"The Passion Behind the Fashion: Cheryl Reed uncovers nuns' habits"
By Jason Toon
March 17, 2004
When Cheryl Reed was a little girl, all she knew about nuns was that they scared her. "They were all cloaked in black, they were these mysterious figures -- they freaked me out," she says.
Now Reed may be one of the nation's foremost authorities on nun life. The investigative reporter talked, walked and ate with more than 300 nuns to write Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns.
The variety of their beliefs, lifestyles and even clothing demolishes the cliche of the nun as a meekly subservient ascetic in a long black gown.
Don't ditch the habit just yet, though. Discarded by many nuns during the post-'60s cultural relaxation, the habit is making a roaring comeback, as illustrated in Unveiled by two conservative St. Louis-area orders.
The strictly cloistered Passionist Nuns, based in Ellisville, keep their heads shaved and flagellate their bare bottoms, among other intense rituals. Alton's Franciscan Sisters of the Martyrs of St. George are more open, generally working as nurses or teachers.
But both require full-dress devotion to the traditional costume, and both attract far more young members than the norm. Strict orders, Reed says, "are attractive to women who want to look like a nun. Younger women really cling to the habit. Why would they give everything up just to look like everybody else?"
But Reed found that the shift toward an ever-more-conservative Catholicism hasn't dimmed the surprising feminism of so many older nuns.
"Most of these women really feel that they live outside the male hierarchy of the church," Reed says. "Men don't run their orders. Men really don't have anything to do with their orders."
Sister Margaret Traxler, a pro-choice firebrand who runs homeless shelters for women and children in Chicago, told Reed: "Just because I took a vow of obedience doesn't mean that I can't say what I think. I'm not a puppet."
The rest of Reed's subjects could honestly say the same.
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