The Archdiocese, the Nuns, the Pop Star—and the Real Story

So I don’t know if you heard it or not, but apparently the Archdiocese of Los Angeles hates elderly nuns. Or the American legal process. Or just anything that is not male and clerical (except for Katy Perry).

At least, that’s what you might think if you watched TV or read a major newspaper over the last couple weeks. “Here’s a line I never thought I’d have the pleasure of writing,” wrote an apparently gleeful Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez in a June 29th story: “Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez is sparring with elderly Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary over the pending sale of the nuns’ former convent in Los Feliz to international superstar singer Katy Perry.”

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The same day, the Washington Post trumpeted, “These nuns want Katy Perry to keep her hands off their old convent.” On July 3rd, CNN’s Heidi Schlumpf stated that the "real story here is one of church hierarchy, mainly bishops, trying to get their hands on the vast property by women’s religious orders in the United States.” The day before, The New York Times had the story on its front page.

The story has even reached around the globe. “Nuns Knock Back Katy Perry’s Offer”, announced the New Zealand Herald on July 6th.

What’s strange—or maybe not—about the story is the lack of real reporting that’s been done. Sorry, Ms. Schlumpf, but this is not a story about church hierarchs trying to rip off some poor old nuns. Nor, contrary to some reports, is it a story about Katy Perry attempting to fool an order of elderly sisters into giving her a place to sing “I Kissed a Girl” for her Hollywood friends.

In fact, it’s not even a story about an order of sisters, but about two individual nuns who took it upon themselves to sell the mansion convent in which they all used to live, though they appear to have neither canonical nor legal right to do so.

A Bridge to Sell

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were once a vibrant teaching order. Originally from Spain, they came to Monterey, Calif., in 1871 at the request of the bishop, and grew to educate youth all over the state.

Then in 1970, a staggering 90 percent of the order’s sisters—some 300 nuns—left the order "to form an independent community, without canonical status, yet still dedicated to the Decrees they had promulgated in 1968" after years of fighting then-archbishop of Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre for the right to modernize their order. Though it was years after Vatican II had called for some improvements, McIntyre was dead set against such change. The result was the biggest single exodus of nuns ever in the history of the church, a terrible, avoidable tragedy. (The group of former nuns continues to this day to work with underserved people in Los Angeles.)

The remaining few nuns kept the property, including their large convent property in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. But the decades that followed found them lacking in new vocations and rife with internal conflicts. In 2005 these issues reached the point that it was decided by the Vatican that a “Papal Commissary” would be appointed by then-Cardinal Roger Mahony to assume responsibility for the few sisters that remained, with the hope of “restor[ing] a sense of peace and tranquility” within the order. The arrangement was analogous to a legal guardian—a situation that made sense given the fact that there were so few sisters left, all of them growing elderly. Having a commissary became a way of ensuring that the sisters’ needs were taken care of for the rest of their lives.

Since that time until this last year, canon lawyer and Vincentian Father Thomas Anslow, C.M., has served as commissary, overseeing all legal and religious issues of the order just as a religious superior would. Today there are just five sisters left; the youngest is 77, the oldest 88 and they no longer live in the convent but in various retirement and health care communities. The circumstances of their departure from the convent in 2011 remain unclear—the archdiocese says that all agreed that the mansion property had deteriorated to a point that it was no longer in the sisters’ best interests to stay there; some of the sisters say they were forced to move. (A request for an interview with the two sisters at the center of the controversy was denied by their legal team.)

Either way, they did go—notably, without making any legal claim as to their independent authority—and the archdiocese began to look for a buyer, eventually entering into negotiations with the pop star Katy Perry, who had apparently long eyed the large, quiet property as a place she could create a retreat for herself. She offered $10 million cash up front, along with $4.5 more for the archdiocese to move its House of Prayer for Priests, which has a 77-year lease on part of property. (The New York Times article referred to the House of Prayer as a place that “some priests still visit,” as though it were an abandoned shed in the back of our parents' house where we still store some of our stuff. In fact, the “house” consists of a set of buildings that has long served as a place for retreats, spiritual direction and support for the over 1,000 priests of the archdiocese of Los Angeles and beyond. It is in fact one of the only places in the entire country dedicated specifically to the spiritual and emotional health of priests. Given the struggles our church has seen in recent years, the need for such a place cannot be overstated.)

Despite the fact that for 10 years their institution had been overseen by Fr. Anslow, Sisters Rita Callahan and Catherine Rose Holzman insisted that the archdiocese had never filed the proper paperwork to make the commissary the legal executor of their estate, and that consequently the five sisters retained legal control over the property. And with that they sold the deed to local restaurateur Dana Hollister, who despite the obvious competing claims immediately took possession of the property, installing guards at the gates and having a Fourth of July party there.

And in contrast to the 10 million Ms. Perry was offering immediately, Ms. Hollister not only took possession for just $100,000, she is under no obligation to pay another dime of the $15.5 million she has promised until June of 2018.

(When I asked for information last week about the contract, the sisters’ media rep was himself so stunned reading for the first time the just-released details that he actually had to stop and read it again to be sure it was correct. He later emailed me to indicate that while there is indeed nothing in the contract requiring Ms. Hollister to pay anything until 2018, in fact she plans to add a clause promising to pay the sisters $300,000 a year until 2018, or until she chooses to sell the property herself or back out of the deal, which again, she can do at any time with no penalty.)

In the meantime, the archdiocese says the endowment which provides for the care of the sisters dwindles. Speaking for the archdiocese, attorney Michael Hennigan makes clear, their care is not in question. If their funds should run out, the archdiocese will pay from their own coffers. But obviously having the funds from the sale would help.

What would you do, asks Hennigan, if you heard that your grandmother had agreed to the kind of arrangement the sisters entered into with Hollister? You’d certainly be upset with Hollister, he argues. “You might even consider going to the cops.”

Also, There is the Matter of the Law

The matter gets even more sketchy from here. Sister Rita claimed that she had the written consent for the sale from what she calls “the directors” of the order—namely the other four sisters. But last week it came out that one of the signatures was faked, that in fact Sister Marie Christine Munoz Lopez never gave any such consent. 

Likewise, on July 4th Steve Lopez ran a second piece on the situation in the L.A. Times, in which another of the sisters, Sister Jean-Marie Dunne, told Lopez she actually thought the archdiocese had the legal right to sell the property.

Lopez noted that Dunne has previously sent emails to diocesan officials criticizing the sale as “NOT FAIR.” Says Lopez, “That email made me wonder, if when Sister Jean-Marie signed her declaration of support for the diocesan position, she had been coerced”—a position the sisters’ legal team is trotting out.

Said Sister Jean-Marie to the accusation: “Nobody can coerce me to do anything.” (You tell him, Sister.)

The sisters’ case seems to hinge on whether or not the canonical appointment of a commissary in 2005 has any standing under California state law. Attorney for the sisters Bernie Resser has said, while Archbishop José Gomez “may answer to a higher authority, he is not above the law.” 

It’s a nice line. But in fact, neither Gomez nor the archdiocese is claiming some sort of “divine sanction.” They believe by California law the installation of Anslow does indeed have legal standing. More importantly, in the 1992 articles of civil incorporation for the religious order, which were signed by the sisters then in charge of the order, includes this statement: “The corporation shall not sell, lease, encumber, convey, exchange, transfer or otherwise dispose of any part or all of its assets, namely” the property in question, “without the prior written approval of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles.” The sisters have no such written approval from the archdiocese. Therefore, even if they were somehow ruled the owners of the deed, the Hollister sale would remain invalid.

It’s not about David & Goliath, It’s about Grandma

As I write this, there’s still a part of me that wants to see the sisters win. Not because they have any legal right or because it’s the right thing for them. It's pretty clearly not.

No, it’s because they’re the underdogs, fighting the big bad institution. Christianity began out of that story, one innocent man persecuted by massive organizations with something to lose. And let’s be honest, even with a great leader like Pope Francis at the helm, the church today still has much to answer for. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone, it’s been only a couple years since the revelation that Cardinal Mahony allowed cemetery funds to be used for sexual abuse settlements. And when it comes to the U.S. church, that’s all been just the tip of the iceberg. We’re nowhere near the end of the shocking stories.

Given this, it’s easy to see why journalists—even great ones—might skip the hard yards and just slide this story into that ready narrative. Plus, it has Katy Perry, for God’s sake. The thing writes itself. If I had a penny for every headline that involved the words "RoarorFirework” I could drum up the $100K to move into the place myself.

But what’s happening in Los Angeles is not the tale of David and Goliath; it’s the story of the archdiocese trying to care for its elderly parents. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary gave their lives to the church. They gave everything they had, and the church in California is very much the better for their generosity.

Age and infirmity has diminished them, like it eventually diminishes all of us. Sisters Ruth and Catherine Rose insist they’re still in control, it’s their house and they’ll decide what happens to it. But the sad truth is that all of that changed many years ago, again just like it does for all of us. And rather than capitulate, the responsibility of the archdiocese is to do every prudent thing it can to care for them, even if that conflicts with their wishes.

In the end it’s not about the law, it’s about caring for these generous women. And no matter how outrageous it all gets—and boy, it sure has gotten outrageous—to be there still when the fight is over, grateful for all that these sisters have given and even now in their own ways continue to give.

Correction: July 20, 2015

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that 90 percent of The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary left the Catholic Church in 1970. The sisters left the order, not the church.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William deHaas
2 years 4 months ago
Please correct - it is Rev. Thomas Anslow, CM. Vincentians are the US name for the Congregation of the Mission - CM (not SM).
BOB HERNANDEZ
2 years 4 months ago
I have great respect for the IHM sisters - they taught me in parochial school. Sr. Jean-Marie is an incredible and gentle soul. I pray for the best outcome for all parties involved.
DAVID GENTRY-AKIN
2 years 4 months ago
A poignant story about the tragic loss of our women religious and the reality of our brokenness as Church. The author is incorrect, however, to say that the Sisters "left the Catholic Church". They did not leave the Catholic Church. They left, en masse, consecrated religious life. Some may, individually, have left the Catholic Church. Many others remained faithful, practicing Catholics, though no longer canonical women religious. An important distinction.
Nora Bolcon
2 years 4 months ago
So let me get this straight a conservative Bishop would not let this convent make necesary changes to modernize which caused it to collapse quickly, and then years later due to this collapse, a later Bishop decides if you give us this multi-million dollar property, we take care of you in nursing homes, instead of give you the money so you could buy a small property for yourselves and have people paid to come in and take care of you. It turns out this later agreement was not legally made because necessary legal signatures were not received to make it valid. Yet this reporter seems to think that this is ok - I don't know why. It seems to me that the Archdiocese which burned these women initially by destoying their convent with their arrogant control over them should not benefit from its demise. It seems like the archdiocese owes these women help because they destoyed the health of the convent who would have helped these sisters had they been allowed to flourish and change, and they owe them help free of charge for that reason alone. The diocese control and decision in 1977 cost the nuns their order. So I don't see why the diocese has any reason to complain. They were the first people taking advantage of these women, and to prove what goes around comes around, they justly got tricked by another women who took advantage of them. In the end, I hope Katy Perry buys it from the nuns and the nuns do with the funds whatever they want. I think it stinks that after destroying a convent, the diocese puts buildings on the nun's property that only priests, only men, can enjoy a retreat on. That just seems like salt on the sexist wound. I say let the nuns sell the whole lot and bring a little justice to the nuns that are left by giving the funds back to them to divide and spend as they wish.
THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
2 years 4 months ago
Excuse me, Fr. McDermott, but are you the press officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles? Why don't you wait and see what the court determines before you proclaim that, "...two individual nuns who took it upon themselves to sell the mansion convent." If you stop to think about it and read what both the archdiocese and the FIVE sisters are saying, you will realize the archdiocese is suing the sisters to prove the point you attempt to infer is the fact. Again, let's see what the court says about who has the rights in this instance. The fight with Cardinal McIntyre was about the a group of sisters refusal to be faithful to their vow of obedience. It does seem strange that the sisters who gave-up everything and left the IHM group that got everything (these sisters left with nothing from the IHM order in c.1969-1970) because they remained faithful to their vow of obedience should now be mistreated by Cardinal McIntyre's and Cardinal Manning's successors.
Holly Coco
2 years 4 months ago
As a screenwriter and "student of history", you may appreciate a BBC film which addresses the massive exodus of the Immaculate Heart convent in LA during the period you reference... and the tragic impact of psychotherapist's experiments on these cloistered nuns. "THE CENTURY OF SELF -- There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads He Must Be Destroyed" (The segment about the nuns begins about 4:00 minutes in.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qs4aNiI_bA … Century of Self by Adam Curtis. One of the Psychotherapists involved in the experiment, deeply regrets his role in the demise of the convent... "WE OVERCAME THEIR TRADITIONS, WE OVERCAME THEIR FAITH" -- A contrite Catholic psychologist's disturbing testimony about is central role in the destruction of religious orders. https://www.ewtn.com/library/PRIESTS/COULSON.TXT
Jm McDermott
2 years 4 months ago

I don't usually comment on pieces that I write, but I wanted to make two comments on this one.

First, thank you for the corrections, particularly on the point that I mistakenly said the IHM sisters who left in 1970 left the Church when what I meant was that they left the order. What a ridiculous error to have made! I've noted it to my editor and the article should soon reflect that.

In the article I offered a link to the IHM community, which those former sisters created and which continues to serve the poor in Los Angeles. I hope down the the line to do a piece just on them. 

Second, no, I am not the press officer for the archdiocese of Los Angeles or anywhere else, and we should all be glad for that! But in this case I do find that the archdiocese has not been given a fair hearing in the press, that in fact journalists of great repute and from important news organizations barely consulted with the Church at all to try and understand what's going on. And I think with the added information that such research (and it's pretty basic research) provides, the story becomes very different than the one the press has reported.

 

 

William Rydberg
2 years 4 months ago
This is the clearest account of the situation that I have read. Thanks for laying it out.
Michael Malak
2 years 4 months ago
When a massive number of Immaculate Heart of Mary, (IHM), nuns exited their order, to avoid the ecclesial leadership of Los Angeles Archbishop James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, they formed a lay apostolate that embraced, among other things, living with males. For decades, the former Sister Anita Caspary, once the IHM superior, made a cottage industry out of detailing her own, self-described, allegedly, Biblically proportioned struggle with the former Cardinal. Caspary faded from sight, however, shortly after she, publicly, demanded to be ordained a priest. After the putsch, the traditional sisters, who wished to remain religious, were forced out of their convent by means that were, reportedly, not always charitable. The homeless nuns, who had previously resided on the grounds of Immaculate Heart College, now the campus of the American Film Institute, appealed to Cardinal McIntyre who helped them procure the convent Katy Perry now wishes to acquire. Their new home, however, wasn't always a house of prayer. It was built for Packard dealer and public personality, Ray Anthony. Sir Daniel Donohue and his wife, Estelle Doheny, prominent Catholics, acquired it, subsequently. Sympathetic to the traditionalist nuns' plight, Cardinal McIntyre inveigled Donohue to sell the property to them, though it's unclear what the nuns actually paid because Donohue gave them money to help buy his own house. That is the back-story of the convent Katy Perry, now, wants for her home. Two nuns, however, anticipatorily sold it to a local L.A. restaurant promoter and accepted, in lieu of Perry’s 14.5 million, in cash, the sum of $100,000.00 with the balance covered by a note. The two objecting nuns stated rationale was that if the joint becomes a private home for Ms. Perry, no member of the public will see the house, as if they did before, except for those few permitted on the grounds for occasional Catholic wedding receptions, for which the nuns pocketed the cash. Maybe the two obstreperous, Perry-sale-protesting nuns should be laicized, too, because, like their former order members, they are not obedient, either. This is a tawdry ending to what was once a vaunted, proud, intellectual and artistic order all of whose members, some later than others, became too full of themselves.
William deHaas
2 years 4 months ago
Here is the LA Times - "In documents filed in court Friday, attorneys representing the sisters contended that the archdiocese never sought to established legal control over the order's nonprofit institute until June, when it installed officers to oversee the institute. That move, however, was illegal and a “hostile takeover” by the bishop of the order of nuns, the attorneys wrote. The newly appointed officers have no standing under state law to claim legal authority over the institute and its assets, the attorneys argued. The sisters say they were first informed in September 2014 that the archbishop planned on selling the property to a woman called Katherine Hudson. The nuns later learned that Hudson was better known as the pop sensation Katy Perry. After learning more about the singer and her “public image,” the sisters objected to selling Perry the property “for what should be obvious reasons coming from Catholic nuns,” the attorneys wrote. They decided to sell to Hollister, a transaction they said would yield more money and help provide for the care of the sisters in their retirement. After protests from the sisters, Archbishop Jose Gomez relented and told them to proceed with their own plans to sell the property but to present a proposal for him to approve, according to the documents. The sisters, their attorneys said, followed Gomez’s instructions, but he refused to meet with them to approve the sale to Hollister and instead moved ahead with his agreement to sell to Perry." Mr. McDermott - you opine that these news sources are skewed? How so? Do you have access to the actual competing legal motions? - per some, 10 years ago, archdiocese took over management of this property and the remaining nuns - well, can understand appointing a *superior* and, typically, some female religious orders do have a male superior or spiritual director who approves all significant decisions. But does that also mean that the archdiocese owns the convent and property? - appears to be two different legal takes on this questions and issue. Did Fr. Anslow ever actually ask the five remaining nuns what they wanted to do? It appears that a number of decisions about the property have been made with or without input from the nuns? Is that accurate? Did the nuns approve the building of the archdiocesan retreat center for clerics? - finally, this LA Times article states that the archdiocese may now be shifting gears and working with the sisters? What about the facts around a buyer named Katherine Duncan rather than Katy Perry? Was this just considered inconsequential and the nuns needn't be bothered? - what is the IMH and archdiocesan agreement - does it provide for the nuns retirement needs? who makes decisions, etc.? Did the *commission* never get signed by the nuns (as these two nuns legal team asserts? BTW - most transactions that involved this amount of money, would need Vatican approval? Lots of questions - but wonder if your blanket opinion about all media is correct?
John Barbieri
2 years 4 months ago
This situation would seem to be heading for court. Let the attorneys and a judge untangle it. Further commentary doesn't mean much of anything.
William deHaas
2 years 4 months ago
Latest from the judge: http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-84034960/ But the sisters’ attorneys contend the archdiocese never sought to establish legal control over the order's nonprofit institute until June and installed officers to oversee it. The attorneys argue the move was illegal and accused the archbishop of acting "as if he were above the rules and immune from the obligations of civil law." Archbishop Jose Gomez told the sisters to present a proposal for him to approve, according to the documents. But he refused to meet with the sisters to approve the sale, and instead moved ahead with his agreement to sell to Perry, their attorneys said.
Anne Chapman
2 years 3 months ago
Is $300,000 year insufficient to care for five women for the next 3 years? What happens to the $10 - 15 million after the last of these good women die? Did their lawyers ensure that the money will be used to fund the work they dedicated their lives to? Or will the diocese simply add it to their own coffers, perhaps to pay lawyers to fight against the victims of sexual abuse by priests? As a native Angeleno and graduate of a Catholic university there, (one Jim McDermott knows well also), I knew the order and had friends who graduated from its schools, although I did not. I applauded when the 300 or so sisters decided to free themselves from a church and bishop who showed no respect for them as intelligent, educated, faithful women dedicated to the church and to their mission, fully capable of deciding what kind of habit to wear to best facilitate their work. McIntyre treated them as disobedient children. They weren't children and they refused to submit to the whims of a clerical ego that had gotten out of control. Bravo! I still wish the women of the LCWR orders had done the same. I have occasionally checked on what the ecumenical community founded by the former IHM sisters was doing. I have been pleased to see that their work continues, and that they have embraced a wider community to work with them in their mission. It is likely that these former IHM sisters were the pioneers in what will probably become a model for the future. The religious orders are dwindling, including those that are "traditional" - only a handful of those show any real growth, and taken all together, their "growth" will not begin to take the place of the sisters who will go to their reward during the next twenty years. According to the data, the half dozen "fastest" growing traditional orders gained fewer than 300 new, permanently vowed sisters during the last 40 years. Obviously the handful of women who submitted to McIntyre were not able to attract many women to their order, although those who left did attract others to their lay community. Many of the third orders are thriving, composed of married and single, men and women, Catholic and surprisingly often, not Catholic. They submit to formation, make vows to the community, and, while continuing their lives in the world, also work with the vowed religious to continue doing God's work Groups such as the Community of Sant' Egidio are also thriving. Founded and run by laity in Rome after Vatican II, the Egidio community now has 60,000 christian members in 70 countries, devoted to teaching the gospel. advocating for the poor and for peace and justice. Sant' Egidio was started by Catholics, but similar ecumenical communities also thrive. Some are small, but attract thouands of pilgrims each year, such as Taizé in France, with a focus on young adults, and the Community based on the island of Iona, founded by Anglicans, but fully ecumenical. There are many others, and it seems this may be future for religious communities for the church - ALL who follow Christ and the gospels - may be headed. The more conservative Catholics also have several active groups, founded and run by laity, such as Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation. There are two billion followers of Christ alive in the world, at least nominal followers. The leadership is more and more often coming from the laity, christian laity not just Catholic laity - the billions ARE "the" church, not a handful of vowed religious and ordained clergy.. This seems to be what Jesus had in mind, when he tasked ALL of his followers, men and women, married and single, to spread the good news. http://www.santegidio.org/index.php?idLng=1064 http://www.taize.fr/en http://iona.org.uk/

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