Nuns at the beach, Cherai: Michael Foley
Michael Foley – Nuns at the beach, Cherai, Kerala, India

Sister is a word often associated with a Catholic nun, although Protestant women leading a life of institutionalized prayer are also called sisters. Wikpedia suggests that the term “nun” indicates a more contemplative path, while the term “sister” refers to a more active vocation. But this is debatable because, as Wikipedia also notes, the terms are often used interchangeably.¹

The word was commonly found in Hebrew (ahoth) and Greek (adelphe), where its meaning ranges from a family member, an extended relative or a wife, to a friendship or tribal tie.

Catholic nuns have existed from about 300 CE. The Catholic Church does not allow women to become priests, this apparently justified on the basis of the maleness of the twelve apostles.

English: Statue of the Virgin Mary Located in ...
Statue of the Virgin Mary Located in the grounds of the Roman Catholic Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This theological argument has been upheld as evidence of sexism within the ranks of the all-male Catholic hierarchy. This sexism is said to be reinforced and legitimized by cherry picking Bible verses that support a chauvinist stance while ignoring those which would refute it.

The Christian designation “brother is a rough parallel to “sister” for men. Two examples of “Mothers” (as linguistic but not organizational counterparts to priestly “Fathers”) are the late Mother Teresa and The Virgin Mary (called The Blessed Mother by Catholics).

Christian sisters are often (but not always) lampooned and unjustly stereotyped in the movies. One only has to wonder what would happen if a similar mockery of Hindu or Moslem religious women occurred in the media.² And why, we must ask, do Christians, for the most part, take it in stride? Could it be because Christians are the most secure in their faith? Or have many lost their faith and are just apathetic?


² For a list of other religious, professional and humanitarian uses of the word “sister,” see

On the Web




  1. You may have wanted to focus solely on the religious use of the term ‘sister,’ but in the UK (as well as Australia) it’s also a term used for nurses. I don’t know about any other countries (Canada?). This is often very confusing for Americans.


  2. Thanks, I did want to focus on that but point is well taken. In my update I’ve added a link to a Wiki page that lists more instances.

    As far as I know, we don’t call nurses “sisters” in Canada. You’d probably be charged with some kind of political incorrectness if you did! And, on a more serious note, we have an increasing number of male nurses here.


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