I want to get away from the anti-Catholicism material for awhile. There is still much on that topic as we trace both the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century as well as some current aspects. This anti-Catholicism series seems rather popular, but there are other topics to talk about and I want to return—just for today—to the topic of the Vatican Investigation of American Nuns. Most Catholics don’t know enough about the history of religious life to be able to put the issues the investigation is pursuing in the proper context. Those of us “of a certain age” grew up with “nuns”—they taught us in school, nursed us in the local hospital, and we would see the in the street or shops with their long dresses that swept the floor and their modest veils that hid all but their face—and sometimes a good share of that. I did some earlier blogs (January 14 and 19) to explain the difference between “nuns” and “sisters.” The ladies we saw in the street or who taught us in school were not nuns at all, but sisters. And the origins of nuns and sisters is quite different—as is their role in the Church. I spent this past week in a monastery of nuns giving some talks. Some of those nuns had, earlier in their lives, been sisters. Nuns are contemplative religious, almost always living an “enclosed” (cloistered) life while sisters collaborate in the apostolic work of the Church in a wide variety of ministries. In one of the earlier blogs I mentioned the story of the remarkable English woman, Mary Ward, who in the height of Elizabethan England and its persecution of the Church, founded a community of women who did not wear a habit, were not bound to the traditional choral prayers in chapel, and whose mission, modeled on the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and their work with young men, was to educate young women. This in a time, incidentally, when even women of the upper classes were not thought to need anything more I the way of education than reading and perhaps some penmanship, a smattering of French, some music, needlework, and how to administer a household.
Another religious community of sisters was founded just a few years later. Vincent de Paul was a pious French priest with an extraordinary compassion for the poor and suffering. This may have originated in his having been captured by Moorish pirates and forced into slavery for several years before he could escape. Monsieur Vincent traveled in some of the most exalted ecclesiastical and social circles of the day and was known for his deep spirituality and an outstanding ability to preach retreats. He avoided fame, however, and took a living in a rural parish far from Paris. In his love for the poor he organized confraternities of socially prominent women to help the poor and the sick. These women were called the “Ladies of Charity.” For most of these socialites work among the poor was a diversion more than an evangelical commitment. Their hearts were in the right place and they opened their purses, but in accord with the aristocratic tenor of 17th century France, tended to send their servants to do the actual hands-on care. Vincent met the wealthy and pious widow, Louise de Marillac sometime about 1625 and served as her spiritual director—mostly by letter as she lived in Paris and he in the rural parish of Châtillon-les-Dombes. But Vincent’s preaching and his fame as a spiritual director and a seminary administrator led to him being recalled to Paris. There he and Mde. de Marillac organized a group of poor girls into a community to serve the poor and sick. They began working at the Hotel-Dieu, the ancient hospital across the parvis from Notre Dame Cathedral. The community grew rapidly as it provided the sisters with both a mission and a deep spirituality. This spirituality, much like the one of Mother Theresa of Calcutta four centuries later—was eminently practical, uniting prayer and work, with the sisters being encouraged to see Christ in each of the poor they encountered. But Monsieur Vincent and Mde. de Marillac did not see these women as nuns. To avoid the canon law requiring enclosure, their vows were private “simple” (not Solemn Vows) vows, taken not for life but annually renewed. Contrasting their life with that of nuns, St. Vincent de Paul admonished them:
• for a monastery, only the houses of the sick,
• for cell, a rented room,
• for chapel, the parish church,
• for cloister, the streets of the city,
• for enclosure, obedience,
• for grille, the fear of God,
• for veil, holy modesty
Well, isn’t it just that attitude that gets Rome to conduct a visitation? How ironic. By the way, you may—if you are old enough—remember that until 1964 the Daughters of charity wore these distinctive white starched cornettes instead of a veil. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillace had them in grey dresses (later blue-grey) with these white starched headpieces. At the time they were founded those white winged bonnets were the typical headwear of Parisian working-class and serving women, but as with so many “habits,” lay fashions changed and what once was ordinary lay dress became a distinctive habit. When the Sisters gave up the cornette in 1964 it was replaced by a simple (but elegant) blue dress and scarf-like cap designed by Christian Dior.
The image today is a photo of Daughters of Charity wearing the traditional French cornettes they wore until the mid-sixties.