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Idealistic Lay Group Is Legacy of Nuns' Split With Church in 1970


They believed they were doing God's work. But earthly rules were getting in the way.

So, rather than bow to the wishes of the conservative Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in Los Angeles, more than 300 nuns decided 23 years ago to leave their order to form a new type of religious community.

That act of conscience by most of the Hollywood-based Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary ended a standoff that had sent ripples of tension through congregations nationwide and to the Vatican. But it also was the beginning for an ecumenical lay community that has sought to stay true to its idealistic roots by attacking impediments to "truth, dignity and full human development."

The idealism--some would say radicalism--that created the Immaculate Heart Community is now taking it to one of Los Angeles' most downtrodden streets, Blythe Street in Panorama City. There the IHMs, as they call themselves, are planning to work among the street's mostly poor residents, tending to their religious, educational, emotional and medical needs.

"If you say and believe that God is good and God is love, then service is what grows out of those two beliefs," said Helen Kelley, the community's incoming president and a former official in the Jimmy Carter Administration. "You've got to act in a certain way if you believe those two things."

The Blythe Street project resulted from a proposal by Margaret Rose Welch, a semi-retired 68-year-old IHM with an extensive background in counseling and educational administration.

In recent years the block-long strip of crowded, run-down buildings dominated by a violent, drug-dealing gang has come to symbolize poverty's pathologies in the San Fernando Valley. And when Welch learned of the dangerous living conditions there, she said she had to help.

"Basically, the mission is to empower the people there to have control over their lives, and education is empowering," she said.

Power and control were also key elements of the dispute that led to the 1970 schism. To understand the community's mission on Blythe Street, then, is to understand the Immaculate Heart Community.

Founded in Spain in 1848, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart sent a mission to Gilroy in 1871. Fifteen years later, nuns arrived in Los Angeles to create the first church school in the diocese, at St. Vibiana's Cathedral downtown. The order later established Immaculate Heart College and placed teachers in 30 schools across the county.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI directed religious communities worldwide to undertake a thorough re-examination of their rules and customs to assess how they met their original mission and to discern how to adapt their practices to modern life.

Kelley, 67, remembers the times as "vibrant, tumultuous, frightening and invigorating" as the sisters reconsidered the strict rules that governed everything including the time they went to bed.

The Immaculate Heart sisters offered modest proposals: Not wearing habits at times, having sisters set their own schedules, letting sisters leave their teaching jobs to finish their training or enter new professions.

Some of the proposed changes were practical, recalled Mary Gerald Shea, 69, the current Immaculate Heart community president and former college dean. Some nuns taught night classes or worked night shifts as nurses, but lights at home had to be out at 10 p.m. on the dot. That caused some nuns to flip their lights off on time but snap them back on a minute later to finish the work they were doing.

But no matter how late they worked, the wake-up bell rang at 5:20 a.m. so the nuns could be ready for the 2-hour, 40-minute daily morning worship session.

"The schedule . . . was to be inviolate, which then limited what we were able to do," Shea said.

The order's proposed experiments were not unlike those undertaken by other religious communities worldwide, but Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of the Los Angeles archdiocese objected. In 1968 he banned them from teaching in diocesan schools. McIntyre, considered one of the nation's most conservative Catholic leaders, refused to allow slight changes in the order's rules.

The resulting standoff was international news, and about 200 nuns left the order. It was resolved in 1970 when 315 of the remaining nuns asked the Vatican to release them from their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

Kelley refers to the battle with the archdiocese as a "struggle for self-determination" and "an action of conscience."

More than two decades later, the split evokes strong emotions. Diocesan officials who lived through those times decline to speak of them publicly.

"It was a very unfortunate thing, the whole business," said one. "There were pretty deep wounds."

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