Honoring the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary during Women’s History Month
March is women’s history month, and this is the story of a group of remarkable women who rocked the Catholic Church in the 1960s in an upheaval that is still felt today.
The Time Was the Early 1960s.
Vatican II, a universal conference of the Roman Catholic Church, was in progress in Rome. The purpose of Vatican II was to align the Church with the modern world and make it more accessible to the people. A number of revolutionary propositions emerged.
One of these was a document called The Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, which required religious orders to modernize themselves in order to better meet the needs of the populations they served.
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were an order of women religious based in Los Angeles. They numbered nearly 600 and worked in hospitals, taught in parochial schools, and ran Immaculate Heart College, reputed to be one of the finest and most innovative Catholic colleges in the country.
Dr. Anita Caspary
Dr. Anita Caspary was Mother Superior of the IHM order, and she saw in Vatican II a mandate to women religious to take control of their professional, personal and religious lives.
Up until that time, every aspect of religious community life for women was dictated by the leadership of the Church: what the nuns wore, what they read, when and how they prayed, and when they slept and rose.
This new Vatican directive suited the nuns well, since they felt that their clothing, medieval as it was, separated them from the people they served, and that their living conditions restricted their professional and spiritual expression.
At that time the majority of the IHM nuns were engaged as teachers in the many parochial schools in Los Angeles.
Unlike parish priests who were paid a good salary and received health insurance, cars, and pensions, the teaching nuns were paid a tiny stipend out of which the order had to pay all their expenses including medical care, and the care of the elderly nuns, who received no pensions from the diocese.
Catholic Education Began to Flag
One pervasive and growing problem at the time was that the demand for nuns as teachers outstripped the order’s ability to turn out college graduates qualified to teach.
Young women who joined the order were often put into the classroom after only one or two years of college. In other cases nuns were required to fill two full time jobs simply to keep the schools running. As a result the historically high quality of Catholic education began to flag.
Sisters Drafted New Democratic Process
The two areas of focus of the proposed changes involved dress and living arrangements on one hand, and conditions in parochial schools on the other.
Over several years, in the spirit of the Vatican mandate, the IHM sisters drafted their articles of renewal. According to these articles the nuns would swap their cumbersome clothing in favor of simpler, more modern garb, and they would determine for themselves the details of their community life.
On a professional level, classrooms would be staffed with trained teachers and college graduates. Thus, in 1967 the IHM nuns, through a democratic process characterized by extensive sharing of information and ideas, overwhelmingly voted to adopt the proposed renewal documents.
Cardinal James Francis McIntyre Demanded the Nuns Submit
Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, Archbishop and patriarch of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and reputedly the most powerful Catholic in the US was outraged. Invoking ancient Church laws and traditions he demanded that the nuns withdraw their proposal and submit completely to his authority.
Anything short of full compliance, he assured them, would be met with dire consequences.
The Sisters Refused
The sisters refused, and a national scandal erupted, bringing into the fray other American bishops and ultimately the Vatican itself.
The Cardinal issued an ultimatum: back down or get out of the over thirty parochial schools under his control, and the parish convents in which many sisters lived. The nuns voted by an 80% majority not to compromise.
Anita Caspary and the women she lead, many expelled from their work and their homes, and forced to abandon their vows, formed a new secular Catholic community based on democratic and egalitarian ideals.
They found new homes and jobs, and continued care for the older women.
A New Order Was Born
Out of a national scandal a new order was born. It was based on the principles of inclusiveness and democracy with a mission “to build relations in society which foster access of all persons to truth, dignity, and full human development, and to strategically change practices and situations which impede such access.
To create community, to work as advocates for the marginalized, for social and economic justice and peace, and for the integrity of creation.”
Women Dedicated to Their Mission to Serve
This scandal was not about changes in dress or schedules: many religious orders did that. In the end it was about a group of women, dedicated to their mission to serve, who bucked the unyielding and powerful patriarchy of the Catholic Church, and found their voice.
It’s Been 50 Years
Today their voices live on in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Nuns on a Bus
It has been fifty years since Cardinal McIntyre slammed his hand down on the table and vowed to the IHM nuns, “You will pay for this,” and yet their voice lives on today in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Nuns on a Bus.