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Leader of nun's rebellion in US




4-11-1915 5-10-2011


ANITA Caspary, who led the largest single exodus of nuns from the Catholic Church in the United States, has died at her order's retirement home in Los Angeles. She was 95.

As superior general of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Caspary, who went by her religious name, Mother Humiliata, and 300 fellow nuns severed their official ties with the church in 1970 in a dispute with their conservative archbishop over Vatican II reforms giving women more control over their lives.

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 driven to their decision by the intransigence of the archbishop, Cardinal James McIntyre, who would not let them teach in archdiocese schools across Los Angeles 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.

Rather than comply with those restrictions, Caspary and the other nuns broke away to establish the Immaculate Heart of Mary Community, a communal organisation that continues to provide services in the city's poorest areas.

Sandra Schneiders, a professor emeritus at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, who has written on what the media came to call the Immaculate Heart "rebellion", said the changes forbidden by McIntyre were being widely adopted across the United States as a result of Vatican II reforms giving greater latitude to nuns. "It's not like the Immaculate Heart women were doing anything outlandish," Schneiders said. "All these changes were taking place without incident in most dioceses around the country. Cardinal McIntyre simply was saying, 'Not in my diocese'."

McIntyre, a protege 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.

Caspary's religious name, Humiliata, meant "humbled" and she was tested sorely in her conflict with the archbishop.

In her memoir, Caspary struggled for nun-like equanimity in writing about the cardinal. 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."

Caspary was born in Herrick, South Dakota, 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. (As she worked towards her BA, Caspary developed an appreciation for the independent-minded nuns. "Even then they weren't all in lock step," she told Time magazine in 1970.)

She entered the convent the same year and taught high school English while studying towards a master's degree at the University of Southern California. She received her doctorate in 1948.

Caspary 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.)

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Community has not grown. It counts 160 members today not all of them former nuns. Many community members continued careers in education while others pursued law, social work, inner-city development or other endeavours. Caspary served as its president until 1973.

It 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 per cent of their wages to support what Caspary described in interviews as "a new way of people being together".

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 Centre of Southern California.

In 1972, 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."

She wrote poetry throughout her life and had completed a volume she hoped to publish shortly before she died.

The order's most famous alumna, Corita Kent the artist best known for designing the "Love" stamp said of Caspary in Time in 1970: "She is a quiet leader, perfect for the age of Aquarius, when, you know, there are no big heads."

Caspary's survivors include three sisters.

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