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Comparing Photos of Sisters – Young and Old

Margaret C. Galiztin
My thoughts turned to the Two Sister Lucy’s article recently when I came across the picture of Sister Rita below in a “retirement fund for religious” ad in the National Catholic Reporter. Let me remind TIA readers that in the mentioned article, Dr. Marian Horvat shows in detail the sharp discrepancies in the facial structure and expression of the younger Sister Lucy compared to the older one, and asks: How it is possible for the two to be the same person?

As a contribution to that debate, I bring to the readers' attention this photo of Sr. Rita, as well as some other pictures I put together along the same lines. My point here is to show that the basic structural forms of the faces of people, especially nuns, do not change with time, as some defenders of the Sister Lucy II pretend.

Sister Rita old and young

Sister Rita (NCR, Dec. 7-20, 2012)

So let us look at Sister Rita, at left as a young teaching Sister of St. Joseph in the 1960s, and then today at age 88 as a progressivist nun, to see if the older one still resembles the younger one. I am not interested here in studying the difference in habit and mission, the bad fruit of the Council we know so well. Rather, it is to study whether or not structural changes occur in her face.

If we look closely, we can see that despite the travails that time works on every face, the basic features remain essentially the same. We find the same shape in the chin and smiling mouth, the same teeth and the same line that curves downward from the mid-cheek to the chin. The nose, although more flaccid, has not changed significantly, pointing downward at the tip. Although the eyebrows are now white and much thinner, they follow the same line, set at the same distance from the eyes. And the eyes are still spaced the same distance apart and maintain the same shape.

The expression of the older Sr. Rita changed from a nervous and insecure nun who looks uncertain about going ahead in the transformations of Vatican II, to a much calmer and tired person, resigned to her fate of changes, having decided to go along and give her total adhesion to them.

Most significantly, the ensemble of the shape of her face – from the height of the forehead, the structure of the cheekbones down to the shape of the chin – is the same, even after half a century has passed.

Is this an isolated case? I wondered. It did not take long to find that the answer was a resounding, No!

Joan Chittister young and old

Sr. Joan Chittister

I found an old photo of another recognizable religious, Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania. Her feminist and progressivist stands are well known and they need no repeating here.

Focusing on her face, we see that the features of the young sister in her traditional habit can still be seen in the heftier face of the aged Sr. Chittister. The two photos are clearly the same person. The same cheek creases, smiling mouth, nose and the same preeminent chin. We find the same eyebrows, although age gave them a more angular look.

The eyes are the same even though they lost the semi-circular shape that can come from hope and became more slitted. This together with the nervous tension in the upper lip that freezes her smile, give the impression of a revolted person whose extraordinary hatred situates her not far from violence and despair. The same eyebrows, eyes, nose, cheeks and chin set in the same way on the same round face assure us, indisputably, it is the same person.

Mother Teresa young and old

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Shall we look at another more famous example?

Here is an Albania sister who needs no introduction, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. In the background we see her in the 1950s at the beginning of her work. The two have the same rather large bulbous nose, the same short distance between her nose and mouth, the same widely spaced eyes, the same smile and chin. The muscles of her face contract the same way when she smiles.

Even with the many wrinkles of the older Mother Teresa and leathered skin from exposure to the sun, it is not difficult to recognize the similarities and know that the two are the same woman.

Now, let us compare the photos of another sister prominent in the feminist movement and see if we see the same kind of similarity.

Sister Joan Sobala young and old

Sister Joan Sobala

Who could dream that young Sister of St. Joseph with the sweet smile and melancholic gaze would become the radical old feminist with a man haircut on the right?

Although she long ago abandoned the habit and classroom to take up the cause of gay and women’s rights in the Church, Sr. Joan Sobala still has the same distance between her eyes, the same nose and smile she had in her youth.

The spirit of the sister is quite different, but the structure of the face is the same.

I could continue on with many examples of known and unknown sisters, and in each case we would find that the young person is recognizable in the old one. Neither the muscles of the mouth change, nor does the essential shape of the nose. Cheek and chin structure maintain the basic lines, give or take the extra pounds that often come with age.

Forensic experts who work with facial compositing software say that religious women are almost perfect models, because sisters usually do not smoke, drink heavily, do drugs, sun bathe, have plastic surgery or many of the other factors that cause more severe facial modifications with age. Rather, they progress naturally, making it easy to see the young woman in the older one, and vice versa.

Sister Lucy Lucia young and old

An exception to the rule?

In this next photo, at the far left is Sister Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, better known as Sister Lucy of Fatima. Here we see her at age 39 at Ajustrel on May 23, 1946. It is one of the last photos we have of her as a Sister of St. Dorothy in Tuy, Spain, before she made her profession as a Discalced Carmelite in 1949 in Coimbra.

For several decades, Sister Lucy disappeared from sight and camera view, except for one appearance with Paul VI on May 13, 1967. Then, in the 1980s the Sister at the right began to appear regularly in the press as Sister Lucy.

But what a change! The mouth structure has changed – now the edges point down instead of up. The nostrils flare at the end of a more salient nose, different from the one she has in her youth. The eyebrows now are arched, set far from the eyes, which we can see despite the round glasses that somewhat camouflage them.

Even the structure of the face has changed – the old Sister Lucy has a square chin, not the dimpled double chin of the young Sister Lucy I. Now, the face is square, not oblong. The cheeks are flat, not bulging.

So many changes… I believe we can rule out plastic surgeries in the Carmelite Convent in Portugal.

Anyone can make observations like these based on simple common sense. It is enough for me to realize that either we have a mysterious exception to the rule of age progression in the case of Sister Lucy - or the two photos are of two different persons.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted January 21, 2013

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