Category Archives: Vatican 2

Why Did the Daughters of Charity Change Their Habit?

Old and new habits of the Daughters of Charity

Sr. Regina Priller models the 1964 habit; Sr. Mary Rose McPhee models the cornette habit (used with permission of Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives)

Our upcoming exhibit, Swan Song, opening next week, looks back at the change in the Daughters of Charity’s traditional habit, which occurred 50 years ago this September and the experiences of the Sisters who experienced it. As we look back on the change, an important question to ponder is: why? Why did the habit change at all and why did it change at this particular time?

The change of habit was one of many major changes to religious life that happened in response to the Church’s call to change that began with Pope Pius XII and continued through John XXIII and Paul VI and the work of the Second Vatican Council. As Sr. Kieran Kneaves, D.C. has written, “in June 1962 Sr. Suzanne Guillemin was elected our Superioress General and in October, Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council. And so, we were called to begin the journey to renewal. And our lives have never been the same.”

Our library collection holds many editions of the documents from the Second Vatican Council. From these we can see the strong focus on re-examination and renewal which characterized the Council’s work. It wasn’t just the habit that changed. A whole way of life changed, as religious communities, both women and men, were directed to take a fresh look at the spirit and charism of their founders, to cast off practices and traditions which had become outmoded, to rewrite constitutions and common rules, and to simplify their attire. At the same time dramatic changes took place in the liturgy and lay people’s participation in it. Decrees on Ecumenism and on the Church’s Missionary Activity drew religious communities into new ministries and gave a new focus on issues of social justice.

In keeping with these directives, the Daughters of Charity’s Constitutions, Common Rules, and Book of Customs were extensively re-written and updated. And it was in the 1960s that Louise de Marillac’s contributions as a co-founder of the Daughters of Charity first received greater attention and recognition.

A few representative quotations from Vatican II documents are below. The documents of Vatican II are available online; print copies are also available for study in the Provincial Archives.

“[The Church] is preparing to welcome the Fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council … This is a solemn hour for the history of the Church. It involves, therefore, increasing the fervor of its efforts for spiritual renewal, which are always at work, in order to give new impetus to the works and institutions of its millennial life …”
Pope John XXII, Letter to Women Religious
July 2, 1962
The most important work of the General Chapters is the studied accommodation of the rules of their Institute to the changed conditions of the times … Religious Institutes will flourish and prosper so long as the integral spirit of their Founder continues to inspire their rule of life and
apostolic works.”
Pope Paul VI, To All Religious, May 23, 1964

“The religious habit, being a sign of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same time becoming. In addition it should meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry. The habit of both men and women Religious which does not conform to these norms is to be changed.”
Pope Paul VI, On the Adaptation and Renewal of the Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis), October 28, 1965

“You hear rising up, more pressing than ever from their personal distress and collective misery, ‘the cry of the poor’ … It calls for the conversion of hearts, for liberation from all temporal encumbrances. It is a call to love.”
Pope Paul VI, On the Renewal of the Religious Life According to the Teachings of the Second Vatican Council (Evangelica Testificatio), June 29, 1971

“We believe that the day has come when the life of women Religious has to be given greater honor and be made more effective, and that this can be done by perfecting the bonds that unite it to the life of the whole Church … We have given orders that some devout qualified ladies are to attend as auditors several of the solemn ceremonies and several of the General Congregations of the coming third session of the Second Vatican Council; what we have in mind are those Congregations that will discuss matters of particular importance to the lives of women.”
Pope Paul VI, New Horizons for the Women Religious, September 8, 1964

Vatican 2 auditors

Mother Suzanne Guillemin, D.C., then-Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity, was one of the women chosen to be an auditor at Vatican II. Seen here are Mother Guillemin and the other auditors (Photo credit: Fotografia Pontificia Giordani, Rome)

For more information, see Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM “Vatican II: The Call to Religious Change”, an informative post found on the blog of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Filed under Exhibits, Habit, John XXIII, Vatican 2

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.

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

1 Comment

Filed under Habit, Vatican 2

The Daughters of Charity Cornette – Part 3

(Image used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives)

Mother Mathurine Guerin

Mother Mathurine Guerin, 3rd Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Habit, Louise de Marillac, Vatican 2