Wherein Fr. Z gives Sr. Simone Campbell a pass on something really important

If communities of women religious have habits, then the women ought to wear them.  Keep in mind that the habits of some groups were/are rooted in the era of their founding.  Keep in mind that some communities don’t have habits at all and never did.  Keep in mind that some have officially modified (read: simplified, modernized) their habits.

Although we might be able to admit that, perhaps, the Daughters of Charity, perhaps, were on the right track when they reduced their characteristic and unmistakable headgear, we have all seen at the other end of the spectrum those dreadful “lapel pin” substitutes for the whole.

Lapel pins: not usually a good sign.

I checked up on the religious community Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, belongs to.  Honestly, I had never heard of the Sisters of Social Service, founded in 1908 in Hungary (USA in the 1920’s I think).  Had you?

My curiosity peaked, I wondered about the SSS habit that Sr. Simone is obviously not wearing.

Friends, once I found photos, I am forced to give Sr. Simone a pass on this one.

A few pics:

That, ladies and gentlemen, was a habit that needed reforming.  Or something.


I have shown that I can give Sr. Simone a pass on something truly important.

Perhaps Sr. Simone will now give everyone a direct answer to something she obviously thinks is far less important … questions about abortion.  HERE.


I think they wear something gray now, with a white blouse and large collar:

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Liz says:

    Bleh. No wonder! LOL, Father you are too funny!

  2. asperges says:

    Apart from the main orders (eg Dominican, Carmelites, Benedictines), most nuns here look like dowdy, retired nurses.

  3. Sissy says:

    The headgear in a couple of those photos looked like pith helmets. Was their charism perhaps social services on archaeological dig sites? ; )

  4. jarhead462 says:

    Oy Vey!

    Semper Fi!

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    This is a sort of back-handed demonstration of why real habits are important and even desirable.

    The sisters in the second and third pictures are wearing extremely fashionable attire . . . for the 1910s. The tunic effect, the relatively narrow (compared to earlier) skirts, the flat bodice with contrasting collar and ornamental buttons, and (of course) the silly hats with trailing veils — all very visible in Paris fashion plates of the time. They seem to have incorporated current fashions in an attempt to look very modern and up to date.
    But trends in fashion never last. Sometimes not even five years. They should have gone for something more timeless.

  6. Titus says:

    The sisters in the second and third pictures are wearing extremely fashionable attire

    This was my thought, although AMM seems to be better educated on the topic than I.

  7. disco says:

    Be grateful, Father, that the black cassock will never go out of style.

  8. TomG says:

    disco: therein the difference between fashion and style.

  9. Sissy says:

    Good point, AAM. And the final photo illustrates something I’ve noticed about the more modern orders take on this issue: individuality. Early in my journey to Rome, I spent a week on retreat in a Dominican convent. The sisters all wore white, but chose whichever white outfit they wanted. Some wore pantsuits, some wore dresses, skirts and vests, whatever. The overall effect is to remove some of the identifying marks of being a religious. Anything that makes it difficult to identify whether the woman is a sister or not takes away from their vocation, in my opinion. One of the advantages of the habit is that a religious is immediately recognizable, which can be a very handy thing for people in trouble.

  10. HyacinthClare says:


  11. VexillaRegis says:

    Gosh!!! Is that a wet floor cloth on the hat?

  12. Jim says:

    Nice article to play “Identify the old heresy”. Here is what I could find so far.

    1. ordained priests were not needed in every small town and village (Protestantism – there is no priesthood)
    2. As society changes, the Church has to change its old-fashioned practices and structures,, too, (Protestantism and Modernism)
    3. This is about a new cooperation between priests and laity from their common Christian vocation, (Protestantism, Freemasonry ? Let us corrupt the priests and they will corrupt the laity.)
    4. We have to free ourselves of the traditional image that the Church is present only where there’s a priest and stress the common priesthood of all baptised, (Protestantism, Freemasonry ? Let us corrupt the priests and they will corrupt the laity.)

    See that is what happens when there is no Inquisitor General for all of Christendom like St. Michele Ghislieri .

  13. When I was in formation in the 1970s we had a number of joint workshops with sisters in formation. One group was the SSS. I don’t know about other members of the SSS, but that group of young women were among the most pious and orthodox of all the sister groups we studied with.

    There original habit, dowdy as some think it, was actually just the uniform used by female social workers in 1926 when they were founded. They added the veil. I personally consider this a good choice. Many, if not most, active sisters habits were simply adaptions of the typical widow’s attire of the time and region of their foundation. The “beautiful” medieval habits are really not much more than simple color (black, white, brown, gray) versions of what pious laywomen wore–remember in those days every adult woman wore a veil and ankle-length dress.

    It was mostly in the 1800s that new sister groups began to design uniforms that didn’t look like anything anybody wore–strange headgear, odd color combinations, etc. The SSS choice of their original habit was thus very “traditional.” When they modernized their habit in the 1960s no social worker wore a uniform anymore. I think their adaption was tasteful: it was in the 1970s a beige calf-length skirt and jacket over a white blouse. They worn a simple black cloth (not lace) chapel veil during Mass or in Church. It seems they have now gone to gray, and that there is less uniformity, but the SSS are probably on the conservative side of the spectrum among American religious women in terms of attire.

    I might add that the women I met in the SSS back in the 1970s were very dedicated and worked in some of the roughest parts of Oakland. They were wonderful.

  14. MBeauregard says:

    I believe the first photo posted is the modified version in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Compare that photo with the next two. I knew a few nuns from this order and their habits more closely matched what is in the first photo.

  15. Jim says:

    Dang! I posted under the wrong post. Please ignore my comment above :-).

  16. Gregg the Obscure says:

    The hatless woman in the first picture looks very much like an older version of a young lady in my current workplace – I wonder if that may be her grandmother or great aunt.

  17. kab63 says:

    Call me weird, but…I like their attire. I love the notion that a habit is an historical marker. (Thanks for that info, Fr. Augustine.)

  18. Maria says:

    I think not all SSS sisters. An SSS convent is very near me. They do not wear a habit at all. Sr Mary Ellen prays with us a Planned Parenthood and she is 88. No new vocations.

  19. AnnAsher says:

    Oh my that hat ! It’s a hat with a long sock attached – bizarre. But I do like their dresses. Much better than the white and grey frump.

    @Asperges – yes dowdy retired nurses. What’s up with that ?

  20. Manhattan Trid says:

    One of the main problems that I see in the post-Vatican II “habit wars” is that the Sisters never seemed to grasp the concept of “full dress uniform”. Even the most relaxed “call-me-Father Bob” Hawaiian shirt-wearing priest would put on the “blacks” for important events. For Religious Sisters it was either habit or no-semblance-of-taste lay clothes.

  21. haribo says:

    Their former habit looks like it should come with an African elephant gun.

  22. Dorcas says:

    I see a lot of comments about the ‘dowdy’, ‘frumpy’ appearance of some women religous. I think these comments are uncalled for, and apply worldly standards to those who are trying to live their lives in a non-worldly way. The fact is, habits are often designed to be loosely fitted, dully-colored, conservative, and, for those who work ‘in the world,’ of a modest yet servicable length. When you put those aspects together and clothe an older lady in them, you get dowdy and frumpy. What do you expect?

    I am a middle-aged woman with a limited wardrobe, which is mostly drab colors and simple pants and skirts simply because it is more practical and cheap. I also look dowdy; hopefully no one thinks I am betraying some kind of duty as a women to be as attractive to the eye as possible.

    Neither women religious are dressing to please the eyes, they wear practical, durable clothes. This is true for those women who do not wear habits. Yes, they are often dressed out of style, with pantsuits from some long ago era…maybe it is because they took vows of poverty, and do not have the means, nor feel any call, to update their wardrobe every few years? You might as well make snide comments about the older model cars they drive; it amounts to about the same attitude.

    Can we give the clothing thing a rest? As non-members of the respective congregations an institutes, our opinions are usually uninformed; MANY institutes traditionally did not have a habit, and then adopted one later, in the teeth of what the founder had intended, in response to pressure to ‘look like religious’. When the original constitutions were revisted, the habits were ditched because their use was an anomaly.

    In any case, it is none of our business. Non-members do not get a say, and it is a bit of bold tongue-wagging to make statements about something that is not our concern. We are not deeply informed in the charisms of various congregations and how they are lived out, so our opinions are out of place. At the least, we can avoid judging their styles by the eyes of the world, which is quite unfair towards religious.

  23. Scarltherr says:

    I like the 50’s/60’s pillbox style hat with the veil. I also think that a modest skirt. pants, vest, blouse, and jacket system would be classic and great. If the nuns would have habits made from decent fabrics in decent colors, the possibilities expand. I also believe veils are an integral part of the habit. The cut of the earlier habits are very Downton Abby, Fr. Z. I thought you would like that.

  24. heway says:

    These wonderful siisters have been in the diocese of Buffalo since the 50’s or maybe even earlier. We had many Hungarian refugees in our area and in my school in the 50’s. The habit these Sisters wear, allows them to enter tenements, which have narrow stairways and crowded elevators and travel to urban areas where a nun with coif etc might get jammed in a doorway!
    Wonderful women…I am ashamed of the comments I read here.

  25. Dear heway,
    I implied it. You said it. Ditto your comment.

  26. Random Friar says:

    I understand the origins and reasons for original habits or lack thereof. But I wonder if we can arrive at a correlation with the priests’ vestments, in that, while many of the origins were secular/imperial or just practical, they acquired, through organic historical growth, a certain timelessness and elevation of its roots.

    Now, the sisters’ habits are not liturgical, but they are a public witness, as much as the priests’ garb or male religious’ habits. They do not need to be, and should not be, outlandish, considering their vocation, but a relatively simple and humble outfit, as befitting a religious sister.

    Anyway, those are my 2 cents and random musings.

  27. Sue in soCal says:

    I am sure there were many wonderful women in this order. Their founder was martyred during WW2 by the Nazis and I happened to be in Budapest in 2006 the day she was beatified.

    That said, I have been to their retreat house in Los Angeles. Very beautiful grounds and I have never been in a nicer facility for a retreat. However, along with a very ultramodern chapel that substituted as a dance studio while I was there, the sister also offer massage and acupuncture therapy and dream interpretation. The prayer garden is very new age with requisite meditation labyrinth and six foot tall paisley angel statue. They are very involved in ecology through various projects.

    I am grateful that my group had its own program and did not require anything except the use of the facilities.

    Here is a link to their latest occasional newsletter. http://www.sistersofsocialservice.com/userfiles/File/Summer_2012_Social_Impact_Newsletter.pdf

  28. Precentrix says:

    Aside from the fact that I’m 100% in favour of the traditional habit (with the exception of the ones that are, in fact, ugly or silly – and a friend once sent me a whole slideshow of them) surely someone could devise clothing that is:
    a) practical.
    b) serviceable – not necessarily the cheapest fabrics, but something lasting.
    c) modest.
    d) NOT ugly.

    I mean, we Brits have a whole history of school uniforms, for example, and most of them meet those standards. Of course, some involve floppy yellow socks and brown/yellow tartan, and some have gone all modern, and the skirts have crept up… but in principal… it can’t be that hard to all match, at least for special occasions.

  29. Precentrix says:

    Also… funny story…

    A priest I know, who I will forbear to identify, told me this story of his “first experience of the crisis in the Church.” He was 4 or 5 years old and started school for the first time. Being a bit of a mummy’s boy, he screamed and screamed and wouldn’t go in – this went on for ages. But there was a Sister there, and she became his ‘second mother’ and after a while he settled down and became a good, studious little boy. Christmas came and went, and he loved the next term. Then came Easter. He went back to school after the holidays and Sister was gone and this strange woman was there in her place. And he screamed and screamed and screamed.

    Of course, she was the same woman, but the congregation had, over easter, voted to stop wearing the habit.

  30. Charlotte Allen says:

    I like the Sisters of Social Service habits–all of them, including the veiled pith-helmets! The early version–worn until the 1960s–was dignified, modest, elegantly designed (very Downton Abbey, as another commenter has pointed out), and above all practical without losing its distinctiveness as a religious dress. Those white collars were probably detachable and could be easily washed and ironed–unlike the elaborately accordion-pleated headgear of the 19th-century habits, which required a Sister Laundress working full-time to keep those wimples properly starched. The calf-length skirts made it easier for the nuns to drive or take the trolley to visit the poor. The design of those habits was very much in keeping with the designs of uniforms for other female professionals during that period: nurses and policewomen, for example. The early 20th century was the golden age of women’s uniforms. Those uniforms always included a skirt or dress–because a woman always conveys more authority wearing a skirt. No one dreamed back then of making women cops dress unisex and thus look silly, like dwarfish and misshapen men cops.

    I’m slightly prejudiced because as a child growing up in Southern California, I went every summer to a wonderful Catholic camp, Camp Mariastella, run by the Sisters of Social Service. It was half us middle-class lace-curtain Irish girls and half poor black girls from the inner city. I had black tent-mates back when it was nearly unthinkable for the races to socialize. The habits–and the fact that the nuns wore their hair long and in buns, not cut short and hidden behind a wimple like the nuns at my parochial school–fascinated me. They went bareheaded most of the time, and I don’t remember exactly what headgear they put on for Mass (it might have been the pillbox veil). I thought they looked wonderful, like pioneer ladies–which fit right into the primitive setting of the camp, up in the San Bernardino mountains amid the ponderosas.

    The new, simplified habits look fine, too, although I think the fabric could be a little less obviously polyester-ish. Note that the sisters are still wearing skirts–yay! Nuns should never wear pants unless engaged in manual labor. The shoes are pretty dreadful, though. Compare them to the beautifully made nun shoes worn with the original habit. At Camp Mariastella the nuns scrambled up and down the mountainsides like goats in those old-style nun shoes (also in their skirted habits, which they were never seen without. If I were founding a religious order, I’d commission a quality manufacturer of comfortable footwear–say, Cole Haan–to design elegant but practical low-heeled lace-up shoes for my nuns. Then I’d issue every sister a pair that would need only occasional resoling to be worn for the rest of her life.

  31. robtbrown says:

    Random Friar says:

    I understand the origins and reasons for original habits or lack thereof. But I wonder if we can arrive at a correlation with the priests’ vestments, in that, while many of the origins were secular/imperial or just practical, they acquired, through organic historical growth, a certain timelessness and elevation of its roots.

    Now, the sisters’ habits are not liturgical, but they are a public witness, as much as the priests’ garb or male religious’ habits. They do not need to be, and should not be, outlandish, considering their vocation, but a relatively simple and humble outfit, as befitting a religious sister.

    Actually, the habit is not merely for public witness. Otherwise, why would a Carthusian wear the habit in his hermitage? Wearing the habit has a contemplative dimension, putting on the new man–Indue me Domine novum hominem.

    Dominican prayers for putting on the habit have much in common with vesting prayers for mass.

  32. Random Friar says:

    robtbrown: I did not mean to imply anything about “only.” I just focused on the one point.

  33. robtbrown says:

    Random Friar,

    I wasn’t accusing you of excluding anything. My larger point is that the post Vat II Church is based on excluding the contemplative core of Catholic life.

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