Churching is a blessing that was given to new mothers following childbirth. It dates back to early Christian times and was abolished after Vatican II. The idea was that it allowed the “unclean” woman to re-enter the church in "a state of grace". Historian, Lisa Marie Griffith joined Myles to talk about the history of churching.
Churching - A Backgound
This ceremony was called ‘The thanksgiving of women after childbirth’ but became known more commonly as ‘churching’.
The church saw it as a way of thanking god for the safe delivery of women from childbirth and the ceremony was for the woman exclusively, rather than the child.
As soon as a woman was fit to leave the house she would undertake the ceremony with the local priest. The ceremony was enacted in church, away from the congregation and consisted of the priest reciting a prayer of thanks while the woman kneeled at the altar. She held a candle and the priest sprinkled holy water, in the form of a cross on her.
Although the church emphasised that the ceremony was one of thanksgiving, women could not receive communion or attend a mass again until they had undergone the ceremony so it was something that every catholic woman who gave birth in wedlock undertook (the ceremony could also be seen as the church recognising that the child had been born into a recognised Catholic marriage). The woman should not stay away for longer than 6 weeks but the time was usually shorter than this.
Churching came from a Jewish tradition and in the bible when Mary presents Jesus at the synagogue and is ‘purified’ after giving birth, her sin was being washed away. It was practiced in several religions including the Anglican faith and Eastern church. The church influenced every part of people’s lives in the past and there is a suggestion that women sought this ceremony and enjoyed it.
The practice of churching became the ceremony is linked with the purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The male church is imposing a ‘purification’ on a woman who has undertaken a natural, and necessary act. The problem with the ceremony was that it was linked with the idea that to have sex, even within a marriage, was sinful. After giving birth the woman must undertake this ceremony, not a man. The woman’s act of giving birth is sinful! During the ceremony the priest said ‘save this woman’ and the our father is performed which says ‘deliver us from evil’ so there is a strong message that the woman has done something sinful.
After giving birth women were not supposed to involve themselves in certain chores like cooking. Although this may seem like a welcome break, especially after the ardours of birth, this practice was really saying that women were so unclean that they could not perform day to day tasks!
This is not dictated by the church, rather imposed by society but it highlights the extent to which church teaching influenced every day beliefs and traditions.
The ceremony was performed until the second Vatican council (1965-67). The second Vatican council was aimed at updating the church and bringing it in line with modern practices. The role of women had changed greatly and throughout the 60s and 70s the rights of women grew and society moved towards equality. The Catholic Church had not kept in line with that. Women were usually the one’s who passed religion to their children and it was seen as important that they were not isolated.
Drama On One Sunday 16th February
The Churching of Happy Cullen
Written by Louise Lewis and Simon Manahan
This atmospheric, thought provoking piece centres on one woman’s struggle amidst the poverty of 1913 tenement life in Dublin.
Tragedy strikes and Happy Cullen is left waiting to be churched. In her liminal state Happy, suspended in a moment battles with and entertains ghosts of past and present in order to step over the threshold and ultimately to continue into her future.
The Churching of Happy Cullen was initially presented as a work in progress as part of ‘The Theatre Machine Turns You On: Volume 3’ and as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival 2013 directed by Simon Manahan.
Performed by Louise Lewis
The Radio Production for RTÉ Radio Drama
is directed by Gorretti Slavin
Churching’ women after childbirth made many new mothers feel ostracised
Louise Lewis co-writer of The Churching of Happy Cullen
I believe strongly in the idea that we are formed by our past, so I tried to understand how the practise of churching in 1913 Ireland affected the women cleansed of the ‘sin’ of childbirth, writes Louise Lewis.
ALL THROUGH MY childhood I was told stories of how my family and the many generations before us lived in the tenements, and how the strength of the women at this time was what held families together in what at times were horrific conditions.
So, for a long time, I wanted to create a one woman theatre piece based around life in 1913 Tenement Dublin with a strong emphasis on physical theatre as a means of storytelling.
Collecting stories of my grandmother was the beginning of this journey. Our family history is rooted in the Dominic Street tenements, and the research I and my co-writer, Simon Manahan, conducted both through the national archive and in family interviews brought us to the creation of our character, Happy Cullen.
Myself and Simon’s exploration of the lives of women in the tenements introduced us to the difficulties of their daily lives from unemployment to child mortality, hunger, disease and abject poverty as well as introducing us to the idea of the ‘churching’ of women after childbirth.
The ‘sin’ of childbirth was washed away
From the point of view of knowing nothing about the ‘churching’ of women it became apparent to us, through our research, that this was a practice that sat uneasy with some of the women at the time and in doing so fuelled our imaginations as theatre makers. The fact that in 2012/2013 few of our generation knew of the practice of ‘churching’ this became the catalyst for the telling of Happy’s story, and that of so many Irish women throughout the following decades.
Churching’ refers to a blessing that mothers were given following recovery from childbirth. After remaining at home for 4-6 weeks after giving birth, the woman would go to church where she would thank God for the safe delivery of her child and receive a blessing from the priest.
Only married women were eligible for the blessing. They were to be appropriately dressed, and would carry a lighted candle. The priest would then mark the woman with the sign of the cross in holy water.
Churching is thought to derive from a Jewish purification rite, where the sin of childbirth was washed away. Many people considered that childbirth made a woman unholy or unclean because it resulted from sexual activity; sexual abstinence and virginity being equated to holiness. People considered the purification rite, or rite of churching to be very important as it allowed the ‘unclean’ woman to re-enter the church in a ‘state of grace’.
The rite was dropped by the Catholic Church after the second Vatican Council of 1967-65.
The stigma of being labelled as ‘tainted’
I know there are a lot of women who enjoyed the ceremony of ‘churching’ and saw it as a “thanksgiving ceremony of women after childbirth” and I respect that but for some that really was not the case.
A lot of women we interviewed and testimonies we read from the early 1900s to the 1970s of practising Catholic women, did not support the ceremony or the idea of being ‘churched’.
A lot of them felt the stigma of being labelled as ‘tainted’ or ‘dirty’ after going through an often difficult but the no less life-affirming joy of childbirth as something that affected them for the rest of their lives. Their questioning of it was often ignored by family members or neighbours if they dared vocalise it at all.
Testimonies from the early part of the 1900s where women talked of feeling ostracised from everyone until they were churched, for they were not allowed to ‘even pick up a knife to prepare food as they would taint it’. Some felt over time this distanced them from their faith.
We are formed by our past, so we must understand it
As theatre makers we were drawn to the stories of the women who struggled with this ceremony and we set about staging that struggle so as to provide space for a modern audience to interrogate that. It is the fictional story of a woman struggling through a difficult situation in 1913 while waiting to be ‘churched’, this is just part of her story.
The stories we’ve collected over the years from family members and other sources had one thing in common the spirit and strength of the women of this time was inspiring. The challenges they faced on a daily basis did not defeat them, if anything from my knowledge of them, it pushed them on.
I believe strongly in the idea that we are formed by our past, and in trying to understand who we are now and in order to move forward we must look to these; the personal stories of who we are and not allow them to be forgotten.