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.


  1. I enjoyed your article and cam identify with your discription of the nuns habits. I had attended Catholic schools in the 1950s and I remember the nun’s habits vividly. At Blanchet High School, we had several different orders of nuns with different habits. They changed slightly while I was in high school -I graduated in 1960, having not as large headdresses and some with shorter skirts. My sister graduated 15 years after me, and the few nuns who still taught there couldn’t be identfitied from the regular teachers. I look forward to reading your book.

  2. It is wonderful how you seamlessly joined the past with current events. I am excitedly awaiting the release of your book!

  3. I loved your article! As a product of Catholic schools from grammar school through college, and of course nuns in their habits, I can appreciate and identify all descriptions and changes. I cannot wait to purchase and read your book. We will be seeing you hopefully this fall.

  4. This sounds like yet another spectacular book by Anne Butler! Timely, indeed, and full of the insight that promotes tolerance, awareness, and advocacy for women.

  5. Sorry it took so long to respond to this blog, PC problems. HOWEVER, please read I Samuel, Chapter 16: verse 7: But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” — This was the process by which God appointed David to be the leader of His people. WE need to remember that we will all be judged on our hearts, not our looks.

  6. Pingback: Anne M. Butler: The Road to Academic Recognition | UNC Press Blog

  7. I have worked for several Catholic hospitals over the years as an RN. I recall seeing sisters walking the halls, visiting with patients and staff and most were wearing a modest habit,one that clearly identified them as a nun. When I moved to Madison and started working at St. Mary’s Hospital I noticed not one sister walking the halls. I asked my co-workers, “where are the sisters?, where are the sisters?” There was but one or two sisters still at the hospital and they did not wear the habits. Since then the last sister left several months ago. If was only after she left that I learned about her distinguished career and contributions to healthcare. At the risk of a lengthy blog….
    Below is a summation of her achievements over the years.

    Sister Mary Jean Ryan, FSM

    Sister Mary Jean Ryan, Franciscan Sister of Mary, transitioned August 1, 2011 into her role as board chair. She had served as the system’s CEO since its founding in 1986.

    Sister Mary Jean has received numerous honors, including the Distinguished Service Award (2010) which is the highest honor given by the Missouri Hospital Association, the Juran Medal from the American Society for Quality, the C. Jackson Grayson Distinguished Quality Pioneer Medal (2009) from APQC, the Life and Breath Award from the American Lung Association, the Governor’s Quality Leadership Award in Missouri (twice), the Award of Honor presented by the American Hospital Association, 20 Distinguished Women/St. Louis Area; the Brotherhood / Sisterhood Award from the National Conference of Community and Justice; the Corporation that Makes a Difference Award from the International Women’s Forum; one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Business in St. Louis (2005), and one of the most powerful people in health care by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years. She also received an honorary degree/doctor of humane letters from Webster University (St. Louis) in 1994, as well as from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Lindenwood University (St. Charles, Mo.) both in 2003.

    She was elected as an academician to the International Academy for Quality in 2008 and has served on international, national, state, local, civic and health-care boards including the International Academy for Quality, the Excellence in Missouri Foundation and the District Industry Council (Health Care) – Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Sister Mary Jean chairs the SSM Health Care corporate board, as well as SSM’s regional and divisional boards. She has previously served on the boards of Premier, Inc., the former National Commission for Quality Long-Term Care, and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

    Sister Mary Jean received a nursing diploma at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis., a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Saint Louis University, and a master’s degree in hospital and health administration from Xavier University in Cincinnati. She has been a Franciscan Sister of Mary for 50 years.

    I look forward to reading your book Anne. I think Sister Mary Jean is an exemplification of what her fore bearers envisioned, habit or no habit.
    I’m just sorry I didn’t realize her contributions until after she left.

  8. Jody, I actually do know about this remarkable sister, as I have worked extensively with the FSM archivist. This congregation started nursing in St. Louis under the most desperate conditions. “Across God’s Frontiers” discusses Mother Odilia and her Sisters of St. Mary and the health care they brought to the indigent. I hope you enjoy it and thanks for writing! In the interests of disclosure, the blogger is my niece.

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