Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
The religious habit, a sign of one’s commitment to Christ and His Church, is important to traditional religious communities. I asked seven members of such communities to talk about the clothing they wear.
Sr. Clare Matthiass, Community Servant (Superior General) of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal
We wear a simple outfit: a gray tunic with a cincture, a black veil and sandals. It is an easily identifiable symbol of our religious profession. It also tells people that we’re there to help them; I can’t walk down the street without being stopped because people want to speak to me. In my neighborhood when they see me they know who I am, where I live and that I’m part of a ministry that exists for them.
In New York City we’re a fixture, so we don’t turn heads. But when we leave the City, people are surprised to see a sister in full habit. The reaction we receive is mostly positive, and starts an immediate conversation. People quickly share with us about their lives, and ask for prayers.
Fr. Glenn Sudano, a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal
We wear the Capuchin habit with a large cowl [hood]. We adopted gray, the original Capuchin color, to distinguish ourselves. We have a cord around our waist with three knots, representing our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. We typically wear sandals, although in cold weather we may wear shoes. Even St. Francis made this stipulation in his rule.
Our habit is our ordinary clothing. If you see me on the subway, getting on a plane or at home, it is what I wear. The habit is a sign of our consecration to Christ, and reminds us and one another daily of this consecration.
While the wearing of the habit is strongly recommended by the Capuchin general, in our community it has been legislated or mandated, just as it has been legislated that we don’t have a television.
The public’s reaction to the habit is positive, although some young people don’t know who we are. They mistake us for Muslims. We travel often, and people are respectful to us. We wear the habit with a smile.
Mother Marie Andre, abbess of Our Lady of Solitude Monastery in Tonopah, Arizona
We love our habits! And, believe it or not, they are practical and conducive to our contemplative life, even in the desert. We are covered from head to toe, (as most people who live in dry, hot and arid lands are) but our habits are comfortable to wear, and when we work or do manual labor, we adjust accordingly by wearing a work habit. At that point, it’s all about functionality. (One thing that drew me to the Lord when He called me was knowing that He is a realistic Spouse and won’t ask of me anything I can’t give Him or do for Him, and that even means being able to live, work and pray in 100-degree weather, and yes, we do have air conditioning… so you see what I mean, the Lord provides for us in a pragmatic way.)
Mother Mary Augustine, O.Praem, mother superior or prioress of the Norbertine Canonesses of Tehachapi
Our Norbertine habit is the full, traditional white habit with the tunic, scapular, belt and capella (choir cape) of a canoness. The postulant (new entrant) wears a short black veil, a long-black-pleated skirt and blazer until she becomes a novice, and then is clothed in the white habit and receives her religious name. After the canonical novitiate period (two years for our community), the novice has the opportunity to apply for first profession of vows (temporary vows), at which time she receives the traditional black veil and becomes a canoness “in training.” The next stage in our religious life is the solemn profession of vows (final and perpetual), at which time the Sister becomes a canoness, receiving a ring to wear on her right hand, signifying her "marriage" to Christ, her Spouse, and total dedication through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; and also receiving the traditional rochet proper to canons and canonesses (similar to a surplice), which she wears at Holy Mass and Vespers.
Mother Miriam of the Lamb of God, O.S.B., founder of Daughters of Mary, Mother of Israel’s Hope
We walk the streets in full habit. When I was 20, I was a single Jewish woman who didn’t know Christ. The shortening of nuns’ habits had an enormous impact on me, however. I felt a deep and immediate loss. Twenty-six years later, the same “holy shock” went through me when I was challenged to look into the claim of the Catholic Church that it was the one true Church founded by Christ.
My dream has long been to return the hemline of the religious habit to the floor and to the world, as the glorious sign to God that it is.
I recently spent time studying religious life in Ireland, where I was greeted by sisters in pantsuits and running suits. You would have no clue if you saw them in the street that they were sisters. It is deeply grievous to me.
I think many sisters abandoned the habit because they had the mistaken notion that religious had to be like the people to whom they ministered. But the people do not need religious to be one of them, just as children don’t need their parents to be peers or friends, but to lead them to heaven.
Other sisters got tired of the habit, because they thought it was hot, uncomfortable and too difficult to maintain.
I feel like a hanger for the habit. I walk the streets and shopping malls wearing it. People come up to me all the time asking, “Are you a nun? I thought they were extinct!” People ask me for prayer. It brings hope to the world.
I love the habit. I’d sleep in it if I could. I suspect some of those sisters who abandoned it regret it. They’d go back to it, but fear their community would ostracize them if they did.
Abbot Philip Anderson, Clear Creek Abbey
We wear a traditional Benedictine habit made of black wool. We have a habit made of white fabric for when it gets hot in the summer, as well as a lighter gray habit for work.
Sr. Scholastica Radel, Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
We wear the full black habit, which we make ourselves. I’m still wearing the one I received [in 2001]. We also wear the scapular and a wimple. Our solemnly professed wear a longer veil, and our novices wear the white veil. When working outside we wear a blue habit, which is easier to clean.