”He’s My Best Friend” Relationality, Materiality, and the Manipulation of Motherhood in Devotion to St Gerard Majella in Newfoundland’

Bowman, Marion (2016). ”He’s My Best Friend” Relationality, Materiality, and the Manipulation of Motherhood in Devotion to St Gerard Majella in Newfoundland’. In: Woo, Terry and Lee, Becky eds. Canadian Women Shaping Diasporic Religious Identities. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, pp. 3–34.

URL: https://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Books/C/Canadian-Women...


Devotion to St. Gerard Majella played a significant role in the lived religious belief and practice of many Catholic women of Irish descent in Newfoundland in the twentieth century. In this chapter, I explore how St. Gerard gained particular popularity as The Mothers' Saint in Newfoundland, and how a male religious order, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (commonly and hereafter known as the Redemptorists) promoted devotion to this saint, who concerned himself with two specifically female conditions, pregnancy and motherhood. By outlining the development, spread, and conduct of devotion to St. Gerard in Newfoundland, and highlighting the changes in both physical and socio-religious conditions that had an impact on later generations of Newfoundland Catholic women in relation to this devotion, we gain valuable insights into "religion as it is lived: as humans encounter, understand, interpret and practice it."

Devotion to St. Gerard flourished among Catholic Newfoundland women primarily in response to specific cultural, geographical, and physical conditions, and in accordance with traditional gendered practices of vernacular Catholicism. Although devotion to saints is central to Catholicism, ratified and promoted by the church, the actual relationship between the holy figure and the devotee tends to be conducted largely outside a controlled environment. As authors such as Christian and Orsi have demonstrated, the relationships between devotees and holy figures have frequently been outside the approval or beyond the understanding of those notionally "in charge" of the devotions. The Canadian Redemptorists attempted to use St. Gerard's special relationship with women to make him the figurehead of a vigorous campaign to preserve and promote Catholic motherhood in Canada.

This study of devotion to St. Gerard Majella is situated within the methodological context of vernacular religion, which involves "an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the religious loves of individuals with special attention [being paid] to the process of religious belief, the verbal, behavioral, and material expressions of religious belief, and the ultimate object of religious belief." Verbal, behavioural, and material expressions of devotion emerge as particularly significant in the spread and conduct of devotion, as well as the "bidirectional influences of environments upon individuals and of individuals upon environments in the process of believing." While devotion to St. Gerard Majella was and is by no means unique to Newfoundland, local conditions there played a considerable part in the form, role, and significance of the devotion on the island.

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