Excerpt: Common Threads, by Sally Dwyer-McNulty

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American CatholicismA well-illustrated cultural history of the apparel worn by American Catholics, Sally Dwyer-McNulty’s Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism reveals the transnational origins and homegrown significance of clothing in developing identity, unity, and a sense of respectability for a major religious group that had long struggled for its footing in a Protestant-dominated society often openly hostile to Catholics. Focusing on those who wore the most visually distinct clothes—priests, women religious, and schoolchildren—Dwyer-McNulty tracks and analyzes changes in Catholic clothing all the way through the twentieth century and into the present, which finds the new Pope Francis choosing to wear plain black shoes rather than ornate red ones.

In the following excerpt (pp. 60-63), Dwyer-McNulty reveals how nuns’ attire in the nineteenth century could lead to ill health and harassment. Adaptation of attire became a necessity for the well being of women religious.


Adaptation and Anti-Catholicism

Similar to early-nineteenth-century Catholic priests, sisters believed that a certain amount of adaptation was necessary if they were to successfully settle in the new United States. The hierarchy concurred. Bishop Rese of Detroit wrote to Rome in 1835, “Every religious order in America must unite the active life to the contemplative; otherwise the Americans would reject them, and we do not have means to support them in any other way.”[1] Without a tradition of Catholicism, monasteries, or nuns bringing dowries, the United States presented nuns and sisters with a unique set of challenges. The sisters would have to devise reliable methods of sustaining themselves. Begging was a temporary solution, but sisters found teaching and hospital work monetarily more reliable.

Other bishops agreed with Rese, arguing that flexibility was the key to the sisters’ survival. Bishop Rosati believed that the austerity that some orders observed, for instance, was not conducive to life in America. In the case of the Sisters of Loretto, their founder, Belgian priest Father Nerinckx, established severe rules that did not account for frontier conditions. Referring to the Sisters of Loretto in an 1823 letter to Bishop Dubourg, Bishop Rosati of St. Louis commented, “They go barefooted, have no other dresses but what they make themselves, of dyed linen in Summer and of wool in Winter, and they sleep upon a straw tick, spread on the bare floor. Their fare is no more delicate: no coffee, tea, or sugar. It is true pleasure to witness their fervor, which equals that of the strictest communities of Europe in the palmist days of their first establishment.”[2] While Rosati praised the band of hard-working Sisters of Loretto, other clerics became concerned, concluding that such extreme deprivation and arduous labor endangered the sisters’ lives. Eleven Lorettines perished during the first seven years of a mission in Bethania, North Carolina, due to the austerity and exposure.[3] Bishop Benedict Flaget of Louisville, Kentucky, lamented that “going barefoot, and sleeping with their clothes on and then praying in oratories open to the wind . . . made the sisters prone to contract tuberculosis.” Flaget wrote to Bishop Rosati, “In the space of eleven years we have lost twenty-four religious, and not one of them had yet reached the age of thirty years. Besides, of the eighty religious of the same family, that we have in Kentucky, there are at present thirty-eight who have bad health and who are perhaps not yet four years in vows. I learned that in your convent you have five or six whose health is almost ruined. All these deaths and other illnesses so multiplied, do not prove . . . that the rules are too austere?”[4] Flaget, with Rome’s endorsement, saw to it that the rule of the Sisters of Loretto changed. Thereafter the rule required behaviors less destructive to the sisters’ health.[5]
The sartorial appearance of sisters and nuns also concerned both priests and sisters. In a nativist climate, neither wanted the sisters to become unhealthy or to attract negative attention to the church. Anti-Catholic literature, popular in the mid-nineteenth century, targeted the sisters and their unusual garments. Salacious publications such as Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed offered a fictional tale of alleged convent debauchery. Less sensational, but nevertheless condemning, the 1845 book Cecilia, by Benjamin Barker, depicted sisters as attention seekers. “There are thousands who daily dispense charities of various kinds,” Barker wrote, “yet they do not term themselves Sisters of Charity, neither promenade the streets in a garb so antiquated and peculiar as to excite attention, or elicit encomiums on their marvelously holy lives and charitable deeds.”[6] Beyond literary attacks, the sisters suffered from physical and verbal assaults. Philadelphians threw mud at School Sisters of Notre Dame, and on another occasion observers “taunted” traveling sisters “for their black clothing during a stage coach ride from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee.”[7] Once the sisters reached Milwaukee, crowds threw stones at them, and children drew crosses on the sisters’ backs. In Baltimore, people yelled “papist,” “cross-back,” and “pope-lover” at the sisters.[8] Personal experiences or rumors of harassment made sisters wary of drawing attention, and many communities dispensed with their habit if they traveled away from the convent.[9]

For some orders, the habit had been the focus of harassment either before they came to the United States, within the United States, or both. The French National Assembly banned religious habits in 1790, and the revolutionary government dispersed communities such as the Sisters of St. Joseph and killed other religious at the guillotine.[10] As a result, the Sisters of St. Joseph did not reorganize until 1836 under Mother St. John Fontbonne.[11] Religious women and men in the Kingdom of Piedmont and what would later become the southern area of a unified Italy in 1871, while not experiencing the Reign of Terror that befell French nuns and sisters during the French Revolution, nevertheless lived through political revolutions that targeted religious. In the years leading up to the unification of Italy, political leaders suppressed nuns who did not offer a useful service—the government targeted contemplative orders specifically.[12] And, after the unification of Germany in 1871, during the Kulturkampf, Otto von Bismarck expelled orders of women religious such as the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ from schools.[13] Therefore, for many active orders, even if their service to society spared them from being disbanded or expelled, they nevertheless experienced or heard stories of anti-Catholic and more specifically antireligious behavior.

In America, when women religious believed harassment was a possibility, they took off their habits and put on ordinary street clothes. According to historian Mary Ewen, “There seems to have been little questioning, or referring to Rome or to a European motherhouse, before deciding to disregard it. In what concerned the religious habit . . . American social and political conditions compelled sisters to adapt.”[14] The Ursulines in New Orleans “advised all who stopped there to don a cap and the heavy veil of widows before proceeding up the Mississippi, so as to avoid being taken for escaped nuns.”[15] Other communities made adjustments as well. On the street, the Sisters of St. Joseph “added a black bonnet and cloak . . . to their regular habit,” and the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee would not even cross the street in their habits. “They found it expedient to curtain off a corner of the classroom for use as a dressing–room, where the sister-teacher could change from secular dress to habit and back again.”[16] The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet traveled in “disguise” to avoid harassment as they made their way to St. Louis, Missouri, to start a school for the deaf in the 1830s. Because the sisters arrived late and were indistinguishable from ordinary women of the day, the bishop of St. Louis, Bishop Rosati, “had them demonstrate their ability to communicate in sign language before he was convinced they were indeed his long-awaited nuns.”[17] In the 1860s at least one member of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Buffalo also traveled anonymously. Visiting Philadelphia to study education techniques for teaching the deaf, Sister Mary Anne Burke wore “the dress of a widow of the time” instead of her habit.[18] The Mercy Sisters likewise altered their public appearance and “wore the broad-brimmed black straw bonnet, thick crepe veil, and simple cloak that had once been the fashionable walking dress of elderly women and widows.”[19] In the 1870s, the Sisters of Mercy in Batavia, New York, continued the practice of traveling out of habit. Due to their spare living conditions, the sisters were sometimes compelled to obtain money from relatives or the motherhouse. In order to do so, however, they had to travel. In these instances, “whoever was appointed for the task, laid aside her religious habit and dressed in secular clothes in order to travel without attracting attention. . . . This custom was . . . known as ‘going McCracken.’”[20] Sisters especially adopted a flexible approach to the habit. Old fears and new locations encouraged caution.

Despite their secular disguises, the sisters had limited and undeveloped fashion sense, so their identities were often obvious. While they moved about “McCraken,” the Sisters of Mercy in Batavia were known to the train conductor, who would let a sister on to beg for her train fare from the other passengers.[21] The “Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur . . . wore their night robes—loose ‘mother hubbards’ of violet calico—topped by huge white sunbonnets,” while riding to California in 1851. Although the goal was to complete the trek undetected, people were able to identify the women as Catholic nuns everywhere they stopped.[22] And the Kentucky Dominicans were so obvious with their secular costume that they “dropped their practice of wearing secular dress while traveling after two of their number, having aroused suspicion in their outdated clothing, were arrested as spies.”[23] The sisters, regardless of order, had taken a vow of poverty. Secular dress presented a formidable obstacle when styles continued to change, and there might only be a small selection of everyday women’s clothes available in the convent.

From Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism by Sally Dwyer-McNulty. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Robert Trisco, The Holy See and the Nascent Church in the Middle Western States (Rome: Gregorian University, 1962), 308, quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 135.
  2. [2]Maes, Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, 508, consulted and quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 51.
  3. [3]Ewen, Role of the Nun, 53.
  4. [4]Flaget to Rosati, 11 September 1824, St. Louis Archdiocesan Archive, quoted in ibid., 54.
  5. [5]Ibid.
  6. [6]Sister Benedicta to Bishop Guy Chabrat, 1 September 1840, University of Notre Dame Archive, quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 175.
  7. [7]Ewen, Role of the Nun, 148.
  8. [8]Ibid.
  9. [9]Ibid.
  10. [10]McNamara, Sisters in Arms, 555.
  11. [11]McCarthy, Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods, 314.
  12. [12]Italian Unification Chronology.
  13. [13]For a discussion of the Kulturkampf and nuns, see McNamara, Sisters in Arms, 568–69.
  14. [14]Ewen, Role of the Nun, 119.
  15. [15]Ibid., 120.
  16. [16]For Sisters of St. Joseph in black bonnets, see Abbé Rivauz, Life of Mother St. John Fontbonne, Foundress and First Superior-General of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Lyons (New York: Benziger, 1887), 224, quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 120. For the School Sisters of Notre Dame, see Peter M. Abbelen, Mother M. Caroline Friess (St. Louis: Herder, 1893), 125, quoted in Ewen, Role of the Nun, 120.
  17. [17]Coburn and Smith, Spirited Lives, 2; “Copy of a Letter from Mother St. John Fournier.” This letter is cited in Coburn and Smith, Spirited Lives, 241.
  18. [18]Dunne, Congregation of St. Joseph, 113.
  19. [19]Ewen, Role of the Nun, 211.
  20. [20]Fitzgerald, Historical Sketch of the Sisters of Mercy, 55–56. Monsignor Charles Coen (Red Hook, N.Y.) a native of Ireland, indicated that “going McCracken” translates to “in one’s own skin.”
  21. [21]Ibid.
  22. [22]Ewen, Role of the Nun, 211.
  23. [23]Ibid.