Coiffe or No Coiffe? That is the Question....

Saturday, January 7, 2012

American Daughters of Charity under
10 years vocation
As you may or may not know, the Daughters of Charity have the option of wearing a coiffe (small veil). As I enter postulancy next week, I grow closer towards having to make that decision since I would start wearing the habit when I enter Seminary (and become "Sister") in January 2013.

Wearing the coiffe - a simple blue veil - is entirely optional. Some Sisters go for it for various reasons and some don't, also for various reasons. Personally, at my house, there is one Sister that wears the coiffe and three that don't.

I recently had a long conversation with one Sister about this. Personally, the topic fascinates me. As we talked, I started creating a list of reasons to wear or not wear the coiffe.

Reasons to Wear the Coiffe
1. The coiffe gives a great witness. This happens in a number of ways - it shows others that young people are still choosing religious life (it's particularly a great witness to my generation, who wants to see this kind of radical witness) and it hopefully reminds them of God and their faith. It shows others that I'm a person of prayer and that may lead to people approaching me asking for prayers.
Daughters of Charity in Kenya
2. The coiffe connects us more with the international community. The Daughters of Charity number thousands and are in 91 countries. In most of those countries, they wear the coif, although sometimes they're of different colors.
3. The coiffe gives a sense of accountability. Wearing the coiffe means that, without even speaking a word, people would know that I am a representative of the Church and my community. I must be responsible with my own actions.
4. The coiffe allows people to see that Sisters are real people. Many see Sisters, especially those wearing a veil, as stiff, strict and perfect human beings. Wearing the coiffe, while still being me, would hopefully shatter that stereotype and show others that Sisters are real people and just like real people, we're all unique!
5. The tradition. The coiffe is the 'successor' of the cornette, which the Daughters wore for centuries, after Mother Guillemin changed the habit during Vatican II. The cornette had become an international symbol for charity (as well as one of the most ridiculous religious habits, but still). And of course, the veil is also an international symbol for religious life.

Reasons Not to Wear the Coiffe
1. Your life is what gives great witness. I don't need a veil to give great witness. If people see that I have dedicated my life to God and the poor, it should hopefully remind others of God. People will hopefully recognize I am a Sister by the Vincentian cross hanging around my neck.
2. The coiffe sometimes isn't practical for ministry. I once heard a story about a Sister, who was/is a social worker. One of her co-workers was raped but didn't tell Sister, though she was a good friend, for several months. When Sister asked her why she had waited so long to talk to her, the friend said "well, you know..." and made a motion over her head to represent the veil.
3. People treat you different if you're wearing a coiffe. One Sister I know said she took off the coiffe because she was tired of complete strangers treating her with more respect than other people, tired of getting free things for no reason or being told she could skip ahead in line.
The first habits of the Daughters
of Charity looked more like this
4. Not wearing the coiffe allows people to see that Sisters are real people. Some people are more likely to approach a Sister and feel more comfortable if they are not wearing a veil - perhaps of a bad experience with Sisters, perhaps because of fear, I don't know.Another Sister, a teacher, told me it seems that young people are more likely to approach her if she's not wearing a coiffe and she wants them to feel comfortable around her.
5. The tradition. The mission of the Daughters of Charity is to serve the poor. Our founders St Vincent and St Louise wanted the Daughters to blend in, to wear what the poor wore. The cornette back in the day (1600s France) was the fashion of the poor - it was like a sun hat. The Daughters originally wore it to blend in with the poor. By not wearing the coiffe, we once again blend in with the poor.

I'm still undecided as to what I will choose because I do see good arguments on both sides. And the great thing is that all the Sisters remain united, whether they're wearing a coiffe or not. There is no 'competition' on either side, it's just seen as a personal choice.

So, what do you think? What would you choose? If you're a Sister, what did you choose?


  1. I would go with a coif if I were in your place. But that's mainly because I am vain and would want to be treated differently per your 3rd con. Which is probably why God never gave me a chance to make that choice ;)


    P.S. I had to reply anonymous because it wouldn't accept my livejournal info :(

    P.P.S. The food that you gave me went to feed two needy families Christmas dinner. They were very much appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Do you have the option of trying it for awhile and then deciding not to wear it, like that one sister, if you think it interferes with your ability to do effective ministry? I realize it's probably not just something you can take on and off throughout the day at will and that the decision to stop wearing it would have to be a serious one, made after a lot of time, prayer, and consideration, but it seems like it might be something worth trying, at least until it seems too problematic. --Abby S.

  3. I'm in my early 30s and a convert to the Church. IMHO, I'm strongly in favor of religious brothers and sisters wearing their habits, so I would definitely vote for wearing the coif. I guess the best description as to why I think the habit is important is that I see it as a sign to the whole world that the brother or sister (as the case may be) has consecrated their lives to God and to the Church. I love the counter-cultural sign of a man or woman religious in habit.

    As far as people treating a person wearing a coif (or a full habit) differently, I can see that. I'm put off by the sister you mentioned who stopped wearing her coif because people treated her differently. I think that it's denying people a chance to be pious by not wanting them to defer to her, etc. Why deny people a chance to exercise piety and charity? That's a poor reason to not wear a habit (or a coif, in your case), IMHO.

    Believe it or not - I can kind of relate. You see, I'm married. When I wear my wedding ring (which I have done every day since I was married over ten years ago), standards are raised, expectations are put in place, and I am held to a higher calling by those who notice my ring. Whether I feel like it or not, I'm kept in line and held to a higher standard because I wear a wedding ring. I am humbled and I appreciate it b/c I need all the help I can get.

    If I stopped wearing my wedding ring, no one would be particularly offended (except for my wife), but some eyebrows might raise. Regardless of my personal thoughts or intentions, my wedding ring tells everyone that I am married and that I've devoted my life exclusively to my wife and our children. Similarly, if I see a brother or sister in habit, I know that they've devoted their life exclusively to Christ and his Church.

  4. That was one of the most balanced things I have ever read about religious garb. Thank you for being reasonable and not creating "sides" that are so divisive in times when more division is not what we need. God bless you in your discernment.

  5. To blend in with the poor of today, you'd have to get covered in tatoos and where skin tight blue jeans and a floppy t-shirt with some logo on it. Stick to the coif. Both rich and poor will know whom you represent.

  6. I taught with the Daughters in the 80's and they were all wearing the veil then - it was nice. When I see sisters trying to "blend in" I think they are just trying to act cool. You look like you are a fun person with the coiffe. What a great statement - and when you go somewhere that it doesn't fit, don't wear it then.


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