Change of Habit

Author: Kathleen Sprows Cummings '95M.A., '99Ph.D.

Last January, the long-running off-Broadway show Late Nite Catechism appeared at Notre Dame’s Washington Hall. Even if you missed the performance, you can probably describe its highlights: a fully-habited “Sister” confiscates gum, reprimands whisperers and grills her “students” on the lives of the saints, taking particular pleasure in the grislier stories. Alternately terrifying and entertaining, the star of Late Nite Catechism is, in one sense, merely the most recent incarnation of the ruler-wielding, authoritarian nun who has been ubiquitous in American popular culture for decades. But the evening ends with a twist. After the show, “Sister” stands at the door, soliciting audience donations for a pension fund for real-life retired nuns.

Late Nite Catechism and its conclusion present a fascinating juxtaposition: a string of stereotypical depictions of nuns, followed immediately by a reminder that women religious are real people who deserve both help and gratitude. The tension between the performance and its encore also exists in American culture at large with regard to perceptions of women religious, and mounting evidence suggests that the very human images may gradually be supplanting the caricatures in America’s collective consciousness. Within the last decade, a remarkable series of developments have converged to make women religious less mysterious. As a result, Americans — both Catholic and non-Catholic alike — are being challenged to rethink commonly held assumptions about nuns’ lives.

In part, this phenomenon is owed to the success of such organizations as Media Images and Religious Awareness (MIRA). Founded in the early 1990s by a Sister of Charity and a Sister of Mercy, MIRA distributes annual awards to people who contribute to positive images of women religious in American culture. Honorees have included Ann Dowd, who portrayed Sister Maureen in the television drama Nothing Sacred, and Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Helen Prejean in the movie Dead Man Walking.

MIRA has clearly had some success in persuading television and film producers to eschew stereotypes. When the organization was founded, the most popular nun in America was Delores Van Cartier, the Reno lounge singer portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. Delores is forced to hide in a local convent after she witnesses a murder; the rest of the plot is predictable. Disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, she mangles prayers, violates rules and horrifies the stodgy Mother Superior with her antics. By the end of the movie, however, Sister Mary Clarence has endeared herself to the nuns by teaching them how to dance and sing. Upon her departure, the convent has more vitality, more laughter and, of course, more rhythm.

Last year’s MIRA honoree, Vanessa Williams, shows how far Hollywood has traveled since Sister Mary Clarence. Williams was honored for her performance in Lifetime’s The Courage to Love, a biography of Henriette Delille, the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans. A Catholic of mixed-race origin, Delille founded the congregation in 1842 to minister to slaves and free people of color. The Courage to Love focuses on Delille’s struggle for acceptance as a black nun in the Catholic church. The Sisters of the Holy Family did not receive permission to take vows until 10 years after their founding, and 30 years passed before they were allowed to wear full habits. Williams, a former Miss America, was concerned at first that her glamorous image might compromise her ability to portray a nun authentically. But as a Catholic who is black, she found Delille, “a woman of color who was Catholic and had a calling,” to be a compelling character.

While MIRA’s frontal assault against stereotypes is significant, there are more subtle factors undergirding the sea change in American perceptions of women religious. It is hardly surprising that The Courage to Love focuses on a historical figure, given that recent historical research is at least partially responsible for the refreshingly nuanced portraits of nuns in popular culture. Ten years ago, women religious were virtually absent from the U.S. historical narrative. Catholic historians focused on priests and prelates, while women’s historians studied more obvious feminists.

Within the last decade, however, an astonishing number of scholars have turned their attention to the historical contribution of women religious. Many studies of American sisters are now readily available, and the result is a new appreciation of the women who supplied the unpaid labor for parochial school systems and the vast network of Catholic social service institutions.

Carol Coburn, co-author of a history of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet, says situating nuns within the wider context of American Catholic history, social history and women’s history has helped to undermine old stereotypes. “By placing the sisters’ lives and activities into this larger context, scholars have begun to portray them as more complex human beings, not as otherworldly, one-dimensional creatures.” Still, Coburn marvels at the staying power of stereotypical portrayals of women religious and believes it will take more historical research, especially on nuns in the modern period, before their spell will be broken.

If historians have narrowed the gap between image and reality in the lives of past nuns, women religious themselves have done a great deal to call attention to myths and misconceptions about contemporary ones. After all, the real Sister Helen Prejean has done even more than her on-screen counterpart to challenge stereotypical perceptions of American sisters. Prejean embodies the manifestation of the shifting theology of religious life that began in the wake of Vatican II. The Council rejected the idea of strict separation between religious and the world, and called for each religious community to reevaluate its individual charism, or mission. In the early 1980s, the spirit of Vatican II prompted Prejean to radically change her ministry by living and working among the poor. Soon, the desire to “harness faith to social justice” prompted her to lead a campaign against the death penalty. By the mid-1990s, after the success of Dead Man Walking, Prejean had become a widely admired celebrity whose presence in the national consciousness has undoubtedly helped Americans better understand women religious in the last decade.

Like Prejean, many other American sisters are challenging the old view that nuns belong only in classrooms or churches. Sister Mary Scullion, a Sister of Mercy, is the co-founder and executive director of Project H.O.M.E (housing opportunities, medical care and education), a community revitalization project in Philadelphia. Since 1989, Scullion has applied a multifaceted approach to the problem of homelessness. By offering street outreach, developing permanent housing, providing job training and health services, Project H.O.M.E. has halved the homeless population in the city. Scullion has become a beloved figure in Philadelphia, and her programs have been imitated in other cities. One 30-something Catholic who volunteered at Project H.O.M.E described Scullion as “one of the most interesting people I ever met . . . definitely not a traditional nun by any means.”

Other examples of less traditional, down-to-earth nuns abound. A recent article in Parade Magazine argued that nuns are not as celestial as most Americans may think. It featured Sister Joy Manthey, a Sister of Saint Joseph who ministers to riverboat captains on the Mississippi, and another Sister of Mercy who studies air-conditioning repairs so she can help in the congregation’s housing for the poor. To underscore that nuns “are real people,” one Dominican sister observed: “We sin. We also have fun. I roller-blade and play basketball.”

But nuns need not be roller-bladers to be appealing; Americans have recently fallen in love with a group of nuns who are all between the ages of 75 and 106. Because convents keep meticulous records and because circumstances of convent life eliminate variables in lifestyle, income and quality of health care, scientific researchers have often used women’s religious communities as control groups. As part of his aptly — if unimaginatively — titled “Nun Study,” epidemiologist David Snowdon has examined an aging group of School Sisters of Notre Dame to study the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. In Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives (2001), Snowdon introduced readers to some of the 678 participants in the study.

Aging with Grace is a poignant story about women who devoted their entire lives to the service of others and continue to give of themselves after they die. All of the nuns undergo regular assessments to monitor brain functioning, and most have agreed to donate their brains after their deaths. Through this study, Snowdon has not only learned more about the medical causes of Alzheimer’s, but he has also identified intangible factors that help ward off the disease. He has discovered, for example, that high linguistic ability in early life can keep mental deterioration at bay. His research also suggests that positive spirit, faith and community support — all key elements of convent life — actually improve our chances for health and longevity.

In a culture increasingly preoccupied with the effects of aging, Snowdon’s study has received a great deal of media attention. Whether Americans encounter the study in a New York Times article, on a National Public Radio interview or through the book itself, Snowdon’s portrait of these compassionate and generous women has gone a long way in weakening stereotypes about elderly nuns.

Although Americans typically encounter nuns engaged in active ministry, contemplatives have recently begun to attract more interest. Art aficionados adore Sister Wendy Beckett, a Sister of Notre Dame who lives in seclusion on the grounds of a Carmelite convent in England. Although Sister Wendy spends most of her life in prayer and solitude, her vocation as a contemplative permits her to work two hours each day as an art historian. In 1991, she appeared on a BBC documentary about the National Gallery, and in 1997 her television series, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, introduced her to a U.S. audience. Immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, Sister Wendy moves effortlessly between the world of travel and television and a life of silence and solitude.

In another genre, Kathleen Norris’ best-selling The Cloister Walk (1996) explained the structure of monastic life to thousands of Americans, and contemplatives also have surfaced in recent fiction. Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy (1991), featured a turn-of-the-century cloistered nun as its protagonist. Book clubs all over the country grabbed Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake (2000), a story about a nun living in a Carmelite monastery in the middle of modern-day Los Angeles. Salzman’s novel has been widely praised for conveying the true nature of convent life with humanity and insight.

To be sure, caricatures persist. While the cover of Aging with Grace shows a smiling sister playing cymbals, the Time magazine cover story about the Nun Study featured a nun much more evocative of the sort who allegedly terrorized grade-school children 50 years ago. In 2002, Jodie Foster starred in the independent film The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys as Sister Assumpta, called “Nunzilla” by her students. On a recent episode of the Fox television series Grounded for Life, it is a nun who separates young couples caught hiding under the bleachers at a high school dance. But given the eminently human images of women religious that have surfaced in news features, historical research, scientific studies, popular literature, fiction and nonfiction, these stereotypical depictions of nuns ring less true. The laughter, it seems, is growing fainter.

Such a reappraisal would be difficult, if not impossible, were it not supported by changing demographics within the Catholic population. Mary Gordon’s January 2002 centerpiece article on nuns in The Atlantic Monthly testifies to the power of perspective. Never one to be unduly sympathetic to things Catholic, Gordon spends the requisite amount of time discussing the dissonance between her idealized image of nuns in childhood and the tortured reality of her experience with them. But either her memory has dimmed or Gordon now has enough distance to see the positive aspects of religious life. She interviewed dozens of nuns in the United States, Rome and Romania, some of whom would be considered traditional and others who are more modern. After sipping martinis with some nuns and dancing with others, Gordon seems convinced by the sister who tells her, “we’re women, we’re humans, and we experience everything a woman does.”

If Gordon’s article suggests that the passage of time may be prompting baby boomers to look beyond stereotypes, another aspect of the generational shift is also facilitating more positive perceptions of women religious. According to The Image Project, a recent survey funded by four religious organizations, 78 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 39 have an exceptionally high opinion of religious life. These young adult Catholics, who have no recollection of Catholicism before Vatican II, view aspects of religious life quite differently than their parents do. To take the issue of celibacy as just one example of how this is so, Mary Gordon observed that she comes from “the cohort least disposed in history” to accept it. But compared to those who came of age in the midst of the sexual revolution, those who were raised in the era of AIDS awareness and abstinence programs do not find celibacy as difficult to imagine. If they do not choose it for themselves, they are at least more inclined to respect it as a choice for others. For Gen-Xers, the idea of forswearing material wealth might ultimately prove more perplexing. In a recent article about young women entering religious life, the renunciation of sex never came up, but the challenge of surrendering cars and checking accounts was a recurring theme.

When it comes to generational shifts within American Catholicism, the most significant one is affecting the population of women religious itself. When the star of Late Nite Catechism passed the hat for retired nuns, she joined a growing contingent of concerned Catholics who have been doing so since the mid-1980s, when an Arthur Andersen study revealed a $2 billion gap between available funds and projected financial needs of retired American women religious. That shortfall now has ballooned to $6.4 billion, thanks to the collapse of a system that had functioned for more than a century as a remarkably efficient retirement plan: the energy and labor of younger nuns supplied rest and comfort for the senior members of the community. In the late 1960s, however, the influx of young women into religious communities came to an abrupt halt, tipping the balance ever since in favor of the grayer members of religious congregations.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has compiled the bleak statistics: In 1965 there were 179,954 women religious in United States; 30 years later, that total had plunged to 90,809. It dropped to 78,094 by 2000. The decline has been even more precipitous with women religious than it has been with priests. While the population of women religious shrank by 54 percent between 1965 and 2000, the number of priests decreased by 30 percent. Signs indicate that this trend will not reverse itself any time soon. The census conducted by the National Religious Retirement Office in 2000 showed 31,845 women religious under the age of 70. It is projected that the number will drop to only 11,639 by the year 2012.

Faced with these dismal statistics, even those who are optimistic about the future of women’s religious communities admit that they will be significantly altered from their present-day versions. In The Fire in These Ashes: A Spirituality of Contemporary Religious Life, Joan Chittister, OSB, acknowledged that “the hope of recasting religious life in old molds smacks of pure fantasy.” But she also thinks it is too soon to predict what form a future model will take in a “world we do not know.”

If women’s religious communities are going to survive — and I believe they are — they will be shaped by at least three realities. First, the number of new vocations will never rebound to pre-Vatican II levels. The reasons for the steep decline in new vocations are varied and complex, but I think the key factor is this: The status of women in American society has risen at a much faster pace than it has in the Catholic church. From the early 19th century until the late 1960s, Catholic women had more opportunities for education, meaningful work and leadership within the church than outside of it; since then, the opposite has been true. Consequently, religious life does not hold the same amount of appeal for young, talented Catholic women as it did four decades ago. Intelligent and gifted women do enter religious life today, but many others are choosing to live out their vocations in secular society. As a result, women’s religious communities have a much smaller pool of energy and resources from which to draw. It will be simply impossible, therefore, for nuns to sustain the vast infrastructure of institutions that made them the face of the Catholic church for most of its history in the United States.

Second, a sense of historical perspective will be crucial to understanding the evolution of women’s religious communities in the 21st century. Consider, for example, the virtual disappearance of some of the elements many assumed were integral to women’s religious life. Forty years ago, most nuns appeared in habits. Today, most wear “street clothes.” Forty years ago, the majority of sisters worked as teachers or nurses. Today, they fill a variety of occupations.

Taking the long view can illuminate a great deal of continuity amid these changes. Modern sisters’ decision to forgo the habit stems from a desire to blend into society rather than be set apart from it. As an evocative passage from Salzman’s Lying Awake illustrates, this desire may be closer to the original intention of women religious. The protagonist, a Carmelite, notes that the habit was “originally adopted by nuns to make them inconspicuous in the world. In the Middle Ages, a plain serge tunic, linen wimple, and veil was the outfit favored by poor widows.” Sitting in a doctor’s office, amid curious stares, she muses that “a true habit now . . . would be a nylon jogging outfit worn over tennis shoes.”

The move away from teaching and nursing is likewise best understood as a creative adaptation of tradition rather than a radical departure from it. In this case, the tradition is American sisters’ historic commitment to going where they are needed most. In the 19th century, they provided schools, hospitals and social services for a Catholic immigrant population because no one else did. Today, they minister to prisoners, the homeless, victims of abuse, drug addicts and others whom most Americans would rather ignore. According to Scullion, the Sister of Mercy who directs Project H.O.M.E. in Philadelphia, “God’s word takes radically different forms in each age.” The call of the gospel in contemporary society, she believes, involves the “preferential love of people who are poor, low-income and homeless.” By standing in solidarity with those who live on the margins of society, Scullion sees herself following closely in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin in the early 19th century. Project H.O.M.E.‘s latest initiative, a 144-unit housing complex for low-income women, is named Kate’s Place, in McAuley’s honor.

Scullion believes that one way women’s religious life has changed since McAuley’s time is that sisters have become much more connected to society at large. She founded Project H.O.M.E. with a lay woman, and she emphasizes that none of her work would have been possible without the support and collaboration of Philadelphia’s Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities.

Scullion’s observation points to the third reality shaping the future of women’s religious life: The boundaries between women religious and the rest of the world will continue to grow more fluid. One visible sign of less insularity within women’s religious communities is the expanded definition of membership. Consider the response of some congregations to dwindling numbers. In the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, lay men and women can join the order as associate members. IHM Associates participate in a formation program, have a voice in the congregation’s governing body and live out the mission of the community. The IHMs describe these associates as “a life-giving and transformative” force. The presence of these non-vowed members, however, indicates that future definitions of women’s religious life must accommodate these new models.

Declining numbers, evolving ministries and shifting definitions suggest that stereotypical portrayals of women religious will be even further removed from actual behavior in the future. But don’t look for Late Nite Catechism (or whatever its next manifestation will be) to disappear from the American landscape any time soon. The most convenient symbol of women religious, the habit, will prove to be tenacious. In terms of sheer iconoclastic value, a habit is hard to beat. Need to symbolize authoritarianism? Repression? A habit works in a pinch. In inane sitcoms, a stern-faced lay principal — no matter how foreboding — would not have the same cachet as a nun.

But thanks to historians, scientists, theologians, artists, novelists and nuns themselves, we now know more about women religious than ever before. Given the seismic shift that has occurred within the last decade in American perceptions of nuns, it is not unreasonable to expect a significant change in how we view the habit.

If habits have been very handy symbols, they can also become fluid ones. If they have been used to symbolize oppression, perhaps they may also stand for liberation from the tyranny of body image and the dictates of fashion. If they are used to connote patriarchy, perhaps they may also remind us of how adept some Catholic women have been at renegotiating the boundaries of the female experience. If they can signify a moribund church, perhaps they also call to mind the vitality of an age when everyone knew, in theory at least, what it meant to be Catholic. Because of its enormous potential as a symbol, the habit will continue to be ever-present in American popular culture, no matter how few women are actually wearing one.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is a concurrent assistant professor of history at Notre Dame and associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

(October 2003)