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Nun versus sister, is there a difference?

Often times you hear or see the terms nun or sister interchangeably. If you are familiar with the movie Sister Act, you will hear Whoopi Goldberg reference the sisters as nuns. A lot of what we hear in pop culture references sisters as simply nuns, but there is so much more to the terms sisters and nuns then one might expect. Sister Adaire Lassonde shares her thoughts on the difference in terms, “Many say we had nuns/sisters for our education, or we are going to visit my aunt who is a nun/sister.” However, there is a difference between the two terms. The School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) would be considered sisters based on the definition.

Sisters at a Minnesota Twins game in 2010.

According to A Nun’s Life Ministry website, “A Catholic nun is a woman who lives a contemplative life in a monastery, which is usually cloistered (or enclosed) or semi-cloistered.” Therefore, a Catholic nun would be a woman who lives a more solitary life filled with prayer, and would not typically be involved within the community. As for a sister, she is “a woman who lives, ministers, and prays within the world. A sister's life is often called ‘active’ or ‘apostolic’ because she is engaged in the works of mercy and other ministries that take the Gospel to others where they are.” A Catholic sister is actively involved in the community with a ministry. She may be involved through various ministries and/or spreading the Gospel to those around her. Sister Adaire breaks it down as, “An example of women religious who are considered nuns would be the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart or the Carmelite communities. Sisters take simple vows and live in a fashion that follows their mission. The School Sisters of Notre Dame, for instance, live in areas where they serve in parish ministries, do social services, work as educators and other ministries. Sisters belong to what are called apostolic communities.” A simpler way to understand it is in living a cloistered life of prayer versus living the life of a woman religious who works in the word as a nurse, teacher, etc.,” shared Michele.

Sister sits with two students reviewing a book.

When asked if there was any reference as to a preference in terms - nun versus sister – within the historical documents for the SSND, Michele Levandoski, archivist for the School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives, shared, “Since the SSND fall under the category of sister, they have always been sisters. So, there is nothing in the archives that will talk about this difference. People around the sisters might have used the term nun, but the sisters themselves would have used the term sister.” Michele went on to explain, “In my experience working for the Church, I get a sense that people think of women religious as ‘nuns,’ but when addressing a woman religious specifically, they know she is addressed as ‘sister.’ For example, if I was taught by SSND, I would say I was taught by nuns, but if asked who my favorite teacher was, I would say sister so and so. I think people believe women religious are nuns and their title is sister. Like a priest is an ordained man, but his title is Father or Reverend.”

While a nun takes solemn vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, a sister takes the simple vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Women religious who profess a solemn vow of poverty renounce ownership of all their temporal goods such as a nun. Women religious who profess a simple vow of poverty have a right to retain ownership of their inheritance such as a sister. “A simpler way to understand it is in living a cloistered life of prayer versus living the life of a woman religious who works in the word as a nurse, teacher, etc.,” shared Michele.

So, the terms nun and sister are used by the larger public to mean the same thing. As Sister Adaire shares, “We, as sisters, use them interchangeably as well. But when talking about ourselves we mostly use sister.”

You can find out more on nun versus sister at A Nun’s Life Ministries.

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