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The Habit and Identity
To the general public, a religious habit is an identifying marker for nuns. This traditional black-and-white garment was originally considered a peasant dress. Throughout the years, it has changed into a universal and iconic representation of nuns that is still recognized today. However, the Sisters at Assisi Heights no longer wear habits.
It was after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s that many things at Assisi Heights began to change, one being their dress. For many years following Vatican II, new designs and styles of the traditional habit were introduced and experimented with. Styles with shorter length dresses or veils were introduced, but eventually, all Sisters refashioned with secular clothing.
Similar to the reactions to Vatican II, the reactions to the change in habit were split into two major groups across the globe: “As soon as the Second Vatican Council adjourned in 1965, one side wanted it implemented as quickly as possible without any hindrances. The opposing side tried to halt the Council’s forward move and to push its changes backward, especially changes regarding how the liturgies were to be celebrated.”1
"[The young women] want that kind of identity, and they want a more rigid lifestyle… It’s a security...." -Sister Avis Schons
Sister Avis recalled it similarly. Some believed it was for the better because they “wanted people to know us for who we were, what we do, what we represent, rather than our clothing…”2 These Sisters believed that with the habit, “You were seen as an it, rather than a person.”3 At the same time, some Sisters completely disagreed with the switch to secular clothing (and continue to do so). They believed that the habit strongly conveyed their identity, and they liked that. There was a joke that went around at the time about a Sister in one community:
That community had to change to a new habit on a certain day. And this sister didn’t appear, so somebody went to see what was the matter with her. She was in her rocking chair, dressed in her old habit. The nun said, “You’re supposed to have your new habit on today. We’re changing today.” And the nun says, “This is the first time in my life I regret that I said no to George."4
The majority of Sisters, however, did not identify with having either extreme opinion. Rather, their opinion lay somewhere in the middle. Sister Mary Lonan was one of these Sisters. She explained, “the habit was never an issue with me. I could have lived in it until today.”5 For Sister Mary Lonan, changing to secular clothing was just an inconvenience since she now needed to adjust for the seasons or for specific days and events.
“[We] wanted people to know us for who we were, what we do, what we represent, rather than our clothing…” -Sister Avis Schons
Today, the Sisters at Assisi Heights have fully adopted secular clothing. There are, however, some communities that continue to have an identifiable habit, and interestingly, these communities have a lot more young women joining them: "[The young women] want that kind of identity, and they want a more rigid lifestyle… It’s a security. You get in there, you’re pretty well taken care of, and you don’t even have to think for yourself. You just go with the flow, or go with whatever is put out there in front of you, and people do give you a lot of respect whether you’ve really earned it or not."6
Peterson, Sister Ingrid, Keeping the Memory Green (Rochester: Ingrid Peterson, OSF, 2013), 135. ↩
Sister Mary Lonan, interview by Nami Sumida, Assisi Heights, May 20, 2014. ↩