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Secrets of the Habit

November 25, 2011 31 Comments

The video at the bottom of this post is a fascinating little exploration of the traditional habit of Religious Sisters. The video does not make it clear as to what Order the Habit belonged. There are many things I learned about a habit I never knew. Things like hidden “saddle bag” pockets, opening crucifixes, symbolism in the pleats, and the purpose of the outer veil. I hope you’ll take time an view a fascinating video.

Sadly, the sister who recounts the hidden and beautiful secrets of the habit does not herself wear one any longer. The abandonment of the habit by many orders has always puzzled me. Recent Popes have requested that priests and religious wear their distinctive garb. Further, I think any survey of the people of God would indicate an overwhelming preference that priests and religious wear a distinctive garb or habit. Lastly, from the standpoint of vocations it would seem that any order that has set aside the habit is doomed to eventual extinction. It is clear that the orders that preserve the wearing of the habit along with common life, common prayer, and a focused apostolate are doing better, some quite well, with vocations. Orders that have set aside the habit are largely dying out. It is not the habit alone, I am sure, but the habit (or lack thereof) does signify something important about the health of the religious community.

What is the purpose of a religious habit? Religious life is not hidden, neither is it occasional. To enter the priesthood or religious life is to publicly accept the consecration of one’s whole self to the service of God and neighbor. That is why the most traditional religious garb covers the whole body. It is more than a tee-shirt, a hat or an emblem of some sort. It is a covering of the whole body to indicate the entirety of the consecration.

Further, each habit is distinctive since each religious community has a particular charism or gift by which they collectively serve the Church. Religious and priests do not merely consecrate themselves for their own agenda. Rather they join others with a similar and proven charisms in communities recognized by the Church.

The word “habit” also suggests that religious life and priesthood are not an occasional activity, or even a 9 to 5 job. The are the habitual identity and life of the one who receives the call. That is also why the habit is usually worn at all times.

The widespread disappearance of clerical garb and religious habits back in the 1970s was a disturbing trend. Many religious and priests no longer saw themselves as set apart, as distinctive. Many wanted to blend in and also lost a sense of the charism of their order. Many also preferred anonymity since it made them less busy and they no longer had to live as “public” people. However, many newer orders have emerged which once again wear the habit faithfully. Further, many older orders either never wholly abandoned it or have re-emphasized its importance. This is praiseworthy. If you are a lay person, encourage priests and religious as you see them about bearing witness to the their consecration by the way they dress and reminding others of God and the Kingdom of God.

Here is a site which shows photos of the traditional habits of women’s religious orders: http://www.nunsandsisters.com/Photographs.html

If this post seems familiar, it is, I have re-posted it from about a year ago since I had no time to write a blog for today. I also suppose some newer readers may have missed it.

Enjoy this video of the secrets of the habit:

Comments (31)

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  1. jj says:

    As a convert to the Church, I too agree with you Msgr Pope. There has been a shift in all chrisitan communities in regards to attire. I grew up in a time when preachers wore robes when proclaiming the Gospel. And preachers wore their collars in public. Today however, that has been replaced with tailor made suits and designer shoes. How sad that we have been infected by the world view and its idea that being like the world will some how draw men to Christ. This truly does not line up with the teahings of holy scripture. Let us therefore come out from among them to be a witness. AMEN.

  2. MJ says:

    Thank you for posting this video Monsignor Pope. The sad irony of this video….the sister who explains the habit no longer wears this lovely garment as a witness to her faith.
    I’v just returned from 10 days in Rome and Assisi….so encouraging to see so many YOUNG religious, men & women, with bright smiles…….and wearing HABITS! A beautiful witness!

  3. Mary Floore says:

    Thank you, for re-posting, Monsignor. Sadly, another reminder of the times.

    I recall my younger days in donning my Catholic school uniform. A constant reminder was consistent at home and school that my uniform reflected my place in a community. I was to wear it proudly and was to remember that my conduct would also speak to others through my actions and words, either a positive or negative affect on the community from which the uniform came.

    As we fell into a a different belief system in the 70’s hopefully the religious that have been called and are being called will see that mess of thinking for exactly what is was… a mess!

    Anyone that has been called to serve clearly deserves respect as well as the position from which they serve. The habit, or uniform informs others in and outside the community of the position in which they serve. Not only does it tell others, but also reminds those who wear it to whom they belong. From the police officer, fireman,doctor, judge etc. their garb identifies them and the manner in which we respond to them. Hopefully always with respect.

    I am of the belief that those in religious communities should certainly not want to ‘blend in’ as they have been called by God to serve Him first and shepherd the flock on the journey back to the King. In a world that has lost the desire to respect others the need to reclaim respect is necessary! Hopefully they will remember they can not serve two masters. Blending in the world certainly opens the possibility of confusion in identifying the True Master.

    Wear it and wear it proudly and receive the dignity and respect that comes in serving the Lord! 🙂

    • james hughes says:

      Spot on! Great response.

    • Maria Robles says:

      I just turned 67 yrs old a few weeks ago. I find myself experiencing many nostalgic memories of late. I have very fond memories of Sister Teresa from 2nd grade at St Donotos in south Philly. Her round freckled face always smiling. She clearly loved teaching us children. We loved her too. Sister Vincente, 5th grade teacher at Sacred Heart in Redlands, Calif.. She was older and had been teaching for many years. She too always had a smile on her face. Then there was Mother Germaine. She was the mother superior of the Convent of the Good Shephard in Los Angeles. Again a smiling servant of God. Each of their beautiful faces framed in their habits. It is those habits that make their faces such clear memories. I don’t think their faces would be so clear to me all these years later if they were just in different shirts and skirts like every other woman on the street. They were special! I wish the sisters would change their minds and go back to their habits. They blended in wearing their habits. They blended in as special beloved parts of our communities. I only wish my granddaughters were able to experience the uniqueness of being taught by the smiling faces of nuns in habits who bring a visible love of God to the classrooms with them everyday!!!

  4. Lizzy Falnikar, Mumbai says:

    Dear Father,

    As you rightly mentioned, it could be a repeat, but it is new for me. I am reading this for the first time. I love to see religious and priests in their habits. Sadly, most of them want to look secular these days. I have had priests telling me that the youth gel better when they see a priest in a secular attire. Do they? If they do, then something is wrong. It’s like, if I am asked to stand beside a soldier who is not in uniform, would I feel proud or would I be prouder if I was asked to stand beside a soldier in uniform? I think the latter would make me feel prouder. Then why should I shy away from a priest who is in cassock. Is he not a soldier of Christ?!!
    The cassock is becoming a rarity among priests even within the premises of the church. The habit instantly reminds me of the saint or the founder/foundress of the order. Helps me to ponder on the many charisms of the Holy Spirit. Gives me a feeling that I belong to the Holy Catholic church which helps me see the many faces of Christ and his works. It tells me how rich the church is, how beautifully Jesus leads us to discover him. Indeed, the habit is one aid through which Christ, His Church and his many beutiful charisms are made known to the world.

  5. Nick says:

    To me, the habit of the Religious represents a deepening of baptismal consecration – just as the white gown of Baptism represents baptismal consecration.

  6. Patt says:

    It is interesting to note that the orders who wear a habit are the ones who have an increase in vocations. Those who do not wear the habit are diminishing. The habit makes a wonderful statement without saying a word and it gets respect and admiration. When religious orders seek a donation I prefer giving to those in a habit as it reassures me of their commitment.

  7. Vic says:

    Amen. I have long hold on the idea that the habit is incredible importan in the increase/decrease of vocations. I always say that if you see a man walkind down the street, you seldom pay any attention to him; but if you see the same man in his Alpha uniform…bam! something changes in your perseption of him. I always wonder why my parish priest, a Franciscan himself, would only wear his habit on Sundays. Same with the La Salle Brothers of my HS. they don’t wear habits anylonger, but when I enrolled my son to Cathedral HS in Los Angeles, what a beautiful sight I enjoyed. ALL the Brothers were wearing their habits, They wear them almost every single day. God Bless them. I only wish more Priests and Nuns would do the same.

  8. Ella says:

    Noticed her poignant pause with the segment of the pectoral crucifix. She seemed sad for a moment.

    I served in the Marine Corps for 20 years and during that time also served as a drill instructor. My uniform was very important to me and meant something to others as well. Now I am almost finished nursing school (RN) and wear a white dress every day I am at the hospital and patients regularly mention mu uniform in a very favorable manner. Those who have voluntarily turned their back on the habit have made a very public decision about with whom they choose to identify.

  9. Pierre says:

    Thank you!!! It’s probably been 50 years since I saw a Sister of the Holy Cross in habit. I was taught by them for 12 years. It has always been my belief that the sisters and nuns should never have given up their habits. My wife’s aunt was an Adrain Dominican for over 75 years. When I first met her she wore the habit, but then, as most she went to a modified habit, others gave it up entirely….sad. Thanks again Msgr Pope

  10. Norm says:

    Having been raised by the Sisters of Mercy for nine of my informative years I began each day with a habit…
    you can read about it here: http://normanhooben.blogspot.com/2010/10/bit-of-my-past-has-past-me-bythe-words.html

  11. james says:

    Why is this nun telling us about the habit when she has clearly given it up. People in many organisations wear uniforms which are specifically designed to make them stick out in a crowd. I went to see my dad in hospital but couldn’t find a nurse to speak to about his stroke . Eventually this guy ambled up in jeans an T-shirt telling me He was the nurse. He should have been eminently identifiable by wearing a uniform and so should priests, nuns and bishops. Most of this crowd want and enjoy the respect which most people have for them ,which is why they used to be called ‘men of the cloth’. I note that lots of them don’t wear the ‘rig of the day ‘ but still want to command the respect of the population and indeed in many instances use their membership of the clergy to advance in many professions, particularly in our teaching and universities. Just look where that got us with nuns running hospitals and approving abortions and other clever clogs dishing up thesis which are against the teachings of the church. Don’t want to wear the uniform, get out of the service! Imagine members of the armed forces saying I like the kudos of the job but don’t want to wear the uniform. Remember it’s our church so get back to the proper rig and just maybe people will want to join you again. AMDG

  12. georgia hedrick says:

    Geez oh peez, do I have lots to say on this subject! Why? I wore the OLD HABIT of the Daughters of Charity for 6 years and the NEW HABIT of the same order for 9 more years. Then, I kept changing in my own mind and decided to go into the world, as in, left the Order.

    I learned: one never really leaves the Order. It is within you forever–Habit or no Habit. I was 32 years old when I left; I am 72 now. I look around me and see nothing and no one in any sort of Habit. I felt like I had gone ‘undercover’ once I left the Order. Now I think that almost all religious orders in the USA have gone ‘undercover’.

    I think: it’s time to show yourself, Sister. Wear a veil. Wear a uniform of some sort. If you are out there at all, show yourself again. Don’t expect girls to join what they cannot see. They cannot be what they cannot see.

    The OLD HABIT was way beyond common sense; it was all wool. It was lined in serge and in flannel and lined somemore. It was heavy to wear–20 lbs, to be exact. I wore it In New Orleans, and the OLD HABIT never dried out from one’s constant sweat. Prickly heat was always present for me. Yes, we had those great ol’ saddle bag pockets that we strapped on each day under our skirt of many pleats. I loved those great pockets! However, the OLD HABIT was complex upon complex to make or to patch.

    It has taken me time to see that women Religious ought to wear some light-weight Habit in common. But, no Order needs to go back to the complexity and weight of days of old, however.

    In Nevada, the Daughters of Charity were the first religious order in Virginia City during the Comstock Era–1864-1897. I did a project once with the archivists of the provinces of the Daughters and the local “Carson City Texile
    Museum” so that an exact copy of the outfit those women wore in those days could be in that museum. I did a video on how to put it all together for that museum. (They have that video). If I could, I would post the jpg pictures of the complexity of making that Habit on this site. But I don’t see any way to post jpg pictures of the Habit, inside and out.

    I know I couldn’t construct it. I had to employ a seamstress, skilled in the ‘French School of sewing’, to reconstructure from simply viewing one of the last of those Habits still around in one of the Archives. (She was not allowed to take it apart.) It took her some 90 hours to put a new Habit together correctly. She told me that if she had charged money, we are looking at $1800 per Habit.

    So, please, people do not long for the old outfit of any order. However, a new, simple outfit with veil and dress that is similar makes perfect sense. How do we know if there are any Sisters left anymore unless we see them?
    It just might be that they are all gone, poof! gh

    • I too left the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame because they gave up the habit and went to street clothes not to mention a million other radical changes. Eventually the provincial houses were down to three and now they are combining these three into one because so many have left the order and they are now dependent on more and more lay people to keep things running. I believe that if they kept a modified habit and kept their communal prayer life and their original charism of educating children rather than “blending” in and going out into the world that their community would still be prospering and receiving new vocations.Eventually they are going to phase out and it will be “The Lay Community of Notre Dame.” I too have memories of the good old days when the habit and the religious way of life meant something really special happened in your life. I over heard one ND sister say that getting a nun back in the habit is like getting toothpaste back in the tube.That may be true. Once you leave the atmosphere and environment of what God called you for in the first place, you just get use to “blending in.”It’s like a married couple getting a divorce. Religious priest,sisters and nuns,need to remember your “first love” and what it was like when you answered Gods call to the religious life or married life. Most of us would say,”Those were the days!”

      • Dear sister, I remember when I was growing up, we were taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame, when they wore the ” horseshoe habits ” I would like to put together a habit like they wore in the 1960’s. Could you tell me where I can find a frill making board to create the “horseshoe” frill?

  13. georgia hedrick says:

    P.S. I forgot to mention: we only owned two Habits until we took our vows after 5 years ‘in’. Then we got a third Habit–for life. Plus, we only brushed our Habits clean. We did not wash them or send them to the cleaners.gh

  14. Jack says:

    Something of which people should be aware.

    Religious habits are something in the nature of a uniform, and uniforms are always more expensive than ordinary clothes.

    In fact, the garb of holy poverty can be expensive. A Carmelite friend of mine said that that his ONE habit cost $225! And the full Orthodox monastic habit costs even more. Check the prices for the items at the Convent of St. Elizabeth in Etna, CA.

    Not all religious communities can make their habits in house, because women simply are not taught to sew any more. And ordering something done “under holy obedience” doesn’t instantly change a beginner into a skilled religious couturier.

  15. Gertie says:

    @ Jack

    Yes, habits take a significant amount of cloth and skill to create.

    I was a young postulant and novice many, many years ago in a monastic community with a very particular habit (definitely not my vocation, but it was good to try). The young sisters are trained by the older sisters to accomplish the tasks assigned to them.

    I was told to assist the nun who made and repaired the habits. First I was taught to sew some of the simpler pieces (like the scapular), and eventually I was trained to sew (and iron) the most complicated piece — the wimple. We had a pattern for the habit in a wide variety of sizes, and just needed to adjust for length and shoulder width.

    Yes, traditional habits take a significant amount of fabric, and a skill with a sewing machine or a needle and thread. AND the first habit(s) a young woman or man recieves will be worn for years and years and years… and years…

    We each had two “everyday” habits, one “solemnity” habit, and two “work” habits (which we called the “blues” because they were made out of whatever inexpensive blue fabric was donated or purchased). I only wore my habits for a year, and when I left my habits were given to a young woman who entered after I left.

    Saying that religious communities don’t wear a habit because they can’t afford them is ridiculous. They are extremely cost effective over the life of a habit.

    And in spite of what outsiders may think, young postulants and novices are usually extrememly happy to apply themselves to whatever task is asked of them — and the older sisters guide the way for them.

    Gertie

  16. CatB says:

    I’m 32 and I always love it when I see one of the Sister’s at Mass in her habit. The first time I saw a nun who wasn’t in a habit I thought it very odd and somewhat disturbing. I definitely appreciate the article, even if it is a repeat. I was in the Marine Corps for 10 years and love learning about history and why clothing is made different ways. The Marine Corps has many traditions and memories built into the uniforms, mainly the dress uniforms. Anyone can learn new trades and skills if they have an interest in it. I just started homeschooling my daughter, taught myself how to drive a standard vehicle, did a full rebuild on my truck engine myself, and am now teaching myself how to sew. Things are not as difficult as some like to make it. I think we stand in our own way most of the time. As long as you’re interested in learning it’s easy to find someone who’s interested in teaching and you can do just about anything you put your mind and energy into.

  17. Sheila says:

    I wore a habit as well and found it wonderfully freeing. No trying to figure out what to wear each morning. Best part was that people would come up to me and want to talk about their relationship with God. A police officer was blocks away when he saw me, drove over, and had to get out and talk. He recognized the habit, not the person wearing the habit. That is one of the purposes of the habit – to be recognized as a person of God, that God exists. It is a full witness. Btw, the habit in the video above is of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. There may be other Sisters of St. Joseph that used to wear it, but I know for certain that the Carondolet sisters wore this habit. In high school, we were taught by Dominican Sisters. One day, my teacher said she had somehow stained her habit and she needed to stop right then and there to get the spot out, as her habit had to last her seven years! The cost of one habit is VERY cost effective over the life of the habit.

  18. Anne Mccormack says:

    I am from Glasgow, Scotland. I could not tell you the last time I saw a sister wearing a ha it. I could pass a religious in the street and not even know it. What troubles me most is that secular wearing religious now wear twin suits, necklaces and earings. Just where has their vow of poverty gone. Money making businesses seem to figure largely in tbeir everyday lives. I read of one sister who lives in her own flat. She was very happy because it was just down the road from her favourite wine bar.Is she having a laugh. There was also a photo of her, she had bobbed shoulder length hair, obviously professionally styled, and stud earings in her ears. I could not believe my eyes. There are now pro abortion, pro same sex marriage religious. The mind boggles. Just in closing may I remind these so called religious that the hospitals,schools,care centres ect., that they are now running at huge profits were initially funded by donations from ordinary people, usually from parishes in the orders area.

  19. Katie says:

    I am a Civil War reenactor and have reproduced the Daughter of Charity traditional habit. It is extremely labor intensive and getting the cornette right takes a lot of time and practice. The construction techniques are quite ingenious and mirror those used in the 18th century when the Daughters were founded.

  20. Gregory Clark says:

    I was taught by the RSM. Every day I heard about two words of learning with thte rest being spent trying to figure out how that habit of theirs went on. Does anyone have the answer to the verious parts of the habit and what they mean and how they went on the body?

  21. Lawrence says:

    I was a Dominican brother and couldn’t wait for the day I received my habit. After a bit, I found I spent more time washing and starching it. White gets dirty so easily!

  22. Darlene says:

    I was told that the nuns in the nearby retirement home for a religious order stopped wearing their habits because they were being harassed. As much as it identifies them of their vocation, it also makes them a target for harassment for the same reason.

  23. Cheryl Burger says:

    I was the eldest of 3 daughters and knew I needed direction while growing up as both my parents needed to work. I then went to church with my little sisters in hand and fellin love with my faith I was 11. I then asked my parents to send me to a Catholic school and they did. I must say that my education from them is so appreciated both the religious and academic and most times were combined but they allowed me carry out my journey in my life, and for that I thank the Sister’s of St. Joesph for the eduation, the discipline and the love they shared with me. God bless all of them and all orders. I feel the Habits were a way of being respected and loved in or community, but I can see how some would see the negatives, that go along with seeming to be different in the world today.

  24. mary gottlieb says:

    Reading this only solidifies in my mind and memory the mystique of knowing the
    nuns of old who taught me…I can close my eyes and recall the aroma (was it
    a floral talc?) the touch of her habit (was it linen and wool?) the sound of her
    gentle and determine voice (was it intended to impart the spirit of what she wished for me?) and her knowing of my seeking mind and patience with my childish
    impetuosity (was she so discerning of my promise?) That was Sister Rita Margaret
    my first grade teacher just lost to us about a year ago….never lost to this little girl who will never forget the gift of her life she gave to me and to so many others…. Return to the habit that distinguished a vocation and calling; that said to the world I have answered – ad sum – set apart to do His Will…..

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