Sister Mary Berchmans, President Emerita & Monastery Superior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, is frequently stopped by people who thank her for wearing her habit. She explains why some nuns wear habits and others don’t and if there are special habits for particular occasions.
What was the original purpose of the nun's habit and has that purpose shifted over time in the U.S.?
Originally, Sisters wore the dress of the peasants of their era of foundation – it was to be simple and poor. Since they became known by the style of their dress I presumed that gradually this became their, “habit.”
Are there different habits for different occasions? And for those that wear a habit, when it is appropriate for it to be removed?
I believe that all Orders and Congregations have only one habit style. It can be changed into work clothes when doing manual labor or while engaged in active sports. The principle is to adapt to the needs of the moment.
Of those who choose not to wear one (and is there a specific demographic you can think of that generally chooses not to), is this a controversy at all? What are the arguments against wearing one that you have heard? Are there generally accepted alternatives?
After Vatican II there was a shift away from wearing traditional habits, which were complicated and difficult to care for. The first step for most orders was a simplified version - such as the Visitation sisters wear today.
Can you describe the similarities/differences between a nun wearing a habit and other religions that ask women to cover their heads such as a Muslim woman wearing a hajib and an Orthodox Russian woman wearing a scarf over her head in church?
Gradually many religious groups have moved away from wearing any kind of habit; I believe it was a question of being more one with the people they serve and avoiding a sense of separateness.
Do you think people react to nuns who wear a habit differently? And if so, in what way?
As a member of a community that continues to wear a modified habit, we do so for several reasons:
witness sign: we have been told that it is a reminder of eternal values
simplicity: it is less expensive, no need to be “in style”
community unity: by obviating the problem of having one sister have more than another because she has family that can provide it
Traditionally, women are often pictured wearing some kind of hair covering – whether it is a veil, a special kind of bonnet, (pioneer women). I think of art pictures of Mary and she is always pictured wearing a veil. Although modern American culture has done away with this tradition, it lives on in other cultures.
Frequently, I am stopped by complete strangers who thank me for wearing a habit. I think it represents an element of the sacred for them and lifts their minds and hearts in welcome to a counter-cultural statement. On the other hand, I am certain that sisters who do not wear a habit convey the same principles by their dedication and hard work with the needy people in our world. “The habit does not make the nun!” We can never allow the habit to become a sign we hide behind.
What do you think nuns will be wearing in 50 years?
WOW! In 50 years I will be “long gone!” Your guess is as good as mine. If life becomes more secular the habit could well disappear. I am sure there will not be a return to wearing a habit by Sisters who have gone without wearing one. I would hope that simplicity would always be a determining factor in the selection of secular clothes.
Interview by Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer