The first of our guest authors is Mary Abbey. She was a former sister from a Dominican order and has written an article discussing her thoughts on the modifications made to habits of female religious orders.
Was discarding nuns’ habits a foolish mistake?
In my opinion, “Yes!”, and here’s why:
For several good reasons, stripping nuns of their habits never should have happened. Today, it’s difficult to spot a nun, because she looks just like many other women. Granted, she doesn’t wear makeup or sexy clothes (I hope), but neither do some women. Nuns walk among us, although fewer in number than before, but remain unnoticed.
Some nuns say that remaining unnoticed is one of the reasons they ditched their habits. They claim they’re better able to reach-out to people who might otherwise be intimidated by the habit. Maybe so, but where are all these new people to whom they’re “reaching-out”? They certainly aren’t filling all the empty pews every Sunday in our Catholic churches!
Since Vatican II ended in the sixties, attendance at Mass has dropped dramatically! Catholic schools and churches are closing their doors, and the downward spiral continues to this day! Frequent parish bingo games, carnivals and other fund-raisers can’t make up the deficit in the weekly collection baskets! Even “titheing”, a fairly new practice for Catholics, hasn’t balanced the books!
Vatican II is one reason nuns no longer wear habits. Where are all the young Catholic girls who couldn’t wait to enter a convent and be clothed in the habit? I’ve even talked with a few non-Catholic women who said they, too, had the desire to become nuns when in their teens. Our convents are experiencing the same dwindling numbers that the Catholic churches and schools are.
Of course, in the long-run, entering a convent solely for the sake of wearing the habit usually doesn’t work, because the rigors of the religious life soon discourage such naive girls. However, there are cases where the attraction to the habit came first, and the attraction to the lifestyle eventually followed.
It was about the time of Vatican II that Mother Superiors, especially those in America, decided that the “modernization” of the Church that Vatican II brought about, was the signal for them to “modernize”, as well. So they began with the beautiful habits their foundresses, like St Clare and Mother Cabrini, and all religious women had cherished and proudly worn for centuries.
Granted, some parts of the attire of certain orders of nuns, the “Sisters of Charity”, for example, needed alteration. Their huge headgear, similar to what Sally Fields wore in the television series, “The Flying Nun”, although attractive, was just too big and cumbersome! In an age when nuns began driving cars, it was hazardous to wear anything on the head that blocked one’s vision. So, yes, in cases like this, some alterations were called for, but that’s not what happened. Instead, Mother Superiors went further, implementing one change after another, over the years, until the entire garb was history.
I’ve heard some nuns say, “Those old habits were just too hot!”
Well, that’s not a good enough reason. Why not change the fabric? All sorts of cool, lightweight materials are available today. As a former nun, the only time I got too warm was when we young postulants and novices were sent outdoors to do yard work on a hot day. Our Novice Mistress always told us to offer-up our discomfort for the poor souls in purgatory. Sweating, while working outside happens to everyone; not just nuns. After completing my basic training, I was sent to teach school and never worked outdoors again. That job was left to the maintenance men who worked for the parish to which I was assigned. The only reasons a nun might become overheated in her habit would be the hot-flashes of menopause or because the thermostat’s set too high. In warm weather, most convents, schools, churches and hospitals have air-conditioning. Besides, when back home, behind convent walls, nuns are allowed to make themselves comfortable, as long as they’re not seen by the public. They can remove their veils and habits, slip into lightweight pajamas and robes, etc., just as civilians do when they’re at home.
Over the years, I watched as the subtle changes occurred. The habits and veils got shorter, the hair was exposed and, before long, nuns were wearing business suits or whatever modest women’s clothing they chose. However, some nuns, especially the older ones, rebelled and refused to cooperate. Because of their seniority, they were “tolerated” and allowed to keep wearing their beloved habits and veils. More power to them!! Would that everyone had rebelled!
On the positive side, there seems to be a small light at the end of the tunnel. A few new communities of nuns, including one located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, are wearing a religious habit and report that young women are flocking to their doors. The Ann Arbor congregation has become so popular that, when Oprah Winfrey heard about them a few years ago, she invited several members to appear on her show, and they accepted. When word of the upcoming show was announced, millions of viewers couldn’t wait to see these nuns. Did their habits play a part in getting on Oprah’s show? You bet!!
For a moment, let’s talk about the various garb people have worn for centuries, and still do, because of their special occupations:
Would police be able to function safely, without their uniforms? What about football players? Would clowns be funny, without their costumes? How about a member of the military, or even a ballet dancer? For various reasons, many professions require members to shed their civilian clothes, and those who wear such garb are proud to be seen in it. A uniform gets respect. With the exception of those worn by prisoners, uniforms tell people you’re someone special; someone who’s admired. Today, Amish and Muslim women look more like nuns than our Catholic sisters do!
I must admit that the privilege of wearing the religious habit is one of the reasons I became a nun. Seeing the sisters, clad in their beautiful habits, left me in awe, and I longed to be one of them someday! All Catholics admired their nuns. Nuns were a big part of what made Catholics cherish their faith. Because we viewed them as perfect and worthy of imitation, along with Jesus and the saints, they became our role-models.
“Converts” is another word we rarely hear anymore. That’s because there are so few. Back then, the number of converts each year was astonishing! And, when asked why they became Catholic, it wasn’t unusual to hear, among their reasons, how impressed they were with our habit-clad sisters, regardless of whether they’d ever known one. We often hear successful people, when asked who deserves credit for their rise to the top, admit that Sister Mary So-and-So played a big part.
“There was no fooling-around in her class,” they’ll admit, “and I knew my parents would back her up if I misbehaved!” Indeed, those habit-clad nuns inspired millions to do better!
Who could be more special than a nun, chosen by God to be His bride; a woman who’s dedicated her life to His service? Shouldn’t the world know, by the clothes they wear, who these special women are? I might add that certain parts of a habit, like the scapular, are blest by a priest before being given to those who’ll wear them. Doesn’t that say something about the sacredness of these garments? To just toss them aside, like an old shoe, seems almost sacrilegious!
When nuns are given the freedom to wear whatever they deem appropriate for their state in life, I see it as opening a whole new “can of worms”! I see problems like vanity, competition, unnecessary expense, self-indulgence and lack of good taste, among other negative issues that, when identical habits were worn by all, never entered a nun’s mind. Formerly, she had three habits – two newer ones, for wearing when in the public-eye, and a work habit, for doing menial tasks inside the convent. Now, perhaps, she’s got several outfits to maintain. Formerly, all shapes and sizes of nuns looked good in the habit. As one sister put it, “Our habits ‘covered a multitude of sins’!” Now, they must worry about style, and some nuns don’t have any sense of style. As a result, they look frumpy and dumpy! What do you expect? After all these years, they must choose their own clothing, not to mention a suitable hair-style, etc.. So, for some, especially the elderly sisters who, since girlhood, haven’t worn civilian clothes or been concerned about their hair, it must be especially challenging.
I don’t know exactly how the issue of clothing is handled by today’s nuns, so I can’t say much more. Do they receive a clothing allowance each year, and must they stay within that budget? Are there catalogs, featuring modest garments for nuns, from which they must shop? No idea. I know many orders of nuns wear identical uniforms (which I wouldn’t call habits), while those in other communities all dress differently. I also know that some nuns wear civilian clothes only because they took a vow of obedience and feel obligated to wear whatever their superiors decide is appropriate. And, finally, I believe that, if they wanted to look like civilians, most wouldn’t have joined a convent in the first place! Speaking from experience, one of the most exciting days in the life of a postulant, as well as her family and friends, is the day she’s accepted into the order and receives her habit and veil! Dressed as a bride, it’s the equivalent of her wedding day, and all join with her to celebrate!
It’s also very important to realize that, unless she’s “street-smart”, wearing civilian clothing could be hazardous to a nun’s health. One incident that made me particularly disgusted, and even more certain that discarding the habit was a mistake, happened to a nun from my former community.
Now wearing civilian clothes, this particular sister had been given permission to care for her aging father in his home. One day, after doing his grocery shopping, she pulled into his driveway and shut off the motor but, for some reason, left the keys in the ignition. While carrying bags of food into her dad’s home, a car thief took-off with her car. As he pulled away, she spotted him and, being the feisty one I knew her to be, began waving her arms, yelling and chasing after him. Determined to get away with his crime, he ran her down and killed her! Later, after being caught, arrested and jailed, he learned he’d murdered a nun! According to the authorities, the news devastated him! His conscience bothered him so badly that he committed suicide! Perhaps he was a fallen-away Catholic who’d been taught by nuns; perhaps a former altar boy? At any rate, had this good sister been wearing her habit, she might still be alive today! I rest my case!
For me, on the day I left the religious life, stepping out of my habit, removing my veil and Rosary, and turning them all over, for another sister to wear, brought tears to my eyes! Someday, I’d like to be clothed in a habit again. Perhaps I’ll sew one, exactly like the one I left behind all those years ago. When it’s completed, I’ll place it in a box, along with instructions that I’d like it to be the last garment I wear on this earth. It’ll be my final statement to those responsible for “kicking the habit to the curb”! And, when God sees me, I hope He’ll be pleased!