Jacqueline G. Wexler, Ex-Nun Who Took On Church, Dies at 85

Jacqueline G. Wexler, a former Roman Catholic nun who fought the Vatican’s authority and won, then found herself on the other side of the barricades when she became president of Hunter College in 1970, facing student demonstrators storming her office, died on Thursday in Orlando, Fla. She was 85.
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Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Wendy Wexler Branton.

While still a nun and battling the church on many issues, Ms. Wexler drew nationwide attention as a bellwether of the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She fought successfully against church control of Webster College, the small Catholic women’s college near St. Louis that she headed in the 1960s. She advocated greater participation by women in church leadership and criticized the church’s ban on birth control.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the Catholic televangelist, referred to her as a “Benedict Arnold” in 1967, the year she won autonomy for Webster and simultaneously renounced her vows. Dick Cavett had her as a guest on his late-night TV talk show.

Ms. Wexler’s appointment in 1970 as president of Hunter, one of 11 colleges in the City University of New York system, coincided with a turbulent year in its history. Students, roiled by a combination of antiwar politics and local tensions caused by rising fees and a new university-wide open admissions policy, held demonstrations that shut down the campus repeatedly that spring.

Protesters blocked building entrances and elevators, forcing others to use emergency doors and stairways. Ms. Wexler, refusing at first to call the police, waded into angry crowds to talk, only to be shouted down. Barricaded in her office several times, she finally called the police.

A reporter for The New York Times was in the president’s office one afternoon that April when the phones rang, bringing news that students had blocked elevators and entrances for the second time that month.

“Here we go again,” Ms. Wexler said.

Outside her window, protesters chanted in rhyme, accusing her of colluding with “pigs,” the epithet they used for the police.

Ms. Wexler said that if anything had prepared her for the turmoil, it was having been a lightning rod for condemnation by conservatives in the church.

“Zealotry is the enemy,” she said, adding: “The far right called you every name, from daughter to Beelzebub on, and you learned to take it.”

She was born Jean Grennan on Aug. 2, 1926, the youngest of four children of Edward and Florence Grennan, who owned a small farm in Sterling, Ill. She later took the name Jacqueline in honor of an older brother, Jack, who died of a brain tumor at 21.

After graduating from Webster College, she entered the order of the Sisters of Loretto in 1949, and taught high school math and English in St. Louis and El Paso, Tex. She received her master’s in English from the University of Notre Dame in 1957, and returned to Webster in 1959 as an instructor and administrator.

Sister J., as she was known, was named president of Webster in 1965. She began initiatives aimed at raising educational standards and halting declining enrollment, then common among Catholic women’s colleges.

Sister J. made institutional separation from the church her first priority. “The very nature of higher education is opposed to juridical control by the church,” she said at the time.

She also led the transition to co-education, built new facilities, and started a social-justice program that sent students to work in the poorest neighborhoods of St. Louis, attracting the attention of the Kennedy administration.

She was appointed to the president’s advisory panel on research and development in education and to the original steering committee that developed Project Head Start, the federal program for low-income children.

After several years of well-publicized jousting with Sister J., the Vatican, in 1967, granted the Sisters of Loretto permission to put Webster under the control of an independent, secular board of trustees. It was one of the first Catholic colleges to cut its ties to the church. Asked for his reaction, Archbishop Sheen replied to a reporter: “No comment. I am more interested in Nathan Hales than Benedict Arnolds.”

In 1969, the former Sister Jacqueline married Paul Wexler, a record company executive, and adopted his two children, Wayne and Wendy. Besides Ms. Wexler Branton, Ms. Wexler is survived by her husband and son, as well as four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two sisters.

Ms. Wexler was known as a calming presence at Hunter. She led it through the rocky early 1970s and helped make it the city university’s premier center for health care education. Before stepping down in 1979, she brought Bellevue Hospital’s nursing school into the college, expanded health care training, raised money to start a gerontology program in the school of social work and inaugurated a women’s studies program.

From 1982 until 1990, she was president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

After receiving an honorary degree from her alma mater, now Webster University, in 2007, Ms. Wexler, then 81, was given a tour of the campus by the president accompanied by a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Many buildings had been added since she left. She was eager to see them all, the newspaper said, and seemed to grow impatient when the elevator in one building was slow to arrive.

Whether out of eagerness or habit forged in the crucible of 1970, Ms. Wexler proceeded to the stairs.

“Let’s walk,” she said. “I wore comfortable shoes.”

Complete Article HERE!

Excommunication lifted on nun who approved an abortion

After being excommunicated, the sister who said “yes” to a therapeutic abortion in Phoenix, Arizona was “pardoned.” Sister Margaret McBride was forgiven and brought back into the Sisters of Mercy, despite the fact that three years ago, as member of the ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, she had authorized a voluntary termination of pregnancy for a woman in her eleventh week of pregnancy who suffered from pulmonary hypertension.

In 2009, with the consent of Sister Margaret McBride (who was one of the hospital’s Church administrators), a woman was given an abortion at the hospital, after doctors said she risked dying if her pregnancy was not terminated. The Bishop of Phoenix excommunicated McBride and, as a direct result of the abortion, withdrew the Catholic Church’s patronage from the clinic. After being ousted from the Church for an act that the bishop judged “unacceptable,” the nun has now been returned to her position.

The St. Joseph’s patient suffered from pulmonary hypertension, a rare and potentially lethal disease which is often aggravated by pregnancy. Along with Sister McBride, the doctors involved in the abortion, as well as the mother herself, were also excommunicated.

Complete Article HERE!

Homosexuality among church leaders discussed at Jesuit university event

In late October, on the day an out-of-season snowstorm some have called “epic” and “historic” broke nearly 200-year-old weather records and almost shut down parts of the Northeast, something else happened that was perhaps unprecedented: A Catholic university hosted a daylong formal discussion on the topic of homosexuality within communities of nuns and priests.

For the 100 or so theologians, members of the clergy, women religious, students and others who braved the heavy snow Oct. 29 to attend “The Care of Souls: Sexual Diversity, Celibacy, and Ministry” conference at Jesuit-run Fairfield University, the day was packed densely with history, stories and plenty of questions.

It was the final event of a four-part series of talks titled “More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” The series aimed at expanding the conversation on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues within the Catholic church.

“Unfortunately, any speech about Catholicism, sexuality and clerical power is so vexed, so scandalous, that I can’t begin the meditation without underlining three more cautions against misunderstanding,” said the first speaker, Mark Jordan, a professor of divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.
“First, I’ll be talking about the configuration of power in relation to sexuality within ecclesial systems, not about all of the individual lives under those systems. It is, of course, possible to lead a Christian life of unstinting love, of vivid witness, of embodied grace under the present system of Roman power,” Jordan said.

“Second caution: I want to talk about this clerical power as homoerotic. By this I don’t mean to imply anything about the sexual acts, real or fantasized, of those who participate in this power,” he said. “This form of clerical power seems to me the object, and the instrument, of sharp longing, of desire.

“Third and final caution: I speak of the configuration of homoerotic power in the Roman Catholic clergy at particular times and places. There are partial repetitions across church history, I think, and there are striking structural similarities across church cultures in a given time. But if we know anything about the Catholic church, it is that it is not one thing. It is a complex network of thousands of different communities.”

Before beginning his discussion about power and the Catholic church, Jordan traced the church’s history of thought in relation to homosexuality over the past few decades, a history that would serve as backdrop and context for the speeches that followed.

Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry in Maryland talked about the organization’s role in discussing homosexuality within the Catholic church, beginning in the 1970s, and particularly about its work in support of lesbian nuns.

After reflecting on the past 40 years of history and discussion, Gramick said she has seen three central issues emerge: celibacy, sexual identity and “coming out.”

In the first 20 years, in the 1970s and 1980s, the overriding question that surfaced for women religious was “sexual identity,” Gramick said. “People wondered about — how do you know you’re lesbian?” In the 20 years that followed, she added, “the overriding question seems to be [about] coming out.”

Throughout this time, however, Gramick said much of the emphasis was placed on the question of celibacy. But the important question to ask, she continued, is, “How do lesbian sisters — and by extension how do heterosexual sisters — live out their celibacy in healthy ways?”

Following Gramick’s detailed analysis, speaker Jamie Manson, who is an instructor in religious studies at Fairfield University and a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, began with humor:

“I am firmly convinced had I been born, rather than in the 1970s, in the 1940s, I today would be a lesbian nun,” Manson said. “And I would not have become a nun simply just to avoid having to face married life with a man; I would have answered that because I have a call of intense witness to the Gospel — I still have that — but being able to avoid marriage wouldn’t have hurt, either.”

Manson said there is a difference between the experience of gay and lesbian Catholics.

“For lesbians the experience of being Catholic affects more than their sexual orientation; it relates to the anatomy itself. By banning women from serving as priests, the hierarchy says — in this great cosmic hubris — that God simply cannot work sacramentally through the body of a woman. For most lesbians, and many straight women, this leads to feelings of isolation and disempowerment,” Manson said. “I cannot stress enough how corrosive it is to the spirit to have never seen a woman’s bodily form wear a stole, stand behind an altar, raise the bread and wine, place her hands in the waters of the baptismal font, step through the center door of the confessional.”

If you are a lesbian, Manson continued, “you’re in double jeopardy with the church. You’re alienated because of your body and also because of the way your body relates in response to desire and love in erotic relationships.”

The conference, which wrapped up with a panel discussion about future exploration of this topic, also featured remarks by Elizabeth Dreyer, religious studies professor at Fairfield; Fr. Donald Cozzens, writer in residence at John Carroll University; and Gerard Jacobitz, religious studies professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

In closing, Paul Lakeland, professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield and one of the organizers of the conference series, said he was pleased with the outcome of the program, and the cooperation between the four host schools. (Previous conferences were held at Fordham University in New York, Union Theological Seminary in New York and Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.)

“A lot of gay and lesbian and straight, and Catholics and non-Catholics, but especially Catholics, got together on four weekends and talked about issues that the church would really — the institutional church — would really rather they didn’t, and the sky didn’t fall in,” Lakeland said. “We, I think, are collectively a little wiser, I’m sure, and hopefully a little more encouraged as we go on from here.”

Complete Article HERE!

Anita Caspary, Nun Who Led Breakaway From Church, Dies at 95

Anita Caspary led the largest single exodus of nuns from the Roman Catholic Church in American history. And while the issues seemed to be about dress codes and bedtimes, they ran much deeper.

Dr. Caspary said she and the others had never wanted to renounce their vows. In a 2003 memoir, “Witness to Integrity,” she said they had been virtually forced into it by the intransigence of the archbishop, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles, who would not let them teach in archdiocese schools unless they wore habits and adhered to a host of traditional regimens that were by her account matters best left to grown women to decide for themselves: when to pray, when to go to bed, what books to read or not read.

Rather than comply with those restrictions, Dr. Caspary and the other nuns broke away to establish the Immaculate Heart of Mary Community, a communal organization that continues to provide services in the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The organization confirmed her death, at age 95.

Dr. Caspary went by her religious name, Mother Humiliata, as superior general of her order. The appellation, meaning “humbled,” was tested sorely in her conflict with the archbishop.

Sandra M. Schneiders, a professor emeritus at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., who has written on what the news media came to call the Immaculate Heart “rebellion,” said in an interview Monday that the changes forbidden by Cardinal McIntyre were being widely adopted nationwide as a result of Vatican II reforms giving greater latitude to nuns.

“It’s not like the Immaculate Heart women were doing anything outlandish,” she said. “All these changes were taking place without incident in the majority of dioceses around the country. Cardinal McIntyre simply was saying, ‘Not in my diocese.’ ”

Cardinal McIntyre, a protégé of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, had been a vocal opponent of the reforms during the Vatican Council’s meetings. “He has been described by more than one Vatican observer as the most reactionary prelate in the church, bar none — not even those of the Curia,” an article in The New York Times said in 1964.

In her memoir, Dr. Caspary struggled for nunlike equanimity in writing about him. He was “stubborn, paternalistic, authoritative, frugal and puritanical,” she said. “But he was also a hard-working, dedicated churchman who left monuments in his archdiocese in brick and mortar.”

Anita Marie Caspary was born Nov. 4, 1915, in Herrick, S.D., the third of eight children of Jacob and Marie Caspary. The family moved to Los Angeles, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English at Immaculate Heart College in 1936. She entered the convent the same year, and taught high school English while studying toward a master’s degree at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. in 1948.

She was president of Immaculate Heart College, which was operated by her order, from 1958 to 1963. (The school continued to operate after the schism in 1970, but closed in 1980.) After the break with the church, she taught at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and served on the staff of the Peace and Justice Center of Southern California.

She wrote poetry throughout her life, and had completed a volume she hoped to publish shortly before she died. Her survivors include three sisters, all living in California: Gretchen DeStefano of Los Alamitos, Marion Roxstrom of Newport Beach and Ursula Caspary Frankel of Costa Mesa.

The Immaculate Heart Community remains a democratic communal group with an elected board of directors and 35-member “representative assembly.” Some of its members live in the convent, but most live outside. All contribute 20 percent of their wages to support what Dr. Caspary described in interviews as “a new way of people being together.”

The community has not grown. It counts 160 members today — not all of them former nuns.

In a 1972 interview with The Times, Dr. Caspary said she felt she was part of a cultural flourishing larger than a single enterprise.

“We’ve had an extraordinary experience for women,” she said. “We’ve worked through the problem of liberation. We worked our way out of an oppressive situation.”

Full Article HERE!

Vatican aims to regain trust of US religious women, official says

In the final stage of the apostolic visitation of U.S. women’s religious communities, the Vatican congregation overseeing the study not only is facing mountains of paper, but must try to rebuild a relationship of trust with the women, said the congregation’s secretary.

U.S.-born Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said, “I believe a visitation has to have a dialogical aspect, but the way this was structured at the beginning didn’t really favor that.”

In an interview Aug. 10 with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Tobin said the congregation hoped its review of the visitation reports and its responses to the participating religious communities would be marked by dialogue and would be a step toward healing.

“I’m an optimist, but also trying to be realistic: The trust that should characterize the daughters and sons of God and disciples of Jesus isn’t recovered overnight. I think women religious have a right to say, ‘Well, let’s see,'” he said.

The former prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Franc Rode, initiated the visitation in January 2009, saying its aim would be to study the community, prayer and apostolic life of the orders to learn why the number of religious women in the United States had declined so sharply since the 1960s.

Almost a year into the study, Cardinal Rode told Vatican Radio that the investigation was a response to concerns, including by “an important representative of the U.S. church” regarding “some irregularities or omissions in American religious life. Most of all, you could say, it involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”
NCR – August 5, 2011

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Archbishop Tobin said Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the apostolic visitor appointed by the Vatican, has submitted her “overall draft report,” but the congregation is expecting another 400 reports from the sisters who visited each community and from many of the communities themselves.

The congregation, which has a staff of 40, including only three native English speakers, will need help reading, assessing and responding to the reports, he said.

One possibility, Archbishop Tobin said, is to ask religious congregations based in Rome to allow U.S. members of their general councils to serve as consultants to the congregation and help go through all the reports.

The fact that Cardinal Rode had decided the visitors’ reports would not be shared with the individual communities was only “part of the real harm done at the beginning,” Archbishop Tobin said. The situation was exacerbated by “rumors and, I would say, some rather unscrupulous canonical advisers exploited that” by sowing fear that the Vatican would replace the leadership of some communities or dissolve them altogether.

“It’s like Fox News, they keep people coming back because they keep them afraid,” Archbishop Tobin said.

“But certainly, on our side of the river or our side of the pond, we had created an atmosphere where that was possible,” and where the idea that some communities would be closed down “didn’t seem to be so outlandish.”

“It’s like preaching; it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear … and what a lot of these women heard was someone telling them their life was not loyal and faith-filled,” he said.

In the end, though, many congregations found the process was not as bad as they feared, he said, and “an important outcome that is already happening is that there is a growing number of women religious in the States who say, ‘We need reconciliation, but it has to happen among ourselves. It can’t be imposed by the Vatican.'”

Archbishop Tobin said reconciliation is needed within and among communities, including between those represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which stereotypically are seen, respectively, as very progressive and very conservative.

“The visitors themselves were from the two different groups, and they found out from talking to each other that the caricatures weren’t accurate,” he said.

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