An engineering degree was practically required in order to understand the 1960 instructions for the new caps and collars worn by the Sisters of Providence. The instructions read in part: “The cap should be worn just in front of the serre-tête facing and should fasten or rest about 1/8-inch from the edge of serre-tête on the sides. The veil covers the tips and fastens beneath them on the serre-tête eyelet.”
These were just two sentences of instructions. There was an entire page and three diagrams devoted to this modification!
A veil, which came to be identified with the habit, was in use by women long before there were Roman Catholic women’s religious congregations. According to documents in the Sisters of Providence Archives, the veil can be traced back to Mesopotamia. Early Church Fathers wrote about the importance of the veil. The Rule of St. Benedict, written during the sixth century, eventually created more uniformity of dress among religious. By the Middle Ages, most communities of women religious had adopted the widow’s mourning attire as their uniform dress.
In a 1972 lecture, Congregation historian Sister Eugenia Logan (1889-1983) stated, “The religious habit worn by Mother Theodore was simple, of black wool, made in uniform color and style. It was based on the Breton costume but modified.” Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, who entered the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, France, on Aug. 18, 1823, spent her entire early life along the Brittany coast. Thus, the habit that she received on Sept. 6, 1825, was indeed similar to lay women’s clothing. However, as Sister Eugenia emphasized, “The purpose of this lecture is … to lay [to rest] the ghost of the opinion that some sisters have that Mother Theodore wore secular clothes and not the habit. [She] was given the habit canonically, blessed by the bishop, and was registered as a novice on Sept. 6, 1825.”
Since the founding of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1840, there have been major and minor modifications to the habit. The last modifications to occur before sisters were permitted to wear secular clothing in the 1970s were decided in 1960 and 1966. The first modifications were a result of a directive from Pope Pius XII, whose papacy was from 1939 to 1958. The second changes resulted from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). As with any changes of such magni¬tude, the General Council sought the sisters’ in¬sights and suggestions through meetings, surveys and committees.
A Friday, Dec. 23, 1960, news release, crafted by the Congregation’s communications office, touted the modifications by stating: “Now once again, the sisters will have a ‘new look’ after next Tuesday. However, they will remain the same Sisters of Providence who have been your teachers, friends and neighbors through the years.”
Today, Sisters of Providence follow the directives on dress in their Constitutions and Complementary Document approved in 1995 by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The section titled “Common Witness” reads, “The distinctive symbol [the white cross] of the Sisters of Providence is always worn as the common sign of witness. The sister wears a modified habit or simple dress or suit … which expresses the simplicity of life she professes.”
On May 22, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a meeting of Superiors General at the Vatican and said, “… consecrated men and women are called to be credible and luminous signs of the Gospel and its paradoxes in the world without conforming to the mentality of this world, but to continually transform and renew one’s own duty (cf. Romans 12:2). …”
Since Saint Mother Theodore and her five companion-sisters stepped foot on this sacred ground of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, myriads of consecrated Sisters of Providence have served as “credible and luminous signs of the Gospel” no matter their dress.