STEREOTYPES VS. REALITY — Think of nuns, and you might recall the Flying Nun (Sally Fields), the Singing Nun (Debbie Reynolds), or the novice Maria (Julie Andrews) from “The Sound of Music.” All of these pop culture nuns were young. In real life, though, the sisters are usually older. Their numbers have been also diminishing, and, because of their new ways of dress, they don’t stand out like they used to.
The population of Roman Catholic nuns in America hit a peak in 1965, when there were 180,000. The current total, however, is only about 56,000 nuns–barely one third that figure. The decline began during the turbulent days of the late Sixties. Many factors have accounted for the decrease, yet one reason was that some nuns were opposed the Vietnam War, while the Church hierarchy tended to support it. Remember the three nuns who popped up in the Woodstock Concert film from 1969? In the well-known scene, a young sister flashes a peace symbol.
AGE & APPEARANCE — The lifestyle of nuns has also lost much of its appeal among numerous young women. Those who entered into this vocation renounce material comforts, vow to remain chaste, and adhere to a highly structured regimen. Ever since the Sixties, though, these commitments haven’t appeared as attractive to many. Becoming a nun is frequently seen as only one of a great variety of ways to serve God.
People who do enter cloisters often make this choice later in life. They are no longer teens but women in their 30s, 40s, or even older. This means that nuns as a whole are older. The single largest age group is composed of those in their late 60s. And there are actually more nuns who are over 90 years old than under 45.
Another change for nuns involves their appearance. Traditionally, they donned a black habit that covered the entire body except face and hands. In the mid 1960s, though, some orders allowed their members to wear simple black dresses. This soon gave way to allowing the sisters to put on whatever they wanted.
Fortunately, it seems unlikely that nuns will disappear. Yet their numbers have drastically dropped, and, in regard to their look, they often aren’t as visible as before.
The color postcard on this page was postmarked 1948. It depicts the exquisite stain glass windows in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic sanctuary located in downtown Jacksonville. The source of the image is the Florida State Archives. The other image is an undated postcard from St. Mary’s Orphan Home. This institution was located behind the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Click on the link above for info about St. Mary’s. The source of the orphanage postcard is the Florida Collection at the Main Public Library, Jacksonville.
~written by Glenn Emery