Category Archives: Habit

St. Louise did not wear the cornette. Why?

Louise de Marillac portrait

Louise de Marillac, portrait by Ponsart-Gault. Original in the Vincentian Mother House in Paris
(Image courtesy Vincent de Paul Image Archive, DePaul University)

For centuries, the Daughters of Charity were known by their distinctive white cornette. However, St. Louise de Marillac, the Community’s co-founder, did not wear it. The cornette did exist in Louise’s time. References to it, and how it should be worn, can be found throughout the letters of both St. Louise and St. Vincent de Paul. Two footnotes in volume 2 of Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, and Documents, (CCD), edited and translated by Sister Marie Poole, D.C. and others, give the answer to why Louise never wore the cornette.

Letter 530 – to St. Louise
undated
v.2 p.198-199, footnote #1
“Sister Barbe Bailly, secretary to Saint Louise in the 1650s. stated in her notes that Saint Louise put on the habit of the Daughters of Charity one Pentecost Sunday and became so ill from doing so that she bad to return to her previous headdress. Although 1639 has been mentioned as the year this took place, we believe 1641 is more reasonable …”

Letter 534 – to St. Louise
Tuesday morning [1641]
CCD v.2 p.206, footnote #3
“The costume of the first Daughters of Charity. almost all natives of the environs of Paris, was the one they were wearing when they presented themselves to Saint Louise to become members of the Little Company. Those who came from farther away used to dress, for the sake of uniformity, like the village women of the area surrounding Paris. Their habit was similar to that worn by the Sisters until 1964; however, the dress was gray, the collar shorter and only a toquois or toquet (small brimless hat) covered the bead. In the mind of the Holy Founder, the Daughters of Charity were, and were to remain, village girls. He wished them to be laywomen and not religious and. consequently, intended that they be dressed as “ordinary women,” according to his own expression. However, since the toquois gave poor protection from the weather, in 1646 the Saint allowed the more delicate among the Sisters, and in particular Sister Jeanne Lepeintre, who suffered from eye trouble, to add to their headpiece, as did many village women, the white cornette, an unstarched piece of material raised up in front and falling on both sides. The use of the cornette became generalized, and in 1685 Edme Jolly, the third Superior General, made it obligatory in order to remedy what might be shocking in a Community: a disparity of headdress. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the cornette became larger and, in the nineteenth century, starching was allowed to give it more consistency. Saint Louise did not dress like her Daughters. With Saint Vincent’s permission, she wore the usual costume of devout widows.”

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Were the DCs buried wearing the cornette?

The history of the Daughters of Charity cornette habit is one of our most popular research topics. Today, we received a reference question concerning the cornette habit that we’ve never been asked before: When Sisters died, were they buried wearing the cornette? A check with some of the Sisters gave us the answer.

It turns out that yes, Sisters were buried in the full habit, including the chaplet (the special rosary worn by the Sisters with the cornette habit) and the cornette. The cornette was worn just as it was worn in life, but, in order to allow the casket to close, the cornette would be moved downward slightly so that it covered more of the Sister’s face.

Today the Sisters’ habit includes a simple coiffe, and Sisters have the option of wearing it or not wearing it. Sisters are buried wearing the habit with or without the coife according to their wish.

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Daughters of Charity Cornette – Conclusion

(Image used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise Archives)

Old and new habits, 1964

Sister Mary Rose McPhee wears the cornette habit; Sister Regina Priller wears the habit which replaced the cornette in September 1964

The reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s brought dramatic changes to every aspect of the community life of the Daughters of Charity. Constitutions were re-written, common rules and customs, some of which had been in effect for centuries, were adapted and modernized. But for the general public, no change was as visible or as dramatic was the change in habit. To conclude our series on the history of the Daughters of Charity habit, we turn to September 20, 1964, when Daughters of Charity all over the world wore a new habit for the first time since the 17th century. While the entire worldwide community (then 45,000 Sisters) changed habits on the same day, the change was many years in the making. In the words of a Daughter of Charity publication from 1964: “we have been preparing for this event a long time, because the Church had spoken and our Superiors had ordained it.” [note 1].

Talk of changing the traditional attire of women religious began in 1951, when Pope Pius XII, addressing the Congress of the Italian Federation, declared:

“As for the religious habit, choose it in such a way that it may be the expression of the interior nature of simplicity and religious modesty; then it will be an object of edification for all, even for modern youth … Changes will be made when it is opportune: 1. Whenever it is question of clothing of purely local or accidental origin, no longer in accord with our times. 2. Whenever it is question of an excessive quantity of material. 3. Whenever the style or form may be notably injurious to health or in any way contrary to the laws or demands of public health. 4. Finally when it is question of a style that provokes attention or astonishment of others”. [note 2]

In December of 1959, Mother Francine Lepicard, Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity, said in a circular addressed to the community’s provincial leadership:

“A large number of religious communities have already followed the directives of the Holy See in changing their [habits], in order to simplify it, diminish its size, and to make it more adapted to the needs of the present time. The time has now come, dear Sisters, for us, too, to take into consideration these requests.”

In a circular to the Sisters of the St. Louis Province from February of 1960, Sister Catherine Sullivan, St. Louise Province Visitatrix, explained that changing the habit would involve a lengthy process, and offered some additional thoughts for the Sisters as they prepared for the change of attire:

[Mother Lepicard’s] circular invites the Visitatrices to present their ideas of what the adaptation should be, together with the description of the adapted habit, send several pictures or a model of it. In a Community so widespread as ours, the gathering of suggestions from many nations, their study and evaluation is, in itself, a lengthy process. When that has been done, all must be submitted to Rome. Therefore, dear Sisters, I can neither tell you when the change will take place, nor what it will be …

… Believe me, dear Sisters, if I write of this almost matter-of-factly, it is because the sacrifice asked is too great and too obvious to need dwelling on. Every article of our holy habit is endeared to us personally, and by tradition. But Obedience is dearer still … In this instance, may we not apply almost literally those words of our Blessed Lord: “Is not the life a greater thing than the food, and the body greater than the clothing” (Matt. 6, 25) The spiritual life of hundreds of thousands of Sisters of all nationalities has, for three and a quarter centuries, preserved its distinctive Vincentian character by the “food” of the doctrine of our holy founders, coming to us from their direct successors. And, to keep intact the body of the Community–second only to the body of the Church in our love and reverence–would any Daughter of Charity hesitate, or even find it difficult, to make a change of clothing?

… After personal consultation with Sister Isabel, Visitatrix of the Emmitsburg Province, concerning the adaptation of the holy habit, we decided to submit our suggestions in a joint letter to Most Honored Mother. We prefaced the letter with this statement:
‘Most Honored Mother, we both assure you, with all possible sincerity and earnestness, that, whatever the final decision may be, you can count on us and on every Sister in our Provinces to accept the decision whole-heartedly, unreservedly, and promptly. The decision will be the will of God, and we desire nothing else.’

It took five years of study and consultation to arrive at the final design for the new habit. When we consider that in 1964 the worldwide community of the Daughters of Charity numbered 45,000 Sisters in sixty provinces spread out over 5 continents, it is not difficult to see why. An article in a Daughter of Charity publication, Echo of the Mother House, from 1964 gives some perspective on the complexity of the problem.

“The Company of the Daughters of Charity … finds itself concerned in situations that are very diverse, where the question of the Habit is approached in very different ways. At Paris, in the suburbs and in the working-class districts, the cornette is very popular and creates and immediate tie between the people and the Sister. In certain industrial regions the cornette, almost unknown, creates a barrier which prevents a true dialogue with the workers. In Mexico, our Habit is the only one authorized; its change will create some difficult problems … Prudence demanded consultations, interchange of opinions and a long time for ideas to mature and for minds to prepare.” [note 3]

In addition to local and cultural issues, the work of the Sisters had to be considered. The works included hospitals, schools from kindergarten through college, social work, day camps, youth centers, and many more. Much of the Sisters work was (and is today) done outside of an institution, in urban and rural settings. Because of this the new habit had to be, in the words of a 1964 press release, “trim, simple, and suitable for all weather service. This necessitated a radical change.” [note 4]. The new habit did retain one aspect of the old: the colors, blue and white, a symbol of the community’s devotion to Mary Immaculate.

The Sisters’ attire has changed several times since 1964 and continues to do so, in response to the present day needs of the Sisters and of the people they serve.

Notes
Note 1. “Our New Habit”. Echo of the Mother House, November 1964, p.525.
Note 2. Ibid., p.526.
Note 3. Ibid.
Note 4. “World Wide Community Will Change Religious Garb”. Press release, August 14, 1964

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