Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A response to JP Sonnen

JP Sonnen, of the inimitable Orbis Catholicus blog, has been posting lately on his blog and on Facebook about his desire to see someone bring back the cornette, the beautiful starched white headdress worn by St. Catherine Laboure and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

Worn by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, John is quite right in saying that the cornette is probably the most recognisable form of Catholic religious dress in the history of the religious life. Indeed, I have seen religious themselves note that in a room full of nuns, at conventions and meetings in the last century, no matter how large an auditorium, the Sisters of Charity always stood out.

In our times in which most religious are too ashamed of the Church and their religious vows to wear any recognisable religious dress at all, it is easy to see the value and beauty of this highly symbolic garment.

John asks what its theological significance was.

Like all religious dress, it signifies the separation of the religious from the world, her total dedication to her charism and to her Lord. It cut off peripheral vision in an effort to bolster the concept that idle curiosity and distraction was a danger to a vocation.

Having worn head coverings at Mass for some years, I can myself testify to the sense of privacy it affords one in prayer, the aid to contemplation and attention. St. Vincent de Paul wrote that because the sisters were, uniquely in their time, not enclosed in a monastery, the street must be their cloister in which their meditation was to be carried out in their service to others. The cornette, no doubt, facilitated this since, as we know, we are physical beings and the externals reflect the inner life. Indeed, the cornette must have been like wearing a chapel all day every day.

Still, JP calls for some pioneering group of young religious to revive the charism of St. Vincent and his contemporaries, and to bring back the cornette, and here, lover of tradition and of traditional religious habits though I am, I cannot agree.

The cornette was only one of many huge and often extremely odd, and very complex head dresses worn by religious up to the time of the Asteroid that nearly killed off the species.

But it was not only the terrible abandonment of the Faith and the practices of the religious life after the Asteroid that brought about the demise of the cornette. In fact, popes, including Pius XII, had long been trying to get religious orders to modify their style of dress to take things like safety, practicality and at least the minimal comfort of their members into account. It is largely the active communities, particularly those founded in the 17th to 19th centuries in France and Spain that sported these beautiful and historically significant but wildly impractical headdresses.

Practicality probably had a lot to do with it. I'm a huge proponent, as you know, of religious habits, but the cornette, as well as the many other large and elaborate headdresses of many of the pre-VII habits, were outrageously impractical, uncomfortable and even dangerous, as well as expensive and difficult and time-consuming to maintain.

A painting of cornette-wearing Sisters of Charity by Armand Gautier (1825–1894)

The cornette as it is remembered by people alive today, was a development, and a great exaggeration, of the starched white headdresses worn by women in the region of France in the time in which the Society was founded. The original headdress and simple blue dress, was worn to help the sisters work inconspicuously in the streets of French towns and villages at a time when single women out on the streets alone were highly suspect and usually in danger.

Of course, it was not long before the habit became very recognisable, but this was after the sisters had become an accepted part of life. The society was founded at a time when it was very difficult, from a Catholic perspective, to have orders of 'active' nuns. The idea of women religious going about outside their convents, was outrageous to the French Catholics of this time, and was the reason the Order of the Visitation, founded by Ss. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, was eventually cloistered. When they started, the Visitation sisters visited people in their homes (hence the name), but in larger, more conservative cities, people would throw stones at the sisters, so horrified were they. It was not until St. Vincent de Paul founded the Sisters of Charity, that the idea of active religious was accepted.

Eventually, the much smaller and simpler and less conspicuous linen headdress

evolved into the enormous cornette that we remember, of the time of St. Catherine Laboure.

As I said, quite a few orders sported these types of elaborate and highly stylised garments.

The sisters of Bon Secours

Daughters of Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida

Sisters of the Holy Cross
... and these were some of the more moderate ones. There was one, the name of which I can't remember, that had a kind of box-like affair, constructed of linen and who knows what, that made the wearer look as if she had her head stuck in a television set. All of these were later developments and exaggerations of earlier, more moderate, and more attractive, forms of dress.

These headdresses were made by hand from white linen and had to be maintained daily by a small army of novices and postulants. In our times, the equipment that would be required to make one and maintain it would be prohibitively expensive for a religious order with a lot of members, since they can only be obtained by the extremely small number of companies that make such things for museums and specialty costumiers. (Ever heard of a goffering iron? Well, you'd need one, and no one makes them any more). It would also require a great many man-hours, or novice-hours, to keep them up. Time better spent, I think, in prayer and apostolic works.

They are also quite dangerous to wear, since they severely resticted vision. A not inconsiderable factor in today's rather hastened world of traffic. And as one might expect, they melted in rain and humidity. I've lived through several Toronto summers, and the idea of wearing one of these hats through that is more penance than I care to think about.

I'm afraid that, lovely and romantic as it was, the cornette is gone and will not return. The Sisters of Charity remain, but as some form of new age socialist organisation that seems to have forgotten the religious purpose of their foundation.

It would be better, I think, to call for the re-establishment of St. Vincent's original concept (as it says to do in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, if I'm not mistaken), of a group of ladies in simple vows dedicated to serving Christ in his poor and for the salvation of souls.

Oh, I forgot. We've got that. It's now called the Missionaries of Charity.


Ttony said...


John said...

Many, many moons ago I used to date a girl who had tried her vocation with the Dominicans for a couple of years. She was a lover of the traditional habit, too, but like you had serious reservations about the wimple. She said that starched linen could really bite into the skin, enough to cause bleeding on her forehead on occasion.

Now, if you had really liked the headress of the Sisters of Charity only a short time ago you could have got your own here:

But as you see now, "DISCONTINUED".



Mulier Fortis said...

Off topic, Hilary, but you've been tagged

Anonymous said...

Dear Hilary,
An especially fascinating rock formation on the surface of the Asteroid: V-II's document "Perfectae Caritatis". The one that calls for the religious orders to return to the charisms given them by their founders. Great for a laugh nowadays. The Passionists, e.g., in obedience to the document, abolished the constitutions writeen for them by St. Paul of the Cross, and were given approval to do so by the Vatican.

Unknown said...

Re: tv set affair was worn by the Sisters of Charity (NJ) up until I was in the 2nd grade (1960). It resembled a picture frame with a row of ruffles around the inside edge so that you only saw eyes, nose, mouth and part of the cheeks. To top off the ensemble, a large black bow was worn around the neck. It was quite scary to see as a young child!

Anonymous said...

Kathleen - right you are with the detailed description of the venerable head dress worn by the now-nearly-defunct Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary or "BVMs" as they were affectionately called. There were scores of them in Iowa where they had a motherhouse in Dubuque. We used to call them "coffin heads" because their head seemed to us to be enclosed in a casket. They were formidable looking, I will second that!

Anonymous said...

How many Daughters of Charity do you know? Have you ever spoken to one? What do you know about their founding, history and current mission? From your comment “The Sisters of Charity (sic) remain, but as some form of new age socialist organisation (sic) that seems to have forgotten the religious purpose of their foundation,” I’m guessing you know very little about them and their work. I have never met a Daughter who is not on fire with the love of Christ and a sincere dedication to St Vincent’s original concept of serving Christ in the poor. And to the other comments made here, I would suggest joining religious life as a Religious Sister or Brother if you think you can do better. The Church is waiting. http://daughters-of-charity.org/