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The nuns and their city

Los Angeles was founded in 1781 as a military outpost for the Spanish governor of Alta California, and its first residents were Mexicans, Indians, and African-Americans. Mexicans took over from the Spanish in 1821 but were driven out in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. Four years later, when California became a state, the numbers of Los Angeles’ White Protestants began to rise. More came when intercontinental railroads began transporting passengers across the country. By the early decades of the twentieth century, with over 100,000 residents, Los Angeles was the cradle of the Pentecostal movement, the site of several conservative Bible schools, the place where The Fundamentals, 90 essays defending orthodox Christian belief, were conceived, and the home of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

But conservative, white Protestants were not the only religious group in town. Catholics remained a force, and the numbers of mainline Protestants and Jews were increasing. Occult and new religious movements also found adherents as spiritualists, Theosophists, white Buddhists, Christian Scientists, and yogis made their way west. Los Angeles lacked an entrenched religious establishment, which made it hospitable to newcomers. Its open spaces, bright sunshine, and promise of new possibilities also were a draw. But most religious groups, be they Mexican Catholics, Black Protestants, White occultists, or Eastern European Jews, lived in geographically distinct communities. Los Angeles’ capacious geography enabled diversity and innovation to thrive. Self-segregating groups could find their own neighborhoods, and the absence of strong denominational structures enabled experimentations in ritual and communal life.

For the first half of the twentieth century, white Christian homeowners and renters kept their neighborhoods and schools exclusive. But the city’s population surged dramatically after World War II. Southern and Midwestern whites relocated for work, Easterners moved for the sunshine, Southern Blacks joined the Great Migration to the West Coast, and Asians, South Asians, and the Middle Easterners came when Congress revoked immigration quotas in 1965. The swelling population and increased diversity led to cultural shifts, and friction from already existing marginalized communities, such as Blacks and Latinos, intensified. Specifically, new suburbs, often with racial covenants prohibiting non-Whites, sprang up, while Blacks and Latinos were trapped in blighted urban areas. By the mid-1960s, fault lines were clear.

But new immigrants and marginalized communities of color were not the only source of societal upheaval. A generation gap also threatened the status quo as young people asserted a new vision of individual autonomy and social mores. Starting in the early 1960s, Los Angeles experienced an influx of teens and young adults eager to experiment with drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. Sunset Strip became a favored hang-out, and nearby clubs featured acts ranging from The Doors to The Byrds to Miriam Makeba. Movies, too, reflected the spirit of the times with offerings such as Riot on Sunset Strip (1967), Yellow Submarine (1968), and Easy Rider (1969).

Sr. Mary Corita Kent was attuned to the countercultural revolution almost as soon as it began. In 1962, she brought her Immaculate Heart art students to the avant-garde Ferus Gallery, which was hosting the first exhibition of Andy Warhol’s pop art, featuring his prints of Campbell Soup cans. Warhol’s playfulness, bright palette, and appropriation of consumer culture enthralled the nun, and she began working in a similar style, albeit with a different bent. Borrowing the colors of Wonder Bread’s packaging, she designed a print that celebrated the wonder of “enriched bread,” referring not just to the Eucharist but also to the world’s hungry. Similarly, she used the “Big G” of the General Mills logo in prints proclaiming, “The Big G stands for Goodness,” thus transmuting a slogan for selling cereal into a reminder of God’s presence in the world.

Kent’s dynamic approach to art had her leading students through Hollywood’s run-down streets to visit car washes and supermarkets. She instructed them to notice signage, products, colors, and shapes that could enlarge their notion of art. Kent viewed Los Angeles “not as a morally corrupt wasteland but as an ecstatic profusion of messages and of materials with which to make new work” (PBS Studios 2019). In 1964, the college asked her to re-envision its annual Mary’s Day celebration, which had become a grey and staid affair. Anticipating the happenings that would take place in many American cities, Kent planned a day of festive celebration with a spiritual message - the importance of feeding both the physically and spiritually hungry. Led by guitar-strumming nuns, a procession of sisters, guests, and students, crowned in flower garlands, marched around the campus, carrying loaves of bread and posters proclaiming “Peace,” “I like God,” and “God Likes Peach Jam.”

Afterwards, one of Kent’s friends described the event in words he lifted from a can of Del Monte tomato sauce. Kent liked the phrase so much that she used it in a serigraph, “the juiciest tomato of them all.” A large red square on a white background is divided by two rows of block letters. The top row, in white ink with a yellow stripe through the middle, says TOM. In the second row, orange letters spell ATO. Kent’s tiny script fills the spaces of the bottom letters and includes the phrase, “Mary Mother is the juiciest tomato of them all.”

For Kent, the print represented the melding of the Second Vatican Council’s call for relevancy with the burgeoning critique of consumer culture. The Mary of her imagination intersected this world, reminding viewers of true sustenance and nature’s bounty. But Cardinal McIntyre did not see it that way. In his eyes, the print was blasphemous, and he ordered the nun never to show it publicly.

Even as the counterculture took shape and Los Angeles’ population became increasingly heterogeneous, the political establishment remained the same. White corporate leaders controlled the city, and the Committee of 25, an informal, behind-the-scenes cabal, made sure Los Angeles was hospitable to business. The Committee quietly supported public leaders and, in the early 1960s, among those men were Mayor Sam Yorty, Police Commissioner William Parker, and Cardinal James Francis McIntyre. The three were of one mind: enforce the status quo, safeguard law and order, and stop communists and other agitators (Davis and Wiener 2020, 207).

Segregation was part of the status quo, and Los Angeles’ leaders and many of its citizens opposed the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act, which ended racial discrimination in rentals and housing sales throughout the state. The following year, the California Real Estate Association sponsored Proposition 14 to counteract the Rumford Act and make discrimination legal. Heated debate ensued; the Los Angeles Times editorialized in favor of Proposition 14 and many business leaders backed it. The initiative passed with 65% of California voters’ assent. One of the largest majorities came from Los Angeles county, where the measure won the backing of 67% of voters.

Until this time, McIntyre’s leadership, responsive to an era of rapid growth, was praised and respected. But when many of Los Angeles clergy denounced the initiative, McIntyre remained silent to the consternation of many Black Catholics and their allies. In June 1964, Rev. William DuBay, a young White priest in a Black parish, publicly criticized the Cardinal for ignoring racial injustice. In a telegram to Pope Paul VI, DuBay wrote that McIntyre’s “gross malfeasance” required his removal from office (Day 2019). The incensed Cardinal forced DuBay to sign a loyalty oath and transferred him to a different church. Insisting that he would not take a stand on a political issue, McIntyre said there were no racial or moral issues involved. His position alienated clergy, who felt he was ignoring the mandates of Vatican II and discomfited some parishioners. In retrospect, the initiative’s success, which kept Los Angeles’ Blacks in cramped, segregated neighborhoods, along with Parker’s enabling of police brutality, and Yorty’s refusal to address Black unemployment were contributing factors to the Watts Riots.

The August 1965 protest in Watts - also called the Watts Uprising or Watts Rebellion - was a response to systemic racism. But neither local nor national news outlets portrayed it that way. Instead, they called the fracas a “race war,” “guerilla war,” and “blind, smashing madness” (Davis and Wiener 2020, 209). After almost a week of street violence, arson, and looting, the National Guard and the Los Angeles Police Department used extreme violence to subdue demonstrators.

McIntyre condemned the rioters, calling for law and order. But Kent had a different reaction. In a print called “my people,” she placed a reproduction of the August 14, 1965 Los Angeles Times’ on its side. Its extra bold headline, stripped across the front page, declared “Eight Men Slain; Guard Moves In.” Seeping onto the bottom of the newspaper page is a bright red block of color that includes the words of a priest active in the Civil Rights struggle: “Rather than squelch the rebellion, we might better enlist the rebels to join the greatest rebel of his time —Christ himself’ (Gihring 2019). McIntyre’s and Kent’s sentiments staked out opposing poles of opinion. These divisions not only rent the Church, but also the city and the nation.

Watts raised awareness of racism and inspired other Los Angeles constituencies to demonstrate against injustice. During the next few years, Chicanos, gays, and anti-war activists took to Los Angeles’ streets. McIntyre and Yorty, along with Parker’s successors,3 came down hard on all protesters, even high school students demonstrating against the Vietnam War. The IHMs did not march with protesters, but they knew what was happening around them. The college invited speakers on current events, courting McIntyre’s ire with guests such as the radical Berrigan brothers and other progressive Catholic clerics and theologians. Moreover, Kent’s prints became increasingly and explicitly political. One of the best known, “stop the bombing,” had a white background with a block of red covering the bottom two-thirds. Stop the Bombing, written in large, dark blue letters, runs on a slant from the top right to the bottom left. Above and beneath the letters are smaller words, a verse written in light-blue, cursive script that starts, “I am in Vietnam who will console me?” (Gihring 2019).

Kent’s increasing prominence as a visual artist made her the face of the IHMs and “modern” nuns nationwide. Her portrait and prints graced the 1967 Christmas cover of Newsweek for a report on “The Nun: Going Modem.” Inside, a four-page spread, long by magazine standards, described the impact of Vatican II on American nuns. Also included was a separate story that began, “There have been the singing nun and the flying nun, but the hippest of all is Los Angeles’s painting nun” (Newsweek 1967). Kent’s fame - and the accompanying stories of her global travels, famous friends (including John Cage, Ben Shahn, and Ray and Charles Eames), and growing politicization - made her an easy target for McIntyre’s animus. But in fall 1967, Kent’s IHMs, with her participation, presented the Cardinal with a far greater challenge than the “painting nun” ever had.

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