with the other orders. It had a noteworthy foundress, in this case, Mary Potter, who looms large in the collective memory of the order. More unusually for the founder of a Catholic order, Potter was English, though her inspiration came from French religious philosopher Louis Marie Grigon de Montfort. Her own spiritual study and appalling health – a weak heart, tuberculosis, and two radical mastectomies, with a bout of typhoid thrown in – convinced her that she should found a community dedicated to the support and care of the dying.

Like a number of other orders, the “blue nuns”, as they were often called on account of the colour of their veils, came to New Zealand via Australia. Their numbers were replenished from Australia and their ethos reinforced from there, though as the number of local recruits grew, they became more independent of Sydney, and of the Lewisham Hospital in which most of the early sisters trained as nurses. From their arrival in Christchurch in 1914 they founded hospitals in Christchurch (1914), Wellington (1929), Hawera (1956), and Invercargill (1968), and established a mission and clinic in Tonga in 1975. Since then, the story of the order has been one of a series of withdrawals from the hospitals, and a reassessment of its role in modern society.

The Little Company of Mary came to New Zealand at a time of heightened sectarian tension between Protestants and Catholics. Trotter suggests this slowed the sisters’ acceptance in Christchurch and restricted admissions to their new Lewisham Hospital to a mere trickle in its first years of operation. It took the shared pressures of the 1918 influenza epidemic to establish close links with other health professionals in Christchurch, and a period of expansion followed. Success in Christchurch and, later, in Wellington, raised questions about their mission and about the nature of private hospitals staffed by religious. Who were the hospitals for, and whose interests were served by the unpaid work of the sisters?

Public and private hospitals originally intended for the destitute started to be used by all classes of the community over the early 20th century. Although the Lewisham and Calvary hospitals had free beds for those unable to pay, they were increasingly perceived as elite institutions, with the likelihood that the sisters’ work and dedication bolstered the incomes of medical specialists using the facilities. And, as religious professions declined and the proportion of waged lay staff increased, the financial viability of the hospitals came into question.

Trotter teases out the implications of religious foundations turning into big business, the impact of changes in government policy (sometimes favourable, sometimes hostile towards private hospitals), the hospitals’ transition to lay management, and changes in nursing training which meant that hospitals lost a cheap labour force. She also examines the changing balance between general surgery and provision for a geriatric clientele, as well as the somewhat different needs of those with terminal illness.  In this respect, the book makes a contribution to the social history of medicine in New Zealand.

Some will read the book for insights into the history of Catholicism and religious orders in New Zealand. Here too the case study is useful, and the insights particularly striking where they deal with the impact of Vatican II. Along with other Catholics, the sisters experienced the “rupture of certainties” which came with the reforms. This went well beyond the change of habit, though for individual nuns this constituted a symbolic personal adjustment. It also gave lessons in invisibility: self-consciously appearing in the “new look”, one sister waited all day for comment. Finally asking the long-time radiologist at her hospital, “How do you like my new habit?”, she received the reply, “What did you wear before?”

Other consequences of Vatican II were more serious for the order as a whole. More of the religious felt able to question their vocations, and some left the order. Recruitment declined, sisters being received into the order as individuals, rather than in the companionable “batches” which had characterised earlier decades. Small groups of nuns living in the community eventually replaced convent solidarity, and the sale or transfer of hospitals was accompanied by questioning, and even an element of dissension which would not have been possible earlier. On the other hand, the changes allowed a rethinking of the order’s mission, and a return to its founder’s original values.

Mary Potter’s Little Company of Mary invites comparison with Michael Belgrave’s The Mater, which also examines the nursing activities of a Catholic order – for those interested in private hospitals, they make a useful pair. Belgrave uses direct quotations from oral history to greater effect, giving a better sense of daily life, of individuality and eccentricity, and of outsiders’ responses to the Mercy sisters. But although Trotter’s book is diplomatic, it is certainly no hagiography, showing the very real grief, tension and questioning associated with the sale of the Christchurch hospital and the move to smaller communities, for example. Trotter, whose previous work has mostly been in the area of international relations, shows her adaptability here.

The text is accompanied by a nicely judged selection of photographs, which give a sense of the diminishing numerical strength but continued social activity of the order. (The quality of the images varies and, as an aside from my own experience, I wonder if the trend for scanning and electronic transmission is becoming a problem, especially if the initial scanning is inadequate.)

The story of the Little Company of Mary gives opportunity to reflect on changing meanings of “sisterhood”, and whether, in the end, the distinction made at the start of this review is altogether too stark.


Margaret Tennant lectures in history at Massey University and has recently co-edited a book on history and social policy in New Zealand for Otago University Press.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Review
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