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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII No. 4 Christmastide 2003 - Epiphany 2004

Our Forgotten Heroines

by Joanna Bogle

London's Catholic Central Library is excellently placed near Euston station, ideal for choosing a couple of books for a journey to Scotland or the North of England. For a recent journey, I picked up some 19th century biographies, all relating to the Victorian Catholic revival with its remarkable heroes and (more particularly) heroines. I wanted to discover some of these people for myself -- women like Maria Giberne, Georgiana Fullerton, and Mother Margaret Hallahan.

Who were these women? Forgotten now, they helped to shape the Church we inherited in the Britain of the 20th century, a Church freed from its old oppression and extraordinarily well-equipped to face the future, a Church that was pioneering women's education and running a vast program of social enterprises -- ranging from hospitals and orphanages to study circles, libraries, canteens, and literacy classes -- all imbued with a passionately evangelical zeal to teach and celebrate the Catholic Faith.

It is fashionable today to talk about the role of women in the Church. The American Bishops' Conference has just commissioned yet another document on the subject, following "Strengthening the Bonds of Peace" (1994) "Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium" (1995) and "From Words to Deeds" (1998). Almost certainly the new document, like those that have gone before, will be subjected to enormous pressure from the feminist lobby, which will result in much convoluted language, and the steering of a muddled course through a great deal of jargon which manages to say -- while not actively attacking the Church or challenging her teachings -- remarkably little that really honors or upholds them.

And the paradox is that in the middle of all this, the Church today, the authentic role of women is something that really should be explored. We do not lack modern role models. Apart from Mother Teresa, we have other remarkable nuns, like the indefatigable Mother Angelica, founder of the (now international) EWTN Alabama-based television network, or, here at home, Mother Mary Garson with her string of homes for the elderly both in Britain and in India. The younger generation are beginning to get the idea and Scotland has given us the splendid Sister Roseann Reddy with her Sisters of the Gospel of Life, which began as a response to the late Glascow Cardinal Winning's Pro-Life Initiative.

"Ah, we don't just want nuns!" comes the cry. "Today, women seek a different role in the Church -- more upfront, more empowered". Plenty of those around today, from Ann Widdecombe in the front-line of British politics for more than a decade (and recently appointed as Master of the Catholic Writers' Guild, following the publication of two acclaimed novels), through to women like Victoria Gillick, Nuala Scarisbrick, Valerie Riches and others, whose names have been in and out of headlines and newspaper reports on the most controversial of topics. The whole pro-life and pro-family movement has seen the emergence of some remarkable women -- and the story isn't over yet, as the continuing challenges of this massive campaign bring forward new young women, often busy enough with jobs and homes and families but energized and dedicated into speaking up for crucial moral values.

In saying all this, I'm not saying we don't also have plenty of excellent Catholic lay men -- we certainly do, and we often are insufficiently grateful to them But I am making a specific point here about women. For too long we have listened to siren feminist voices suggesting that women's "giftedness", and the special insights from the female point of view, have been marginalized within our Church. But a study of history and of the present day reveals that this is not the case; and that the real and vigorous contribution of many remarkable women is being discounted.

In a major court case of the 19th century, Cardinal Newman stood accused of libel by an ex-priest who had molested a young woman in the sacristy of an Italian church. In order to defend himself, Newman had to arrange for the young woman to be brought to London to give evidence. The heroine of the hour was one Maria Giberne, who -- traveling under the difficult conditions of the day across France and Italy -- traced the young woman and cared for her for several months until the court hearing. The trial was a landmark one and all involved were subjected to extraordinary tension and difficulty. Miss Giberne's patience and courage were an immense asset and never deserted her in the course of a long life given generously to the Church: in late middle-age she became a nun and, described affectionately by a relative as "certainly dynamic and not a little eccentric", she died full of years and vibrant faith in the 1880s.

This was a woman who, like Margaret Hallahan (orphaned at the age of seven, earning her own living as a housemaid in her childhood years, who went on to found her own Dominican Order and establish the great community at Stone in Staffordshire, England), makes modern feminist campaigners look small.

These were women of knowledge and wisdom, who read and studied, argued and thought things through, who were active in a Church that was widely reviled and denounced in the media as an evil, dangerous institution, oppressive, bigoted, and cruel. To read the anti-Catholic rants in some of the media of the mid-19th century is to read bigotry in the raw -- but also to see uncomfortable parallels with today.

Let's honor the women who saw the Church in our country through such extraordinary times, and who left us such a rich heritage of faith and achievement. Unswerving in loyalty to the pope and to unchanging and unchangeable doctrines, what would they say to those today who seek a "Catholicism-lite" that would fit in with media-mandated norms on everything from priestesses to homosexual unions? For me, and for other Catholic women of today, the heroines of the 19th century should stand as a call to us to emulate their courage and example.

Joanna Bogle, Voices contributing editor, lives in London, is active in Catholic movements in England, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television. Mrs. Bogle was featured on EWTN radio's "Catholic Heritage" series. Excerpts from A Book of Feasts and Seasons (1988) appear on several pages of the Prayers and Devotions section on the WFF web site (

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