Last July, 15 nuns from a schismatic convent in Washington state rejoined the Catholic Church. They left the motherhouse of the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI), located on the outskirts of Spokane, to form a new congregation: the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church. They formally renounced their state of schism, made a profession of the Catholic faith, became a private association of the faithful under the care of Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, and recognized the legitimacy of the popes from Paul VI through Benedict XVI.
Their former order, which still has approximately 35 sisters, holds to the sedevacantist position that popes elected since John XXIII are invalid and that Vatican II was a heretical council.
The new order’s title reflects its pilgrimage to full communion with Rome. “Mary is our guide. With a title so ancient and yet so popular today, ‘Mother of the Church,’ she understands the need for unity in the Church,” explains Sister Mary Eucharista, one of the new sisters. “It may be that part of our mission is to help draw those into the Church who have been where we were. Who better to show us how to accomplish that than the Mother of the Church, to whom we give our loyalty and allegiance?”
While maintaining the full habit, the new Catholic sisters have replaced their dark, navy veils with white ones trimmed in blue to honor the Blessed Mother as well as to acknowledge the influence of Mother Teresa’s Mission-aries of Charity, who also wear a white veil trimmed in blue.
The 15 sisters currently live in a wing of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat House, which is owned by the Spokane Diocese. They are spending time learning about post-Vatican II religious life while planning to avoid the tragic mistakes made by so many orders of women over the last four decades. They want to refine their charism and plan for their future apostolic endeavors.
While delighted with Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict’s motu proprio expanding the use of the traditional Latin Mass, the sisters accept the validity of the new liturgy and their re-entry was not predicated on the motu proprio’s release.
The Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church describe their current mission “as seeking to become an active order of Sisters committed to living authentic consecrated religious life. Our works of evangelization will be characterized by a deep devotion to Our Lady and an unwavering loyalty to our Holy Father.”
HOW IT STARTED
Their first step back to Rome started after Father Daniel Barnett became pastor of St. Patrick Church in Spokane. From what is the materially poorest parish in the Diocese of Spokane, Barnett could look up to see Mount St. Michael’s Convent and Academy—the former home of the Sisters of Mary. The Mount, as it is called, is a gargantuan edifice (built in the early 20th century as a Jesuit scholasticate) that overlooks the city of Spokane and has long been a center for traditionalist schismatics.
The CMRI, founded in 1967 by the now-discredited Francis Schukhardt, purchased the Mount in the 1970s. The CMRI opened a convent, a school for 180 children, and a parish, where unauthorized Masses were offered by the priestly branch of the order.
In 2002, Father Barnett set out to reconcile the Mount with the Church. He and his parishioners began a prayer campaign. He also asked Bishop Skylstad to invite the Missionaries of Charity into the diocese to assist him at St. Patrick Church and do missionary work aimed at schismatic Catholics affiliated with the Mount.
Bishop Skylstad wrote a letter to Sister Nirmala, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity. Citing the many traditionalist breakaway groups that dot the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, he appealed to her for help with the diocese’s spiritual poverty.
Sister Nirmala had been planning to open another convent in California at the time. But the Spokane request changed her plans. She saw it as an opportunity to address two forms of poverty at once: the economic poverty of the bankrupt Spokane Diocese and the spiritual poverty of the schismatics at the Mount.
In June of 2006, Sister Nirmala sent four of her sari-clad sisters to start a newfoundation in Spokane and told the Missionaries of Charity novices to begin praying to Mother Teresa to help bring back the schismatic nuns of the CMRI order. There were exactly 32 Missionaries of Charity novices in the US at the time and 32 CMRI sisters stationed at the Mount. The novices’ prayers began to bear fruit.
Sister Alinda, the superior of the MC nuns in Spokane, went up to the Mount shortly after arriving. She continued to visit six more times in the first few months after her arrival. On her last visit, the sisters at the Mount sent her home with a large concrete statue of Our Lady of Grace for the garden of the MC convent. As she left the CMRI convent, Sister Alinda says she whispered to the Blessed Mother statue, “OK, I am taking you down the hill today, but now you have to come back here and bring the CMRI sisters down the hill with you.”
In the year prior to the MCs arrival, many of the sisters at the Mount were privately reconsidering their theological stance, especially concerning post- Vatican II popes. They had been permitted in April of 2005 to watch on television the funeral of Pope John Paul II. This prompted many of them to reconsider their order’s sedevacantist position; they believed they were watching the funeral of a true pope.
The election of Pope Benedict XVI strengthened their doubts and moved them closer to Rome. Within the CMRI convent, many of the sisters began to meet privately to discuss what they were thinking. They asked each other: after 40 years and no pope, had they been severely misled by Francis Schukhardt and the CMRI leaders?
Sacred Heart Radio, an apostolate started by the Poor Clare Sisters in Spokane, also helped the sisters reevaluate the Church, as did EWTN’s Web site (to which they surreptitiously logged on) with its extensive apologetic resources. When permitted to go down the hill and into the city for convent business, the sisters sought out Father Barnett.
Often under the cover of darkness and with their habits hidden so as not to draw attention, they would go to either the MC convent or Father Barnett’s rectory and discuss their doubts.
The questioning sisters were not disgruntled novices or postulants. They included the current and former mothers superior of the order, Mother Marie de Lourdes and Mother Mary Katrina, now known as Sister Marie de Lourdes and Sister Mary Joseph, respectively. The group also included the present and former novice directors as well as leading teachers and administrators from the Mount St. Michael Academy and Convent.
As their doubts deepened, the sisters were put in touch with Father Darrin Connall, the rector of Bishop White College Seminary and vocation director of the diocese. Father Connall has been attempting to revive normative religious life in the diocese through his work as vocation director. But apart from Spokane’s contemplative Poor Clare Sisters, who wear the habit and maintain cloister, to whom could he direct young women seeking traditional religious life? He never imagined the answer was right up the hill.
“Is this a Mother Teresa miracle? I think so,” says Connall. “Their return gives the people in the Northwest an option that we have not had in many years. An option for religious sisters living consecrated life, wearing the habit, working in Catholic schools. Like Mother Teresa they are starting from scratch to fulfill a specific need in the life of the Church.”
Connall continues, “They have a deep appreciation of the transcendence of God, the sacredness of the liturgy, a reverence for the sacraments. And they are models of prayer and sacrifice.”
Those interested in leaving and starting anew now numbered 15 out of the 32 sisters at the Mount. Connall kept the bishop informed of the sisters’ desire to seek union with the Catholic faith and began soliciting the support of the faithful and priests of the diocese. From this came donors who pledged significant financial support to provide for the needs of the sisters. After making just a few phone calls, Connall had received pledges totaling nearly $80,000.
Meanwhile, CMRI headquarters in Omaha, Neb., became aware of the brewing plans and sought to put an end to them. CMRI’s chief official, Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, issued a decree in the spring of 2007, declaring that any sister who did not hold to CMRI positions could no longer teach in the order’s schools. They would be assigned to internal duties in the convent, forbidden future discussion of the validity of the popes or the Second Vatican Council, and required to sign statements of agreement. Mother Marie de Lourdes was then removed as mother superior and a sister who maintained the sedevacantist position, Sister Domenica, was installed as the new mother general.
The nuns who did not leave continue to live in a state of confusion. “We continue to pray for a true Holy Father. But we don’t pretend to have an answer of how to resolve this question,” says Mother Domenica.
In a letter to all the sisters, Pivarunas wrote:
There is no greater contradiction today than for any member of CMRI to attempt ‘to serve two masters’—to recognize Benedict XVI and to remain in a Congregation separated from him. The issue of the papacy is the crux of the matter and the CMRI Sisters need to decide whether they will belong to CMRI or not.
DECIDING TO LEAVE
Pivarunas gave them until June 27, 2007 to decide. They decided to leave. Citing Mother Teresa as an intercessor and inspiration for them, they came down from the Mount and took up residence at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat House. Sister Alinda’s prayer had been answered.
Mother Domenica has spoken publicly about the love and esteem that the remaining CMRI sisters have for those who left them. She allowed the departing sisters to take computers and cars, and promised that the CMRI will support them with a small stipend and health insurance for one year.
The break-up has been difficult for all the sisters, those remaining and those who have left. But those who have left are not looking back. “With God’s help we intend to flourish,” says Sister Mary Theresita, who is serving as the moderator of the sisters until a more formal structure of authority is put in place.
The sisters understand the challenges ahead. “We have been 40 years in the desert,” says one sister. While facing such problems as no clear and stable source of income and unfamiliarity with current ecclesial documents regarding religious life, they take joy from the common proclamation, “We have been embraced by our Mother, the Church.”
The sisters range in age from 26 to 58, with an average age of 47 (the average age of religious sisters in the United States is 69). The sisters are all from the US, mostly from western states, and there are three sets of blood sisters in the new congregation.
While they have made some modifications of the habit (such as the veil and more simplified cowl), they maintain their strict way of life as well as their previous names in religion.
To a sister, they credit the witness of the Missionaries of Charity as their strongest motivation to return to Rome. They saw in the MC sisters “so much charity, so much love, so much goodness,” says Sister Katherine Joseph. “They won us over with their prayer and charity.”
The sisters spent the summer of their departure taking classes with different priests and reading Vita Consecrata by Pope John Paul II as well as other Church documents on consecrated life.
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” which is responsible for working with traditionalist Catholics separated from the Holy See, wrote a welcoming letter to the sisters upon learning of their decision to leave the CMRI and start anew. In his letter he mentions Mother Teresa:
I am delighted to learn that, after having been associated with the schismatic “Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen,” you have had the grace to return to full communion with the Catholic Church…As Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have had a beneficial influence on you by their prayers and example, I hope that your prayers and example may be a powerful influence on those who remain attached to Mount St. Michael’s.
On a trip to Rome last October to meet with Pope Benedict, Bishop Skylstad passed along an expression of “love and fidelity” to the Holy Father from the new Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church. Skylstad said that Pope Benedict was “particularly pleased” to hear that the 15 sisters had been received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
At the diocesan ordination of five priests last June, Bishop Skylstad recognized the presence of the fully habited and newly instituted Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church. Spontaneous applause filled the cathedral for several minutes, overwhelming the sisters.
Bishop Skylstad is grateful for the role that Mother Teresa and her sisters played in the conversion. “The Missionaries of Charity had a great role. They were the ones who were with them in the solidarity of prayer,” he says.
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, has met privately with some of the sisters to answer theological questions about the Church. He is interested in having the sisters take courses at Gonzaga and earn their teaching certificates.
Other religious men and women around the country have reached out to them. Abbott Adrian Parcher, OSB, a retired abbot of St. Martin’s Abbey in Lacey, Wash., now stationed in the Spokane Diocese, gives classes to the Missionaries of Charity and the Sisters of Mary. Some of the sisters have spent time in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist to experience authentic religious life according to the mind of the Church (Mother Mary Assumpta, OP, the foundress of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, spent a week with the sisters in Spokane last September).
The 15 sisters also traveled to California to spend time with the Carmelites of Alhambra. While at Alhambra the sisters received instruction from Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson from the Institute of Religious Life, which is dedicated to the authentic renewal of the consecrated life in the United States.
The sisters are volunteering as tutors at two Catholic schools this year and regularly visit the elderly at local nursing homes. They see their future work as involving catechesis and the education of youth in Catholic schools.
Four women have already contacted them about joining the new order. They are seeking donations to raise money to purchase a new motherhouse and pay for all the expenses of running a religious order, with the hope of becoming a religious institute of the local diocese and growing large enough to request pontifical status.
Sister Nirmala traveled from the Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse in Calcutta to Spokane last October. She specifically wanted to meet the Sisters of Mary and see the fruit of prayers from MC sisters throughout the world, with the special intercession of Blessed Mother Teresa.