Convent (Lat. conventus) originally signified an assembly of Roman citizens in the provinces for purposes of administration and justice. In the history of monasticism the word has two distinct technical meanings: (1) A religious community of either sex when spoken of in its corporate capacity. The word was first used in this sense when the eremitical life combined with the cenobitical. The hermits of an Eastern laura, living in separate cells as the most modern grouped around that of their common superior, when spoken of collectively, were called a conventus. In Western monasticism the term came into general use from the very beginning, and the technical phrase abbas et conventus signifies to this day the entire community of a monastic establishment. (2) The buildings in which reside a community of either sex. In this sense the word denotes more properly the home of a strictly monastic order, and is not correctly used to designate the home of what is called a “congregation”. In addition to these technical meanings, the word has also a popular signification at the present day, by which it is made to mean in particular the abode of female religious, just as “monastery” denotes that of men, though in reality the two words are interchangeable. In the present article the word is taken chiefly in its popular sense. The treatment, moreover, is limited to those features which are common to all, or nearly all, convents, while peculiarities due to the special purpose, rule, or occupation of each religious order are explained in the pertinent article.
I. CONVENT LIFE.
—The life lived by the inmates of a convent naturally varies in its details, according to the particular object for which it has been founded, or the special circumstances of time and place by which it is affected. Convents are often roughly divided into two classes, strictly enclosed and unenclosed, but with regard to the convents existing at the present day this division, though correct as far as it goes, is not a very satisfactory one, because both classes are capable of subdivision, and, on account of the varied kinds of work undertaken by the nuns, these subdivisions overlap one another. Thus, of the strictly enclosed communities, some are purely contemplative, others mainly active (i.e. engaged in educational or rescue work), while others again combine the two. Similarly, of the unenclosed orders, some are purely active (i.e. undertaking educational, parochial, hospital, or other work), and others unite the contemplative with the active life, without, however, being strictly enclosed. As a general deduction it may be stated that the contemplative life, in which women were actuated by a desire to save their own souls and the souls of others by their lives of prayer, seclusion, and mortification, was the idea of the older orders, while the distinctive note of the more modern congregations is that of active work amongst others and the relief of their bodily wants.
With regard to the educational work of the convents, it may here be stated that this includes the teaching of both elementary and secondary schools, as well as the training of teachers for such schools and higher education. The hospital and nursing work comprises the management of hospitals, both general and for special classes of patients, as well as the nursing of both rich and poor in their own homes. Rescue work includes the conduct of penitentiaries, orphanages, and homes for the aged poor. A few convents make special provision for the reception of guests, for retreats and other spiritual purposes, and a large proportion of then receive boarders at moderate charges. Some, mostly of enclosed communities, have undertaken the work of Perpetual Adoration, while others devote themselves to ecclesiastical embroidery and the making of church vestments. This particular kind of work has always been characteristic of English nuns, whose embroidery, known as the opus anglicanum, was famous in medieval times (Matthew Paris, Rolls ed., IV, an. 1246). The ordinary routine of life in a nunnery has always corresponded approximately with that of a monastery. The nun’s day is divided between the choir, the workroom, the school-room, the refectory, the recreation-room, the cell, and, with the active orders, the outside work, in periodical rotation. Idleness or lack of occupation is never permitted. The earliest rules for nuns, as well as the most modern, all prescribe labor of some useful kind. The medieval nuns could always read and write Latin, and they also employed themselves in transcribing and illuminating sacred books, and in many of the fine arts, the cultivation of which they consecrated to the service of God. The convents thus were always homes of industry, and just as formerly they played no small part in the spread of civilization, so now they are almost indispensable hand-maids to the cause of the Catholic Church.
II. UNFOUNDED CALUMNIES.
—It is not necessary here to refute the many base and vile charges that have from time to time been brought against the conventual system; a mere general reference to them is sufficient, for the evidence of the salutary work done by convents and the fruits of the lives of the nuns are in themselves ample refutation. In the past there have been “anti-convent” and “convent-inspection” societies, as well as the lectures of “escaped nuns” and literature in abundance of the “Maria Monk” type, and they may be expected to crop up again periodically in the future. These may and do for a time hamper the work of the nuns and cause a certain amount of disquietude in some quarters, but it is a significant fact that, whatever excitement they may raise for the time being, the agitation always dies down again as suddenly as it arises, and its harmful effects never appear to leave behind them any lasting results, except perhaps an increased interest in, and respect for, the conventual life that has been vilified.
III. LEGISLATION AS TO CONVENTS.
—Canon law contains a large and important section relating to the establishment and government of convents. The privileges of such as are exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, the appointment of confessors for the nuns, and the duties of the same, the regulations of the Church concerning enclosure, and the admission and testing of candidates, the nature and obligations of the vows, the limits of the powers of superiors, and the conditions regarding the erection of new convents are among the many points of detail legislated for. One or two points may be alluded to here. The law of the Church requires that no new convent be established, whether it be one that is exempt from episcopal jurisdiction or not, without the consent of the bishop of the diocese; for what is technically called “canonical erection” further formalities, including approbation from Rome, have to be complied with. All confessors for nuns must be specially approved by the bishop, even those of convents that are exempt from his ordinary jurisdiction, and the bishop has also to provide that all nuns can have access two or three times in the year to an “extraordinary” confessor, other than their usual one. The bishop also is obliged periodically to visit and inspect all the convents in his diocese, excepting those that are exempt, at the time of which visitation every nun must be free to see him privately in order to make any complaints or suggestions that she may wish. With regard to the admission of postulants the law provides for every precaution being taken, on the one hand, to prevent coercion and, on the other, to safeguard the community from being obliged to receive those about whose vocation there may be any doubt. Physical fitness on the part of a candidate is in most orders an indispensable condition, though there are some which admit women of delicate health; but, once admitted and professed, the contract becomes reciprocal, and while the nun undertakes to keep her vows, the convent, on its side, is bound to provide her with lodging, food, and clothing, and to maintain her in sickness or in health (see Novice; Vows).
—With regard to the dowry required of a nun, the customs and rules of the different orders vary much according to circumstances. Some convents, on account of their poverty, are obliged to insist upon it, and, generally speaking, most expect their members to bring some contribution to the general fund. A convent that is rich will often dispense with the dowry in the case of a highly promising candidate, but it must always depend upon particular circumstances. The minimum amount of the dowry required is generally fixed by the rule or constitutions of the convent or order.
—In most of the older contemplative orders the choir nuns are bound to recite the whole Divine Office in choir. In only a very few of the English convents, e.g. Cistercians, Dominicans, and Poor Clares, do the nuns rise in the night for Matins and Lauds; in the others these Offices are generally said in the evening “by anticipation”. In some there are other additional offices recited daily; thus the Cistercians and Poor Clares say the Office of Our Lady and that of the Dead every day, and the Brigittines say the latter thrice in the week, as well as an Office of the Holy Ghost. Almost all the active orders, both enclosed and unenclosed, use the Office of Our Lady, but some, like the Sisters of Charity, are not bound to the recitation of any Office at all.
VI. LAY SISTERS.
—In most orders the nuns are divided into choir sisters and lay sisters. The latter are usually employed in the household duties and other manual work. They take the usual vows and are as truly religious as the choir nuns, but they are not bound to the choir Office, though they often attend the choir at the time of Office and recite certain prayers in the vernacular. There is always a distinction between their habit and that of the choir nuns, sometimes very slight and sometimes strongly marked. In some orders where the choir sisters are enclosed the lay sisters are not; but in others they are as strictly enclosed as the choir nuns. Several orders have, by their rule, no lay sisters, among them being the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Bon Secours, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Poor Servants of the Mother of God.
VII. CONVENTUAL BUILDINGS.
—The internal arrangement of a properly constituted convent is, for the most part, similar to that of a monastery for men (see Abbey and Monastery), but from poverty and other obvious causes, many convents have had to be established in already-existing ordinary dwelling-houses, which do not always lend themselves to ideal adaptation. (See Cloister; Religious Dower; Nuns; Divine Office; Schools.)
G. CYPRIAN ALSTON