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Other Vocation Guides and Historical Guides
The formula that Dehey and McCarthy exemplify - lots of information about lots of women's
religious communities including lots of photographs, particularly of the sisters in their traditional
habits - can be found in other books. There are any number of "vocation guides," which provide
the practical information for young women seeking to discern a calling to the religious life, that
follow the McCarthy model - for example, Joan M. Lexau's
Convent Life: Roman Catholic Religious Orders for Women in North America (1964),
and Images of Women in Mission: Resource Guide and National Directory of Catholic Church Vocations
for Women (1981).
There are also many historical "guides" that provide much the same information but
with a backward-looking, historical emphasis. I once sold for a modest profit a copy of
Geistlichen Orden und Kongregationen in den böhmischen Kronländern ["Religious Orders and Congregations of the Bohemian Kingdom"] (1991) that I had picked up in Prague some years ago. It was a German-language historical guide published by the Czech Norbertines that featured dozens of illustrations and photographs of male and female religious habits.
But the 800-lb. gorilla of historical guides to nuns and their habits must surely be a more recent
entry into the field, Jozef De Ridder's
't Zijn al geen heiligen die grote paternosters dragen: kleding van vrouwelijke religieuzen
in de 19de en 20ste eeuw in België ["'It's not only the saints who carry big rosaries': the habits of female religious in the 19th and 20th century in Belgium"] (2002). De Ridder, a Flemish lawyer, has been collecting photographs of Belgian nuns and their habits for 40 years. His magnum opus contains over 500 black-and-white photos, with accompanying text in Dutch. The comprehensiveness and the difficulty of obtaining this Belgian work have led to some extraordinary prices; a copy of this €40 book recently sold on eBay for $355.
Apart from the guides discussed above, there is another highly sought after subgenre of nun books -
the "vocation books." Instead of providing lots of information about many different orders,
the vocation book, with titles like Your Calling as a Nun, follows one young woman as she enters
an order and progresses through the initiatory stages - which include clothing in the habit,
receiving a new name, and profession of vows - and the training she receives therein. The most
famous of the vocation books is Bernie Becomes a Nun (1956), with text by Sister Maria
Del Rey Danforth, O.P., a prolific nun author, and photographs by George Barris, later known as a
celebrity photographer and particularly for his work with Marilyn Monroe. The book features
hundreds of photographs showing every facet of a young nun's life, with a text the author
intended to apply generally to most orders, not just to the Maryknoll Sisters featured in
the book. Bernie Becomes a Nun typically brings more than a hundred dollars when it
appears on eBay, which it does regularly. (Sister Maria Del Ray also published another popular
and heavily illustrated look at the Maryknoll Sisters, No Two Alike: Those Maryknoll Sisters! .)
or a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
It is hopefully clear by now that pictures of nuns in their traditional habits is the driving force
behind much of the interest in many nun books. Those few sellers specializing in this subject, like
eBay sellers crazy4nuns and nunobelia, having realized this, are now just as likely to offer
cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and other old photographs of nuns as they are books. If you find
any old nun photos, and particularly if you can identify the order, such images are highly
Still, though, books featuring photos of nuns are not to be passed up. They come in many of the types described above, but also in less obvious forms. For example:
In 1996, at its annual meeting in San Antonio, the Catholic Health Association of the United States
(CHA) premiered a film that it had commissioned. The hour-long video,
A Call to Care: Stories of Courage, Compassion and America's Health, celebrated the central
role of Catholic religious sisters in the building of the Catholic hospital systems in the United
States, the largest private health care network in the world. CHA also published a companion book,
A Call to Care: The Women Who Built Catholic Healthcare in America (1996), edited by
Suzy Farren, which was heavily illustrated with hundreds of photographs of pioneering nursing sisters.
The video and book are long out of print and have become quite collectible. I have managed to find
and sell four copies of the book A Call to Care, each for about a hundred dollars. The text of
A Call to Care, though not the pictures, is available
One specialist eBay seller recently struck gold with an unusual and unusually illustrated liturgical
book. It was a 1956 Cérémonial for a religious congregation called
the Religieuses de L'Assomption de Paris, which described the rituals for the three usual stages
of initiation - clothing with the habit, first or simple vows, and perpetual or final vows. What was
so unusual about this book was the wealth of black-and-white photographs illustrating the ceremonies.
The beautiful pictures would be familiar to anyone who has seen the early scenes of the
1959 Audrey Hepburn film The Nun's Story.
Mention of The Nun's Story reminds me that, despite the value that attaches to nun images, it's still possible to sell a nun book without pictures. I recently sold a signed copy of Kathryn Hulme's novel The Nun's Story (1956) - the basis for the film - though a later printing just in very good certainly not fine condition, for $75.
Despite the great interest in books on women's religious life, there is no definitive bibliography
of "nuns books" of the modern era. There is, in fact, more easily available information
available on medieval nuns at, for example, the University of Southern California's
Nonetheless, there are some resources, fortunately available online, that are of use to the nun bibliophile.
The Hooley-Bundschu Library at Avila University, in Kansas City, Missouri, is home to several
special collections of materials relating to women's religious communities, including one donated
by George C. Stewart, Jr., author of Marvels of Charity: History of American Sisters and Nuns
(1994), a not-uncommon book but a perennial good seller on eBay and elsewhere. The Hooley-Bundschu
website has hand-lists of the titles that make up each of these collections:
Additionally, Monica K. Van Ness, a University of Colorado librarian, has produced "The Religious Life:
Nuns and Sisters, A Select Bibliography," a 63-page private bibliography, which has been
available to members of the
"Nuns-in-Lit" Yahoo discussion group:
Want to read more articles by
BookThink's History Editor William M. Klimon?