The BVM Habit: From Coffin to Revolution

By Abbie Reese


This post is part of the WLA blog’s 2022 series written by guest writers. These writers are graduate students in the Public History program at Loyola University Chicago. Each visited the archives during Fall 2021, delved into the collections, and wrote about a topic not yet explored here. We are excited to share their research and perspectives! 


For more than a century, the habit worn by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the BVMs) remained the same, and their cornette (headdress) was unmistakable. A brimmed hood extended in front of each sister’s face, creating blinders. Within the perfect right angles of the veiled hood, each face was framed—and obscured—by a horseshoe-shaped cap. The distinctive style has been described as a covered wagon, a Conestoga wagon, a cigar box, and more ominously, a coffin. 

A picture containing text, indoor, person

Description automatically generated
Figure 1. Sr. Ann Ida Gannon, BVM, is pictured in 1957 when she was president of Mundelein College in the BVM headdress worn by her religious congregation for 125 years, before the habit was altered in 1959. (Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago. Mundelein College Photograph Collection. Accessed online.) 

When Patricia Mary Jane Gallagher first saw the BVM habit as a transfer student to Mundelein College in 1942, she was dismayed. She and her mother had departed Iowa one July day on a train called The Land of Corn and by the time they walked up the Skyscraper building to ring the doorbell, their dresses were wrinkled in the humid air [1]. A nun greeted them with “all smiles,” but in Gallagher’s “dream of living in Chicago” she didn’t envision sisters wearing the same habit they wore at the college where she was dissatisfied for two years—Clarke College in Dubuque. “Another fantasy diminished,” she later wrote [2].  

Continue reading

Sister Mary DeCock, BVM: Feminist, Scholar, and “Witch in Residence” at Mundelein College

By Caroline Handley


This post is part of a series on the WLA Blog by guest writers. These writers are graduate students in the Public History program at Loyola University Chicago. Each visited the archives during Fall 2021, delved into the collections, and wrote about a topic not yet explored here. We are excited to share their research and perspectives.


With professors involved in the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights movements, Mundelein College in the mid- and late-twentieth century could certainly boast a large group of progressive and vivacious faculty members. Yet to many people, Sister Mary DeCock, BVM stood out from this already-exceptional group. Other Mundelein colleagues named DeCock personally as one of the most radical and spontaneous faculty members at the College [1].According to colleague David Orr, DeCock was part of a select group of “crazy folks” on campus who were perpetually busy in their teaching and administrative duties, and in developing new programming such as Mundelein’s Weekend College [2]. A staunch feminist and global scholar, DeCock spent several decades at Mundelein College and Loyola University Chicago researching and teaching on women, feminism, and liberation theology.

Figure 1. Sister Mary DeCock, BVM, faculty photograph. 1978. Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago. Mundelein College Photograph Collection.

Born in 1923 in De Witt, Iowa, DeCock joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) as a young woman before obtaining her graduate degree in English. She arrived at Mundelein in 1955. She eventually ended up teaching in Mundelein’s religion department, where she focused heavily on social justice, race, and feminism in her teaching [3].With classes such as “Feminist Issues and Religion” and “Women, Religion, and Social Change,” as DeCock became further committed to her students and the Mundelein community, she dropped out of her University of Chicago PhD program in Social Ethics to devote her time solely to teaching and social justice work [4]. DeCock served on committees surrounding feminist issues, set up lecture series on women’s history, and developed a particular interest in women’sissues in her scholarly research and writing [5]. She paid special attention to Marian theologyand the history of the BVM in her own work [6].

Continue reading

An Unexpected Journey: The Dreams, Art, and Spirituality of Sister Blanche Marie Gallagher, BVM

By Shannon E. Honl


Over the next several months, the WLA Blog will feature posts written by guest writers. These writers are graduate students in the Public History program at Loyola University Chicago. Each visited the archives during Fall 2021, delved into the collections, and wrote about a topic not yet explored here. We are excited to share their research and perspectives! 


Figure 1. Sr. Blanche Marie Gallagher
Sr. Blanche Marie at her Chicago studio next to her artwork, “Homage to Teilhard: Planetization.”

In mid-twentieth-century America, it would have been reasonable to expect a young middle-class woman to graduate from high school, maybe attend college, find a handsome veteran to marry, and raise a family of Boomers. For Patricia Gallagher, this is precisely the path she envisaged for herself – a motion-picture-perfect life as personified by Ginger Rogers and Kathryn Hepburn [i]. However, a series of serendipitous turning points took Gallagher on a much different and unexpected journey. 

Continue reading