Young religious find older garb habit-forming — UPDATED

Young religious find older garb habit-forming — UPDATED August 15, 2011

It’s no secret that people entering religious life these days are increasingly attracted to wearing the kinds of clothes that were abandoned in the ’60s and ’70s — habits and veils for women, cassocks and birettas for men.

U.S. Catholic looks at how one order is addressing this old-fashioned new fashion:

Around the time Karen Lueck entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1967, the community had decided to forgo its traditional habit. “Many people who had worn the habit were glad to get out of it,” she says. “They felt it kept them on a pedestal, apart from the people.”
The order reconsidered the issue several times during the 1970s and eventually reached a compromise: A few sisters chose to wear a modified habit, and the vast majority—including Lueck—opted for simple, professional clothing. (All sisters wear the order’s medal and ring.)

But then almost three decades later, the habit question surfaced again—this time from Julia Walsh, the youngest member of the community, who joined in 2006 when she was 24.

“It’s a sensitive topic,” acknowledges Walsh, who teaches religion courses at Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago. “Some older sisters have a lot of pain about it. But it was important to me to ask if we could create room for members who want to wear a veil and habit to do so.”

“I said to someone, ‘Whoever would have thought we’d have to deal with this issue again?’ ” says Lueck. But as the community’s co-minister of incorporation, she worked closely with younger, newer members, and she knew she and the rest of the community “needed to listen to where this was coming from.”

About 30 sisters took part in a listening session in the motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and they learned that visibility is a key consideration for Walsh and her fellow millennials. “I’ve chosen to be a sister because it’s countercultural and it’s a prophetic form of witness to the gospel,” says Walsh. While she primarily wants to be identified by her service and love, she wants more: “I want people who don’t know me to know I’m a sister, to gain some joy from knowing that young women religious exist.” (She’s in good company: Among the few young women choosing religious life today, the most popular orders are those that wear a habit.)

Sisters at the meeting concluded that the congregation’s constitution doesn’t say a member can’t wear religious garb. Buoyed by the discussion, Walsh headed out to Goodwill and “bought a bunch of brown clothes” in order to cultivate a more traditionally Franciscan appearance. She would still like to have a veil.

The handling of the habit issue was emblematic of how this community aims to deal with issues that potentially divide along generational lines. “It’s a lot of work—we have to communicate clearly and not make assumptions and remain loving in the midst of it all,” says Walsh. “We have a lot of good, honest discussion about our different perspectives and experiences.”

Read more.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, The Anchoress has a few thoughts about habits, and shared them with readers earlier this year.  The A, of course, is always in fashion — check her out!  🙂

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22 responses to “Young religious find older garb habit-forming — UPDATED”

  1. So, they illustrated this article with pictures of the Sisters of Life. Interesting.

    I applaud the Franciscans of Perpetual Adoration for being open to listening on this topic. It seems to me the young women entering religious life today are doing so with their eyes wide open; they are well-educated, well aware of “the world” and have seen first hand the power of the habit to speak silent witness, and the need for that in the world. What older religious do not always realize is that THEIR experience of the world and the church, and the reactions to change back in the 1970’s, which they often cling to, is completely different from the experiences of the world and church of modern young women, who do not have that same sense either of oppression or specialness. The orders that survive are going to be the ones who actually do listen and respond to what the young women are saying. And I hate to say it, because most older religious think they’re very “open” — but there is sort of a “get off my lawn” curmudgeon-ness to those who just pooh-pooh the concerns of the young, as though the only valid outlook is their own.

  2. Btw, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration should not be confused with the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration. It’s amazing to me how often community names echo each other. Rather like the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist.

  3. I think it is an interesting discussion for religious but also the same can be said for the priesthood as well. Many young men and newly ordained not only where the cassock, like myself, but thankfully it no longer has the preconceived notion of pre-vatican II. But also many new clergy where their collar more than the older clergy. In a time when religion and faith are relegated to the distant past and a crutch for the elderly. God is raising up young men and women who desire to boldly profess that the faith is still meaningful to all walks of life especially the young!

  4. “And I hate to say it, because most older religious think they’re very “open” — but there is sort of a “get off my lawn” curmudgeon-ness to those who just pooh-pooh the concerns of the young, as though the only valid outlook is their own.”

    Most older religious?

    I don’t know what in your experience validates that statement. However, speaking from my experience as a niece of an 81 year old Sister of St. Joseph, who, by the way, is probably the only member of her local community who wears the habit modified in the 1970’s, and as the sister of a nun in her 60’s, I have never heard anything but affirmation of the young members of their respective communities. I have friends in the Sisters of Mercy with whom I taught for twelve years and also several friends who are missionaries with whom I taught in Nigeria. All are in their Senior years. Never have I heard anything that is disparaging of the the values and good will of the new members in their order.

  5. At an anti-war demonstration a few years ago, a friend of mine–a former priest himself–began denouncing young Catholic priests and religious who prefer to wear clerical garb and habits. “They’re just putting on a show,” he insisted, “making themselves the center of attention.” He did not seem to catch the irony of making such a statement to a group that included the leaders of our anti-war gathering, two Buddhist monks in distinct saffron robes. It seems to me that there are times when “putting on a show” can help advance the values for which we stand, and the Buddhists in that group realized it even if the Catholics did not.

  6. If you look around the world at other religions it seems to be a universal human (catholic) thing for people who take their religion seriously–especially those who give over their whole lives to a religion– to wear a distinctive garb. There is a distinctive religious garb for people of almost every religion who take it seriously from Moslem, to Hindu, to Buddhist, etc.
    No wonder so many non-Catholics around the world–and very many Catholics–considered the ditching of any distinctive religious garb among Catholic priests and sisters as being, in reality, a sign of a loss opf Faith and commitment.
    I can understand why most dioceses don’t want deacons to wear the Roman collar around his parish or while doing ministry away from the parish. (Even without collars many people still think we are priests.)
    I would love to see the Church come up with something like the collar or some other sort of major, noticeable sign all deacons would be expected to wear (around the parish or while doing ministry away from the parish) to publicly show our life commitment to Christ and His Church.

  7. I always make it a point to thank a religious when I see her wearing her habit. It says something about who she is to the world.

  8. I like the modified habits and veils which some of the orders wear, it shows they are sisters, but isn’t so confining and voluminous as the older style ones, with the long scapular, and a wimple and coif that wrapped around their heads. When I was in grade school they all wore habits and veils similar to those in the picture above. One of my teachers had migraines. When they updated their clothing and dispensed with the wimple and coif, she didn’t get the headaches any more. But she had a permanent crease in her forhead where she had worn the starched coif for so long. I can only imagine what summers were like; few convents had air conditioning then. When temperatures were in the 90-100 range like they have been lately, it must have been purgatory for the religious who wore all thsoe layers of clothing.

  9. In many ways, I think it was a loss of faith when the religious removed their habits, dressed like other women, and started to live their lives as if they were no longer nuns. They seem to get much more involved in earthly issues rather than what God sees as important which is life eternal. Thus you had nuns supporting things out of sync with the Catholic Church and more focused on the rain forest and nuclear weapons. Somehow I think there are a lot of folks in the lay community working on things of this world, but it would seem best to have priest and religious focused on the invisible world bringing that into closer reality for the people.

  10. There was a point in the late 60s and early 70s when most orders had modified habits, usually a shortened, simpler version of both the former long habit and veil. At that point, there was a certain sense of balance between practicality, humanity and witness. Then, strange things began to happen. For awhile some were wearing the veil with ordinary clothes, but that sometimes resulted in embarassing combinations (I once spent a few horrible moments walking behind a veiled middle-aged nun who wore a pair of white pants so extremely tight that they would have been dreadful even if she hadn’t been wearing a veil.) By the late 70s the veil had gone the way of the habit and we were seeing a variety of hairdoes and personal jewelry, such as earrings. I can sort of understand the thinking behind all this, but in many ways the reasoning was superficial and inward looking. And, an important sign of external witness was missed. Yes, most orders have some kind of emblem that they wear, but these are often so small and/or commonplace that they are easily missed.

  11. Wow. An interesting topic. A few things come to mind:

    1. The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, a solid faithful growing community, was founded by 55 members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who sought a more magisterial (?) religious lifestyle of habit, common life, etc. I first met them during my time in Rome. So I wonder if this younger nun in the article considered just switching communities? See

    2. I believe a poster correctly pointed out that religious habits for active Sisterhoods were originally and typically based on the “clothing of the day” The difference that made it a “habit” was that it became uniform for all members in style and color and had something “nunny” added to it (like a veil, crucifix, rosary, etc.) Somewhere along the way in modern history this got lost and “nunny” came to mean “medieval dress” though some few communities did have the custom of updating their garb every now and then to reflect more contemporary style while maintaining modesty and “nunniness”.

    3. Vatican II and before this, Pope Pius XII, requested Sisters to update their clothing so that it woulkd be safe and hygenic for modern standards of living. It was always to be simple, poor, plain and modest. Its funny how many Catholics who are 100% with the pope forget this mandate. As a matter of fact I once read that when Pope Pius XII (no liberal by ANY means) assisted in the foundation of a congrgegation of Dominican Sisters he specifically requested of them that they not adopt the traditional long habit of the Domincians but wear white and black contemporary clothing with a semi-nunny appearance so as to give an example of what he had in mind for the adaptation of the habit.

    4. It seems that the bottom line magisterially to this topic is this: people must be able to see externally that the religious is a consecrated person giving witness to Christ and the Church. So this allows for a lot of fashion difference but I think that simply wearing lay clothing and a cross on chain or lapel pin doesn’t cut it. Even many laypeople do that.

    5. And we deacons need to listen as well for we are clerics who have an OPTION not a mandate to be excepted from clerical garb. So when in ministry or at an official meeting I find the collar to be the way to go. An oxford or polo shirt with Deacon Cross just doesn’t do the trick because in our American culture, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, the collar says “clergyman”.

  12. diakonos09–each diocese or archdiocese is different when it comes to the rules for religious garb. Here in the Boston Archdiocese we were specifically asked to NOT wear the Roman collar. However, a few deacons do regularly wear the collar when at their parish or doing parish ministry. So I regularly wear a fairly prominent Celtic cross on a strong cord.
    However, as I understand it, Rome would prefer deacons wear the Roman collar in proper parish and ministry circumstances. Has anyone ever taken a survey of how many dioceses have a set policy on deacon garb or prominent insignia and how many under each policy? I’d be curious to know how many dioceses go along with Rome’s preference and how many “do their own thing,” or tell their deacons “to do their own thing,” or have no policy, or even suggestion, at all.

  13. Interesting question, John …

    It varies, of course, from diocese to diocese. Some bishops encourage deacons to wear the collar, especially on Sundays and in ministry settings (hospitals, prisons, etc.).

    We don’t wear the collar in Brooklyn. Ever. (Except on those occasions when a deacon might serve as an MC, wearing cassock and surplice.) I don’t even own a Roman collar.

    Dcn. G.

  14. I did not intend to make any more comments on this particular post, because I know that I have an emotional reaction to the issue, especially to comments from diocesan clergy, who have never really had to wear garb that was out of step with the times, except, of course, during liturgical celebrations. (I have seen pictures of prelates in tops hats and straw hats – quite dapper.)

    I remember hearing a priest, who was obviously teasing, challenge a nun about not wearing a full habit. She responded: “But, Father, doesn’t my charism show?” That was a long time ago but I know that her comment influenced my thinking. It’s HOW she was living her life that was important.

    In a talk given in Philadelphia sometime in the 1970’s, Bishop Sheen referred to nuns who had abandoned the habit as “streakers.” Although he could usually get away with little flippancies like that with a twinkle of his eyes and a cute smile, he got a lot of negativity in response to that comment.

    One thing that I believe gets missed in the discussion of this issue is what the shift out of the habit must have meant to many nuns. They loved their habits. Their habits were distinctive.

    The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (and Louis de Marillac) wore a cornette (horn looking) piece of female headwear that was especially popular in the 15th to 17th century. We used to call these nuns “God’s Geese.”

    The Sisters of the Assumption founded in France in the 19th century wore a violet habit. We called them “God’s Grapes.”

    Some habits could be extremely cumbersome and although they appeared to be simple were often quite elaborate, requiring many hours spent, e.g., pleating the material around wimples. Also, as Melody pointed out, the habits were probably very uncomfortable. (I, too remember the permanent indentation on the forehead of one of the Sisters of Mercy who taught me in grammar school.)

    Some habits could be hazardous, as diakonos09 pointed out. I was told that sometime in the 1950’s (I think the date is right), two Sisters of St. Joseph from Philadelphia were burned to death when their candles caused their very prominent, highly starched bibs to take fire. Thereafter, the bibs were not starched (probably the first modification of the habit since the community’s origin).

    In addition, the habit gave the sisters a personal identity and it must have been very hard to change. Yet, I think in their post-Vatican II rigorous study of their missions and charisms, many began to realize that they needed to change. They had too much wrapped up in the habit.

    The End

  15. Re: Deacon John & Clerical Dress. You are right that the intention and expectation from Rome is that deacon’s wear clerical dress (apart from liturgical vestments) as common sense dictates. And this is why canon law gives the OPTION to exempt oneself from this clerical dress to the DEACON. Many canonists will tell you that as the law is written (in its Latin) the words to bishops about this deal with then their deacons may NOT choose the exemption. In other words, the bishop may indeed tell this deacons when they MUST wear clercial dress. A cleric, ANY cleric, cannot be deprived of a canonical clerical right except by means of penalty.

    Now I think its best as this issue gets workout out to obey the bishop’s directives because a deacon does not HAVE to claim a right given to him. He can not claim this right of clerical dress in order to keep peace as things are worked out.

    If you look at most dioceses that have come under the pastoral care of the more traditional Rome-orineted bishops of the past 15 years or so, you will see that most requie clercial dress of their deacons when in formal ministry or meetings OR they encourage it strongly buyt leave the option up to the individual deacon.

  16. Diakonos…

    Well, that’s interesting. A few times this subject has come up before my bishop and it’s been quickly batted down.

    Speaking for myself, the biggest benefit of wearing a collar would be for wake services. I always take an alb and stole; people, I’ve found, become annoyed if they feel a “real” cleric isn’t there to preside.

    Dcn. G.

  17. Dcn Greg…

    Yes, sadly there has long been and probably always will be (considering human nature) quite a lag between the Ideal and the Real. But that shouldn’t stop those affected from pursuing their legitimate rights just as they seek to faithfully live their obligations.

    I also strongly feel there is a turf war on this topic and marriage is one of the sour grapes – just see how seminarians receive no flack from wearing clerical dress and stats tell us that 60% of them will never even go on to actually become clerics. I know a fair number of priests whose “sour grapes” are the deacons trying to show themselves as clerics.

    Lastly, I do not blame your people for wanting what can be perceived as a “real” cleric. That is EXACTLY the whole point of this topic/posting: the public witness value and message of religious dress or clerical garb. It is an important dialect of non-verbal language that says: “The Church is with you, Jesus is with you, and wants to walk with you through this event…”

  18. I too bring one of my largest deacon’s stoles (but not an alb) to wear when officiating at a wake.
    In the 30 years or so I’ve been a deacon I have never owned a Roman collar.
    HOWEVER, transitional deacons in our archdiocese wear a Roman collar when sent to a parish for an internship. I have always said that if a transitional deacon were sent to our parish I would very quickly get a Roman collar to wear lest our parishoners think married deacons are not quite fully ordained deacons (also, I wouldn’t want to spend the next 10 years trying to explain it all to those people who are never “in the know” about such things.)

  19. Oops! How soon the discussion has moved from nun’s habits to clerical garb. Oh, I forgot, this is the Deacon’s Bench.

    But, gentlemen, “Don’t forget the ladies.”

  20. Just to drop my opinion in the religious garb discussion, Before I converted to The Catholic Church, My faith walk was quite different- However, I wore robes when ever I was out in public and it opened MANY oportunities for me to not only share but for others to come up and say “Can I talk with you?”

    For the people who balk about wearing religious clothing- This is SUPPOSED to be your life! Those in the Military wear a uniform, Nurses wear them but the people who are to help lead people to eternity want to hide their light under a bushel-
    SHAME on YOU!

  21. I was in Panama in 1966 where there was a dynamic community of Maryknoll! Everyone loved them and their presence gave us strength and hope during the Vietnam war. Then they became secular. They gave up wearing the habit. They will never know the terrible affect this had on the population; it was like they never really believed in the church, or Christ or anything. They seemed to be like everyone else; just into themselves. We needed them and they deserted us. We came back to the States and religious communities of women everywhere had done the same. Most of my generation just left the church. A intense study should be done about the affect the loss of religious woman has had on our society. The educator, the nurse/healer, the builder of

    missions, schools, hospitals powerful women whose presence (the Full religious habit) added a dimension to the culture that has been lost. Why there is denial about this is a mystery. it so obvious to everyone I know. Over the years I’ve known exceptional women who wanted to enter a community, but what they saw and experienced was sad and shallow. There is much to be said on this issue, but sadly these communities threw it all away. The question is for what? Look at them.Look at what they were. It’s seems to be all about a dress. What is the problem with sharing a common community life and dress that is graceful, dignified with such a powerful feminism?

    The modified dress is insulting to the woman and

    unattractive. The secular dress makes no statement at all; except very negative reactions; again much can be said.

    Well, maybe before I die I hope for the sake of the countless authentic women who are called to religious life there will be a turn around on this and authentic communities for them to enter. Sad to see the great noble communities with dying old women who just sit around a plant, a candle and a stupid smile on their face. I know my words are strong but they represent a vast number who gave up on religion and Catholic faith because of the sad course these women have taken. So much more needs to be said about the power of the (graceful and becoming ) religious habit. In this age where there is talk about ordaining women it must be admitted that no greater sermon was ever preached then a woman in a religious habit and the old Maryknoll habit was the most powerful sermon we had back in the 1960’s and then there was silence! I speak for a generation; lost.

    As for this generation what have you accomplished? Some minor sparks here and there but where are your daughters and what makes you more special then the single woman or the wife or the mother who gives so much more then you have given? The vocations have been there but you have not given them a home; you are sadly barren women. I’m sure these words will be quickly discarded but at least I feel I have spoken for my broken generation.
    Tom Wellar

  22. What a great topic! Being a cradle Catholic who was educated in Catholic grade schools, I MISS THE SISTERS IN HABITS!!! God in His Wisdom and Mercy is bringing them back- PRAISE THE LORD! You can see them slowly emerging- new communities who evangelize, teach, work with the elderly and poor- all done in the long traditional habits. Some have a bit of the forehead hair showing and some don’t, but they definately are attracting many vocations. God is so good. He has called others to pick up and carry the tradition and become a beautiful witness for the Love of God! I am so happy to see this- and I hope to join one of these communities soon!

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