Nuns and Sisters: To Inhabit the Habit, or Not?

The old-fashioned habit that was worn by women religious for several hundred years is a romantic garb.

It is, in its own way, more high fashion than anything coming out of Paris, Italy or New York today. It harkens back to the days when Europe was going through a prolonged cold streak, when buildings where the common folk lived went mostly unheated.The habit began as the fashion of the day and, as time moved onward and the fashions of the days changed, it became an icon of religious identity for the women who wore it and those who saw them.

The habit meant something rather grand, speaking as it did of the mysteries of the sealed-off world of the convent and lives lived according to vows of lifetime commitment to Christ and His Church. The habit, when worn by Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn, was not only living religious icon, and high fashion; it was high Hollywood, as well.

No wonder the laity longs to see its return and many young girls like to wear it. But given that it is bound to be a rather uncomfortable and hot dress for today’s climate and an altogether unwieldy one for much of today’s work, no wonder so many other nuns were only too happy to shed it.

Fifty years on in this experiment of habit-less nuns and sisters, the question remains: To inhabit the habit, or not? Should nuns and sisters wear this garb as it always has been, or should they wear a modified version of it, or, should they abandon it altogether?

I am not a nun or a sister. I don’t, as we say here in Oklahoma, have a dog in this fight.

What I want from sisters and nuns is the same thing I want from priests: Authenticity of purpose and fidelity to Jesus.

I do think that it serves an important purpose for God’s vowed ones to be identifiable in public. Priests wear the collar. But they don’t wear it on the basketball court or the swimming pool. They take it off to go out for dinner with their friends and family.

From what I’ve seen, sisters and nuns try to wear their habits at all times, even when they are engaged in physical enterprises which make it clumsy or even dangerous. I think that is kind of extreme.

Maybe the question should be more along the lines of what should nuns who are active in the world wear for a habit, rather than if they should dress like civilians. As I said, this isn’t my fight. The only reason I’m writing about it is because I see a crying need for sisters who will engage in ministries such as human trafficking, prostitution, and other crimes of violence against women. 

The truth is, many of the women who escape from these things are unable to relate to any man in a healthy way, and that includes priests. They are deeply wounded, maimed even, on a spiritual and emotional level. They need people of God to work with them, and it would be very helpful if at least some of these people had the authority of religious vows.

It can’t be men; not in the early stages. It has to be women. That, to me, means sisters. The reason I bring up the habit is that I can see that a full-bore, head-to-toe habit might be a barrier between a sister and the people they are ministering to. Victims of this kind of terrible violence have enough survival barriers they’ve created inside themselves without adding more with something like the clothing you wear.

To me — and I’m going to say for the third time that I’m out of my depth here — but to me the question about whether or not to wear a habit should revolve around what purpose it serves. I think women religious should wear something that is uniform to their calling and that distinguishes them from the laity. But I also think that transporting middle ages fashion to the 21st century may not always be the best way to go.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to wear this type of habit. It’s fine. But for certain kinds of ministry, it would interfere with the sister’s ability to minister. On the other hand, dressing like just anybody who walked in off the street would hamper that ministry, as well.

I mentioned the collar and black and white clothes that priests wear because I think they are a good solution. It is a distinctive and uniform look that anyone who sees it recognizes as clerical garb. At the same time, it does not inhibit a priest’s ability to walk, run, sit or drive a car. Priests even wear short-sleeved shirts in summer, which seems kinder than wearing a full habit to me.

Priests also take their clericals off when they want to play golf or go jogging. They even take them off for private social occasions.

Why can’t sisters and nuns exercise the same common sense in their clothing?

I’ve read that the orders which use the full habit are growing while those that don’t wear a habit are declining. I don’t know if that has to do with the habit or with the spiritual practices and mission of these orders or what. I would like to think that young women are joining religious orders for much more important reasons that what habit they wear.

As I said, my interest in this comes from what I see as a crying need to have women religious in certain ministries. The lack of women religious to help in the fight against violence against women is a sadness to me. I know that they could make a profound difference for the good, but there are not women religious to do this work, at least none that I know of.

This is a rambling post that goes off in several directions and doesn’t come around to any conclusion. That’s because I’m thinking this through as I type.

What do you think about all this?

Also, do you know of an order of sisters who might be interested in the kind of work I’m talking about?

The Church needs nuns and sisters. It has to have them to do the work of evangelization that it has set for itself.

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  • Dale

    Rebecca, I know little about this area. I am not sure if there is a community of nuns who are directly involved in helping women in the US.

    Internationally, I found an order which was established for the purpose of helping women (and children) in prostitution. They would be the Sisters of Adoration, Slaves of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity.

    The US State Department had this to say about them in 2005:

    “Saint Maria Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament founded this Roman Catholic religious order in Spain after she witnessed the abuse, alienation, and social exclusion suffered by many women used in prostitution in mid-19th century Madrid. Today, the Sisters support missions worldwide assisting trafficking victims by providing education, medical attention, counseling, and job training for girls and women liberated from prostitution. Members of the order regularly search dangerous city streets at night seeking girls and women who are trapped in prostitution and offer them opportunities for a better life. The Sisters of Adoration run education and assistance centers in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, and other countries. ”

    They seem to wear a white habit, with white veil, but I can’t be sure they do so daily.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      That’s exactly what I was looking for Dale. I’ll try to contact them next week and see if they have anyone here in the USA. I have work for them if they do. The habit is their call. I was just expressing my opinion, which, in this instance, is just that — my opinion.

      • Dale

        Rebecca, I am glad you found that useful. They are based in Spain, so their website is written in Spanish

        If you can read Spanish, that won’t be a problem for you. The website does have a Google Translate option, which is not ideal, but useful for illiterates such as myself. Look on the left hand side for the word “Idioma.” There will be a drop down menu.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          I have what my constituents teasingly call “hillbilly Spanish.” I’ll probably be able to get some of it, but not the nuances. I’ll ask someone to read it to me. Thanks again Dale.

  • rody

    A vowed religious sister recently shared with me the following story. She was in a store purchasing an item. The clerk said to her, Can I help you Sister. Sister asked the young clerk how did they know she was a Sister. The clerk’s answer astounded me: “Because you are polite.” She does not dress in the traditional habit. She does wear a crucifix around her neck, a Tau lapel pin indicating that she is a Franciscan and wears brown, beige and white simply styled clothing. There are many different religious orders of women who are involved in fighting human trafficking. Special programs and houses have been set up by religious congregations across the country. Sometimes people are far more open in sharing with a Sister who is dressed simply than
    if they are wearing a traditional habit.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      rody, can you give links to some of the orders involved in this work that you know about?

      • rody

        You can check the Catholic News Service for articles about women religious leading fight against Human Trafficking. Check http://www.CNS as well as The article is entitled Religious Sisters Leading Fight against Human Trafficking. Information is also available from, the Leadership Council of Women Religious. Check out Life Way which is sponsored by LCWR and various Religious Congregations of Women. I will get back to you with some more information. I don’t have it in front of me right now.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Thanks rody!

          • rody

            There is also which consists of the Canadian Women religious. The International Union of Superior Generals, (, I believe) are women who minister as leaders of their own congregations around the world. On the Catholic News Service website you can read about their work in helping to stop the human trafficking in Africa and other places in the world.

            A nun is a woman who lives the vowed life in a cloister. Through her prayer, sacrifices and daily ministry she is praying for the needs of all people and of the world. A sister is a woman who lives out her vows by living the apostolic way of life of her congregation. The word apostolic comes from the word Apostles. Jesus sent His apostles out to bring the Good News to all. A woman who is called to an apostolic congregation is sent by her congregation to preach the Good News of Jesus to those who are poor, suffering, imprisioned, uneducated, sick and to all who are in need. She brings the Good News through her presence to those who are around her and those who come in contact with her. Through her daily prayers of the Divine Office and attending Eucharist, a sister prays for all people as well for those she ministers with . The Sister’s ministry may take many different forms depending on the needs of the People of God in the location to where she and her Sisters are missioned to around the world. A Sister and her congregation would go through a discerning process before the Sister would be sent to a mission location. I hope this information helps to understand the difference between the two different ways of religious life.

  • MaryMargaret

    I have to totally disagree with the idea that women who are hurt/abused would be put off by the habit. I think it would be just the opposite. A woman who is absolutely counter-cultural is probably the best sight one of these poor hurt ones could possibly see. They show that you do not have to give in..that you can resist..that you can move on. Honestly, what sisters/nuns wear when they play not care. I am old enough to remember sisters playing games with us in their habits. Lol, they were fierce competitors.

    I was in Rome in 1977, and still remember meeting up with Spanish Sisters wearing that headdress that we all remember from the flying nun. They definitely caught the eye, but did not scare anybody. In Rome in 2005, my daughters and I met a sister wearing a beautiful blue habit on a it turned out, she played basketball against my older daughter’s team! She helped us to find our way in Rome..don’t know if we would have spoken if it had not been obvious that she was a sister.

    Sorry this is so long, but I must say that the sight of a sister in habit is more of an encouragement than a scary sight. And I totally would like priests to continue to wear the collar unless they are playing tennis or swimming..i will give the sisters a pass on that, too. LOL

    • Dale

      I think a traditional habit could work either way. It might be intimidating to some persons if they have felt unfairly judged by “good religious people.” On the other hand, a traditional habit might send a non-verbal message of caring and trustworthiness.

    • Sister Laurel M O’Neal, Er Dio

      Depends upon the situation. Many women who are victims of trafficking can’t relate to Sisters in habit because the habit says “celibacy” or “sexual inexperience” and can even serve inadvertently to “shame” a woman who already feels soiled by the things she has lived through. Whether it shames or not it does tend to DISTANCE a Sister from those to whom she ministers and in some situations distancing of any sort is not something one wants.

  • FW Ken

    These sisters do medical ministry and might be interested in the sort of apostolate you are seeking. They are in the Diocese of Tulsa, although the motherhouse is in Michigan.

    A woman I knew 20 years ago went to this community. Last I heard, they had sent her to medical school and she was doctoring somewhere. That was awhile ago, though.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thanks again!

  • FW Ken

    Sorry to double-post, but I did a quick search on ” sisters doing work against human trafficking” and got some interesting hits, including this you might find helpful:

    If I remember correctly, human trafficking is a federal crime and the FBI works those cases (I think).

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thanks for the link Ken. I’ll check it out.

  • Ted Seeber

    It leads me to the question I saw during the height of the LCWR scandal:

    Why would anybody forgo marriage to become a badly dressed social worker with a rotten haircut?

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I would hope that the answer is For the love of Christ.

      • Theodore Seeber

        I would too- though the Habit shows more of a love for Christ, I’d say.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Why do you think that Ted? I’m not getting into the habit/no habit argument, but I think that what you do is how you show love of Christ.

          • Theodore Seeber

            And since giving up on the addiction to worldly appearance is something a nun does for the love of Christ, it’s an excellent outward sign.

            Though it might be because I was raised as “The evil liberal Catholic whose family owns a TV”- all the German Apostolic Christian women wear habits of a sort.

            • linda daily

              I would think that someone who is “badly dressed with a rotten haircut” has given up their addiction to worldly appearance!

            • Teresa

              Beautifully said @4ce2bd379b392816f38fd0a3ad4eaf4c:disqus . Sisters and nuns must sacrifice all worldly things and appearances, and how can they do this if their clothes appear similar to a high school principal or a secretary at an office?

              I believe all religious should wear habits, regardless of their work or ministry. Suffering from heat or discomfort should not be seen as a burden to avoid, but rather one to be accepted as a sacrifice to offer up for Christ. As a young Catholic, would it be better to wear a tight tank top and short shorts than to wear a knee-length dress? Absolutely not; yes, I may be more uncomfortable, but in staying modest I am fulfilling God’s call to chastity by wearing the dress.

              When you sight a nun in a full habit, there is a serene reverence and respect you feel you must show her, taking in her purity and complete chastity. I believe outward appearances have much to say about the beauty of a soul yearning for Christ.

              • Jonna

                The desire to be seen as pure and serene because of the habit one wears can also be an addiction to appearance, and a need for attention. Generally, pre-vocational psychological evaluations try to weed out those who view a habit as a badge of honor.

    • linda daily

      You’re judging by the inner person by externals – always subjective.

  • Doragoon

    Nuns are not the female equivalent of priests and it is wrong to compare their lives. Also, if a Priest is a brother in a religious community, he would also be under the obligation to keep the distinctive dress.

    Also, nuns are not social workers. There’s no reason why someone doing any of those things you list needs to be a nun. There’s no reason why a social worker would need to live in a religious community, nor is there any reason for a nun to be a social worker. Isn’t this kinda the “church as an NGO” mentality that Pope Francis warned us about?

    Maybe before there’s a discussion on how nuns should dress, there should be a discussion of what a nun should or shouldn’t be? Why do nuns exist?

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I’m not an expert on nuns, but I have read about them doing all sorts of ministries; nursing, teaching, etc. I suppose you might describe what Mother Teresa did in India as at least partly social work.

      The women I’m talking about need spiritual help. I don’t see how bringing Christ to destroyed people is outside the work of the Church. From what I’ve read, Pope Francis was talking about the secularity of NGOs. When you read the whole discussion, he’s not dissing NGOs, he’s saying that they are secular and the Church is not. I think he was saying that the Church must never forego its first mission of bringing souls to heaven. I think of things like Catholic universities which have compromised Catholic teaching and their Catholic identity to ape the secular world as an example. Liberation theology might be another example.

      If sisters — or priests for that matter — become secularized and lose their fervor for Jesus and stop following Church teaching, then they certainly are veering toward what I think the Holy Father was saying.

      However, I doubt very much that he meant that sisters who are in working orders should be forbidden from bringing women’s unique gifts to hurting people. What I’m trying to do is avoid the very secularity that government agencies and some NGOs provide in dealing with trafficked women and women who have been prostituted. I’m trying to help them find Christ as part of their healing. I have no idea why you object to that.

      As for sisters not being priests: Well … duh.

      I wasn’t comparing sister’s lives with those of priests. I said that nuns need clothing with utility that is distinctive and that this is what priest’s have. I did not say that nuns should not have distinctive dress. Quite the contrary.

      I would guess that nuns exist because God has given them a vocation.

      I’m not sure what you’re saying here, but I do know that I’m not going to allow a discussion about why nuns exist or what their role in the Church should be on this blog. I’ve seen too much hate-filled invective and ugliness on other blogs coming from those kinds of discussions. I do not allow attacks on priests, sisters, brothers, or the Pope on this blog.

      • vox borealis

        I think what Doragoon is arguing—I think—is that the fundamental question of the core “function” of religious precedes a discussion of what they should wear. That is, is a religious fundamentally a person consecrated to the Christ, living a life of chastity, poverty and obedience, and so joined to the Church in a special way? That is how they are defined in can. 573 § 1-2. If that is what, at the end of the day, makes a religious a religious, then her external dress is, one might argue, vitally important as an outward sign of her consecration. The charitable works she does flows from the vows she takes and the graces provided, they are not the “reason” to be a religious per se, nor do they constitute the primary function or definition of a religious (as can. 573 § 2 puts it: “they profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience and, through the charity to which the counsels lead…“). Or put another, a religious’ job is to be a religious, consecrated and particularly devoted to God; that she also works in a soup kitchen or hospital is a fitting side benefit that comes naturally to one so dedicated, but the “job” shouldn’t drive the religious’ life or dress, etc.

        So, I think Doragoon is trying to say: asking the question “how should nuns dress who work in a hospital” is putting the cart before the horse. One should ask simply “how should nuns dress?” and when that question is answered, one considers how to fit their work at the hospital to their consecrated life (which includes how they dress, but also daily Eucharist, daily prayer and reading of scriptures, devotion to the Virgin Mary, etc; see can. 662-664). Or as can. 663 § 1 says: “The first and foremost duty of all religious is to be the contemplation of divine things and assiduous union with God in prayer.”

        On the other hand, canon law seems to assume that most religious will not be hermits but rather work among the world performing works of charity. And indeed the defining canons, cited above, assume that works of charity will naturally flow from poverty, obedience and chastity. If that’s the case, one could reasonable ask, “what is the appropriate dress for religious who carry out their vocation among the world, whose particular charism involves works of charity in hospitals or schools, etc.” In other words, what if the habit seems to inhibit the work of charity? Or, what is an appropriate “level” of habit: wearing a pants suit but also a cross on a necklace? A full-blown flying nun outfit? Somewhere in between? And of course, this is all that Rebecca Hamilton is asking here.

        I tend to be of the opinion that habits in no way prohibited the carrying out of most of the good works nuns and sisters did (and continue to do), while the cost of shedding the habit—the loss of the external sign—has been steep.

        • Doragoon

          That is what I meant, and you expressed it beautifully.

          Also, don’t most communities have a separate habit that’s worn for dirtier work (and play)? How do the monks deal with it? Aren’t there are many that do hard labour in full robe and scapular?

      • MaryMargaret

        Rebecca, I think I misunderstood you..which is my fault, not yours. Sorry. My feeling is that it is better if sisters and priests are readily identifiable to the laity, and also to those who are not Catholic. I think lots of us who are Catholic can identify a sister as such, no matter what she is wearing..non-Catholics not so much. I do agree that the most important thing to the world is that they are doing Christ’s work..being his hands and feet, so to speak. I certainly did not mean to disparage sisters who do not wear the habit..but re-reading my post..I think I kind of did. Mea is not my place to tell them how to live out their vocation. God bless them.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Beautiful thought. Thank you.

      • Melrose

        I’m not sure I can agree with secularized nuns losing their fervor for Jesus. For the Sisters I know, fervor for Jesus is part of the package!

    • Sister Laurel M O’Neal, Er Dio

      One of the best replies to this kind of observation was made by a Sister who said, “You don’t need to be a Sister to do the work that I do, but I need to be a Sister to do the work I do.” Meanwhile Sister Simone Campbell notes that when she was attending a civil rights event of some sort she looked around the room ad saw everyone committed to the same action but she also saw that she was the only one here doing this for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. Sisters do whatever God calls them to do — and that includes social work. The difference is they do these things AS SISTERS and a piece of proclaiming the Gospel.

    • linda daily

      Some nuns are social workers, or physicians, artists, teachers, and so on. A religious vocation signifies the way one is called into relationship with Christ. There are many ways to live out that relationship, social work being one that allows the opportunity to minister to the most vulnerable.

  • FW Ken

    There is a technical difference between a nun and a sister, but I never understood it, so I’ll speak of women religious as “nuns” for simplicity.

    Like men religious, priest or brother, nuns come in two general types: contemplative and active. The first, including such groups as Trappists, Carmelites, and some Dominicans, live enclosed lives dedicated to an apostolate of prayer. The second type is what Rebecca is looking for: sisters who engage in active apostolic life in the world. Traditionally, these women were teachers and nurses, but as social work had developed as a profession, nuns have often filled that role. Certainly, any job done by any person can be a “ministry” that glorifies Christ or can be done as a “job”. I how I do my state job “as unto Christ” for the common good.

    Healing is what I hear Rebecca seeking for victims of human trafficking and healing had always been a central ministry of the Church, from Christ’s miracles to the Sacrament of the Sick to professional ministries of healing, medical, psychological, social, spiritual.

    • Bro AJK

      Dear FW Ken,

      The first type (comparable to monks) are nuns. The second type (comparable to brothers) are sisters.

  • vox borealis

    Priests wear the collar. But they don’t wear it on the basketball court or the swimming pool. They take it off to go out for dinner with their friends and family.

    I think this is incorrect. Or rather, priest are not supposed to shed their collar when they go out to dinner, if I understand canon law (can. 284) correctly. Religious, including nuns and sisters, are bound by a similar requirement (669 §1 and 2). The reason cited in canon law: “Religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper law, as a sign of their consecration and as a witness of poverty.” (can. 669 § 1).

    Now, the rules are sufficiently vague to allow wide latitude, and obviously for fifty years implicit if not explicit permission has been given for women religious to shed their habits. Still, it looks as if the Church prefers habited religious specifically because their dress is an outward sign.

  • Win Nelson

    A few years ago, your colleague, Elizabeth Scalia raised this question in “Cheating the Habit of Being”:

    This thoughtful piece inspired these anecdotes from Sister Lisa Doty here:

  • CathyLouise

    I personally like the idea of modified habits – something that identifies the woman as a religious sister, belonging to a specific order. I really wouldn’t care if her habit was a blue t-shirt a bluejeans, or a full mediaval habit, as long as it was uniform . Also, there may be very specific times when she shouldn’t wear the habit, and specific times when she should. I can see the women who need help being afraid of women in traditional garb and being comforted by the same. The reactions would be all over the place.

    Good luck in your search.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you CathyLouise.

    • Bro AJK

      Dear Rebecca and Cathy,

      I disagree with the uniformity piece. This is a tendency to say that all orders are equal. This is not true as each has its own foundational history. With that said, I think you might want uniformity within an order and not uniformity among orders.

      I guide you to the following issue of Review for Religious with its articles on habits and women religious. SCroll to p.181 for the first article; the second immediately follows.

      • Rebecca Hamilton

        I’m going to allow this, but I do not want this post — or this blog — to devolve down to an acrimonious debate over the to habit or not to habit questions. That sort of thing is harmful to the faith.

        • Bro AJK

          Dear Rebecca,

          I did not mean offense. I just do not want all orders wearing the same habit. Each order that has a habit has a unique one. Felicians are more of a tan, Carmelites and Franciscans have a brown, Dominicans have white, the Sisters for Life have blue. That uniqueness helps us to identify the order. So does the rosary, the veil, etc.

          • Rebecca Hamilton

            I apologize. I’m just twitchy because of some of things I’ve seen on other blogs on this subject. For some reason, it seems to bring out the mean in some people. Of course you can discuss it, and your points are welcome. Again, I apologize to you.

            • Bro AJK

              We’re equally twitchy here, and you are absolutely right when you say that “acrimonious debates” over habits (vestments, not virtues!) are harmful to the faith.

              For what it is worth, my congregation’s traditional dress is black suit and tie with white shirt. We would not be recognized as religious. The reasoning is that when our founder started the order, this is what the middle class professionals wore in France just after the French Revolution.

              • Rebecca Hamilton

                Thank you for your kind understanding.

                I think everyone wears a uniform, from “mom” jeans to rappers. Perhaps I should say most especially rappers. :-) Legislators are slaves to three button jackets and for the men, ties.

  • Sus

    If you haven’t seen “The Nun’s Story” or read the book, I highly recommend both. PBS shows “The Nun’s Story” a few times a year.

  • pagansister

    When I was teaching in the Catholic elementary school, there were only 2 nuns left on the staff. One was an elderly sister, in her late 70′s and a younger sister, guessing in her late 40′s early 50′s—not sure. Neither wore a habit. They dressed in plain street clothes—not a uniform. Their only identification was the cross they wore with FCJ on it. If I remember correctly, the Faithful Companions of Jesus was started in Belgium—but I may be wrong. Right not the only one still teaching there is the younger one. All the other teachers are lay women and men. I do not know if originally the order wore habits.

  • FW Ken

    Rebecca, I hope you don’t feel pushing too hard on this, but this is important stuff. The nunspeak link above has some really good material directly related to what you are looking for.

    Reading around, I found that the average age for girls to become prostitutes is
    12 – TWELVE! Where is law enforcement? I heard the other day of a 3 year old raped and murdered. The prep was convicted of “injury to a child”. I understand how plea bargains work, but are there no limits in the law?

    I’ll pray for your efforts.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      You’re not pushing too hard at all Ken. I’m grateful to you. I’ve been talking to the director of an organization that provides shelters and help for trafficked/prostituted women. We’ve talked about this again since yesterday. She’s reading your responses, too. We’ll follow through.

      I sympathize with your shock and pain after reading about this horror. I go through it all the time.


  • Manny

    I won’t be presumptious and try to dictate what any religious person should or should not wear. There seem to be good arguments for both positions. For me, all I can say is that my heart receives a certain comfort when I see a religious person, and, for some reason, especially a nun, dressed in their religious uniform. It projects committment and devotion that ordinary clothing can’t.

    • MaryMargaret

      Me, too. When I ride the early bus in my town, there are two sisters in habits..not floor length..but clearly cheap polyester veils and skirts. Carrying backpacks..and I don’t know where they are going..but just seeing them gives me some peace. They are a visible sign..even for some of the high school kids, who are less than respectful. I might know, as a cradle Catholic, without the habit..but EVERYONE knows on that bus. Those that sneer, they know..those that change seats to move away..they know..those terribly poor people who smile and greet them..they know. It is a visible witness. Without saying that those who do not wear a habit are not a witness..I must say that no one can not know, when they are wearing them.

  • Clare Krishan

    Irish Columban Fr Shay Cullen and his PREDA foundation have a long track record in the Phillipines perhaps he can connect you with folks this side of the Pacific? This Occidental group of religious in Australia are well organised online
    I’m not familiar with what they do on the ground so to speak (tho I do recall hearing a Vatican Radio interview with a mature reformed sex worker who was assisted by her Bishop I think it was – she now works in the rescue-field of ministry but I can’t recall her name or the city) perhaps this NGO
    can help connect you with their peers on the American continent? Here’s a news snippet on a recent Vatican event on this topic also, in case it may help

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you! I’ll check these out.

  • Margaret

    I am a Good Shepherd Sister. My congregation works in the type of ministries that you describe and we have the freedom to where the habit or not, and peoples choice depends on the ministry that they are engaged in and the culture of the country where they live. When we don’t wear veils etc we wear a congregational symbol/cross which identifies us as sisters. Everyone should be free to dress and express their consecration as they choose. It is the witness of our lives that is most important.

  • FW Ken

    Bro. AKJ, thank you for the information. My contact with religious (other than parish priests) has mainly been with Trappist and Benedictine monks. I have little experience with friars and sisters in the world.

    I think the issue of habits is a surrogate for a lot of important issues that divide Catholics today and stirs up a lot of hurt and disappointment on both sides. I think that’s where the meanness comes from. The answer, of course, is charity, forbearance, patience, tolerance, and then a dollop of of charity to top it all all off.

  • S. Susan

    I’m a Catholic Religious Sister in an order that has a mix of sisters who wear conventional modest clothes with our community pin and/or cross; and those who kept their habits after Vatican II. During the reforms of Vatican II, the hierarchy instructed religious orders to re-examine their roots. My order discovered that our founding sisters wore the widow’s garb that would allow them to travel un-noticed as they sought to need the needs of the community. As my community ( I wasn’t personally around at the time) brought that information into the discussion along with the feeling that the habit was a barrier to the people that we wanted to serve, it was made optional. I appreciate in your blog that you pointed to women who want to reach out to the church but aren’t comfortable with priests, who are identifiable. I have talked with young sisters who wear habits and they feel that it helps people to reach out to them instead of the barrier it once was. If we are at a consciousness in which we ask– not what type of clothing fits my personal style? But what type of clothing ministerially is needed for this time and knowing that that need might change– can we be flexible enough to make those changes?

  • Ben

    I’m a little saddened to read that your perception is that there are no women religious who are engaged in ministry to women victims against violence. The women religious I know, and frankly I spend more time with women religious than priests by an absurd margin, are the only ones I know in my area engaged in that ministry. Nearly everything I know about human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault is because of women religious, whether they are Holy Names sisters, Sisters of Providence, or Sisters of St. Joseph. My spiritual director is a Holy Names sister who founded a drop-in shelter for women who were living on the streets, most of whom ended up on the streets because they had nowhere else to go when fleeing domestic abuse. And of course on the streets they became further victims of sexual assault and prostitution.

    On the question of habits, they all wear some visible symbol of their membership in a vowed religious order, but it’s very unobtrusive; they have consistently found over the years that the habit has been a barrier between them and the people they try to minister to. Some people see the habit and instantly associate it with the harsh judgment and condemnation they have experienced at the hands of self-righteous hypocrites in clerical garb. Others see it and instantly associate it with great holiness which they feel ashamed to approach. Regardless of whether it’s a positive or negative association, the sight of it very often creates a gulf between them that interferes with the kind of vulnerability needed for authentic ministry. In short, they’ve found that habits more often than not get in the way of their ministry.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Ben, if I gave the impression that I think there are no women religious in this ministry, I misspoke. I don’t know any who are, but Oklahoma is not exactly a Catholic stronghold, so anything I say from my personal experience like needs to be tempered with an awareness that my experience is limited. Thanks for this comment.

  • Mary Gill

    When women are given the opportunity to become priests we won’t even have to think about this.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Mary, the Popes have spoken on this, and I’m not going to debate it further on this blog.

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      That doesn’t follow. The charisma of an order member is not the same as that of a priest, and many order members are lay brothers or tertiary members, not ordered. And many priests are “secular” and not members of any order. The issues, the services, the point of the vow, are different.

    • aimer

      God gave a woman the most elevated position in history: the Mother of Jesus, Queen of Heaven queen of the universe . I think it’s fair to say that God has a very high opinion of women . Being a nun is not “less than ” being a priest it is a different calling. Men cannot be called to be nuns either. Need to focus less on feminism and more on the Holy mystery of God and the fact that His son died for you and all of us

  • Barbara

    I googled and there is quite a list of Sisters involved in human rights and freedom from violence for women.

  • Anna Blue

    I am part of a non-residential religious community for mature women. We wear a common dress (mid calf skirt, blouse, top, and a cross) at church services and occasionally in other settings .We have chosen a flexible approach. Although we always try to wear the common dress at church services, it would be inappropriate for most of us to wear it when we are working or out in the community.

    We did not intend to have a common garb at all, but I wore a similar outfit to what we adopted and began to be approached by people who wanted to share their stories or ask for prayer. Several members of the group adopted the outfit and had similar experiences. There seems to be a need for some people to be able to identify us as a resource for them but when and where to wear the common dress requires careful discernment.

    We’ll include the problem of human trafficking in our prayer and be alert to situations where we might be helpful. In our city, we are seeing more instances of this horrible practice. I have no scientific basis, but it seems that respect for women is plummeting, with these terrible consequences. I have great respect for those who serve in this difficult and often dangerous area. Thank you for raising awareness of this serious problem.

  • Bianca E

    I really like your article in how you look at various angles briefly in terms of whether or not to wear the habit. I am called to religious life and am so thrilled, grateful, and excited! One big part of my discernment is that the community I love (very tied to all kinds of issues, including end to violence) does not wear the habit and that’s something that is deeply on my heart. I continue to discern this, knowing fully that I will not leave a community I am drawn to and can thrive in, simply because of how they dress…your article encourages me to keep reflecting on the ministries and being fully able to serve others..thank you!

    • hamiltonr

      Thank you Bianca. I will pray for your discernment. Blessings.

  • darlingrats

    i am married, but need to heed the Lord’s call to join a convent thats not cloistered, that does wear the traditional habits, does good works for the community, since we were not married in the church, we were married by a civil ceremony done by a justice of the peace.. are we married in the churches eyes? would i need to get an annulment or wait to become a widow which i do not want to do since i am only 46,husband is 48 or since we werent married in the church can i just walk away?. what what religious orders would take me?

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      You are married in the eyes of the Church. But I believe that it is possible for a married person whose partner is still alive to take vows, at least I know of priests who have done that. You do sound a bit young – the priest I remember best was something like 67. If I am correct – but you need to speak with your diocese, because it’s your bishop who has ultimate jurisdiction – you would of course need to take a vow of chastity and effectively separate from your husband.

    • Violette_Crime

      There are many types of work you could do without going to a cloistered convent. Are you sure the Lord is calling you or you want to walk away from an unhappy marriage? Are you an active Catholic already, there are many ways to serve God without becoming a nun. I would consult your parish priest about your desires, and problems and I hope you find peace.

  • Lisa Schofield

    I am 33 years old and I am looking on
    become a sister and they should wear the
    habit and the pirest that is helping me feels the same way

    • Jonna

      Well good for you. I hope you find a habited order that will accept you. That said, do you think religious life is only a fashion statement? Would you be dedicated to Christ if you didn’t receive the special attention offers?

  • Lilac

    I’m a survivor of domestic violence, violent rape and unlawful imprisonment. I am also not a catholic. If I had been rescued or tended by nuns, the habit would NOT have been a barrier. However, what would have been a barrier would have been the abrupt and unsympathetic manner I have seen in so many nuns over the years. Nuns seem to lack the compassion they were so famous for, and that is a huge barrier to any outreach.

  • aimer

    I just spent some time with a group of Dominican nuns (they wear all white with black recovering when fully initiated) and they were the most gregarious, fun and sweet women I’ve ever met. You don’t understand that they are excited and honored to wear the habit, it’s not something they’d ever want to change. They teach K-8 and I’ve frequently seen them out on the playground running around playing kickball, basketball, etc. and aren’t hindered in any way . Don’t feel sorry for them, they are very happy with their choice and more than honored to dress the way that they do Just be happy for them and support them.