Jan van Helmont (1650-1714), “Portrait of the Black Canon Augustinian Nuns in Antwerp”
Why She Returned to her Habit
The Sixties were rough on religious sisters. Actually they were rough on everyone: the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; Vatican II misunderstood, and the Pill—all topped fittingly by the counterculture three-day blowout of Woodstock. We entered the decade through one door and came out of quite another. And so it was for many Catholic sisters.
In 1960, a woman who took vows as a religious sister accepted a new name, a vow of obedience and a habit that covered all but her face and hands. A large rosary hung from her belt and in places like Michigan, Catholic school kids would whisper to one another on hot, sticky, summer days: “How can Sister stand to wear all those clothes?”
But they somehow managed. And with their habits came an awe apart from their ability to survive hot humid days. Even among the grouchy ones, there was a beauty and dignity in their habit. But as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies, the full habits became modified ones and then soon disappeared altogether among many orders.
I am not writing this to criticize women religious who have given their life to God as a sister while maintaining a layperson’s wardrobe. There are reasons, I know. But I do admire professed women in habits, because without even speaking a word, they tell a story—the story of a deep commitment as a bride of Christ.
It is just such a story told to me recently by a religious sister. She does not want to be a part of controversy and so I am not using her real name. But her story is beautiful because it is about following Jesus as closely as she can.
Sister Theresa Ann became a postulant in 1960. “Back then, there was a certain idea of what religious life was,” she said. “It entailed living in common, sharing cars, wearing a habit, taking a vow of poverty, and all kinds of things. The most important one—it was very significant—was the vow of obedience.”
But the idea of freedom began to seep from the culture into convents. Convents often became obsolete as sisters moved into apartments. Before that, it had been the mother superior who decided most things, such as where a sister would serve. Many were sent to teach and they filled the Catholic schools. But in the Seventies, more and more sisters slipped away. Habits disappeared, many convents closed and sisters moved into apartments. They worked in various helping fields in addition to parish work and some still taught. Sister Theresa Ann continued to teach but for a time, she stopped wearing her habit. She feels that story of turmoil among the sisters is not hers to tell. Instead, she recommends reading the book, Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities to understand what happened during those years.
“By the Seventies, there was not a nun [in her order] wearing a habit,” Sister Theresa Ann said. “I went without one for a while.” But she began to miss the things that had attracted her to become a religious sister in the first place. “There’s a point where it’s hard to describe the fullness of what went on without saying things I don’t want to say,” she said, “but I had a desire to live a full religious life and it was no longer possible in the order I was in.” She felt that many sisters were heading off into isolation.
According to her, obedience was put aside for lesser goods and an entire exodus of sisters left Catholic schools and convents. “People must have prayed for me because I ended up going a different way,” she said.
Sister Theresa Ann did not want to go her own way, she wanted to go God’s way. And so began her search to join a different religious order. “I still wanted to live in community and pray in community,” she said. Surprisingly, although Sister Theresa Ann has a strong and sure personality, she also wanted surrender her own will.
“Your will wants to do what it wants to do,” she said. “To follow the will of another person in authority put there by God means that sometimes, I have to do things contrary to my will.” To her, that is the ultimate following of Christ. ”Jesus lived it ahead of us,” Sister Theresa Ann explained. “His example empowered us to make such a choice; to say not my will but your will. He was not murdered but he went to his death—it was a decision to follow the will of his Father.”
Sister Theresa Ann found a new order that fulfilled her desire to commit fully to God as a sister. It included wearing a habit—an outward sign of dying to self and not being of the world while still being in the world. Although she is elderly now, she continues to teach—a true love of hers. She said there is safety in the life she has chosen. “Obedience and submitting my will is at the heart of following Christ,” she said. “And that is why I became a sister.”