What type of nuns are there? (different orders of nuns)

As a theologian, I take an interest in the groups of Catholics that choose religious life. I was especially intrigued by the nuns in the Catholic Church after discovering that they are of different types and belong to different orders. Since I was curious to learn more about them, I decided to conduct more research on this. I spent the next week visiting a Catholic Church and interacting with nuns to learn how they differ. Last Monday, as I was teaching my college students about nuns, one of my students asked me whether there are different types of nuns. Another one wanted me to specify the different types of nuns and what orders they belong to. Since I had done in-depth research on this, I had all the right answers at my fingertips. So, what types of nuns are there?

The four main types of nuns include Mendicants, Canon Regular, Clerics Regular, and Monastic Nuns. The Mendicant nuns do not necessarily live in a monastery and support themselves through charitable contributions. Canon regular nuns are those in charge of a local parish, while the Clerics Regular preach, preach, and administer sacraments. On the other hand, the monastic nuns live in a monastery and are expected to recite the Divine Office every day. The nuns belong to different religious orders.

In this article, I invite you to join me as we delve into the topic of the types of nuns. Keep reading to discover the ranks of Catholic nuns, the main types of nuns, and their functions in the monastery, the main orders of Catholic nuns, and much more!

What are the ranks of Catholic Nuns?

Catholic nuns are part of enclosed religious orders which have a governing system. One nun is selected to head the religious house. If the house is an abbey (a home to an enclosed religious order), this nun is called an abbess. An abbess is also referred to as a mother superior in a community of Catholic nuns.

For a nun to be elected to this post, she must have been a nun for 10 years and be at least 30-40 years old. The diocesan bishop blesses an abbess in a rite and receives a ring and crosier. Once an abbess is elected, they are given authority over every nun in the house. Some of their responsibilities include regulating the goings and comings of nuns, delegating duties, punishing those who do not follow the rules, and choosing which books should be read and which should not.

The authority of an abbess is absolute, and no one is allowed to override her within the walls of her convent, not even a patriarch, bishop, or priest. An abbess has equal authority as a bishop in the Catholic Church. During medieval times, an abbess was in charge of double monasteries of nuns and monks and enjoyed certain honors and privileges.

On the other hand, if it is a monastery, the head of the nuns is referred to as the prioress. The prioress is also called Reverend Mother or Mother Superior. Catholic nuns believe that a prioress holds the place of Christ in a Monastic community. The distinction between a monastery and abbey has to do with the terms that a specific order uses and the level of independence of a religious house. For instance, the Benedictine family uses the term monastery to refer to the convents and buildings when talking about the community.

The main types of nuns

What type of nuns are there? 
The main types of nuns. Image source: Pixabay

Cleric regular

This refers to clerics who are part of a religious order under a rule of life (regular). They focus more on pastoral care rather than praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The Clerics regular include Somascans, Barnabites, and Jesuits. They first appeared in the Counter-Reformation in the 16th Century. The Clerics regular are religious and strict in the word, and they live a community life based on the Rule approved by the Holy See.

The functions of Clerics regular are to administer sacraments, educate the youth, preach, and engage in other spiritual works. They often wear a clerical dress instead of a religious habit, and they live in abbeys. Just like other nuns, Clerics regular take vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty.


These types of nuns do not necessarily live at a monastery or convent. They support themselves through charitable contributions and work. They often work with the church, school groups, and charity from time to time. Just like the clerics regular, Mendicant nuns assume the vow of poverty. Additionally, they recite the divine office.

Some examples of Mendicant orders are Franciscans, Trinitarians, Augustinians, Carmelites, and Dominicans. Mendicant nuns often live in urban areas preaching, evangelizing, and maintaining a lifestyle of poverty. Additionally, they avoid owning property.

Canon regular

Canon regular nuns are those that are often in charge of local parishes. Like the Mendicant nuns, the Canon regular nuns recite the divine office. They live together and share everything they have, and are dedicated to serving the local church. The first group of canon regulars is believed to have been founded by St Augustine of Hippo, who came up with The Rule of St Augustine. Therefore Canon regular abides by the Rule of St Augustine.

Canon regular nuns live in a community and are not the same as secular canons. In the past, these types of nuns used to take vows of stability and common property. However, they now take the public vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity.

What are the main orders of catholic nuns?

different orders of nuns
What are the main orders of catholic nuns? Image source: Pixabay

The Augustinian nuns

Augustinian nun is a collective term for different congregations or orders for nuns that live according to the Rule of St. Augustine. They follow the set of guidelines that this saint wrote. These nuns are enclosed in monastic communities.

Augustinian nuns serve in different countries throughout the world. Five years after their arrival, the Augustinian nuns built a permanent hospital in France. They stand out among other orders in that they are cloistered and devoted to a purely contemplative life. The nuns who live according to the rules of St. Augustine make solemn or simple vows. They also practice the ideals of charity and community.

The Catholic Order of Dominicans

This order is also referred to as the Order of Preachers, and it comprises nuns that live according to the rules of St. Dominic. St. Dominic founded this order in the 13th Century. From the name of this order, you can tell that the main role of the nuns is preaching and bringing more souls to salvation. They spread the word of God not only through words but also through their actions.

The nuns that follow the rules of this saint have a hidden life of worship, study, prayer, and silence. Additionally, they live by the standards of ministry and community. These nuns desire to continue living a simple monastic life. They are faithful to the traditions of the Dominican order. This order stands out for its commitment to the pursuit of truth and holistic education.

The Benedictines

This religious order included nuns that abide by the Rule of St Benedict. The first Benedictine monasteries date back to the 6th Century. The Benedictines were formally referred to as the Order of Saint Benedict.

The Benedictines are cloistered and organized in autonomous monasteries rather than operating under a single hierarchy. Every house has its own rules and characteristics, and it decides on specific activities. Rather than having a superior general, an Abbot Primate represents them to the world. They also surrender full jurisdiction to the abbesses that live in the abbey.

Their strong sense of community is admirable, and they stand out since they make a promise of stability. This means that they remain in the same community. They call this promise the Benedictine vow. Though the nuns under this order do not take a vow of silence, they have hours of strict silence that they must maintain. Additionally, the Benedictines follow a timetable every day.

The order of Saint Ursula

The nuns under this order live by the rules of Saint Angela Merici. Angela Merici founded this religious community in 1535. The order stands out for being a pioneer of the modern education of young girls. They have had a significant impact on the education sector since they founded different colleges, universities, and secondary schools across the United States.

Some of the roles they have been engaged in over the years include teaching manual work, writing, and elementary subjects of reading. When this order was established, they lived in families and met regularly for prayer and worship. When the saint died, the nuns were entrusted with catechism classes.

By the 17th Century, the Ursulines became a cloistered order. Though they did not follow very strict rules, they continued focusing on the education of girls. The Ursulines today are spread in different parts of the world. While some of them live in monasteries, others live in apartments.

Order of St Clare

This is another of the catholic nuns that has existed for centuries. The nuns under this order follow the Rule of St Clare. Clare of Assisi founded this order on Palm Sunday in 1212. They are also referred to as the Poor Clares or the Order of Poor Ladies. The Poor Clares are a contemplative, cloistered community.

They are dedicated to the Divine Office, prayer, poverty, and perpetual adoration. They stand out among other religious orders for living a life of joy, simplicity, and communal gifting. The nuns under this religious order take solemn vows dispensed by Rome. Since every convent of Poor Clares is autonomous, their practices vary greatly.

The nuns under this religious order are one of the sternest in the Roman Catholic Church. They are devoted to contemplation, penance, and manual work. They practice strict enclosures and severe fasting.

Who are cloistered nuns?

Cloistered nuns are nuns that separate themselves from the external world and its affairs. The term cloister originates from a Latin word that means to shut up. Therefore, being cloistered means that one is shut up or confined within a cloister. This is the biggest sacrifice that cloistered nuns make for the good of the community and the church. They are cloistered to find solitude to work and pray.

In the Catholic Church, the enclosure is regulated by the Oriental or Latin Code of canon law. These nuns strongly believe in Colossians 3:3, which talks about life being hidden with Jesus Christ in God. The Catholic Church believes that a cloistered life is a blessing to the nuns that choose it and the community at large.

Nuns that live like this have monasteries that are completely cloistered. Therefore, they are surrounded by a wall and have other barriers, such as grilles, to limit interaction with the outside world. Some of the areas in the convent are strictly permitted only to the cloistered nuns. Outsiders are only allowed to enter such areas unless under precise conditions, like if they are doctors. Sometimes, the choir where these nuns sit in the chapel is hidden from the public.

Some nuns are cloistered because they believe that this prevents them from getting distracted. Such nuns dedicate their entire lives to leading a religious life and praying. Therefore, they choose this lifestyle for the sake of intimacy with God. They search for God through prayer and believe that their union with Him contributes to the salvation of humanity.

Under specific circumstances, exceptions are sometimes granted for cloistered nuns to leave the enclosure temporarily, like one has to go to the hospital. Cloistered nuns believe that since Jesus lived on earth hidden and unknown to many, they can better serve God when they are hidden from the public.

Cloistered nuns fall under the following orders

  • Benedictine
  • Trappist
  • Carthusian
  • Cistercian

Additionally, some cloistered nuns belong to the second order of each of the Mendicant orders, including:

  • The Monastic Family of Bethlehem
  • Carmelites
  • Capuchin Poor Clares
  • Poor Clares
  • Augustinians
  • Services
  • Dominicans
  • The Colettine Poor Clares
  • Visitandines

What makes Cloistered nuns different from other nuns?

Cloistered nuns are different from the rest of the nuns in that they have very strict rules. For instance, while some Cloistered nuns have to abide by the rules of the papal enclosure, the rest of the nuns do not follow this. A cloistered nun is not permitted to leave the boundaries of the monastery unless for very serious reasons like medical necessity. Since Cloistered nuns practice enclosure, they take a vow not to go beyond the bounds of the cloister. The rest of the nuns that are not cloistered do not take such a vow.

The rules of other nuns are not that strict when it comes to leaving the convent. Other nuns can leave the convent more freely as long as one has permission from the superior. Such nuns, therefore, have more interactions with the public compared to cloistered nuns. Additionally, cloistered nuns pray all the time while other nuns engage in other activities besides praying.

Types of cloisters

What type of nuns are there?
Types of cloisters. Image source: Pixabay

The church recognizes three types of cloisters which include the following.

Papal cloister

Of the three types of cloisters, this is the strictest since a nun is expected to remain within the boundaries of the monastery for life. Rome defines the norms of papal enclosure and expectations for the papal cloister nuns. Their norms come from the Apostolic See.

Some of the instructions that they are given are that the presence of strangers should only be admitted when there is a necessity. In this form of enclosure, silence and recollection are key. There is also the absence of external works to enable the nun to connect with God continuously. The following orders practice this type of cloister.

  • Handmaids of the Precious Blood
  • Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters
  • Dominican Nuns
  • Poor Clares
  • Carmelite Nuns

Constitutional cloister

A constitutional cloister is not as strict as a papal cloister. The norms in constitutions and the Rule of individual order define the norms of this form of the cloister. Orders that fall under this type of cloister are those that are contemplative but engage in charitable or apostolic work. Nuns in such orders, therefore, have some freedom to leave the cloister for work. Some of the religious orders that practice this form of cloister include:

  • Norbertine Canonesses
  • Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood
  • Passionist Nuns

Monastic Cloister

This type of cloister is not very different from a constitutional cloister because it also has some level of freedom. For instance, guests are sometimes allowed to stay at the monastery. Nuns in this type of cloister are also allowed to interact with their visitors more openly than those in a papal cloister. Some of the orders that profess this type of cloister include:

  • Sisters of Mary Morning Star
  • Trappistine Nuns
  • Benedictine Nuns

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