Cut from the same cloth

| November 17, 2015 | 1 Comment

habitnohabitReligious sisters find meaning in and out of habit

Before a 1965 Vatican document encouraged religious orders to re-examine their communities, it might have been easier to spot a sister. But a small paragraph in Blessed Pope Paul VI’s “Perfectae Caritatis” (Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life) is the reason some women religious chose to forgo the habit — the long, simple garment worn to identify them as consecrated to God.

Individual religious orders interpreted the text differently. The following vignettes share insights from local religious sisters — in and out of habit — about how their attire plays a role in their ministry.

Showing sisterhood through service

Discerning appropriate attire for the Benedictine Sisters came down to their service in the greater community: They decided their credibility derived from their baptism, not their habit, said Sister Mary Lou Dummer, who lives at St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood.

“My call is an answer from God to live the Gospel and evangelize,” said Sister Mary Lou, who entered the order in 1956 when the sisters still wore habits. “The habit doesn’t give me that privilege. My baptism as a Catholic gave me that right to answer God’s call.”

Committed to the monastic community and the rule of St. Benedict, the Benedictine sisters focus on Jesus’ life. Sister Mary Lou wore the habit for about 10 years before the order started to reconsider the sisters’ attire. They went through a transition period — first modifying and then abandoning the garb.

To signify they’re religious sisters, they wear a special Benedictine ring, and many wear a Benedictine medal; some sisters still wear the veil with ordinary clothes, and new members may choose to wear the full habit. Sister Mary Lou said they still dress simply, just as they live simply. But at the time the Benedictine Sisters were discerning their attire, Sister Mary Lou said they did so carefully, looking at their charism (spirit), founding and liturgical practices, then ultimately received approval from the Vatican not to dress in habits.

Citing the work the sisters do, including their ministry on the campus of Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, Sister Mary Lou said she was happy to leave the habit behind. In serving the poor, she sometimes felt more respected when she didn’t wear the habit.

“We have chosen to live and dress like the women of the 21st century to do this,” she said, adding that habit or not, women aren’t more or less a religious sister. “We sisters here at St. Paul’s Monastery are answering the call to do God’s will by living the Gospel, no matter what we wear.”

A prayer, piece by piece

It’s the habit that attracted Sister Mary Juliana Cox to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia of Nashville. In looking at religious communities, she only contacted those whose members wore habits.

“If I’m going to give myself to something, it has to be all or nothing,” said Sister Mary Juliana, superior and principal of St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater. “The sisters have always understood the habit to be necessary for ourselves because of who we are as brides of Christ. We have to reflect that outward to ourselves.”

Each of the six pieces of the habit symbolizes who they are and whose they are, Sister Mary Juliana said. As they dress, the sisters say a prayer that goes along with each piece.

The tunic and veil signify wedding garb as brides of Christ, and the sisters pray to go before God with purity of heart. The belt also signifies purity. The rosary reminds the sisters to ask Jesus for help to take up the cross and follow him. When attaching the scapular, the long white cloth in front, the sisters ask for the spirit of true religious obedience to follow Jesus. And when putting on the waist-length cape, they ask the Lord to create a clean heart in them.

Sister Mary Juliana likens the dressing ritual to a knight putting on armor, “giving oath to the king that each piece be our protection. It’s such a gift,” she said.

The Dominican Sisters have always worn the habit; for them, that short paragraph in “Perfectae Caritatis” meant updating their attire to be more suitable for the times. They experimented with different fabrics and veils, ultimately choosing lighter material that allowed them to move more freely when playing with schoolchildren and driving.

For Sister Mary Juliana, who made her final vows in 2005, the habit also has helped shape her identity and has provided consolation during spiritual ups and downs.

“Sometimes we can feel distant from other people or ourselves,” she said. “Wearing the habit is the reminder that no matter how I feel about myself or where I am with the Lord, I always belong.”

While she admitted the habit can bring negative attention in public, people mostly see the sisters’ habits as an invitation to pray, she said. She’s thankful for the reminder.

“My job is to pray for them. That’s important for me to remember — I don’t belong to myself, I belong to these people,” she said.

The habit re-purposed

When the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet revisited their clothing standards, the congregation sent a team to France, where they began in the 1650s. They discovered that the first sisters were simple women, most of whom couldn’t read or write. But those first sisters noted the needs of society and began to dress like widows — in long black dresses — so that they could travel unaccompanied. Sister Carolyn Puccio said this allowed them to care for people “without the burden of having your father or uncle with you.”

“As history bears out . . . the dress of the day somehow became more important than it was ever intended to be,” Sister Carolyn said, noting that the community was never meant to be monastic or cloistered.

When she entered in 1960, the sisters were in habit, and she fondly recalls the day she received hers.

“But the thing that troubled me was that I had responded to the call to be a sister so that I could be with people and for people and among people,” she said. “And this seemed to be something that kept us apart.”

By 1968 when she made her final vows, they were wearing street clothes made from their habits.

“Our habits had lots and lots of yards of wool in the skirt. New outfits were cut out,” she said. “We thought we looked great. That was the spirit of poverty; recycling was in.”

As the delegate for religious in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Sister Carolyn interacts with a variety of consecrated women and men, and so she sees the variety of attire.

“There is a full spectrum of what women in religious life look like. The umbrella is big enough to embrace all expressions,” she said.

Searching for a sign

Symbolism is prominent in the habits of the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul.

Sister Genevieve Kudlik, superior, said she has visual reminders of her life’s mission. Her habit consists of a full-length gray tunic, veil and St. Peter Claver medal that hangs from a red cord symbolizing the precious blood of Jesus Christ. The medal itself, she explained, is a sign to witness to a higher truth. The front depicts St. Peter Claver baptizing a slave.

“Every morning when I put the medal on myself, it reminds me of the virtues of my patron saint, who spent a long time trying to help the slaves, and this is what I want to imitate — his kindness and love for the less fortunate,” Sister Genevieve said.

Professed for 23 years, Sister Genevieve said she perceives the habit as a sign for people that the sisters are in the world but different — a sign that life is something more than the here and now.

“It’s not the habit in itself that makes me a religious sister, because I believe that many of those who are not wearing the habit are holy sisters and doing wonderful service in the vineyard of God,” she said. “But it’s a visible sign for people, which, maybe today, they need from time to time to see it and reflect. Even though we live in a world that is so noisy and so taken, you can see that people are searching for something different. They are searching for some sign, some symbol in it.”

Maria Wiering contributed to this story.

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Category: Year of Consecrated Life

  • Paula Ruddy

    Thanks for this article about the big tent of Catholic spirituality. Again the Sisters show us the way.