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The nuns and the cardinal

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In 1963, at their retreat house near Santa Barbara, the IHMs gathered to discuss priorities for the next six years. Even before Vatican II, the order and its College encouraged ideas and hosted speakers that McIntyre, as well as more traditional IHMs, deemed contrary to Church teachings. When the retreat began, Anita Caspar}', then known as Sister Mar}' Humiliata, was President of the College and familiar with McIntyre’s objections. Elected Mother General during the gathering, she rightfully worried that the Cardinal would be displeased with the IHMs’ choice.

Over the next two weeks, the IHMs talked about the rules and responsibilities of their communal life. A growing number felt that hierarchical structures, whether in the Church or their order, limited individual development and were counter to what, according to the Zeitgeist, was their “personal responsibility” (Caspar}', 47). Committing to a long-range study of IHM precepts and principles, the nuns pledged to be “guided by the spirit and decisions of the Second Vatican Council” (Caspar}', 51). The Council’s call for interpenetration of the sacred and the secular resonated with the sisters who were, as Caspary later wrote, “opening up to the world around us” (Caspary, 49). That world, Los Angeles in the 1960s, was rapidly changing. Not only were there more people and more diversity, but there also were new perspectives on meaning, purpose, and identity. Young people were filling the streets with the sounds of rock music and the scent of marijuana. Their ethos of peace and love influenced how they looked, what they did, and what they valued. Their touchstones - personal authenticity and social responsibility - resonated with the younger IHMs but frightened some of the older ones.

At the same time as the counterculture was taking shape, the women’s movement was coalescing. The 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is often cited as the start of Second Wave Feminism, but the IHMs were likely aware of Rosa Parks’ 1955 refusal to move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus. Parks’ stand foregrounded the role of women in social change and their responsibility to respond to the challenges of the present moment. The 1963 Equal Pay Act, the 1964 passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (forbidding sexual discrimination), and the 1966 formation of the National Organization of Women also would have been known to the IHMs as they discussed renewing their order.

At the end of the 1963 retreat, a majority of sisters were ready to begin the process of self-evaluation with a general understanding that the path would lead to significant change. Over the next several years, they invited priests and psychologists, committed to a humanistic philosophy of personal growth and development, to help them imagine new possibilities. The aim of these retreats and workshops was to develop a plan in obedience to Vatican IPs call for each sister to “develop her fullest capacity as a person” (Caspary, 52).

In 1965, Caspary, then Mother Humiliata, went to Rome to observe first-hand the energy and enthusiasm of the Second Vatican Council. But her visit was cut short when she learned that McIntyre’s office was sending a delegation to investigate the IHMs’ spiritual well-being. The sisters, interrogated by two priests, were asked questions such as “Do you think the Sisters’ sex life is affected by reading novels?” “Do you want to look like a floozie on Hollywood Boulevard?” and “Do you have hootenanny Masses?” (Caspary, 69-70). Stunned by the irrelevancy of such queries, Caspary nevertheless, worried when she was summoned to the Cardinal’s office. He informed her that the IHMs needed to conform to religious life as he dictated it. He also insisted upon approving any changes in their communal and spiritual life. Caspar}' told him that the order would obey him in public matters but not in private ones. (Among McIntyre’s concerns was that the sisters had adopted flexible times and places for prayer instead of the prescribed meeting times and gathering places.)

Caspary assumed she had some wiggle room because the IHMs were under the Vatican’s jurisdiction not the Cardinal’s. (McIntyre had control of their public work in the diocese, but the Vatican oversaw their private lives as women religious.) During a visit to Rome, she was assured that was the case and advised on how best to resolve the situation with the Cardinal. Things settled down for a time, but in 1967, Mother Humiliata was informed that another official visitation would be sent to question the sisters. Coming so soon after the last one, the IHMs viewed the interrogation as an attempt to undermine their reform efforts. This time, the Cardinal informed Mother Humiliata that a number of sisters were unhappy with the order’s rapid pace of change. She knew that some members did not like the new ideas, but the majority wanted to proceed.

Throughout 1967, divisions in the order became clearer. The sisters planned to decide on proposed changes at a general meeting that summer, and they openly discussed their ideas in the months beforehand. Committees wrote proposals, and dissenters penned counterproposals. When the meeting began in June, many sisters saw themselves as part of a larger movement. “We began to understand our vision, and our struggle with ecclesiastical authorities as part of the women’s struggle for equal status in the mid-twentieth century” (Caspary, 103). Growing public attention to their dispute with McIntyre led several reporters to ask permission to cover their deliberations, but the IHMs said no.

During the six weeks of their meeting, delegates weighed the threat of the Cardinal’s anger against their desire for change. (McIntyre had previously warned Mother Humiliata that the order would “suffer” for their disobedience.) But when asked if they would like to move more slowly with proposed reforms, the group demurred. When the gathering ended in August, the sisters had agreed on “rationales and practical applications for a new religious life” (Caspary, 107). The next step was to turn their recommendations into a coherent document. Then, on what they dubbed Promulgation Day, Mother Humiliata would invite the order to discuss the plans.

On Saturday, October 14, 1967, a warm, smoggy day in Los Angeles, Mother Humiliata shared the reforms that would guide the IHM community during a period of experimentation. She began with the order’s commitment to teaching and education. Sisters who did not have college degrees or teaching credentials would temporarily leave the classroom so they could finish their education. Sisters who did not want to teach or nurse (the two occupations that the IHMs filled) could pursue whatever work they felt called to do. The next decree, on “the human person and community,” sought to balance the sanctity of the individual and the fulfilment of personhood in community. The third document, on spirituality, focused on prayer as an ongoing activity. Sisters could choose what, when, and where their individual prayers would be, and communities would determine times and places for group prayer. A final section changed orientation for new members from a prescribed course to a flexible procedure attuned to the gifts and interests of each novice.

The reforms were greeted with a standing ovation. But the joy of the moment did not last. On Monday morning, Mother Humiliata and four of her colleagues arrived at the chancery to meet with the Cardinal. Six of his staff were already waiting, and when McIntyre entered the meeting he asked if the IHMs really expected to wear “street clothes” in the diocesan schools. Mother Humiliata tried to answer, but he huffed that if the nuns did not wear habits, they would not teach in his schools. When Mother Humiliata explained that some nuns would need to leave the classroom to continue their education, McIntyre responded that he wanted all IHMs out of the parochial schools by June 1968. He accused the sisters of becoming secular and repeated his litany of complaints against the “disobedient” nuns.

Over the next few months, the IHMs tried to explain themselves to McIntyre. They did not wish to leave the schools nor, as he also had suggested, their convent. But the Cardinal remained firm. Their decision to wear secular clothes, he said, was a renunciation of their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Nuns elsewhere were experimenting with dress, work, and community life, but no other bishop or cardinal balked as McIntyre did. In fact, many Catholic clergy and laity publicly supported the IHM reforms, but McIntyre, unwilling to consider any of them, appealed to the Vatican for help.

In April 1968, the head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Religious issued a letter which was sent to all American sisters. While asserting support for Vatican II, it stated that (1) not wearing the habit, (2) changing community life, (3) seeking secular employment, and (4) disobeying the local Church authority were not permitted. A new round of letters from dissenters worldwide asked the Pope to step in and uphold the IHM reforms.

In May, a pontifical commission visited the IHMs to discuss their future. Their choice was to accept the four points outlined by the Sacred Congregation for Religious or to seek dispensation from their vows and start a new community outside the Church. Faced with a momentous decision, the sisters needed to formally acknowledge the split in their ranks. When each sister was asked where she stood, 51 chose to eschew the reforms and 455 agreed to continue their experiment. Those who stayed had a decision to make, but Caspar}' (who had resumed using her birth name) made one more trip to Rome to plead their case. She delivered a letter for Pope Paul VI, but she never received an answer.

By December 1969, the time for decision had come. Caspary’s community had fallen to 350 as members left discouraged and exhausted. (A year earlier, Kent had left the order and moved to Boston to pursue art full-time.) Meeting with the remaining IHMs, Caspar}' laid out their options: start a lay religious group that followed the IHM plans for reform, join a community of nuns in good standing, or live as secular individuals. Those who chose the first or third option had to sign a statement saying that they freely sought dispensation from their vows, but, although it was not discussed beforehand, each woman crossed out the word freely when she signed the document.

Around the same time as the IHMs accepted the dispensation from their vows, Cardinal McIntyre announced his resignation. In her memoir, Caspar}’ noted that some saw his departure “as a bargain struck by the Vatican because His Eminence had not found a diplomatic solution to the problem of the IHM community” (Caspar}', 211). In March 1970, the new Immaculate Heart Community held its first ceremony, and the following month “The Flying Nun” was cancelled. Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of Los Angeles was elected in 1973 with the support of Los Angeles’ wealthy and liberal West Side communities, and in 1979, Cardinal McIntyre died.


The impact of the women’s movement, Civil Rights struggle, counterculture, and domestic and international migrations affected every American religion. Likewise, the social, cultural, and political upheavals of the 1960s impacted many American cities. But the stark cultural polarities of Los Angeles, seen in microcosm through the conflict between Cardinal McIntyre and the IHMs, are distinctive.

Within a little more than a decade, Los Angeles had transformed from a conservative, White town to a diverse and international metropolis. Aspects of both incarnations were present then and now, but Mayor Yorty, Chief of Police Parker, and Cardinal McIntyre would have had difficulty reconciling their city with the sprawling cultural mecca that Los Angeles became in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, McIntyre would have been horrified to see the changes that Vatican II brought to his Church. In 2020, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the largest diocese in the country, but there as elsewhere in the United States the numbers of nuns and priests, parochial schools, and active parishioners has declined significantly since his tenure.

The IHMs were at the vanguard of that decline just as they were at the leading edge of the counterculture. Their openness to Vatican II, the women’s movement, the power of Sister Corita Kent’s vision, and the city transforming before them propelled their desire for reform. Their struggle with McIntyre, the personification of the city’s and the Church’s most conservative elements, culminated in one of the most shocking events of the twentieth-century American Church: the forced dispensation from vows by 350 women religious. During the three central years of the IHMs’ campaign to legitimate their reforms, Sr. Bertrille faced her own problem: viewers had stopped watching her show. Was the IHMs’ real-life crusade more interesting than the escapades of a flying do-gooder? Or was Hollywood, home to the IHM motherhouse, slow to realize that times had changed.


  • 1 All members of the order took Mary as their first name.
  • 2 Technically, the Vatican oversaw the private lives of the sisters (their religious and communal lives) and the local bishop directed their public duties (such as teaching or nursing).
  • 3 Parker died in 1966 and was followed by several interim chiefs until Edward M. Davis, whose command spanned 1969-1978.
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