(Image used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives)
Both Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac died in 1660. The photo shows Mother Mathurine Guerin, 3rd Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity. The original portrait, along with portraits of all the community’s major superiors, hangs at the Daughters of Charity’s Mother House in Paris; the image seen here comes from a photograph in the Provincial Archives. We are especially indebted to Sister Elisabeth Charpy, D.C. for the content of this post, which is based heavily on her series of articles on Mother Mathurine Guerin in Echoes of the Company, 1986.
During Mother Mathurine Guerin’s 21 years as Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity, the community saw a great increase in the number of Sisters, the opening of more than 100 houses, and the opening of a second Seminary in Normandy. Also during her tenure, Father Rene Almeras, the first successor to Vincent de Paul as Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission and Daughters of Charity, arranged the community’s common rules into chapters. The community’s common rules, as arranged by Father Almeras and published in 1672, were used by the Daughters from the 17th century to the time of Vatican II.
The cornette originated as a simple covering for the head which would protect the Sisters from heat and cold. However, during Vincent and Louise’s time, the wearing of the cornette was not a universal practice. On July 26, 1685, Mother Mathurine sent a circular letter to all the community’s houses which addressed the issue of clothing, in particular the wearing of the cornette by all Sisters.
“The object of this Circular is to inform you that Father Jolly, our Most Honoured Father, having been informed that many of our Sisters were under the necessity of wearing the cornette, on account of the inconveniences they experience from the great cold in winter and the heat in summer, in serving the sick, which often obliged them to wear it for a time, thus causing a dissimilarity, some being able to do without it , and others not; all this having been considered, with the opinions of many persons of piety who found fault with the want of modesty of our head-dress, [Father Jolly] has permitted all to wear it on condition that it shall not be of finer quality than our other linen, for fear that what is allowed through necessity, may become an occasion of vanity.”
In the words of Sister Elisabeth Charpy:
“The guiding principle behind such a decision was the service of the Poor. But Mathurine knew the dangers of feminine vanity. In certain regions of France, cornettes, also called coiffes, were made of fine material and ornamented with lace. Therefore she stressed the necessity of meoderation required from servants of the Poor.”
In Mother Mathurine’s time, the cornette fell loosely to the shoulders, as seen in the photo. Over time it was modified. Starch was used to stiffen it, and its edges were raised to form wide-spread wings. Over the centuries, the wings became progressively higher. By the end of the 19th century, the cornette had taken on the appearance that has become familiar to many.
In Part 4, we will discuss the union of the community founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton with the Daughters of Charity in 1850, and the change from Mother Seton’s “black cap” to the Daughters of Charity’s cornette.