Seeing the State from the Margins
A review by Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens
What happens when researchers look quite simply for “other ways of telling the story?” Silvia Marina Arrom asks this question at the beginning of her deeply researched history of the male Society of St Vincent de Paul and its female counterpart, the Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, in Mexico. It is an entirely appropriate question. Few researchers study Catholic lay organizations. Those who do often represent the faithful and limit their “stories” to recounting names of illustrious founders, cataloging good works, and highlighting volunteers’ piety. Researchers who view religion more critically often dismiss religious philanthropy and its frequently female face entirely or discount it as a pre-modern manifestation of paternalistic charity. Arrom tells a different story. In it she provides fascinating insights into heretofore virtually invisible Catholic agents of welfare and their role in religious and political mobilization in Mexico. Her account offers a crucial corrective to the triumphalist narrative of the secular Mexican state.
Mexico has been considered among the most anti-clerical countries of the global South. During the post-Independence era, the country experienced dramatic Liberal/Conservative conflict, much of it centered on state efforts to control the Catholic Church. These conflicts culminated in La Reforma (1855-1863), a period of dramatic anti-clerical legislation and governance. The 1857 Mexican Constitution and a trilogy of laws (Ley Iglesias, Ley Juárez, and Ley Lerdo) pummeled Catholic power by prohibiting civil and ecclesiastical corporate ownership or administration of real estate, nationalizing church wealth, regulating parish fees, suppressing religious orders, separating church and state, establishing marriage as a civil contract, placing cemeteries and statistics under civil control, asserting freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and secularizing schools and charities.
La Reforma’s 19th century anti-clericalism was followed by the post-revolutionary Mexican state’s promulgation of the 1917 Constitution, which imposed similar regulations but with greater force.
The Catholic Church’s response appeared reactionary. Following La Reforma, Catholic clergy and laity supported the Second Empire of Maximilian, thereby discrediting the church and the Conservative movement. Following the Mexican 1910 Revolution, Catholic forces gathered behind the Cristero Rebellion, a powerful counterrevolution which forced the secular state to take a step back. Even though these movements seemed to highlight continuing Catholic power, researchers often assumed that the secular, modern Mexican state’s repeated assaults reduced the church to a mere purveyor of ritual and prayer. Yet Silvia Arrom demonstrates that far from disappearing as a result of Liberal assaults, the Catholic Church merely shifted its focus. In response to La Reforma and post- revolutionary repression, the Catholic Church actively promoted lay activism, and especially female lay activism. The male and female branches of the lay St. Vincent de Paul society were direct outgrowths of this new emphasis on laity and the opportunities the church granted the faithful. Women, especially those of the middle and upper class, engaged the space of Catholic volunteer service to enter the public sphere as agents of faith and social welfare.
The lay St. Vincent de Paul Society was a transnational endeavor, which traced its roots to a French association founded at the height of the French Revolution’s anti- clericalism. The male branch of Mexico’s St. Vincent de Paul Society was founded in 1845, just a decade before La Reforma, and its female counterpart, the Ladies of Charity, two decades later at the conclusion of La Reforma in 1865. The very foundation of the lay organizations and their success offers a counter to the image of a powerful secular state decimating church power. With its aim of “promoting Christian charity, spreading the Catholic faith, stimulating the love of God and of one’s neighbor, fostering the cult of Saint Vincent de Paul, and forming conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul” (p. 25), the associations grew in numbers, wealth, and strength, especially in peripheral regions outside the reach of the centralizing Mexican state.
The Society initially grew slowly, but the Reforma provided an impetus for rapid growth in terms of numbers, the social class of members, the breadth of works performed, and the geographic location of chapters. It also marked a fundamental shift in the gendered structure of the organization as a result of the foundation of the Ladies of Charity in 1865. Despite their later foundation, the Ladies of Charity rapidly outstripped male lay activism. “By 1895 there were only 1,536 men active in 121 conferences, compared with 9,875 women active in some 400 chapters” (p. 108). The Ladies of Charity operated in virtually every state of the country, while the men were concentrated in a central strip with focal points in Mexico City and Guadalajara. On the eve of the Mexican Revolution, the Ladies of Charity conducted more than 99 percent of home visitations, and their works accounted for 76 percent of Vincentian conference expenditures (p. 110). In the state of Jalisco, which would become a mainstay of the Society and the Catholic Church, Ladies of Charity comprised 91% of the volunteers in the countryside (p. 150).
While Arrom details fully the powerful role of women in the Society, she does not agree with the widespread perception that 19th-century Mexican charity and piety were “feminized.” Instead, she argues that gender complementarity contributed to the extraordinary success of the St. Vincent de Paul lay associations. In Arrom’s account, men appear women’s equals in their religious piety. Men simply “had many other ways to defend their faith, serve others, and reform the modern world” (p.113). Arrom supports her observation throughout the book by highlighting men’s multiple roles in supporting the faith, which ranged from directing Catholic newspapers (p. 33), forming the Partido Católico Nacional (p. 112), and raising funds for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Men raised nearly four times the amount of individual female donations. “In 1900 each male volunteer on average took in approximately 37 pesos for each woman’s 10” (p. 117). In effect, men provided money, while women provided their labor.
Arrom most clearly illustrates the breadth of the Vincentian conferences’ influence in her culminating chapter focused on Jalisco. With Guadalajara as its capital, Jalisco became the site of a “dense web of Catholic organizations” (p. 127) and, not incidentally, the bedrock of the Cristero rebellion against the anti-clerical revolutionary Mexican state. In the 1860s, the male Vincentian volunteers from Guadalajara formed 32 percent of all Vincentian volunteers in Mexico, and the region came to account for a quarter of all male conferences founded in Mexico during the Second Empire. The Gentlemen taught Christian doctrine to indigenous people in rural villages, founded a school and a workshop for adults, and engaged in an abundance of good works. Yet the Ladies of Charity appeared in every way more “successful.” Arrom recounts that the female volunteers contributed “to building the infrastructure for Jalisco’s public health system” by supporting some twenty hospitals (pp. 148–149). They oversaw instruction in doctrine of boys and girls in Catholic schools and in Sunday school; they helped to found cajas de ahorros(or credit unions) to help workers save their earnings; they established libraries and rural study schools, thereby extending Catholic reach to nearby rancherías and pueblos. The male and female volunteers of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society thus offered a religious alternative to the secular welfare state, which may have been more effective because it was more extensive, more easily accessed, and more fully trusted.
Silvia Arrom describes the work of the Vincentian lay volunteers, especially that of the women, as “the work of ants.” Through the labor of accretion, involving thousands of individual acts of prayer and charity, the volunteers developed vast networks that had a profound impact on Mexico. Remarkably, the breadth of the St. Vincent de Paul volunteers’ labor and impact appears directly in contrast to their virtual invisibility in the historical record. To uncover their history, Arrom, too had to engage in her own “work of ants” by traveling to multiple local and regional archives, scouring existing research, poring over “official histories,” and then painstakingly reconstructing the history in the form of narrative and a wealth of tables and maps. By doing so, she offered not just the important story of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but also a means of reconsidering the Mexican state and even the modern welfare state more broadly. While the book provides an outstanding account of gender complementarity and highlights social class, there is a notable absence of race. It is possible that the archival materials simply did not allow the author to “tell this story,” and it will be up to future researchers to consider the ways that the largely middle and upper class, and presumably European-descent and mestizo women and men of the St. Vincent de Paul conferences encountered the people they served.
Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens is a professor of Latin American history at California State University, Northridge. She was the 2013-14 Santander Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS.
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