My Life With the Radical Nuns

Whenever I listen to my old Steve Martin records,

I assume his joke about the book

Renegade Nuns on Wheels

was inspired by my high school. You see, I went to Immaculate Heart.

A lot of people didn’t “get” Immaculate Heart. But during my six years (’82-’88) before graduating high school as one of the “sluts on the slope” at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, I always felt comfortable with the renegade nuns.

I dug the pop-art lithography by I.H. sister Corita Kent that plastered the campus — elegantly casual brush strokes of color with scrawled phrases: We can create life without war... Love is here to stay and that’s enough... I enjoyed the mind expansion of our heavily Existentialist/Romantic/feminist reading lists — a virtual canon of banned books.

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I loved the faculty skits at assemblies, I loved the girls’ jazz band, I loved the slide show Mr. Manion gave us when we graduated: photographs of my class from the past six years, flashing on a screen to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.”

As I recall, the line between political assembly and liturgy was fairly thin in my early days at I.H. — and that felt perfectly natural. It was no big deal to receive communion from the nuns, or to hear a sermon delivered by a woman, or to sing “We Are a Gentle Angry People.” I even took a women’s studies class senior year, in which our teacher (an I.H. sister) introduced me to the concept of a female god.

I don’t mean this in any but the most reverent sense, but the I.H. nuns would surely have burned at the stake in another era. As it was, they ultimately found no quarter in an archaic hierarchy. Yet we girls took their courage for granted: We laughed at their polyester flare-power pantsuits, sure, but it never seemed strange that they didn’t wear the habits. These nuns wore their radicalism so gracefully, it looked like dignity.

The story of the I.H. nuns was finally documented in book form a few years ago (Anita M. Caspary’s memoir Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California), but it’s really suited to the big screen. A small delegation of volunteers from an order whose mission was to educate the poor, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary first arrived in California from Spain during the gold rush. These were tough, adventurous women who loved books, loved people — and loved the church. Clearly, they were in for trouble. After settling in Los Feliz and founding the undergrad school and Immaculate Heart College, the nuns broke from their Spanish founders in 1924, becoming a pontificate, answerable (in theory) only to Rome.

Caspary’s book reveals Immaculate Heart — particularly the college — as an intellectual and spiritual bastion for women, with clearly liberal leanings from the start. These modern, active nuns staffed schools and hospitals all over the area as an integral, beloved part of the SoCal Catholic community. (The way my boyfriend’s father — who attended St. Anthony’s in Long Beach in the early ’60s — recalls it, the I.H. sisters were “incredibly cool — just as people.”) Corita — who also created the ’70s signature “Love” postage stamp — emerged as the aesthetic soul of I.H. and helped to update the school’s celebrations of holy days, much to the dismay of L.A.’s archbishop, Cardinal McIntyre.

Yes, these nuns were ready for Vatican II. Unfortunately, when they embraced its mandate for spiritual “renewal,” McIntyre decided he’d had enough. In 1970, the I.H. nuns were banished from the archdiocese, ostensibly for refusing to wear habits. Of course, the habit was merely a symbol of a much deeper chasm.

Without official sanction and necessary support, the college folded not long after. Somehow, though, the high school has survived to this year’s 99th anniversary. But it changed — especially during the years I attended. It made me sad, and it made me mad. I blamed the nuns. I should have blamed the whole wide world.

Tyra Banks, who graduated a year or two after me, is the best-known supporter of Immaculate Heart. (I’ve certainly never heard Mary Tyler Moore or Heidi Fleiss talk about their time there.) But despite our closeness in age, I feel as if Banks and I went to entirely different schools. In fact, I believe my class, the class of ’88, attended a different Immaculate Heart than any other group before or after us — I can find no other explanation for the fact that my classmates are conspicuously absent from class notes and reunions.

Caught by the whiplash tail end of the transition from the freewheeling ’70s to the sober ’80s, more than others we witnessed the school’s transformation. Just for starters, we were the last class to wear “free dress” before the reintroduction of uniforms in 1983 — a reform motivated, it seemed to me, by the need to spiff up the school’s public image for survival’s sake. Clothing may seem a small point, but the symbolism and enforcement of a uniform have a particularly loaded history at I.H. Overnight, the faculty were expected to hand out detentions for the slightest infraction (an untucked shirttail, the wrong shade of nail polish) of a laughably strict dress code, painfully altering the dynamic between teachers and students. One classmate says she was kicked out for getting pregnant (that is, getting pregnant and staying pregnant — her son is now in his teens). It didn’t help our sense of embattlement that at the time students were graded on an almost punitive scale: 95-100 was an A, while in the rest of the world an A was 90-100. (This artificial deflation of my GPA more or less guaranteed that I would not be accepted to a college commensurate in quality to I.H.)

The girls in grades above us have fond memories of I.H. as a politically progressive campus with a dry-witted staff who laughed when the seniors turned the campus into the M*A*S*H 4077th on prank day, parking a real tank in the Ralph’s lot across the street. The girls below us, who’d always worn uniforms, seemed resigned to reality. School was school; they didn’t seem to know what they were missing.

A campus priest was installed, so the nuns stopped saying the liturgies. And a small fortune was spent on a campus chapel that could hold about three and a half people, though we needed a gym, computers and scholarships. When Archbishop Mahony arrived to bless the teeny thing... I don’t know; it was the end of an era.

My class staged a walkout at a liturgy that year, which was unheard of. My complaints were vague, but heavy and terribly painful, and I didn’t know how to articulate them during a post-walkout meeting with the principal. Yes, I hated the uniforms, but that wasn’t it. Yes, I disliked the priest, and we all wanted to design our own liturgies without his approval, and we certainly didn’t need a man to serve us communion. But the real problem was something else: I just missed the way it used to feel.

A few days after our protest, an all-school assembly was held, at which we were warned that if any of us went outside the “proper channels” in the future, we would be expelled. I could never quite reconcile that message with the values the school had taught us over six years.

Maybe my attitude toward I.H. now is parallel to the nuns’ attitude toward the church: I always really loved it; I always wanted to be a part of it; somehow, though, I just didn’t fit in. That’s okay. As my dad said during his speech at my graduation, you’ve got to have something to rebel against. The I.H. nuns gave us that — and much more than they’ll ever know.

Witness to Integrity notes with some pride that Cardinal Mahony formally apologized to the Immaculate Heart Community for their ill treatment back in the day. And that’s great for them. But in light of what’s come out about his priests and his archdiocese, I wonder how much his apology should matter. In fact, in light of what’s come out — and what’s still to come out — the nuns’ pursuit of a more humanistic version of Catholic life doesn’t look radical at all. It looks like common sense.

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