Fr. Gustave Noel Ineza, OP, is a doctoral student at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. Born and raised in Rwanda, he lived through the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and went into exile for a month in what was then Zaire. His family left the refugee camps and returned to Rwanda after three members of his family developed cholera. He studied in the minor seminary and joined the Dominican Order in 2002. He studied Philosophy in Burundi, and Theology in South Africa (SJTI/Pietermaritzburg) and the UK (Blackfriars/Oxford). Ordained in 2014, he worked for Domuni (www.domuni.eu) and was a chaplain to university and high school students. In 2018, he came to Canada to pursue studies in Christian-Muslim dialogue. He is currently reading on post-colonial approaches to the taxonomies assigned to religious traditions (Muslims and Christians) by colonial powers in Rwanda.
The Other Sister
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught many to value more highly essential workers who are usually underpaid after long hours of vital work. Nurses are among the most praised as they daily risk contracting the virus while trying to offer a treatment to the sick. It is not the first time that nurses, women in particular, have risked their lives to save other people’s lives during pandemics. Several pandemics affected the pre-modern world. Some of those who offered treatment to the sick were non-cloistered women religious whose identities have not been comprehensively studied. These women were part of bigger movements which flourished in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times.
In September 2020, I joined a team of academics as an assistant researcher to Dr. Alison More. Dr. More is the undergraduate Medieval Studies coordinator and the inaugural holder of the Comper Professorship in Medieval Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College. She works on a joint project with Dr. Isabelle Cochelin (Department of History & Centre for Medieval Studies/UofT), and Dr. Isabel Harvey (Department of Humanistic Studies of the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari). The project is called “The Other Sister” and its focus is “women who pursued forms of religious life outside of the cloister in medieval and early modern western Europe and New France.” The other members of the project are Dr. Angela Carbone (University of Bari Aldo Moro) and Dr. Sylvie Duval (Università Cattolica in Milan), research assistants Laura Moncion, Emma Gabe, and Meghan Lescault (Centre for Medieval Studies or Department of History/UofT), and Camila Justino (USMC Book and Media and Mediaeval Studies).
The women studied are known by many names, including beguines, tertiaries, recluses, oblates, secular canonesses, lay sisters, pizzochere, bizzoche, beatas, and others. Their names and forms of life varied according to location. Our research group organizes thematic meetings which are the main venue for discussing current research, and recent books, chapters in books, articles, both published and forthcoming. As the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s movements, presenters invited from different academic institutions around the world working on aspects of the project meet by Zoom each month. Although the situation has made it impossible for people to have actual face-to-face meetings, it has allowed those on different continents to virtually meet.
To date, the group has prepared and successfully conducted five thematic meetings. The first meeting was entitled Women Serving Enclosed Women (held on September 29, 2020), the second was on Working in Premodern Hospitals (October 27, 2020), the third’s theme was Charity, Caregiving and Female Social Roles from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period (December 17, 2020), the fourth was on Naming The Other Sister: Tertiary, Lay, or Penitent? (February 8, 2021), and the fifth was held on Medieval and Early Modern Beguines, from Provence to Northern Europe (March 15, 2021). Details about those thematic meetings are found on the group’s blog.
The attendance has recently been reaching about 40 participants, mainly professors, post-docs, and PhD students from around the globe, all interested in the subject. Our discussion inevitably yields new insights which cross the usual temporal and geographic boundaries.
The main group of the ten researchers attached to “The Other Sister” has working meetings where we prepare the rest of our activities: thematic meetings, workshops for larger audiences, a workshop for our members on using ArcGIS Software to create maps of the communities of non-cloistered religious women, the construction and development of a blog, etc. The blog is named “The Other Sister.” It presents an overview of research and has space for recent updates and news of importance or interest to our community of scholars.
On a personal note, with this project I am learning about historical methodologies that do not aim at proving hidden agendas but analytically and objectively examine all possible data. Also, I have gained a new perspective as a student in Christian-Muslim relations. My usual methodology is historical and postcolonial. It investigates silenced and othered voices in my country’s religious identity construction. I have learned much from “The Other Sister.” Apart from the finesse in the communication of the members and the rigour in the historical research with its requirements for accuracy, I have come to appreciate the academic enthusiasm involved in understanding subjects that touch a given identity. I am also interested in understanding the power relationship between identity and those who write history: in our case, the image given to these non-cloistered, lay-religious women by predominantly male and clerical historians.
Our work values the religious zeal of women who were willing to live a life given to the poor, the sick, prayer, and teaching, often in the face of incomprehension and negative judgment from their society and the Church. Some were considered heretics or witches simply for wanting to live this life outside the walls of a cloister. A deconstruction of the meta-narrative on them that at times portrayed them as uncontrollable dangers to the Christian faith aims to restore their proper image. As the Church strives to include women in its decision-making bodies, it will surely be inspired by the findings of “The Other Sister” project, and the genius of the women working on it.
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