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.”
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 "Roar” or “Firework” 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.