A religious habit of the Sisters of Mercy

Contributed by: Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. ( ISMAPNG)

Full front view of habit: dress with train, veil, dimity, coif, guimp, crucifix, cincture, rosary beads with cross, gloves. Habit Back view train extended Habit right side view turned Habit upper view front Coif, dimity, guimp front view Coif, dimity guimp back view Beads hanging from cincture Ebony and ivory cross
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Object information

Significance statement

This assembly of garments constitutes the basic elements of the religious habit of the Sisters of Mercy.  The Mercy habit was designed by the Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, the Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley, in Dublin in 1831, and, with possibly only minor and inconspicuous alterations, was worn by all Sisters of Mercy until the middle of the twentieth century. The habit then began to be simplified and was finally discarded in favour of modern garb more suited to the Sisters’ immersion in society in the spirit of their Foundress. 

The habit consisted of two white helmet and breastplate garments covered with a black veil; a black, long-sleeved, close-pleated dress with a train; a black belt or cincture at the waist from which hung a set of black rosary beads ending in an ebony and ivory cross; and a wood and metal crucifix inserted into the belt in the centre front.

This habit of the Sister of Mercy is historically very significant as it was worn by around twenty-five thousand women at the time the order was flourishing, particularly in English-speaking countries. It carried a spiritual significance, indicating that the wearer had made a special consecration of her life to God and the service of others.

This sample of the habit is particularly significant as it is made up of individual authentic parts that once belonged to Sisters of Mercy. Samples of all pieces of the habit are now quite rare. The dress with its train is the only one in the museum collection of the Sisters of Mercy in Singleton.  

Author: Sister Monica Sinclair, Curator Museum at the Convent of Mercy , 31.10.2014.

Description

This religious habit can be considered an ensemble of four parts: the dress, the veil, the headdress and the cincture with beads and crucifix.

The dress is a black long-sleeved garment, pleated front and back on a fully-lined yoke.  It is gathered on to a waistband on the inside, and the bottom of the garment, with its wide false hem is extended seamlessly at the back into a train.  The garment is split down the front to below the waist, and fastened with hooks and eyes.  An extra piece of material sewn to the inner right side of the split prevents the front of the garment from gaping open.  A large hook and eye at the back can hold up the train. 

The veil is a rectangular piece of black material with a wide hem on the two longer sides and a selvedge on the two shorter sides.  A piece of stiffened board is inserted centrally into one of the wide-hemmed ends to keep the veil back from the face.  The veil is folded to create two pleats that are held with two safety pins and fall neatly down the wearer’s back.

The headdress consists of three pieces of white material, partly starched to stiffen them: a linen coif in the shape of a “helmet” tied at the back from the neck and from just behind the ears; a pique dimity pinned in place to cover the forehead; a linen guimp which covers the upper breast and shoulders and is tied at the back of the neck and fastened with a safety pin at the middle of the back. 

The cincture with beads and crucifix.  A belt of black leather, the cincture, goes around the waist and is fastened at the back with a buckle.  Inserted into the right side of the cincture is a large black plastic ring through which is threaded a large set of black rosary beads on a metal chain, ending in a black and white ebony and ivory cross.  In the centre of the cincture on the wrong side a square piece of leather is sewn vertically at the edges forming an open pouch through which is inserted a metal and wooden crucifix, also held in place by a black cord which normally goes around the wearer’s neck. 

History and Provenance

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

This set of garments is the last remaining specimen of a complete habit of a Sisters of Mercy of the Singleton Congregation. Women dressed in this habit were a common sight in Australian Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and around the general community throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and up until the middle of the twentieth century, after which the habit began to be simplified and modified, finally being replaced by secular dress with a distinctive “mercy cross”, whose design is based on the ebony and ivory one and which is worn as a badge. Mercy Sisters throughout the world, and those to whom they ministered would have known this unique habit well by sight.

Where did this information come from?

From Sister Monica Sinclair who was professed as a Sister of Mercy in Singleton 1955.

This garment has been exhibited

The garment was exhibited on a model in the small museum and remained there until approximately 2003 when a replica was made by Sr Monica Sinclair to replace the original which, was then stored in the small Convent Museum Store where it remains to the present day.

  1. Place of origin:

    Singleton, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    This garment was “owned” by a particular Sister of Mercy of the Singleton Congregation. 

    Note: In fact, all the “possessions” belong to the order and not to the individual wearer.  This is one of the effects of the vow of poverty.  But in effect the Sister had prescribed clothing and objects she used.  The owner of these objects cannot be identified beyond “Sister of Mercy Singleton”.

  3. Worn by:

    Sister of Mercy Singleton unknown.

  4. Occasion(s):

    This serge garment appears to be a“good habit” and was worn by a Sister for special occassions.

  5. Place:

    Convent of Mercy Singleton, or another Mercy Convent in the Hunter Valley.

  6. Designed by:

    The Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, designed this habit in 1831. There may be minor variations but it is basically the habit she designed for her Sisters to wear.  Patterns were kept in the Convent and passed from Sister to Sister. Novice Mistress or another seamstress in the Convent taught the Novices how to make their habits.

  7. Made by:

    The habit was almost certainly made by the wearer herself. It was the custom for women who entered the Sisters of Mercy Singleton to make a “good” habit before receiving the habit and veil in a ceremony of Reception which normally took place six months after they entered the order.

  8. Made for:

    Unknown Sister of Mercy Singleton.

Trimmings / Decoration

Ribbon

Black nylon ribbon

Braiding

Hemming tape

Tucking

9 pleats on each side front and back

Fibre / Weave

Habit:  Black wool, plain weave in garment; grey cotton “Italian cloth” (as the nuns called it) for lining of yoke and for waistband; black “Italian cloth” 25cm wide for hem edged with black woollen woven tape for protection from friction on garment.

Veil: Black wool in fairly fine plain weave.

Headress: White linen in coif and guimp; white cotton tape for attachment; white cotton pique in vertical pattern weave in dimity.

Cincture beads crucifix.

Fabric: black cotton cord

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

Hand sewing on binding of the armhole, on yoke lining, on protective hem tape, on internal front flap, on internal waist band attaching it to garment, on sleeve hem.

All other sewing is by machine.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

Hooks and eyes for fastening down the front split of the habit

Single black button on each shoulder for fastening on a separate wider sleeve (“big sleeve”) worn to Chapel, when going out from the Convent and on other occasions.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The yoke is fully lined; the veil has a stiffener (cardboard with black material folded over and glued to both sides) inserted in the front hem until it is in the centre.

Measurements

dress
Girth
Neck 405 mm
Chest 920 mm
Waist 840 mm
Cuff 220 mm
Hem circumference 4000 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 1430 mm
Front waist to hem 1090 mm
Back neck to hem 1540 mm
Back waist to hem 1540 mm
Sleeve length 580 mm
Horizontal
Neck to sleeve head 120 mm
Cross back 325 mm
Underarm to underarm 480 mm
Fabric width 915 mm
Convert to inches

Veil (mm)

Long edge

L = 1820

Short edge

L = 1150

Hem width=80

Stiffener length 512

Ribbon

L x W=280 x 18

Coif (mm)

L x W=325 x 405

Guimp

L x W=1008 x 330

Dimity  L x W=160 x 90

Ribbon

L x W=280 x 18

Cincture (mm)

L x W=950 x 50

Beads L = 1145

Crucifix L x W=137 x 58

Cord L = 1000

Dress Themes

Sign of religious consecration.

Condition

Rust on inner left side of yoke from a safely pin

Evidence of repairs

No repairs noted.

Insect damage

Insect-eaten holes in back and hem

State

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor

Damage

  1. Frayed
  2. Holes
  3. Iron stains
  4. Worn

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