Sister Amélie grew up in the small village of Ngeba in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a child, Sr. Amélie remembers seeing Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur ministering in her village, but she did not know what community the women belonged to until she began to study at their local primary school.
Although she was introduced to other Roman Catholic religious orders in the region, the Sisters of Notre Dame remained her favorite. Observing the kindness they showed to others, she decided she wanted to be like the women she had admired from a young age.
“What impressed me the most was their humanitarian work,” explained Sr. Amélie, “When they arrived in the village, they would go from house to house every morning to greet people. The sisters fetched water and gathered firewood for the sick. I told myself I just need to go to the Sisters of Notre Dame and become like them.”
When Amélie shared the desire to become a religious sister with her parents, her mother initially resisted, and she worried that her brother would also oppose the decision. Amélie’s classmates taunted her: “Why become a sister? It’s useless!”
Undeterred, Amélie entered the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1984 at age 22, professing the three religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience for the first time in 1988. Dressed in a brightly patterned African wrapper, pagne, and matching blouse according to the style of local sisters, Sr. Amélie smiled a little as she shared the memory with me.
When she meets the same friends today, they react differently. Some are happy to see how well she is doing while others are envious. Most of the young women Amélie grew up with did not finish their studies. Sr. Amélie believes they are leading more difficult lives than she, farming, caring for children, and quickly aging while she “stays young.”
Sr. Amélie is one of the 71,567 Roman Catholic sisters in Africa today. She belongs to the transnational Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Belgian religious order that first sent missionary sisters to the newly colonized État Indépendant du Congo in 1894, and now has approximately 1,400 members living in sixteen countries across five continents.
When European sisters began evangelizing Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, they initially had no intention of welcoming local women into their communities. The first African sisters were segregated into diocesan orders founded specifically for black women during the 1920s and 1930s.
Even after African women were formally welcomed into international religious orders following the rise of African independence movements and the Second Vatican Council (1963–65), they faced immense obstacles. Not only did the first local sisters endure the ethnocentrism of the missionaries who formed them, but they also faced resistance from their families for giving up the valued roles of mother and wife.
According to the traditional culture of the Kongo people — a Bantu ethnic group that predates the colony and national state established under Belgian rule — women’s primary obligation is to bear children, produce “riches in human beings” (mbongo bantu), and repair the clan (londa kanda) by giving life to future generations. For women like Amélie, the conflict between fulfilling Western ideals of celibate religious sisterhood and responding to local gendered expectations regarding childbearing and kinship obligations remains a persistent source of tension.
While doing research for my book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, I interviewed 80 Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in the Democratic Republic of Congo, United States, and Belgium.
In my Gender & Society article, I highlight the distinct experiences of Catholic sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Taking lifelong vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the 30 Congolese sisters I interviewed chose not to fulfill these local cultural expectations to become wives and mothers.
As we talked in community rooms and outdoor pavilions on the grounds of convent compounds across the cities of Kimwenza, Kisantu, and Lemfu, these women described the resistance they encountered to their religious vocations among family members, extended kin, and peers who could not comprehend their choice.
“For us, procreation is a very, very important value,” Sr. Élodie explained to me,” I received life and I am obliged to give life. It is through marriage and children that I must continue life. But now, I have a block. It is as if I cut off that life, those umbilical cords…to transmit life to others.”
In response to widespread disapproval among their family, friends, and community members, I found that sisters affirmed their communal, moral, and spiritual ties to others through their social ministries. Referring to themselves as “mothers of all,” many sisters explicitly rejected the notion that they could not mother within the convent, focusing on the education and moral formation they provide to youth throughout the region in schools, health centers, and women’s development programs.
In addition to helping sisters expand biological notions of motherhood and redefine the spaces where mothering work is performed, these social ministries provided institutional resources through which sisters could resist regional gender regimes that restrict girls’ education, women’s professional trajectories, and female landownership.
Whereas it is rare to find women in formal leadership positions in many of the villages where they work, sisters administer their own institutions, including schools, dispensaries, and women’s development centers. Sisters also own and manage the land surrounding their convents, including 60 hectares of farmland, which is unusual since traditional practices do not allow women direct access to land rights outside of marriage.
Although most sisters remain in gender-traditional fields of education and health care, they are beginning to enter male-dominated occupations and professions. There are Congolese Sisters of Notre Dame who are working as theologians, linguists, veterinarians, and agricultural engineers, as well as an electrician, lawyer, information technologist, psychologist, anthropologist, medical doctor, laboratory technician, and an auto mechanic.
This is significant in a country where women remain underrepresented in most sectors of the formal economy, and are much less likely than male workers to be engaged in wage employment. In the words of Sr. Simone, who manages the Province’s farmland, “Women are capable of doing any work, no exceptions.”
The religious women I studied could not completely undo local gender expectations through their religious practices. The ways Congolese Catholic sisters interpret their religious vows and subsequently do religion is clearly shaped by cultural expectations and gender ideals.
Although Congolese sisters make an exceptional commitment to their faith by professing religious vows that seem to conflict with cultural expectations to become wives and mothers, they continue to be influenced by local gender ideals.
Making the radical choice to live outside the institutions of marriage and biological family, sisters do not ignore the pressure to revere motherhood. Instead, sisters draw on Catholic notions of spiritual motherhood to avoid the stigma of childlessness and to redefine the space where feminine care giving is performed.
They do their mothering work in schools, health centers, and other social ministries. Doing religion is inseparable from doing gender as sisters embody alternative ways of being a woman in post-colonial Congolese society through their religious practices.
Casey Clevenger is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University. Her forthcoming book, Unequal Partners: In Search of Transnational Catholic Sisterhood, is an ethnographic study of Catholic sisters in the United States, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Belgium. In addition to her research on gender and religion, Casey studies immigration and healthcare chaplaincy.