Artifact of the Month:

Evolution of a Habit

Ava Doogue, CSJ Archivist

When Vatican II opened the windows, women’s religious orders experienced many changes. One of the biggest changes of all was the modified habit, and then eventually shedding the habit altogether. These nun dolls serve as a way of reminiscing on the past and demonstrate to laypeople how sisters wore the habit: from starching the collars to pinning the veil and braiding the cincture.

After Vatican II, many women’s religious orders began respond to the call of the “Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life” that required sisters to return to the sources of their founding. In 1650, the first Sisters of St. Joseph did not dress in habits but in the style of ordinary women of their day. Faithful to this call, the Sisters of St. Joseph no longer wore the habit and first donned a modified version before opting for a simple style of the women of today. For Sisters, this was a monumental and historic decision that would affect their everyday lives.

Left to right: Sister Blanche Dolan, CSJ, in a modified habit with Sister Anne Cronin, CSJ; a nun doll; and two sisters in modified habits with a nun doll in the background.


The purpose of creating nun dolls was to simply document the differences in habits and generate a profit, claims founder and CEO of Genuine Nun Doll Inc., Thomas Cholewa.[1] Cholewa was raised Catholic and did not want to idolize the former garb or those sisters for wearing it. After less than a decade of production, Genuine Nun Doll Inc. closed in 1990, but they were successful in cementing into history the different habits of different women’s religious orders. In the first eight months over 1,500 dolls were sold.[2]

On display in the Motherhouse foyer are two CSJ Nun Dolls from Genuine Nun Doll Inc. You can see one has more of a ‘baby-ish’ face with 5 knots on her cincture, while the other has a more adult face with a bit of makeup, and three knots on her cincture. The reason for the change in facial structure was done after some backlash from women’s religious orders who claimed the Nun Doll depicted them to be too childlike. The difference in knots allegedly was an error made by the company. Having three knots on the cincture may represent the three vows, and other motifs found in the CSJ seal; three crowns, three lilies, and three nails.

The third sister is a mystery. Sr. Marian Batho found the doll when she was tidying up the archives and thought she should be out in the open, where everyone could see. This third doll is believed to be older than the two other dolls, but we cannot be sure how old she is. She is a Sister of St. Joseph, and you can tell by the triangle her veil creates, but her history remains unknown.

Today, there are many universities and museums bequeathed with hundreds of Nun Doll collections and have turned them into exhibits, available online and in-person. Visitors have exclaimed their excitement over seeing these nun dolls; many people attempt to identify the order a relative has entered, or an order that taught them in school.

These Nun Dolls were chosen as February’s artifact of the month to display the evolution of women’s religious orders and the evolution of how we view and define Sisters. What defines a Sister is not what she wears; losing the habit allows a Sister’s voice and actions to be the first thing we encounter.

[1] Keeley, ‘Clothes Make the Nun?’

[2](Keeley, ‘Clothes Make the Nun? ‘