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Special Report
October 19, 2012
Former sedevacantist nuns reflect on their joyful return to the Church and on their lives in a thriving new religious community.
Members of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church pray outside the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center in Spokane, Wash., in June 2007. (CNS photo)

Five years ago, a major change came to the lives of Sister Mary Eucharista, a member of the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI), and 14 of her fellow sisters living at Mount St. Michael (“the Mount”) in Spokane, Washington. Bishop Mark Pivarunas, the Superior General of the CMRI organization, told the sisters they had to leave the community if they did not stop promoting “heterodox” views among the other 35 sisters.

But their “heresy” was not the kind American Catholics have seen in some communities of nuns in recent generations. Sister Mary Eucharista and her sisters were asked to leave because they had come to believe that Pope Benedict XVI was indeed the legitimate head of the Roman Catholic Church.  

The CMRIs were initially founded in 1967 with approval of Church authorities, but went on to embrace sedevacantism, separating themselves from the Church. As sedevacantists, they do not accept the legitimacy of any of the popes since the close of the Second Vatican Council.  

“I feel a deep love and compassion for my former community,” Sister Mary Eucharista, 52, says today. “They will always be special to me. But while I understand them, I can never go back unless they return to full communion with the Church.”

Guitars and bongo drums

Sister Mary Eucharista was born in Southern California into a pious Catholic family. They prayed the Rosary together and often went to daily Mass. But the close of Vatican II brought major changes to her parish, St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa. Guitars and bongo drums suddenly appeared at Mass, altar rails and statues were removed, and catechism teachers began publically denying Catholic teachings such as the existence of purgatory and the Assumption of Mary. One day, her mother noticed a holy water font was empty. She told a parish priest and he responded, “Fill it up with water and bless it yourself.”

In 1969, Sister Mary Eucharista’s parents learned of a new traditional Catholic school being founded in Coeur d’Alene, a northern Idaho resort area that has long been a draw for traditionalist Catholics. Its head was the charismatic Francis Schuckardt (1937-2006), who was originally part of the Blue Army apostolate committed to spreading the message of Our Lady of Fatima. Schuckardt founded the CMRIs as a community of priests, nuns, and religious brothers. The CMRIs would eventually make their headquarters at Mount St. Michael, a former Jesuit seminary in Spokane they had purchased. Sister Mary Eucharista taught at Mount St. Michael for 23 years.

The CMRIs object to the changes in the Catholic Church which occurred after the Second Vatican Council, particularly in the areas of ecumenism, religious liberty, and collegiality among bishops. They also hold to the celebration of the sacraments according to the pre-Vatican II forms, most notably the old Latin Mass.

Unlike other traditionalist groups—including the better-known Society of St. Pius X—the CMRIs are also proponents of sedevacantism, the claim that the papal see is vacant (sede vacante—“empty seat”). Thus they believe that Pope Benedict XVI—like John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI, and possibly John XXIII before him—is not really the pope. They argue that these popes espouse modernist doctrines over traditional Catholic teachings, and for this reason cannot be legitimate popes.  (Bishop Pivarunas was contacted for comment on this story, including discussion of his sedvacantist beliefs, but did not respond by press time. His defense of sedvacantism and other positions of the CMRI community can be read at the community’s website.)

Mother Kathryn Joseph left the CMRIs along with Sister Mary Eucharista. “We came to believe the new Mass and sacraments were invalid, so we thought, how could Paul VI be the true pope? He must be an invalid pope, too,” she explained.

Cult-like practices

Sister Mary Eucharista’s family re-located to northern Idaho and joined Schuckardt’s community. While many radical changes were occurring in the Church in the outside world, her family was content with the celebration of the old Latin Mass, educating children with the Baltimore Catechism, and religious men and women in traditional habits. However, Sister recalled, “The traditional environment kept us from being concerned about the cult-like practices of the group.”

For example, women were required to wear long dresses and keep their heads covered; parishioners were encouraged to pray with arms outstretched and walk backwards out of church (so as not to turn their backs on the Blessed Sacrament); reading newspapers and watching TV were discouraged; smoking was considered a mortal sin; and the importance of a religious vocation was emphasized to the point of denigrating marriage.

Mother Kathryn Joseph added, “It seemed like an oasis of Catholic culture. We never saw ourselves as separate from the Catholic Church. In fact, we thought the Catholic Church left us. We didn’t realize that we were becoming our own Magisterium.”

Schuckardt led the community until 1984. He was ordained a priest and then a bishop by a bishop of the schismatic Old Catholic Church, giving him valid but illicit orders. However, Schuckardt was publicly accused by a fellow sedevacantist clergyman, Denis Chicoine, of being involved in homosexual relationships with underage associates, as well as of irresponsible fiscal management and drug abuse. Schuckardt denied the charges but left the community immediately.

Today, the CMRIs are led by Bishop Pivarunas, who was also ordained a priest and bishop illicitly. He lives at a CMRI seminary in Omaha, and oversees dozens of churches in the US, Canada, and New Zealand.

Entering the CMRI convent

Sister Mary Eucharista entered the CMRI convent at age 21. Her older sister was a CMRI nun, and she thought she might have a vocation as well.

“I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to raise horses and I wanted to get married. But, in the end, I thought God was calling me to religious life,” she said.

She became a teacher in the Mount St. Mary’s school, St. Michael’s Academy, teaching a variety of subjects, including theology. She was also involved in a variety of CMRI apostolates. Some of the more extreme practices of the CMRI community subsided after Schuckardt’s abrupt departure, and Sister was pleased. “I was absolutely blissful,” she said. “The kids that I taught always told me, ‘Sister, you’re always so happy.’ I told them, ‘Happiness is a choice, and I choose to bloom where I’m planted.’”

But Sister began having doubts about sedevacantism as early as 1993. She prayed for guidance, and increasingly began talking with Catholics in the “mainstream” Church.

Mother Kathryn Joseph’s sedevacantist views began to soften in 2000. She took part in a pilgrimage to Rome, and saw rank-and-file Catholics going to confession and praying the Rosary, and was struck by their reverence in church. She even did the unthinkable: participated in a Holy Hour devotion in an adoration chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. (Because she did not believe in the validity of the new Mass or sacraments, her “official” position was that those in the Vatican chapel “were worshipping a piece of bread.”)

Mother Kathryn Joseph left Rome hopeful about a possible reconciliation with Church authorities.

Another development that had a powerful effect on the CMRI community was the coming of EWTN Global Catholic Radio to Spokane around 2005. The CMRIs heard orthodox Catholicism brought to them through the airwaves daily. Some of the sisters objected and insisted the radio be turned off, others were confused, and some were pleased to discover that orthodoxy existed outside their community.

A visit from nuns belong to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity also made an impact. “We were taken with them,” Sister Mary Eucharista said. “They modeled religious life to us in a positive way.” The Missionaries of Charity, of course, were considered by the CMRIs to be part of a false church. Local clergy in union with Rome were good models for the sisters of the “mainstream” Church as well.

Changes come for the CMRIs

By 2005, things came to a head in the CMRI community. Sister Mary Eucharista had spent much time in prayer and conversation with Catholics in communion with the Church, culminating with her acceptance of Pope Benedict XVI upon his election.  

She has vivid memories of the day the new Holy Father was announced to the world. As the media broadcast images of Benedict, she was excited and moved to tears. She thought, “I can’t believe it, he’s the pope.”

Sister Mary Eucharista spoke of her views with her fellow sisters, but was ordered by her mother superior to remain silent. That didn’t sit well with her: “I can’t speak openly in my own house?” she thought.

She was also no longer allowed to teach theology.

For Mother Kathryn Joseph, it was a conversation she had with her brother, Mike Duddy, that changed her mind about the Church. He was a former seminarian who taught philosophy at St. Michael’s Academy. He had made the journey from sedevacantist to full communion with the Church, but kept quiet about his views so he could continue teaching. (He was later fired anyway.)

Mother Kathryn Joseph sat down with him one day to have it out on the sedevacantism issue. “I had an epiphany in one sitting,” she recalled. “I realized that I had been wrong for 35 years. But I was happy to have been proven wrong.”

Duddy doesn’t recall the particular conversation that converted his sister, so much as a series of conversations he had with both her and members of her community. He had been a seminarian for both the Los Angeles and San Francisco archdioceses, had flirted with sedevacantism and then, after study, rejected it. To this day, he has maintained his dedication to traditional Catholicism, practiced under the proper authorities of the Church.

He moved to the Spokane area to be closer to family, and put two of his children into St. Michael’s Academy. He didn’t approve of the Mount’s sedvacantism, but since it was not taught in the classroom, he decided it would not have an adverse effect on his children. Additionally, the Mount’s pastor, Father Casimir Puskorius, had been a family friend since childhood. In fact, Father Puskorius asked Duddy to teach philosophy at the school in lieu of paying tuition for his children. Duddy agreed.

Religion had long been a sensitive topic between Duddy and his sister. The CMRIs, Duddy said, discourage its members from discussing religion with outsiders, as “you’d be exposing yourself to danger. Hence, I wouldn’t talk religion with my sister unless she brought it up.”

Ultimately, she did. “She finally asked me, ‘You’re traditional, so why don’t you agree with us?’” he recalled.

Duddy gave his reasons why the sacraments as celebrated since Vatican II were indeed valid, and that the popes of the past 50 years were legitimate. “I’d give her some answers, and she’d go away without saying anything,” he said. “But, she’d come back later with more questions.”

In time, Mother Kathryn Joseph brought other sisters of the CMRI community to speak with him.  So many sisters began coming—Duddy recalled more than 20—that the group began meeting privately in a house where Duddy would give classes in sacramental theology. The key, Duddy said, was convincing them that the New Mass was valid: “That was the key that kept them brainwashed.”

When Father Puskorius found out about the classes, he was “irate,” Duddy recalled. “Father said I betrayed him, and that I was a liar because I said I wouldn’t share my views on the Church that contrasted with their beliefs.”

Duddy countered that he had only promised not to do so in the classroom, not in private conversations initiated by his sister and the other nuns.

Duddy hoped to begin a dialogue with Bishop Pivarunas, but ultimately was unsuccessful.  

There are many small, independent sedevantist groups like the CMRIs, Duddy said. To his credit Bishop Pivarunas, unlike leaders of many other groups, has not declared himself to be pope (although Schuckardt is alleged to have). The groups are not in any way unified, Duddy continued, and fight amongst themselves.  He said, “They’re like Protestant churches.”

 

Breaking the spell

Duddy’s classes, the example of the Missionaries of Charity, and interactions the CMRI sisters had with “mainstream” Catholic clergy “broke the spell of lies the sisters were living under,” said Duddy.  In 2006, some of the nuns went to the then-Bishop of Spokane, William Skylstad, seeking to be regularized. The bishop recalled meeting some of the CMRI nuns previously at the Spokane airport, when they had coincidentally been taking the same flight. “It was cordial, but distant, considering their status in the Church,” the bishop said of that meeting.

Bishop Skylstad was pleased to be meeting the nuns again under better circumstances. Over the course of several meetings, he suggested they stay with the CMRIs a while longer, in an effort to change the minds and hearts of the other sisters. They did, but not for long.

Some of the CMRI nuns contacted Bishop Pivarunas to ask him to do something about the division in their community. Pivarunas, in turn, wrote each of the dissident sisters telling them to keep quiet about anti-sedevacantist positions or leave the community within two weeks. Some of the nuns agreed to remain silent—15 did not. In June 2007, the 15 sisters left.

“We were laughing in relief,” Sister Mary Eucharista recalled. “We knew we needed to go. But it wasn’t easy. We had to leave the other sisters and a home we loved; a place many of us had been part of since we were kids. In the minds of the sisters we had left behind, we had become part of the ‘enemy’ Church.”

Those choosing to stay behind included Mary Eucharista’s older sister. Many in the CMRI community were upset at Pivarunas’ harshness in dealing with the sisters, so the bishop spent some time in Spokane doing damage control, said Duddy. “The bishop insisted that it was the way it had to be,” Duddy said. “And they really returned to their hard-core sedevacantism, preaching it from the pulpit and at St. Michael’s Academy. They took a major step back to preserve their power.”

With the blessing of Bishop Skylstad, the expelled sisters formed a religious community, the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church (SMMC). Mother Kathryn Joseph became the new community’s superior. Their chief apostolates include teaching, working at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center in Spokane, and parish work. Some of the SMMC sisters distribute Communion to patients at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital (another sign of their rebirth, as in the CMRI community, only the priest is allowed to touch the Host).

Nine sisters and two novices are currently part of the SMMC community, as some of the original 15 have left for other communities. The sisters are currently working with the current bishop of Spokane, Bishop Blaise Cupich, to purchase a property for a motherhouse.

Bishop Skylstad is pleased with the outcome of the SMMCs’ journey. “It is with profound gratitude and appreciation of their courage that we received them into full communion with the Church,” he said. “Our prayers for unity were answered. It shows that with the power of the Holy Spirit, miracles can happen. It’s wonderful.”

The CMRIs have not been open to communication or dialogue with the SMMCs. Mother Kathryn Joseph believes fear and a conviction that the SMMCs are apostates are the reasons for the separation. “I hope they will one day be able to share in the joy I have,” she said. “It is a delight and a great comfort to live religious life in the Church.”

Duddy observed that his sister and the other sisters who left are happier in their new circumstances. “I think they’re pleased to be out of the ‘cultish’ mentality,” he said. “They realize that the Church may have its problems, but it’s still here.”

“Our new community is energized and filled with the Holy Spirit,” Sister Mary Eucharista said. “I pray daily that my former community may hear the call of the Holy Spirit, and see all he has given us.”
 
About the Author
Jim Graves 

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
 

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