“Civilization” and Conversion: Catholic Nuns and Clandestine Baptism (Middle East and China, XIXth century)

In the nineteenth century, French Catholic nuns entered missionary work in large numbers for the first time, as the nature of imperialism shifted from conquest to “civilization”. Considered less confrontational than either male clerics or lay men, women religious provided services in education, welfare, and medicine to natives who often crowded their schools, convents, and clinics. In many regions of the world, especially Asia and the Middle East, where proselytization was discouraged or banned, the sisters promised religious neutrality in dispensing aid. Nonetheless, as faithful Catholics, their goal remained the conversion of natives through emulation or other means. This paper will examine one such means, the practice of clandestine baptism of dying non-Catholic children in order to ensure their salvation. Canon law allowed any Catholic the right to baptize another in danger of death; parental permission (or knowledge) was not required for children under the age of seven. The sisters’ actions were well known within church circles, but because they contradicted the official policy of religious neutrality, they were careful to keep this potentially incendiary practice secret from both local residents and colonial officials. Male clerics agreed, however, that because of their ability to enter indigenous homes and treat the dying, Catholic nuns were more valuable than priests in this endeavor, making them more effective missionary agents. At the same time, the clandestine nature of these baptisms endowed Catholic women with sacramental powers usually belonging exclusively to men. Based on archival documentation relating to two religious orders, the Filles de la Charité and the Soeurs de St-Joseph de l’Apparition, in the Middle East and China in the first half of the nineteenth century, this paper shows the increasingly important and paradoxal role played by nuns in the expansion of Catholicism.

Sarah A. Curtis is Associate professor in the Department of History in the San Francisco State University. She is the author of Civilizing Habits: Women Missionaries and the Revival of French Empire, Oxford University Press, 2010 ; and the co-editor, Views from the Margins: Creating Identities in Modern France, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.