“This is, all told, a stirring epic of what the Gospel is all about.”
The Christian Century (February 18, 1970).
The past can come back to haunt you. It happened to me just last week. I was on a walk in the Hollywood Hills and came upon the back side of what used to be my college alma mater, Immaculate Heart College. (Since 1980 the property has been the home of the American Film Institute). As I walked the perimeter, memories came flooding back.
I was struck anew with the fact that my four years at IHC coincided with one of the most contentious, nationally publicized Catholic confrontations the American Church had ever seen prior to the clerical sexual abuse scandals. What was happening in Catholic Los Angeles during those four years was as revolutionary as the Viet Nam War protests and the cultural revolution, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, all of which occurred during my freshman year.
What went down in Catholic Los Angeles in the late 60’s and early 70’s formed my Catholic identity, and I will be forever grateful that I got to witness the courage and conviction the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary showed as they faced patriarchy square in the face. Their clear-eyed vision of the gospel overcame their fear of repercussions. The struggle they endured both broke them and renewed them, resulting in a reimagination of what religious community could look like.
The IHM’s were a very educated, creative group of women who took to heart the Vatican II Council’s call for religious groups to renew themselves. Religious women had a new role to play in the modern world, and the majority of the IHM’s were eager to get started. They gathered in 1967 and passed what they called a Chapter of Renewal. In the prologue they wrote:
“Women, perhaps especially dedicated women, insist on the latitude
to serve, to work, to decide according to their own lights. American
religious women want to be in the mainstream of this new, potentially
fruitful, and inevitable bid for self-determination.”
The sisters found the floor length habit and veil they wore an obstacle to developing relationships in their lives and work and wanted to experiment with contemporary clothes. They also found that the structure of their required daily communal prayer practices often prevented them from being present for many work situations and wanted to try a more flexible schedule. Many found themselves teaching in parochial schools with very little training and were particularly interested in developing more professional standards for teacher education and preparation.
None of this sat well with Cardinal James F. McIntyre, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, who already had the sisters on his radar for their contemporary Mass music and the avant-garde religious art of Sr. Corita Kent coming out of the college. On October 16, 1967, the five members of the IHM general council were called to the cardinal’s office. They met with Cardinal McIntyre and six of his top staff. As Anita Caspary, Mother General of the IHM community later describes in her book, Witness to Integrity:
[Cardinal McIntyre] “did not like it that a woman was long in her explanation to him; that she talked of experimenting with the lives of religious; that he, who and attended the Second Vatican Council as a cardinal, was being reminded of some of its provisions. He was the guardian of canon law, not a group of sisters in a convent in Hollywood who wanted to wear contemporary clothes and whose lives sounded more and more like those of lay women. As he thought about all this, his voice barely controlled now, rose even higher and louder. Again, I can see the dramatic scene and hear his pronouncement: ‘Very well, you can keep all your experiments and your fine decrees. But I tell you this, you won’t be staying in my schools.’”
Witness to Integrity, p.126
What happened after that fateful meeting was rapid and unprecedented.
Fall of 1967
· Bishops in five other dioceses support the sisters’ renewal experiments
including the wearing of contemporary clothing in classrooms.
· The Vatican announces a visitation to the sisters from the Sacred Congregation for Religious. Two visitations take place.
· The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Religious informs the sisters that:
1) they must adopt a uniform habit, 2) every community must have daily religious exercises in common, 3) the sisters should keep their commitment to education in mind, and 4) the sisters must collaborate with the local Ordinary (the local bishop or archbishop).
· Pressure mounts within the community and 50 of the sisters (c. 10% at the time) elect a new leader and inform the Archbishop, who retains them as teachers.
· Six prestigious canon lawyers state in a letter to the IHM’s that “in our opinion, both the spirit and the explicit expression of your decrees are entirely within in the law.”
· 25,556 signatures are attached to a petition asking the Pope
“to protect and encourage” the nuns in their modernization experiments.
· The IHM sisters are made to withdraw from the convents and schools owned by
the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
· A number of the very young sisters, alarmed at the uncertainties of the future, leave the community when their schools close.
· The sisters begin the painful process of legal separation between those who wish to return to the old rule (51) and those who want to follow the renewal (350). Anita Caspary writes:
“Those in the new community who felt they did not have a vocation to be a teacher ventured into new work. Some members were employed in adult religious education programs, some pursued ethnic studies followed by social work, some joined the Peace Corps, some worked with mentally or physically handicapped, some became hospital administrators. One sister, a professional musician, left her classroom to return to playing second cello for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.” Witness to Integrity, p. 19
· The Vatican returns with another pontifical commission, this time determining that the sisters must form a lay organization and no longer consider themselves as “religious.”
· Anita Caspary makes a last-ditch effort and takes her cause to Rome. No communication
from the Vatican is ever received following this visit.
· Anita Caspary makes the cover of Time Magazine as the sisters continue to fight for self -determination.
· The Chapter of Renewal takes the legal title “Immaculate Heart Community,” which is recorded by the state of California.
· Forced to become a non-canonical community, the sisters are informed that they can no longer have a chapel or reserve the Blessed Sacrament in their motherhouse.
· At their next chapter meeting, the sisters decide to allow married persons and Christians of all denominations to be admitted to the community.
Visit them today at https://www.immaculateheartcommunity.org
Hindsight suggests that if the IHM motherhouse had been in another diocese in California, what unfolded might never have occurred. Fr. Andrew Greeley, a leading religious sociologist at the University of Chicago at the time wrote:
“…The decision of the Congregation of Religious to support
the reactionary Los Angeles chancery office in its battle
with the Immaculate Heart Sisters is one of the greatest
tragedies in the history of American Catholicism.”
In March 2000, Cardinal Roger Mahony issued a public apology for the sins of the California Catholic Church. Among those he acknowledged was the “unfortunate dispute” between his predecessors and the Immaculate Heart Community, and apologized to those “who felt hurt and rejection by the church during those years.”
Throughout my adult life I have often bristled and raged at the lumbering dysfunction of the institutional Catholic Church. But like these sisters, somewhere deep inside me, my gospel call is somehow inextricably tied to the old fossil. I can’t let it go, and I simply won’t let it let go of me. To paraphrase the IHM’s 1967 Chapter of Renewal, while I remain a Catholic woman, I insist on the latitude to serve, to work and to decide according to my own lights.