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.”

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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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