By Barb Arland-Fye
Two recent documentaries on Sisters have been generating interest about the perception of women religious: “Band of Sisters” focuses on the ministries Sisters are engaged in today, and “A Question of Habit” explores the public’s persistent fascination with images of Sisters in habits.
In addition, several religious communities in the U.S. whose members wear a traditional habit have literally become more visible because of the number of younger women they are attracting. Other communities, whose members haven’t worn habits in years, are shrinking because of aging members who are dying off. The connection between increased vocations and habit-wearing communities may be debatable, but religious communities in the Davenport Diocese and elsewhere are addressing the issue.
Emily Brabham, 28, initially thought that wearing a habit would make a statement to others that she had committed herself fully to religious life. “I thought that it’s easier to identify you, and to identify right away that you’re committed to certain things,” explained Brabham, who is discerning a vocation to religious life with the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton. “I thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it in what I thought was a big way.’”
However, as Brabham says, ‘I came to understand that how I’m living out the Gospel is more important than what I’m wearing.” Her strong desire to share life with the Clinton Franciscans and live out their charisms outweighed her initial desire to wear a habit because the Sisters hadn’t worn one in years. Sister Gael Gensler, initial discernment coordinator for the Clinton Franciscans, explained to Brabham that when St. Francis founded his religious community, members wore the same type of clothing worn by the people they ministered to. For Franciscans today, “it’s one of the ways they continue to work with the poor,” said Brabham, who works as a youth minister in a parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and lives in community with Sisters Maria Zeimen and Sarah Martz in Chicago.
Sr. Martz, 33, who professed final vows this summer, said wearing a habit wasn’t an issue for her as she discerned her vocation to religious life. “I absolutely respect the decision of people who make the decision to join a community that wears a habit,” she noted. “It wasn’t something I was called to.”
An article she read in Time magazine six or seven years ago spoke about the infusion of women entering communities that wear habits. One of the women noted that the habit made her feel special. Sr. Martz recalls thinking: “My understanding was that was not the point of the habit. For me, I appreciate that I blend in with the people. I’m in the midst; I’m not being set apart,” explains Sr. Martz, who works with children at Port Ministries in inner-city Chicago.
“I think sometimes when people see a habit they have higher expectations of that person. Whether we’re in a habit or not, we’re all people trying to live life in the service of God and God’s people,” she said.
Leaving the habit behind
“Our constitution says we are to listen to the spirit and respond to the needs of the time. We’ve done that and it’s been a double-edged sword. At times it separates us from the community at large,” observed Sister Roberta Brich, who co-directs formation for the Davenport-based Congregation of the Humility of Mary with Sister Ramona Kaalberg. Occasionally, they receive calls from young women who say they’re looking for a community that wears a habit. “We’re saying no, we aren’t wearing a habit,” Sr. Brich said.
She and other women religious who served before, during and after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 remember the enormous change brought about by this opening up of the Church. Among the visible changes for many religious communities was the revision of the habit and its eventual discontinuation.
“For some sisters, the habit was a symbol of their dedication to God. For others, the change from habits to modern dress signaled adaptation of religious women to modern life. And for many who had worn the habit for decades, they could not imagine not wearing it,” wrote Kathleen Mullen in her book about the Congregation of the Humility of Mary titled “One Among Many.”
“I appreciated our habit because of its relative simplicity — in comparison with other communities’ habits,” said Sister Jude Fitzpatrick, chancellor of the Diocese of Des Moines and a past president of the Sisters of Humility. “I was reluctant to move out of the habit primarily because of concern about our ability to dress appropriately as professional women. It would have been preferable to be viewed as different because of our habit than because our dress was unprofessional in appearance.
“The dress of the earliest Sisters of Humility was that of the ordinary French woman. It was in the spirit of returning to our ‘roots’ that one of the changes we made after Vatican II was to permit members to use contemporary dress of the women of this time. Although it may mean that some women will not choose our community, I doubt that the Sisters of Humility will move away from contemporary dress. I would hope that our charism, mission and the life we share would be the factors a woman would consider in her choice of our CHM community. There are so many things more important than ‘what we wear.’”
The Sisters have and continue to be present wherever they’re needed, Sr. Brich said. As hospitals merged and as families shrank in size and fewer of them sent children to Catholic schools, the Sisters moved into other ministries such as pastoral ministry and adult catechesis. Peace and justice have become important ministries, as well as stewardship of the earth and communications. Today, Sr. Brich wears a magnetic name badge with her community’s logo and a cross hanging from a chain necklace to help the public make a connection. More importantly, she strives to live out her commitment in a way that lets people know who she is, she said.
Habit serves as a reminder
Sister Lois Baniewicz, who most recently served as assistant administrator at Kahl Home in Davenport, has always worn a habit as a member of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm of Germantown, N.Y. She wore a full habit until 1971, when her community selected a modified habit. She remembers an older priest declaring that he would cut off the legs of his pants in protest of the change.
The habit “has always been an important part of our apostolate. The people we take care of relate to Sisters in habit,” explained Sr. Baniewicz. The current habit consists of a one piece, below-the-knee dress, a scapular (a one-piece tunic) that goes over the dress, and a veil. The habit “reminds me every day of what my mission is, and to live my commitment,” she said. “I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. It’s a reminder.”
Among other benefits of the habit: “people come up to us and ask for prayers. That can be good. Maybe they feel you’re a safe person to approach,” she said.
Sr. Baniewicz recognizes that the decision to wear a habit “has to be what works for your apostolate. Right now, for our members, it’s good for us and it’s good for the residents.”
At present, her community has four novices and three postulants, which she believes is encouraging. People making inquiries are generally more seasoned. “We don’t have a lot of interaction with people” (outside of the nursing home), she said.
The Carmelite Sisters of Eldridge wear a habit only for special liturgical occasions such as the profession of vows and funerals, says Prioress Sister Lynne Elwinger, OCD. “It just gives it a different solemnity; it honors the tradition we come from,” she noted.
Habit issue distracts from Sisters’ work
Sister Anne Martin Phelan, president of the Clinton Franciscans, notes that women choose a community based on its charism (gifts of ministry and service) and attraction to the community’s ministry. “The habit might be one element that attracted them,” she noted.
For Clinton Franciscans, the habit “became more of a boundary between ordinary people and ourselves. If we put on the habit, it would do that again.”
Sr. Phelan recently viewed “A Question of Habit,” which illustrates the popular media’s misconceptions about Sisters. “Some of it is really awful and some of it is affectionately done; all of it is misleading. Most of us aren’t those habited people.” That’s why Sisters avoid talking about the habit; it distracts from what Sisters are, she added.
Still, there’s plenty of room for increasing the public’s awareness. Sr. Martz admits that people are surprised when she introduces herself as Sister Sarah. “So I’m pretty open about who I am and who my community is and what we do.”
Wearing a habit everyday would be impractical, says Sr. Elwinger, one of nine Sisters in a community whose apostolate is prayer. The habit carries with it “a type of status we really shouldn’t be looking for. We would hope that we convey who we are by the way we live.”
Next year, the Sisters of Humility will celebrate the 150th anniversary of their community in the United States. While there are no women in formation in the Davenport-based community at this time, Sr. Brich remains hopeful.
“I think the Spirit is moving in many ways,” she reflected. “We are getting inquiries from foreign countries, from women in their 60s and 70s and from non-Catholics, but very few from younger people,” she noted. Regardless of age, a woman discerning a vocation to religious life needs to be prepared to serve the people. “We are not a retirement community. I’m 78 and I have a ministry,” Sr. Brich said.