How a group of California nuns challenged the Catholic Church

California in the 1960s was the epicenter for spiritual experimentation. Indian gurus and New Age prophets, Jesus freaks and Scientologists all found followings in the Golden State.

But among those looking for personal and social transformation, the unlikeliest seekers may have been a small community of Roman Catholic religious: the Immaculate Heart Sisters.

Theirs was, as I discovered in my research on the order, a compelling spiritual saga, culminating in a showdown with the Catholic hierarchy. The story of that conflict spotlights the impact of the California dream on a Church in transition.

Who were the Immaculate Heart Sisters?

The Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was founded in Spain in 1848. Twenty-three years later, at the invitation of the bishop of California, 10 sisters came to the United States.

Initially, the nuns worked with the poor, but pivoted later to education. In 1886 they began teaching in Los Angeles. Over the next several decades, they staffed Catholic schools, started a convent, and founded a high school and a college. The college, though, closed in 1981 due to financial problems.

In 1924, the order separated from Spain. The women renamed themselves the California Institute of the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The “new” order flourished: By the 1960s, it had 600 members, most of whom were teachers. And by 1967 almost 200 sisters worked in Los Angeles’ Catholic schools. More served in their own order’s educational institutions.

Led by broad-minded mother superiors, their order and their college were intellectually rigorous and open to diverse perspectives. They welcomed female speakers such as social activist Dorothy Day to campus as well as Protestant, Jewish and even Hindu religious leaders.

Changes in Rome

Meanwhile, change was stirring at the Vatican, the center of world Catholicism. In 1959, Pope John XXIII had invited Roman Catholic leaders to discuss the role of the Church in the modern world. From 1962 to 1965, this Second Vatican Council debated Catholicism’s future. Centuries had passed with little change in Church teaching, ritual, community life and worldview. But now the council would, in the words of the pope, “open the windows and let in the fresh air.”

Catholic leaders reviewed everything from interreligious dialogue to the role of the Church in the modern world. They even updated the traditional liturgy. The language changed from Latin to the vernacular, priests faced the people and popular music was welcomed into Mass.

The debate over Vatican II’s achievements continues today. At the time, many Catholics were excited by the innovations, but others preferred the Church as it was. They were not eager to see the council’s intentions put into practice.

James Francis Cardinal Mcintyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, U.S., left. AP Photo/Mario Torrisi
Among these conservatives was James Francis Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles.

Challenging the Church hierarchy

Following the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council, the Immaculate Heart Sisters decided to review and renew their religious life. In 1963, the sisters began a multi-year study of their spiritual practice, community structure and mission. They met regularly to talk and pray about the future of their order.

According to Anita Caspary, the order’s head at the time, the nuns were inspired by the Second Vatican Council; the spirit of the times (that is, the 1960s); and the growth of diverse populations that were roiling Southern California.

Sister Anita Caspary. AP Photo/David S. Smith
She later wrote that in this “historic moment of faith and freedom,” the community saw itself as “part of the women’s struggle for equal status in the mid-20th century.”