The Art of the Habit: Three North American examples

Religious habits have often drawn inspiration from local forms of dress and even occasionally ephemeral ones. Here I'd like to look at three communities of women religious founded in North America, all founded under different circumstances and with different charisms, but whose habits are visually distinctive and form part of the visual iconography of American Catholicism.

The Sisters of St. Kateri (Kahnawake, Que.)

Inspired by the French nuns of Montreal, St. Kateri Tekakwitha and two other Iroquois women intended to found a convent on Heron Island. Their priest convinced them the idea was premature, but the three nevertheless continued to call themselves sisters and lived according to a common rule of life for the rest of their days, to be followed by other women in the mission.

Fr. Claude Chauchetiere has left us with two images that give some idea of how the sisters might have looked in their day—and a more historically accurate one than the fringed buckskin that is often associated with St. Kateri.

The first image—and the only one showing the three foundresses together—is a sketch of the mission chapel being built. The women are depicted in the background at the foot of the cross, and all wearing veils. Iroquois women typically wore a cloth mantle over their shoulders that could be drawn over the head in cold weather and at church functions. St. Kateri's sensitive eyesight, however, compelled her to veil herself with her mantle continually. Chauchetiere's drawing suggests that the other two women may have done so as well, especially in light of the sisters' expressly recorded intention to dress alike.

The habit itself is better represented in the second image: the famous Chauchetiere portrait of St. Kateri that is now preserved in the mission of St. Francis Xavier. It is the only one painted by someone who knew her in life:

St. Kateri's style is classically Iroquois: a long overdress, a fringed skirt, leggings, and beaded moccasins. Note the especially close similarity with the Indian dress depicted two centuries later by Canadian painter Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872).

Red garments figure prominently in Krieghoff's subjects, but Kateri's biographer tells us specifically that she renounced fashionable red clothing and wore instead a blue dress on days she received Communion.

Overall, St. Kateri's portrait, with the supplemental evidence from her biographies and Chauchetiere's drawing, indicate that she and her Sisters intended to mark themselves as religious by a special habit based on traditional Iroquois clothing but with appropriate modifications to reflect their virginity.

The Oblates of Providence (Baltimore, MD)

The Oblates of Providence were founded in Baltimore in 1828 by the Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, an immigrant from Cuba. As the first order of black sisters in the United States, their mission was to serve the French-speaking Haitian community in Baltimore.

The Oblates' original habit, used throughout the 1800s, consisted of a pleated black tunic and a black-collared short cape, trimmed at the neck with a white collar. Each Sister also wore a crucifix around the neck, which was affixed to the cape at the heart.

A more distinctive element in the habit was the tall, pleated white cap. In construction it seems most like a simple Regency or Colonial "mob" cap. But its unusual height  also recalls Caribbean Creole women's headwear of the time period, as seen in the paintings of Agostino Brunias and, perhaps, going back even to African head-wraps.

Oblate novices wore the white cap alone, while professed sisters added a black band in the middle, just above the head. Outside the convent, the sisters were said to have worn a tight-fitting black bonnet instead, although a number of photographs show them wearing white caps outside the convent.

The sisters opted to exchange this unique element for a more conventional black veil and white wimple during the superiorship of Reverend Mother M. Magdalene Creighton (1897–1909). However, an Oblate recounted in 1914 that the older members of the order were "not so willing to part with the cap that had been so dear to them."

The Sisters of Charity (Emmitsburg, MD)

The Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, originally had a habit based on the mourning attire or “widows’ weeds” that Seton had worn since the death of her husband in Italy.

When the community was first forming in 1809, St. Elizabeth proposed that the dress she had already become accustomed to wear be adopted as its standard: “a black dress with a short cape, similar to a costume that she had observed among the religious of Italy. Her head-dress was a neat white muslin map, with a crimped border, and a black crape band around the head, fastened under the chin.”

The community assumed this informal habit on June 1, 1809. Later that year, some weeks after the sisters arrived in Emmitsburg, a black cap was substituted for the white one, thus giving birth to the classic Setonian habit.

Notwithstanding any Italian antecedents and influences, the final form of the habit has also been compared to the “plain” dress of American Quakers, to whom Seton admitted having long been attracted.

Though Seton’s daughters have had a long and fruitful history in America across multiple congregations, their original habit was gradually abandoned. In 1850 the sisters at Emmitsburg affiliated themselves with the French Daughters of Charity and switched to a blue French-style habit with a cornette. At the time, the New York and Cincinnati houses elected to continue in Mother Seton’s original rule and habit. A branch founded in Elizabeth New Jersey substituted a veil for the bonnet—which, ironically, was done at the behest of Bishop Bayley, the nephew of St. Elizabeth.

Today all three of these habits have, in one sense, become regarded as obsolete, in that religious are no longer wearing them regularly. Certainly, we can hope that the restoration of traditional habits that we are now seeing in many communities also extend to these habits as well.

Yet in another sense they have already attained a higher plane of Catholic life today. As St. Kateri and St. Elizabeth have been raised to the altars and Servant of God Mary Lange’s cause of beatification is currently ongoing, their traditional habits are now assuming an immortal place in the visual iconography of American Catholicism: a window from history into heaven.

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