Nun vs. Sister

What's the Difference?

Nun and sister are both terms used to refer to women who have dedicated their lives to religious service. However, there are some key differences between the two. Nuns typically live in a convent or monastery and follow a strict religious order, adhering to a set of rules and practices. They often take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. On the other hand, sisters are more commonly associated with active religious communities and engage in various ministries such as teaching, nursing, or social work. While both nuns and sisters share a commitment to serving God and others, their roles and lifestyles may vary.


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Religious OrderBelongs to a specific religious orderMay or may not belong to a religious order
CommitmentLifetime commitment to religious lifeMay have temporary or lifelong commitment
Monastic LifeLives in a monastery or conventMay or may not live in a monastery or convent
PrayerPrayer is a central part of their daily lifePrayer is a central part of their daily life
EducationMay or may not have formal educationMay or may not have formal education
MinistryMay have specific ministries within the religious orderMay have specific ministries within the religious order
HierarchyMay have hierarchical positions within the religious orderMay have hierarchical positions within the religious order
MarriageExpected to remain unmarriedExpected to remain unmarried
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Further Detail


When discussing religious life, two terms that often come up are "nun" and "sister." While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually refer to two distinct roles within the Catholic Church. In this article, we will explore the attributes of nuns and sisters, highlighting their similarities and differences.

Definition and Vocation

A nun is a woman who has taken solemn vows and lives a contemplative life in a monastery or convent. Nuns dedicate themselves to prayer, silence, and solitude, focusing on their relationship with God and seeking spiritual perfection. Their primary vocation is to live a life of prayer and intercession for the world.

On the other hand, a sister is a woman who has taken simple vows and engages in active ministry outside the confines of a monastery. Sisters are involved in various works of service, such as education, healthcare, social justice, and pastoral care. Their vocation is centered around serving others and living out the Gospel in the world.

Formation and Training

Both nuns and sisters undergo a period of formation and training before fully embracing their religious life. However, the duration and focus of their formation may differ.

Nuns typically have a longer formation period, often lasting several years. During this time, they receive extensive spiritual and theological education, learning about the traditions and practices of their particular religious order. They also engage in intense periods of prayer, study, and reflection, preparing themselves for a life of solitude and contemplation.

Sisters, on the other hand, usually have a shorter formation period, which may range from a few months to a couple of years. Their training is more focused on practical skills and the specific ministries they will be involved in. Sisters receive education and training relevant to their chosen field, such as teaching, nursing, or counseling, equipping them to serve others effectively.

Community Life

Both nuns and sisters live in community, but the nature of their communal life differs.

Nuns live in enclosed monastic communities, often referred to as convents or monasteries. They follow a strict schedule of prayer, work, and silence, spending a significant amount of time in solitude and contemplation. Nuns typically have limited contact with the outside world, focusing on their spiritual growth within the confines of their community.

Sisters, on the other hand, live in active communities that are more engaged with the world. They may reside in convents or houses, but their daily lives involve interacting with people outside their community. Sisters work together in their ministries, supporting and encouraging one another in their service to others. They often participate in community activities, such as meals and prayer, but their primary focus is on their active ministry.

Attire and Appearance

Another noticeable difference between nuns and sisters is their attire and appearance.

Nuns typically wear a religious habit, which is a distinctive and traditional form of dress. The habit often includes a veil, a tunic, and a scapular, symbolizing their consecration to God and their separation from the world. Nuns may also wear a crucifix or other religious symbols as part of their attire.

Sisters, on the other hand, may wear a modified version of the religious habit or choose to wear regular clothing that is modest and appropriate for their ministry. The emphasis is more on practicality and blending in with the people they serve. Sisters may wear a small religious symbol, such as a cross or a lapel pin, to signify their religious affiliation.

Prayer and Ministry

While both nuns and sisters are committed to a life of prayer and service, the balance between these two aspects may vary.

Nuns prioritize prayer and contemplation above all else. They dedicate significant portions of their day to communal and individual prayer, often following a structured schedule of liturgical prayer, such as the Divine Office. Nuns see their prayer life as their primary ministry, interceding for the needs of the world and seeking union with God.

Sisters, on the other hand, place a greater emphasis on active ministry. While they also engage in regular prayer, their primary focus is on serving others. Sisters work in various fields, such as education, healthcare, social work, or pastoral care, bringing the love and teachings of Christ to those in need. Their prayer life supports and nourishes their ministry, providing them with the spiritual strength and guidance they need to fulfill their calling.


In conclusion, while nuns and sisters share a common commitment to their faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church, they have distinct attributes that set them apart. Nuns embrace a contemplative life of prayer and solitude, while sisters engage in active ministry in the world. Both vocations are valuable and contribute to the spiritual and social well-being of society. Whether called to a life of prayer or service, nuns and sisters play vital roles in living out their faith and spreading God's love to others.

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