this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.
Last week a colleague of mine forwarded the sad news that Anita Caspary, IHM, had died at the rich age of 95. This was the same day (October 5) that Steve Jobs passed away from his battle with pancreatic cancer. The tension between the two figures was not lost on me. The death of Jobs, an icon of ingenuity and leadership, wonderful husband and father, is mourned throughout the world. The life and legacy of Anita Caspary will be remembered and mourned as well, but by comparison, on a much smaller scale. That’s unfortunate, because the life and legacy of Caspary as an instrument for change in the lives of Catholic women in general, and Women Religious in particular is what legends are made of.
As an IHM sister, Caspary was teacher, poet, author, and president of Immaculate Heart College (1958-1963), but is best known in her role as Mother General Sister Humiliata (1963-1973) of the IHM’s. In Witness to Integrity, Caspary dramatically chronicles the painful struggles and controversies between the IHM sisters and Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, James Francis McIntyre, in which 600 IHM Los Angeles nuns were released from their canonical vows in 1970. Released because of their self-determination in remaining at the center of their religious fidelity and thought by putting into practice The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious life, or Perfectae Caritatis. Addressed to priest and religious, this decree sanctioned the exodus from the middle ages for the sisters by insisting they join the modern world in both dress and discernment of vocation that best utilized each sister’s talents. In an exert put forth from the 1967 Decrees of the Ninth Chapter, the IHM community clarify their position for renewal:
“Women, perhaps especially dedicated women, insist on the latitude to serve, to work, to decide according to their own lights. Our community’s history from its beginning . . . speaks of our readiness to abandon dying forms in order to pursue living reality. Women who want to serve and who are capable of service have already given evidence that they can no longer uncritically accept the judgment of others as to where and how that service ought to be extended. America religious women want to be in the mainstream of this new, potentially fruitful, and inevitable bid for self-determination. (xiv)”
As products of the 1960’s culture, this call for renewal was already taking shape prior to the decree of The Second Vatican Council by the visionary IHM’s. Fifty IHM delegates meet in 1963 to look at the need for change and entrance into the modern world by examining their existing Rule. What came to light was the need for a long-range examination of all legal documents and constitutions to be studied and revised “guided by the spirit and decisions of the Second Vatican Council . . . revisions of Canon Law . . . and by the lived reality of the Institution” (51). In other words, the IHM’s were in the early stages of self-determination while living under a vow of obedience. In response Cardinal McIntyre requested what is technically called a visitation to the IHM community. Tradition called for a priest to make the visitation, but in this case, “the cardinal had requested an entire team of diocesan priest to act as visitators”(68). Each sister was questioned, or rather interrogated by two priests (no power play here). It should be noted that none of the priest took notes, with Caspery later referring to the visitation as “a form of persecution of the community” (68). While lengthy, what follows is a partial list of the more personal questions posed to the sisters:
“Do you think it will take too much time to fix your hair if you were to change your habit?”
“Don’t you think some of the new ideas in catechetics are not real doctrine
“Do you want to look like a little girl”?
“Do you want to look like a floozie on Hollywood Blvd.”?
“Do you have hootenanny Masses?”
“Do you read and approve of the diocesan paper [The Tidings]?
“What do you think of a course on James Joyce taught a couple of years
ago at your college? Do you know how pornographic Ulysses is?”
“Do you know your community is being investigated?” (70)
By 1967 the IHM’s had formally revised their “Decree on Renewal of Religious Life.” Challenging a medieval paradigm of conformity to Canon Law, the sisters reorganized in a more horizontal structure with the role of authority as service and emphasized co-responsibility. Traditional religious garb was gone, flexibility regarding scheduled prayer, ministry and lifestyle was no longer dictated but chosen. McIntyre countered, ordering the IHMs to immediately stop their experimental activities (apparently he did not read or consider The Council’s Decree Perfactae Caritatis) and conform to the Vatican definition of religious life or discontinue teaching in Los Angeles archdiocesan schools. What really put McIntyre over the edge was the shift from full habit to secular clothing. If they would not wear the habit, they would not teach. Caspary was dismayed at what was in front of her and the community of IHMs, that the ignition point for McIntyre was not the desire for better educational standards for the sisters but instead the wearing of the habit. Remarks Caspary, “I could not believe that after decades of serving the Catholic Church of Los Angeles we were being fired over the issue of women’s clothing!” (138). For McIntyre, “he linked the wearing of the habit to the three vows sisters profess, suggesting that both were equally the preeminent mark of religious women”(139). What it really boiled down to was control over the bodies of the IHMs as women. I don’t believe vows had much if anything to do with it. I recall my own state of shock and awe when in 1968 our nuns came to class dressed in modified attire. While still in black and white, their dresses where knee length with shorter habits that displayed hair. To say we were shocked is an understatement. Who knew they had hair? While the rest of us were able to integrate the new look, McIntyre could not, I suspect, because of his despair over the sisters secular garb that placed them in a sexual space of subjectivity he could not control.
In the end, after visits to Rome by Caspary and Vatican back-door handshakes, legal dispensation from their canonical vows was, in many ways, forced upon the IHMs. To be dispensed from final vows would normally be initiated by the sister herself, which none had done. In the application form was the statement that the sister was signing the dispensation form freely, and according to Caspary, “Virtually every sister, without consultation with the others, took one final, important step: she crossed out the word ‘freely’” (211).
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, the IHM’s reorganized into what is known today as The Immaculate Heart Community supported by men, women, gay/straight, queer, married and unmarried, Christian and interfaith.
Anita Caspery’s desire for the IHM sisters is no less visionary than what Steve Jobs held for Apple. Witness to Integrity chronicles the feminist move from objectivity to subjectivity, all the while recovering a theological anthropology that brings to the forefront women’s full Imago Dei. Women’s ability to define with certitude how their experience of God will find expression carries radical implications for all women, both individually and collectively, by establishing the limits and parameters of their own spiritual identity.
For funeral details please visit The Immaculate Heart Community at: https://www.immaculateheartcommunity.org/
6 thoughts on “Anita Caspery, IHM: Prophetic Icon of Renewal By Cynthia Garrity-Bond”
Anita Caspery led a group of women in successful rebellion against a patriarchal system and won. The Immaculate Heart of Mary community got control of land from the Catholic church, and continues to run one of the best high schools in the country.
The women of that community are golden, powerful, feminist to the core. And with blazing hospitality. Some of the most amazing lesbian leaders in Los Angeles in terms of spiritual leaders came out of IHM. The book about her life and that crucial time in the herstory of women here is quite powerful to read even today.
I’d say of all the women’s communities nationwide, theirs was and is one of the most successful. It was a group of the very best and brightest women led by the best and brightest… think Corita Kent, think of the amazing posters that she produced, and to this day, you can visit the school and see the posters and prints of Sister Corita in the archives.
What these sisters did was far more radical that Steve Jobs, and anytime women build women’s communities and win land battles against men, it is an incredibly powerful thing.
Every time I meet a former IHM who is a deeply spiritual lesbian, I am enchanted by the power of their faith and conviction. You’ll still meet these women at lesbian spiritual events here and there, almost all of those radical 60s nuns are now in their 70s and 80s… be sure to thank them when you do! Anita Caspery made most of the women leaders of today look small in comparison! Thanks so much for marking her death with this tribute!!
Dear Turtle Woman,
Thank you for your response and important words about Anita Caspary. It was near impossible to know what to include about her life and the contributions of all IHM sisters. Yes, I agree, her legacy surpasses Steve Jobs, I simply found it an interesting tension within myself.
What I would really love to see is some sort of permanent tribute to Anita Caspar (if there is one, please do inform) and the California IHM’s and now The IHM community. Women of this nature, drive, strength and love should not be forgotten but serve as mentors to us all.
There, I have cast my desire out into the Universe!
I’ll see what I can find in terms of a Caspery memorial in Los Angeles. The last time I had an extended conversation with a women from the IHM community was in the early 1990s.
You might want to contact the high school in Los Angeles and ask around, because that institution might be having a memorial.
I was a-mazed when I read Anita’s book while speaking and staying at Casa de Maria, the retreat center that once was part of the Immaculate Heart endowment. Those women were so brave and so clever to keep their property and create a new community. I have found former and current RC sisters to be far more open to the Goddess in their thinking than many other feminists in religion. Anita helped us set the stage for a motherline ritual in the chapel and didn’t seem to mind at all when we put Mary in the center of the altar.
Thank you for your wisdom and insight. The practice of placing Mary as the goddess and therefore the center is linguistically a new concept for me, but in practice, I have been at it all my life. Mary holds my heart and has always been my go-to-person and now my deity. I would love to read more on this so any direction you may offer is very much appreciated.