Ask a Carmelite — Is There a Difference Between a Nun and a Sister?

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Dear Sister Timothy Marie,

Sister Timothy, are you a nun?

Dear Friend,

Well, I do wear a long brown habit and I have professed three vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, in consecration to God forever. But am I a nun?  My name is SISTER Timothy Marie. But am I a nun?

Here is the answer. In a practical, everyday sense people have no hesitation about identifying me as a Catholic nun. Yet, in the technical sense of the real definition I am not. So, what am I? I have entered a consecrated life, and I am a woman religious. I am a sister. I’ll explain. The terms “nun” and “sister” are often used interchangeably. However within Roman Catholicism, there is a difference between the two. Here’s a simple summary of the differences.

A Catholic nun is a woman who lives  a contemplative life in a monastery which is usually cloistered (enclosed). Her ministry and prayer life is centered within and around the monastery for the good of the world. She professes perpetual solemn vows, living a life according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Saint Therese, the Little Flower, was a nun.

A Catholic sister 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. She professes perpetual simple vows living a life according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was a consecrated woman religious, a sister.

Because both nuns and sisters belong to the consecrated life, or religious life, we are also called “women religious.” In ordinary conversation the terms “nun” and “sister” are used interchangeably. Both nuns and sisters are addressed as “Sister.” In popular culture, the term “nun” is often more widely accessible and immediately understood to refer to women who have professed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

So, there you have it. Now you know something that most Catholics don’t – the technical difference between a nun and a sister.

Have a good day,

Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D


Send your questions for Sister to asksister@integratedcatholiclife.org.

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Or for more information, please contact:
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Alhambra, California 91801

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About the Author

Promoting a Deeper Spiritual Life Among Families through Healthcare, Education and Retreats

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles strive to give striking witness as a vibrant, thriving community of dedicated women with an all-consuming mission. It is our God-given mission, a mission of the heart, a mission of loving service to the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Our loving service overflows from each sister’s profound life of prayer. We strive to reflect His life and hope and His promise to all that light has come into our world and darkness has not overcome it.

A look at the history of our community, with its motherhouse in Alhambra, California, reveals how its life-giving presence has come about. During the beginning decades of the 1900s just as the epic Mexican revolution was subsiding, a ruthless religious persecution was gaining momentum in Mexico. This horrible persecution accompanied the birth and humble beginnings of our community, a legacy that Mother Luisita, our foundress, and her two companions brought with them as religious refugees entering the Unites States in 1927.

Those seeds planted by Mother Luisita, now a candidate for sainthood, have taken deep root in the United States since those early days. People and places have changed throughout the years, yet the heart of our mission remains. As an autonomous religious institute since 1983 we continue to carry out our loving service in our healthcare facilities, retreat houses and schools which remain to this day centers of life and hope. Today we are moving forward together “Educating for Life with the Mind and Heart of Christ” in schools, being “At the Service of the Family for Life” through health and eldercare and “Fostering a Deeper Spiritual Life” through individual and group retreats. At the heart of our vocation is a passionate mission of loving service which facilitates our life-giving encounter with the living God.

The heritage of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles is rooted in the spirituality of Carmel, the Gospels, the Church, with our particular charism derived from our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

In His merciful goodness, God has graced our Institute with the Carmelite charism which has its roots in a long history and living tradition. The spirituality of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross is rooted in this tradition. Carmel means enclosed garden in which God Himself dwells. The divine indwelling in the soul is the foundation of Teresa's doctrine. Thus our vocation is a grace by which contemplation and action are blended to become an apostolic service to the Church.

Our ideal finds a living expression in the life and charism of our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, whose spirit we faithfully preserve and foster.

Our life is characterized by: - A life of prayer and union with God - A deep love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist - Devotion to our Blessed Mother - Steadfast fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church - Praying for priests - Commitment to works of the apostolate in ecclesial service

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