There have been myriad communities of religious women since Roman times when women grouped together as part of the early church. Indeed, in the early church, female religious followers often set a pious example to the rest of the community.
St Paul mentions religious widows who attempted to live a life in which Christ’s moral teachings were completely adhered to.
Regardless of your religious affiliation, the history of monastic orders, including the history of nuns, should fascinate you. We can learn a great deal about the way in which our society has dealt with disaster, war and social inequality by investigating the actions of the unusually devout. With that in mind, let’s look at one particular female monastic order that sprung up as the product of very specific sociopolitical circumstances – the Cenacle Sisters. What follows is a very brief chronology of the order.
The Cenacle sisters can trace their origins back to the aftermath of the French Revolution. After the Revolution, the spiritual life of the French population was in turmoil. The relatively strict educational principles that guided religious practice in France had broken down. Religious leaders wandered the countryside in a rather unregulated fashion seeking to spread religious zeal.
Thousands of pilgrims were flocking to see the shrine of St Regis at Lalouvesc. It was in this environment that Sister Marie Therese Couderc helped to found the Daughters of St Regis. Her intention was to house pilgrims during their travels across France. Female Pilgrims had no dedicated hostel near the shrine, so Couderc set to establishing one.
Couderc’s female hostel soon became immensely popular with female pilgrims, but there were concerns among the inhabitants that the participation in religious activities was being buried under the chaos of running an open hostel.
Couderc (who was by then known as Mother Therese) instigated a new rule that was intended to preserve religious piety in the hostel. All guests would be required to undertake several days of prayer if they were to be permitted entry. This changed the hostel entirely. It now resembled more of a spiritual retreat – its inhabitants sisters of a religious community.
The religious activities of the retreat became centered on the ‘Cenacle’ or ‘upper room’, from which the sisters would spiritually convene with St Mary. Thus, the Sisterhood became known as the Cenacle Sisters. In 1826, the ministry of the Cenacle Sisters was officially named. They set about spreading into Europe, founding religious retreats.
The Fires of War
As well as founding and operating religious retreats, the Sisters attempted to improve a lot of others through care work. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Cenacle Sisters were invaluable nurses.
The New World
In 1892, four of the Cenacle Sisters made the long and perilous journey to the new world – America.
They settled and spread their word, eventually setting up several retreats on the east coast of the USA. They were initially housed by Dominican nuns until they could raise enough funds for their own mission house.