The inaccurate ways we portray nuns

The inaccurate ways we portray nuns August 16, 2012

One of the most powerful ways we receive and process information is visually. And we don’t get too much of a chance to discuss how coverage of religion news is shaped by visual images that accompany copy. But someone sent me a link to a story and told me I had to check out the picture that accompanied it. It got me thinking.

The picture in question can be found here. It accompanies a story about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Taken by an Associated Press photographer, this was the picture I saw in most local or regional coverage of the LCWR annual meeting in St. Louis last week. The caption is “Sister Anne Nasimiyu of Kenya, right, and Sister Lucy Marindany of Milwaukee, Wisc., join other members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The largest U.S. group for Roman Catholic nuns met to decide how they should respond to a Vatican rebuke and order for reform.”

These sisters are attired in traditional clothing.

I had previously noted that other stories were accompanied by pictures of sisters in traditional habits. Here’s NBC for instance. Here’s the New York Times.

I know what you’re saying: What’s the big deal? What could possibly be more expected for these stories than pictures of sisters in habits?

And yes, it’s almost a cliche.

If you were at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, wouldn’t you expect to see hundreds of sisters in habits?

You might expect that. But would you be right to? Many stories about the conference explained that most sisters were not attired in habits but, rather, casual clothing. We don’t need to get into the theological difference between wearing habits and casual clothing but suffice to say they exist and actually fuel heated debate. What’s more, these differences in attire relate to much larger discussions about tradition and the roles of women religious.

If, generally speaking, these sisters were not wearing habits, should the sole picture accompanying the article indicate that they were?

My colleagues and I had an internal discussion about how impossible it is to find images of sisters wearing informal attire. They just don’t exist, whether you’re looking for stock photos or file photos. It’s amazingly difficult.

That led to a further discussion about how photographers are probably thinking they’re doing the right thing, upon being assigned to an annual LCWR meeting, to seek out those habit-wearing nuns and snap some photos. What photographer would think they were supposed to take pictures of sisters in polyester pants when there’s a visually compelling habited nun sitting next to her? They would need to be prepped with some background about the significance of attire if they were to get visually interesting shots of those sisters who were less formally dressed.

But I want to end this by showing how it can be done. I noticed that the St. Louis Archdiocese newspaper had a slideshow of great shots of the conference. There were a few shots of sisters in habits, but most of the pictures showed the sisters dressed casually — just as the news reports indicated was the case. But what’s great about this slideshow is that the pictures are quite compelling. Some of them are stunning, in fact. I would love to show them to you but because of copyright restrictions, you’ll have to click through on your own. Then let me know what you think.

Perhaps it was because she had more insight into the background of the LCWR, but photographer Lisa Johnston captured some great shots.

Photo of nun with hula hoop via Shutterstock.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • People can’t out of the habit of showing nuns in their penguin suits. Not showing the LCWR gals in everyday attire hides their more liberal, modern/post-modern slant.

    I guess I’m the first commenter of the Patheos era. It’s going to take a bit of getting used to the new graphics.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Ah, man. I missed first commenter status by eight minutes!

      • spulliam

        I need a like feature for this comment, Bobby.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I’m third! (give me a bronze). This is something I’ve complained about frequently and it’s complaint-worthy because it’s misleading. The nuns in habits are (generally speaking) the nuns who are faithful to the vision of religious life the Church has in mind. Those who are not are (generally speaking) not. So for news outlets to keep showing nuns in habits, like the Nashville Dominicans, when they’re writing stories about nuns who aren’t in habits, like the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and most of the rest of the LCWR, is just plain wrong.

    But, Mark Byron, “penguin suits”? Really?

    • A bit over the top, yes. I recall the Blues Brothers, where the nun in charge of their old orphanage was referred to as The Penguin.

  • Susanne

    The salient feature of these habitless nuns is that they’re OLD. I understand that the leadership would be comprised of the more august, elders of the orders; but the sisters shown are the ones who haven’t retired. They preside over a geriatric congregation. I’ve seen pictures of orders that are growing and do not participate in the LCWR. They are comprised of young, joyful women. These LCWR ladies have so much time to contemplate the cosmos and the evolution of humanity because they have no novices to mentor.

    • Some facts might help the discussion:

      1.) One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences of women religious in the U.S. in recent years. As of 2009, L.C.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 117 novices and 317 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. C.M.S.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 158 novices and 304 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. (There are 150 nuns in formation in U.S. monasteries.)

      The entire article can be found here:

      • Deacon Jim Stagg

        As has been pointed out elsewhere, my friend, the simple numbers are misleading. LCWR supposedly represents 80% of women religious. If they have only half the new novices, and the other 20% has half the new novices…………you do see where I am going, don’t you?


        • MikeInVA

          Math is hard.

    • It varies. Of course, the sisters in “civvies” are generally of the Vatican II years. But that isn’t always true. Some, like my daughter, joined and never wore a habit (she’s 36 – I can’t believe it!). A few years ago, she expressed in interest in a modified habit, that would be both comfortable and distinguishing. I’d love to see something like that, as uniforms create a presence.

      Not all habitless sisters are rebellious, not all habited sisters are trads. Sometimes, the use or not of habits is more a reflection of the work they do. My daughter has mostly worked in public schools. Many nurses find that scrubs are more practical.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Oy, first post on new site, oy. I don’t deal well with change.

    My father, not Catholic by a long shot, has said more than once that he doesn’t trust any nun who is not “going full-penguin.” I think that, particularly among non-Catholics, there is an image and opinion of nuns (influenced, no doubt, by popular culture) that does not correspond to the reality within the American church. There are probably lots of Catholics who don’t understand the reality, since nuns today are virtually invisible compared to fifty years ago (we’ve had sisters in attendance like once in our TLM parish). It is, as Thomas S. says, quite misleading to show pictures of nuns who are not the nuns described in the story; this is especially important because many of these stories take place in a context in which one group of nuns (LCWR) is being contrasted with another, very different group (CMSWR). Often, the story will be talking about LCWR nuns, but show pictures of CMSWR sisters. This is a problem, and it needs to stop.

    For everyone’s continued edification, there is this:

    Sorry, I don’t know how to link more efficiently with the new format.

    • Thanks for giving the proper reference to my penguin crack. I replied to Thomas before cursoring down here.

  • Maria

    I don’t think what a nun wears defines their degree of faithfulness or their vision of faith. Actions speak louder than outfits, and these nuns deserve our respect, not thoughtless judgement, for their lives of devotion to the poor.

    • That may be what you think, but it is not necessarily the case. It is just as important for people who reflexively think that sisters are all living saints because they “help the poor” to step back and look at what’s going on in the LCWR as it is for people who think they should all put their habits back on and “get off the bus.” What is happening with the LCWR and the hierarchy is complicated, interesting, and very difficult. A lot of LCWR congregations, whatever one thinks of them, will be gone in a few years. That’s a simple fact. The post is about whether or not photographers have done a good job with a story about the LCWR if they show a few habited sisters rather than hundreds of non-habited sisters. IMHO (to get back to the question) they may have gotten a great shot or two, but they are not telling the story and conveying what is actually happening.

  • The Old Bill

    Great photos by Lisa Johnson.
    The NYT story was strange:
    “They sat in silence for a long stretch, sang songs about truth and mystery accompanied by a guitar and a choir, and heard a keynote address by a futurist who was escorted to the podium by seven liturgical dancers waving diaphanous scarves of pink and tangerine.
    “Crisis precedes transformation,” the futurist, Barbara Marx Hubbard, told the nuns. “You are the best seedbed that I know for evolving the church and the world in the 21st century. Now, that may be a surprise to the world. But, you see, new things always happen from unexpected places.”
    The nuns, most dressed informally in pants or skirts, gave a standing ovation to Ms. Hubbard, a beatific presence with a mantle of white hair who quoted Jesus, Buckminster Fuller, the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the current pope, Benedict XVI.”

    Why did they choose Barbara Marx Hubbard to give the keynote? She of the beatific presence quotes Jesus and that Catholic theologian Bucky Fuller. The Times says it’s emblematic of the split between conservative and liberal Catholics. Sounds more like a dispute between the Vatican and the UUs.

    BTW, I’m old enough to remember when futurists said we’d all be flying around in personal helicopter and cities would have moving sidewalks. Their track record is not outstanding, despite the waving diaphanous scarves of pink and tangerine.

    • Captain_Dg

      When someone calls you the “best seedbed” and “diaphanous scarves” are waving the presentation is drifting into parody. Oh LCWR whither thou goest if not away?!

  • Julia

    Great photos.

    Somehow all of this calls to mind the 1969 Elvis movie with Mary Tyler Moore as a very modern sister – exhibiting why modern sisters are invisible. I doubt that all the comments I see about the sisters doing God’s work out there in the world today are based on actual observation. Sisters today are invisible. And you see almost none of them in hospitals these days and few in education. You really have to go looking for them and know where to look. A check of various orders’ websites reveals religious sisters mostly trying to make a living and enough to not lose the motherhouses by doing retreats, quilting events and the like.
    “Dr. John Carpenter is a physician in a ghetto clinic who falls for a co-worker, Michelle Gallagher, unaware that she is a nun.
    Elvis stars as a professional man for the first time in his career. Dr. Carpenter heads a ghetto clinic in a major metropolis. He is surprised to be offered assistance by three women. Unknown to him, the three are nuns in street clothing who want to aid the community but are afraid the local residents might be reluctant to seek help if their true identities were known.”

    I’d like to see some way of positively or negatively responding to comments. I enjoy and learn as much from comments as I do from the official posts in GR. [pace, TMatt]. But if this transfer helps to keep GR in business, I can live with the absence of ways to agree, disagree and applaud comments.

  • Julia


    What a great clip of the Blues Brothers re-meets Sister Yardstick !!!

    I found Change of Habit on-line. Enjoy this enlightening 1969 portrait of modernizing nuns from the Way-Back-Machine.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Some obscure Catholic history should be noted here: the Daughters of the Heart of Mary ( is an order started during the French Revolution. When they started, their constitution was written to say that, a) to effectively carry out their ministry in those circumstances and b) in order to protect themselves, they would dress in civilian clothes. That constitution was approved by the Holy See and it has lasted to this day. Unfortunately, this idea of being anonymous givers in the world spread in the immediate post-conciliar period to other orders that weren’t started under the duress of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. What we’re seeing now with the huge decline in numbers to these habit-less orders is a result of that anonymity. Hide yourself and no one knows you’re there.

    But again, this is obscure history and the only reason I know it is because I made a retreat once at a mansion on St. Paul, Minnesota’s Summit Ave. at a place called Maryhill that was run by those sisters. But Maryhill is now a private residence because said sisters (in the U.S. at least) no longer have the money or younger sisters they needed to continue it. Some saying about not hiding your light under a bushel basket comes to mind.

  • Julia

    No kidding. Watch the whole 11 parts of Change of Habit on YouTube to understand a bit about why the religious of women religious had problems in the late 60s. There are 11 parts to the movie.

  • I posted this photo of the nuns dancing with scarves to greet their new age Guru…(originally from Father Z’s famous blog).

    Yes, David danced in front of the Ark but what do we make of elderly women making fools of themselves “woshipping” their guru, who teaches that if you buy her tapes, you too can evolve to a higher power this December and change the world .

    Julia: showing us a Hollywood film to show us the religious problems in the 1960’s: since when does Hollywood get anything right?

    Reform was needed, but the change from theology of service to a modern psychological approach of self fulfillment was the real problem.

    And Thomas: Mother Seton’s sisters wore civilian dress (a widow’s black dress and a bonnet) and lasted a lot longer. Indeed, the original Sisters of Charity in France wore the bonnet of lower class village women of the time they were founded, and Mother Teresa’s nuns wear the sari of an Indian Widow. It’s not the dress, it’s the destruction of interior life that caused the demise of the orders.

  • Julia


    “showing us a Hollywood film to show us the religious problems in the 1960?s: since when does Hollywood get anything right?”
    Actually, the film demonstrates how the populace changed its view of Catholic sisters pretty well.

  • Lola LB

    Well, when I look at these pictures, I just can’t tell which orders they belong to. I guess I’m spoiled by having had the opportunity to look through that directory with all those cool pictures of habits each order had. Alas, that directory (which was printed early 1960s, I think) is OOP and VERY pricey on the rare book market.

  • sari

    No one could accuse the Sisters of dressing with the times or of immodesty. Necklines are high, shoulders are covered, and make-up absent. Jewelry seems restricted to plain, inexpensive watches, crosses on necklaces, and (sometimes) tiny earrings. The habit may be more extreme, but, to me, the striking thing is that their hair is uncovered, not their dress.

    While wearing a uniform (habit) allows for immediate and easy identification, it also can put too much distance between the nuns and the people they hope to serve. I’m not sure what using a different photo would make to the article. Practicing Catholics are familiar with the attire worn by different orders of nuns (or, at least those with whom they interact); the nuances of dress vs. degree of conservatism are lost on the rest of us.

    One question I’d like answered is how the younger nuns who are committing to more conservative orders practice their vocations. Do they serve the community (the poor, needy, ill, etc.) or are their lives devoted more to prayer and confined more to the convent premises? Contrasting the two organizations would make for interesting reading.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      sari, the reason for the habit is to show that they have consecrated their lives to God in a very particular way. Habited nuns who live in the rougher sections of certain large cities say that their habits serve as protection for them — no one touches the nuns in habits. That allows them a certain freedom they would not otherwise have.

      “I’m not sure what using a different photo would make to the article.” It would show the reality and that is what journalism is about. Two nuns from Kenya wearing veils distorts the reality that the vast majority of the nuns there were not wearing habits. The reason this is so important is that the media are playing to people’s Hollywood image of nuns, which essentially makes for nostalgia. “Change of Habit” may have tried to get people in synch with the new “hip” reality, but I doubt it went over very well because every single Hollywood film featuring nuns after that had them habited — think Sister Act. The idea the MSM are pushing is that of these poor, habited, submissive nuns who are just meekly doing the work of the Church being pushed around by the big bully men in pointy hats from Rome. But that’s not the reality and it should not be shown that way.

  • FW Ken

    I was always told that habits were generally the common dress of the time and place where the order originated.

    The conservative nuns today do a variety of jobs that nuns have always done. A friend entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy. She was physical therapist by profession, but was sent to medical school and now serves the poor in one of their ministries. If memory serves, the Dominicans of Nashville are teachers and nurses.

    But my favorite nun picture is from one of your new neighbors:

    And I really miss the link maker.

  • nashdomsrock

    “What photographer would think they were supposed to take pictures of sisters in polyester pants when there’s a visually compelling habited nun sitting next to her?”
    I spit water at my screen when i read that lol!…i’m a photographer and i totally would have zoned in on the habits…but i am also partial to them b/c we’ve got Nashville Dominicans at our local Catholic school.

  • Maryfran

    I came across a different blog post a few months ago about the issue of LCWR orders being portrayed in habit. Perhaps it may be of interest to some here:

  • Per Smith

    There have been lots of photos of nuns wearing plain clothes in mainstream publications in the very recent past, this is especially the case in relation to the ongoing saga between nuns and the Vatican.

    Here are some examples…

  • Danielle

    First, I hate that Elvis movie. When I was finally old enough to get it, I refused to watch it ever again, because to me, it was the same kind of “false advertising” that goes with a person taking off their wedding ring before going out. The habit and the ring say “I have given myself to and am committed to THIS person.’ And I think the photographers, whether they have much background in the whole habit/no habit thing understand that on a basic level. People have always had some sort of “thing” to indicate that they are set apart, even in less sophisticated cultures and times. I do think, for the sake of the ongoing debate, the sisters who are part of the LCWR need to be photographed as they present themselves. But the photographers may need to be briefed on why this detail is SO important.

  • ceemac


    They way the sisters tend to dress is quite similar to how Protestant Directors of Christian Education of a similar age dress. Perhaps just a tad plainer than the DCE’s. But DCE’s tend to dress in very practical outfits.

  • Julia

    “While wearing a uniform (habit) allows for immediate and easy identification, it also can put too much distance between the nuns and the people they hope to serve.”
    This is exactly the reason given in “Change of Habit” for adopting regular clothing.
    “Habited nuns who live in the rougher sections of certain large cities say that their habits serve as protection for them — no one touches the nuns in habits. That allows them a certain freedom they would not otherwise have.”
    The three sisters in the movie are shown moving to a really rough part of what looks like NYC in order to work at a free medical clinic. Before they change their clothing, a NYC cop stops traffic specifically for them to cross the street. After changing clothes, the same cop at the same intersection blows his whistle, yells at them and they are nearly hit by automobiles. Then they have a difficult time passing by some leering young men; and gossipy old ladies tsk tsk while looking them over.
    For anybody too young to remember sisters in habits being a common sight in large cities, I really recommend the first 5 or so minutes of the movie. Among other things, you get to see the complicated headgear these women wore under the veil.

  • Mark

    If you wish to see what sort of habit or lack thereof sisters of various orders wear, just go to their websites. The only sisters wearing a habit on those sites might be the very, very old sisters. For the most part, the remainder are older sisters in casual clothing. Notice I said older! These liberal groups are aging and literally dying off whereas more traditional orders are now growing rapidly. I ask one of the sister from the Benedictines of Erie, a notoriously far out group, why they didn’t wear any semblance of a religious habit in conformity with the Benedictines. She snapped back, “Do you want the person or the habit?” I guess a sisters real persona can only come out in casual attire. From my perspective though, it seems to me that most all of what sisters and nuns have done for us all over the centuries has been done by sisters wearing religious habits in conformity with the charisms to which they aspire as a religious order. I ask this Erie Benedictine sister why she felt it was too much to ask for both the person and the habit? To me, the habit instantly indicates a person who has dedicated their lives to God, regardless of how they personally live that aspiration. It draws me to think of our call to know, love and serve God and the good works sisters do in his name helping us on our pilgrim journey to him.