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French fries with a fork: yes — crossed legs: no

Cover of the booklet, "Sisters of Providence Etiquette" published in 1968.

Cover of the booklet, “Sisters of Providence Etiquette,” published in 1968.

Recently, a Sisters of Providence communications staff member unearthed a “Sisters of Providence Etiquette” booklet in archives and proudly brought her find to my desk.

Dated 1968, the booklet gives detailed instructions on how a Sister of Providence should look, sound and act in a variety of situations, from car rides to meal times to classrooms and even Superiors’ offices. (This moment was akin to the discovery of old pictoral directories which have brought giggles at seeing some of my beloved sisters in the splendor of spunky perms or outrageous shoulder pads.)

As I paged through the booklet, I became more and more convinced I never would have made it as a nun in the ‘60’s. For one thing, my walk is way off. According to SP etiquette 47 years ago, I should be walking with “abdominal muscles in, chest high and head erect.” Hip swinging and military gait are out; “rhythmic movement of the body” is in. Detailed instructions are also included for standing and sitting positions. (To give you a clue, my preferred cross-legged seated position is an absolute no-no.)

The section on eating, with specific considerations for different types of meat and sandwiches, was even more meticulous. While my childhood self enjoyed licking French fry salt off my fingers, a Sister of Providence in 1968 was to use a fork for fries. “If slices are too long, they may be broken with the fork,” the booklet specifies.

My behavior as a car passenger doesn’t fit the bill either. Reading the SP etiquette suggestion to “refrain from loud conversation or singing which might distract the driver” brought to mind numerous road trips with younger SPs that involved roaring laughter and dramatic sing-alongs.

Although I admit reading through these expectations gave me a chuckle and a sense of gratitude for shifted perspectives that I experience today, I think the heart of the message still holds true. Something that drew me to the Sisters of Providence has been the sense of attentiveness that I experience among them. While I know some of my earth-conscious sisters would object to “meticulous regularity in taking a daily shower or bath,” as the booklet demands, I think they would agree that our voices, actions and movements are expressions of the divine … that a deeper level of awareness results in a different way of being. The more I read, the more I sensed the underlying values of hospitality, intentionality and community that I experience today.

This emphasis on the meaning behind the rules is expressed beautifully in the booklet: “Formalized routine – however “correct” – can never replace the intuitive empathy of the discerning disciple of Christ, Who was the perfect guest at a marriage feast, the thoughtful host at a lakeside breakfast, and all things to all [people] – always.” And this is the heart of the matter.

Comment below to share your experience of hospitality, intentionality or goofy etiquette rules with the SPs!

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Sister Tracey Horan

Sister Tracey Horan

Sister Tracey Horan is a Sister of Providence in formation. She professed first vows in 2017. She is a former intern at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence. She currently ministers as education coordinator at the Kino Border Initiative/Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera where she works with an education team to coordinate and host individuals and groups for immersions to the U.S./Mexico border in order to engage participants on the current reality of migration.

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  1. Avatar Brother Jim Reiter on February 21, 2015 at 7:06 am

    I remember in grade school during the 50s & 60s that the Sisters were not allowed to eat in front of us in the classroom. Whenever we had parties Sister would save her treats to take back to the convent.

  2. Avatar Frances Ginther on February 21, 2015 at 7:25 am

    Bananas with a fork! I still do it! Lacing your shoes on your knee. Keeping your voice down, and that was my mother’s too! These were all good directives.

  3. Avatar Kaitlyn Willy on February 21, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Oh my gosh, Tracey! This is so fun! I sure am glad that the times have changed, but it’s great to see a little sliver of our history.

  4. Avatar Carol Nolan on February 21, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks so much, Tracy! I do remember the bananas with a fork. (Don’t do it now, Frances.)
    I passed this on to my family; it’s a little window into the way we were. XXX

  5. Avatar Beverly Ann Catherine Kastner McGovern on February 21, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    I am fortunate enough to have an original copy of DEAR JEAN and also a copy of the Customs of the Sisters of Providence. Periodically I read these books with great enjoyment and also come laughter….like the sisters may only listen to the NOTRE DAME GAME on the radio. When t.v. was allowed we watched Lawrence Welk only..
    So many fantastic, wonderful memories……Thanks for sharing.
    Beverly Ann Catherine
    P.S. Also have a pitch pipe from my days of teaching music a la S. Mary Lourdes.

    • Avatar Judy Copeland on February 22, 2015 at 1:01 pm

      Please tell me how I can get copies of DEAR JEAN and Customs of the Sisters of Providence. Are they in the Linden Leaf Bookstore? I have know the SP’s all my life and would love to read these . I also would like to know what their life was like in the 1920’s through the 40’s.

  6. Avatar Judy Copeland on February 23, 2015 at 11:38 am

    I don’t think my previous comment went through. I was wondering if I could get a copy of DEAR JEAN and The Customs of the Sisters of Providence. Also would like to know what the customs were back in the decades of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I have known the SP’s all my life and love St. Mary-of-the-Woods.


    Judy Copeland

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