Anne M. Butler: Sisterhoods and Habits

Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West 1850-1920, by Anne M. ButlerWe welcome a guest post today from Anne M. Butler, author of Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920. Roman Catholic sisters first traveled to the American West as providers of social services, education, and medical assistance. In the book, Butler traces the ways in which sisters challenged and reconfigured contemporary ideas about women, work, religion, and the West. She demonstrates how religious life became a vehicle for increasing women’s agency and power. In the following guest post, she explains how sisters’ attire has adapted to the work they do.


Many people believe the “Vatican uproar thing” is about the religious habit, that unmistakable, stand-out-in-a-crowd complicated women’s apparel that screams, “Catholic nun!” Most sisters do not wear the once ubiquitous garb any more; many bishops yearn to see the gender-weighted tradition reinstated; nostalgic lay people reminisce about the habit along with such Catholic signposts as fish on Friday or parish bingo. It is time to drop the overdone fascination with the antiquated clothing of an earlier era—the long black veils, starched bonnets, and sweeping serge skirts—that supposedly measured the holiness of cloistered women, or at least made nuns easy to identify.

These simplistic notions overlook that habit alteration has a long history in American Catholicism. Most sisterhoods started tinkering with the habit almost as soon as they adopted it. A black dress, snug cap, and dark shawl changed to a tunic with a short cape, covered by a black and white veil; a bright red cincture replaced a plain woven belt. Design aside, yards of gossamer veiling, voluminous heavy woolen gowns with multiple pleats, thick undershirts, double petticoats, deep-cuffed flowing sleeves, oversized heavy crucifixes, looped wooden rosary beads, knotted floor-length cords attached to wide girdles, and yards of starched white linen wrapped tightly about the head, neck, and shoulders represented a nuisance, and a costly one at that.

In nineteenth-century America, demanding physical labor defined the lives of Catholic sisters missioned to the far-flung towns of an emerging nation. Work for nuns meant more than quiet hours turning out fancy needlework in the convent parlor. Rather, sisters in every congregation knew the grinding routines of planting and harvesting, herding animals, constructing convents, hauling water, scrubbing floors, dragging laundry tubs, operating iron mangles, baking bread and churning butter. Repeatedly, sisters, facing these realities, adjusted and adapted their habits, always favoring more utilitarian and less expensive styles.

Travel across America also underscored the impractical nature of most habits. Journeys, especially into the West, included clutching the sides of an open buckboard, riding in sooty railroad cars, fording raging rivers, or tramping across ice-packed trails. Rain, snow, mud, and sand thwarted the best efforts of nuns to maintain the “proper” religious appearance, so widely expected of them.

Sisters trying to reach the outposts of early America, so they might tackle many of society’s hardships, saw the most beloved of habits become a hindrance. Sisters in isolated convents had not the time, staff, or money to devote a significant portion of their weekly schedule to clothing. In the 1890s, Washington Dominicans substituted a plain linen collar for pleated guimpes, ending the three day washing, shaping, and drying required by the more elaborate style. Over time convent leaders called for shortening the veil, cropping its starched lining, and using lighter weight fabrics, all improvements that reduced the cost of the habit and made it more comfortable during work duties. By the 1950s, the sisters, heeding the call of  Pope Pius XII, were ready to consider more drastic habit revisions and to end the practice of dressing postulants in white bridal gowns on profession day.

The Dominicans were not alone in addressing issues of clothing and practicality. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration reworked elements of their habit at least as often as 1862, 1872, 1895, 1930, and 1949. These Dominicans and Franciscans, joined by many other congregations, revealed sisterhoods as communities of women who dared to change, specifically so they could work more efficiently and effectively among their constituencies.

True, sisters and nuns largely discarded a commonly recognized symbol of professed womanhood. However, the current obsession with costume and clothing blinds itself to the authentic “habit” of Catholic sisters. The intellectual and spiritual habits the sisters have never abandoned are those that immerse them in humanity. These character traits show, across our historical narrative, sisters and nuns as constant and unflinching advocates for social, economic, and political justice. Those are the habits by which American sisters should be assessed, not the ones produced on a sewing machine.

Anne M. Butler is Trustee Professor Emerita at Utah State University and past editor of the Western Historical Quarterly. Her most recent book is Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920.