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Sisters Help Us Properly Dress Our Nun

Posted 11/12/20 (Thu)

By Lori Nohner, assistant curator of collections, Audience Engagement & Museum team

Generally, putting clothes on is self-explanatory, but one outfit in the upcoming Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style exhibit required some expert advice. 

In the “Forces of Faith” section, a Benedictine sister’s habit will be on exhibit. Catholic religious sisters formed several communities in North Dakota, and with them came the foundation of schools and hospitals. University of Mary in Bismarck and St. Luke’s Hospital in Crosby are just two examples. Most Benedictine sisters stopped wearing the full habit in the late 1960s to early 1970s after Vatican II. In the 1980s, the State Historical Society received a Benedictine habit from Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck. This will be featured in the exhibit. My struggle started with the pleated fabric called a coif. One look at that and I knew I needed back up.

Sr. Marie Hunkler is a member of Sacred Heart Monastery in Dickinson and worked with collections staff in the past, facilitating donations when the community moved from Richardton to Dickinson last year. She and Sr. Lucille Heidt graciously offered to help us properly dress our nun.

Sister Lucille Heidt (right) adjusts the white headdress of the habit called a coif, which frames a sister’s face, on our mannequin in preparation for the Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style. Sister Marie Hunkler provides pins to secure it in place. We are grateful that they answered our call for help. Dressing a mannequin with the many layers of a habit was beyond our areas of expertise.


Both sisters remember wearing the habits earlier in their lives. They told stories about wearing the habits and shared the prayers they said every morning when they put on all the different pieces:

Habit (gown): “To Thy mercy, O Lord, I owe the grace of wearing Thy sacred garb; grant me the grace to wear it in justice, holiness and truth.”

Coif (white pleated collar): “Pour forth into my heart, O Lord, the spirit of our Holy Father, St. Benedict, and take away from me all levity of mind and vanity of dress.”

Girdle or cincture (belt):  “Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of justice and the cincture of purity, that I may deserve to enter into the joy of my heavenly Bridegroom.”

Scapular (double sided apron over the habit):  “Let me receive Thy yoke, O Lord, and bear its burden; for it is sweet and light for the sake of Thy love and Thy glory.”

Veil:  “Place upon my head, O Lord, the helmet of salvation to repel all the attacks of the devil.”


Sister Marie and Sister Lucille provided a us with a valuable interview about proper donning of a habit and their experiences of living religious lives of service in our state. 

It was a joy hearing Sr. Marie and Sr. Lucille reminisce about kids asking them whether they had ears under their coifs, and legs under their habits. I hope the clothes in this exhibit jog many more memories and help you make personal connections to North Dakota’s history. And I hope you share those stories with us.

Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style opens in early 2021.


Next article:

Western Symbols Tell Stories of Cattle Culture

Previous articles:

Red Berry Woman, Red Berry Style
Spooktacular Fashion: Four Vintage Halloween Masks
Wouldn't It Be Wunnerful, Wunnerful
An Army of Aluminum Mannequins Takes Shape
Miss America’s Gown & Wonder Woman Boots Have Arrived!
Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style


We’re currently seeking clothing, games, and other items from the 1960s to today that have North Dakota stories. If you have items to consider donating to the state’s museum collections, you'll find an online donation form.