National Vocations Awareness Week -- Societies of Apostolic Life


Societies of Apostolic Life arose during the Counter-Reformation in the wake of the Council of Trent. This council had imposed cloister on all women’s religious orders. St. Francis de Sales originally wanted the Visitation nuns to be uncloistered religious sisters visiting the sick poor in their own homes, but the faithful wouldn’t hear of it. St. Vincent de Paul, de Sales’ contemporary, saw what happened with the Visitation, and developed the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor, along with St. Louise de Marillac.

Mrs Cloisters OP
Lay Dominican


It wasn’t the “faithful” who would have none of it–it was a couple of bishops. The emergence of apostolic religious life for women (or “soeurs seculaire,” as they were called in France) was widespread but haphazard, unfortunately depending on the whims of individual hierarchs (whose successors could always reverse prior policies). The best place to start to learn about this is the important work of Elizabeth Rapley.


Thank you for the reference. However, I was told by a Visitandine that the people, who had just received the mandates of the Council of Trent, wouldn’t accept the “secular sisters”. The gentle Visitation also was accused of coming down off the cross. I would imagine the peoples’ complaints landed on the bishop’s desk.

Understood about one bishop revoking another’s permission. Happens all the time, even today. The Diocese of Tulsa, OK, is a case-in-point.


The Visitation history is complex, and varied from place to place, but they were hardly the only–or even the principal–secular sisters as they were enclosed so quickly (see, for instance, Pagliarini’s dissertation on them). Consider, in addition to Rapley, Marguerite Vacher’s history of the early Sisters of St. Joseph (translated into English by Patricia Byrne), and–very importantly–the essential 2-volume history of the Ursulines by Teresa Ledochowska (also translated into English). Elizabeth Makowski’s work, on Periculoso and other matters, is also foundational. There is an Ursuline canonist who wrote an excellent dissertation on this a few decades ago, but her name slips my mind at the moment.

The point is that the history has been well researched (and continues to be), and it is important not to generalize on the basis of a single conversation.


The canonist whose name I could not recall earlier is Lynn Marie Jarrell, OSU. Her dissertation (Catholic U., 1985) is: “The Development of Legal Structures for Women Religious between 1500 and 1900: A Study of Selected Institutes of Religious Life for Women.”


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