Today’s Teaser Tuesday excerpt from The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright features one of the more dramatic passages in the book–Esther’s clothing ceremony (or Vêture) in January 1713 at age of 16 that represented her formal admission as an Ursuline novice. The novitiate, characterized by the great scholar of French religious women in the early modern period, Diane Rapley, as a “military boot camp,” was designed to test the suitability of girls and young women for religious life. The Ursulines of Québec had a remarkably effective novitiate–16% of novices left before final profession, and there is no record whatsoever of a professed nun leaving the order after final vows.
Of course, with my enduring interest in clothing and material culture in history, the fact that this ceremony is called literally a “clothing ceremony,” I found it irresistible to write about it at some length. Even better, Abigail (Nabby) Adams Jr., our fugitive Latin scholar from last week, recorded in her travel diary a clothing ceremony she had witnessed in Paris in 1784 among the order that ran the school where Thomas Jefferson had enrolled his young daughters, Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Polly), when he was serving as the ambassador to France in the 1780s. In this ceremony, novices take the white veil, which distinguishes them from the professed nuns who in the Ursuline order wear the black veil as shown in Esther’s portrait on the cover of my book:
Much as she had been stripped and re-dressed as a Wabanaki captive, so she participated in the Catholic rituals of religious profession in which clothing was laden with symbolic and spiritual meaning. Nabby Adams describes the two novices she saw take their vows as dressed in “fine, white woolen dresses, made like a parson’s robes, loose and flowing; their veils were white . . . their hair shaved off; a white cap and veil.” Novices were dressed in white veils, to signal their special status; only when she took her final vows as a choir nun would Esther receive a black veil. As Esther removed her clothing, a new robe, wimple (loose, white fabric that covered the neck and breast), cap, and veil were brought to the grate and blessed by Father Bigot with a special prayer and sprinkled with holy water. While the cap, wimple, and robe, were for Esther to put on herself, Father Bigot continued with the blessing of the veil, with another special prayer and more holy water, before it was returned to Esther. Then the nuns sang a psalm until Esther returned in her new tunic and black robe, cap, wimple, and the candle she had been given earlier. When she appeared before the choir, the chantress began an antiphon which the other nuns joined in singing until Esther arrived once again at the grate. She was then left alone by the superior and the assistant at the grate to genuflect to the blessed sacrament and kneel again. Although the rite was much less violent than many Native ceremonies in which captives were beaten, stripped, and re-dressed, the principle was the same in
monasteries as among the Wabanaki: through her new clothing, Esther was completely transformed into a novice of the Ursuline order.
There were two elements of her costume that she was not permitted to put on herself, but rather were set aside for her superior to put on her during the Mass: the cincture, a leather strap that she would wear as a belt around her waist on top of her robe, and the veil, which along with a cap, linen band, and the wimple would cover most of her head and face, leaving visible only her eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. Upon her return, Father Bigot rose to make the sign of the cross over Esther and then turned to make the sign of the cross over the cincture and recited more prayers. The assistant handed the cincture to the mother superior, who then placed it around Esther’s waist as Father Bigot said: “When thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst: but when thou shalt be old, another shall gird thee. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Then the superior took the already-blessed veil and put in on Esther’s head while Father Bigot said, “Receive the white veil, the emblem of inward purity, that thou mayest follow the lamb without stain and mayest walk with him in white. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Thus with both her body and her mind symbolically enclosed within a cincture and under a veil, Esther was prepared to become the bride of Christ.
Taking a few steps back from the altar, Esther said, “I have chosen to be an abject one in the house of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Then, in the most dramatic moment of the ceremony, Esther prostrated herself on the floor of the Ursuline Chapel, making her entire body into the sign of the cross, and demonstrating complete submission. Nabby Adams describes this moment in the ceremony as “they laid down on their faces, and there was brought in, . . . a pall of black, crossed with white, which was held over them. . . . This was an affecting sight; I could not refrain from tears; everyone seemed affected around, particularly the French.” Adams went on to explain that “this ceremony lasted half an hour, while these poor girls were lying on their faces; and when they rise, it is called rising to the resurrection, after having been dead to the world.” The use of the funeral pall in fact indicated the nun’s symbolic death to the world, and her rebirth in her new conventual life.
Esther bowed and knelt again, and there followed more prayers, more holy water, and more solemn chanting and response between the new nun and her sisters. As she knelt to sing the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, she was immediately aware of how constricting her new wardrobe was, enclosing her body and head in yards and multiple layers of stiff fabric. Muffling hearing and permitting almost no peripheral vision, the veil in particular encouraged her to turn inward, and her voice may have sounded particularly loud and solitary in the Mass. The other choir nuns continued Veni Creator Spiritus as Esther set aside her candle and then prostrated herself on the floor of the chapel in the form of a cross. After this and yet still more prayers, more calls and responses, and more holy water, Esther bowed to her superior and then to signify her entrance into the community, she in turn embraced each of the other nuns while they sang the uplifting hymn Ecce quam bonum. Then led by the cross bearer, all of the nuns including Esther departed the choir in reverse order of their entrance.
This was to be Esther’s final change of habit—at the age of sixteen, she submitted voluntarily to the discipline of her bishop, her priest, her superior, and her fellow Ursulines. Her hair was cut off shortly after the clothing ceremony. Upon taking her final vows, she would receive and wear a black veil, but otherwise her transformation was complete. The name she whispered to her superior was Marie-Joseph de l’enfant Jésus—the entire Holy Family.
Just as high-fashion gown- and mantua-makers used dolls to advertise and sell their latest creations, so Ursulines taught one another the correct garments and order of dress with wax dolls that featured exquisitely detailed miniature habits, veils, and even stockings, shoes, and undergarments. Imagine my pleasure when I discovered one of these dolls in the Ursuline museum collections, and they permitted me to use a photograph of it in my book!
Unfortunately, my editor didn’t like the crunchy and chewy informative caption I wrote, so I’ll publish a version of it here, alongside a miniature version of the doll photograph (which gets a full page in my book on p. 132–you should check it out):
According to Ursuline Museum experts, this late eighteenth-century doll was made in the Québec convent as the Ursulines had molds for wax dolls that date to that era. (The fact that this doll likely was made after the French Revolution also strongly suggests a Québec provenance, as religious institutions were in complete disarray in the 1790s.)
Used like secular wax dolls in this period, she demonstrated to novices the correct way to dress as an Ursuline. The detail in this doll’s costume is remarkable: she wears not just the visible cloak and outer gown, but underneath a wool petticoat lined with linen or cotton, and a chemise with pockets sewn into it that she could access through slashes in the petticoat. She also wears stockings tied up with purple garters and fine leather slippers.
Can’t get enough nun dressup action here? Check out this live action video–click here and then click on L’habit religieux des Ursulines de Québec. The narration is en français, bien sur–but even you monolinguals will get the point of the order of dressing.