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Legatus Magazine

Judy Roberts | author
Mar 01, 2018
Filed under Featured

Wichita IHM sisters – A fresh new nun story

When the Second Vatican Council called for the renewal of religious life, three Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters in Los Angeles never expected it would lead them from “the vineyards of California to the wheat fields of Kansas.” But that, as Sister Mary Joanne Brummel put it, was how “the Eucharistic sacrifice played out” for her and Sisters Eileen MacDonald and Mary Giovanni Oliveri, who moved to the Diocese of Wichita in Kansas in 1976 after their religious community split over differences in interpreting Vatican II’s directives.

Thriving and growing, in convent and classroom

More than four decades after starting over, the Wichita community is alive and thriving with 26 professed sisters and 3 novices, all committed to carrying on the charism that first drew their founding members to the IHM Sisters of Los Angeles. In addition to teaching in schools in the Wichita Diocese, the sisters wear traditional habits, live in community, and devote four to five hours a day to prayer.

Theirs is a way of life that once was emblematic of sisters who taught in Catholic schools before the 1960s, and it also reflects the Wichita sisters’ understanding of Perfectae Caritatis, the 1965 Vatican II decree on the adaptation and renewal of religious life.

Legate Bronwen Lewis, who serves as communications manager for the Wichita community, believes strongly in the IHM Sisters’ mission and has been working to tell people about it, emphasizing the importance of religious sisters teaching in Catholic schools. With the decline in religious communities following Vatican II, teaching sisters virtually disappeared from Catholic schools so that for the last five decades, Lewis said, most Catholic children have never encountered a religious sister in the classroom.

In Los Angeles, 600 IHM Sisters once taught in 68 elementary schools, 11 high schools, and their own college. “Those 600 sisters were some of the best teachers in the country,” said Mother Mary Magdalene, the Wichita IHM community’s current religious superior.

Lewis said the fruits of the sisters’ presence in schools cannot be underestimated as is evident from the number of religious vocations – 23 priests, 5 religious brothers and 7 religious sisters (6 of them IHM Sisters) – that have emerged from the Wichita IHM Sisters’ students since the community arrived in the diocese.

Had they not left Los Angeles, however, the Wichita Sisters believe much of their original charism and teaching apostolate would have been lost. Most members of the LA community ultimately left religious life altogether or joined a new, ecumenical group that continues as the Immaculate Heart Community, but with a vastly different look and mission focused on such concerns as the environment and justice for immigrants and women. Another 60 sisters, including the 3 who left for Wichita on the advice of the Vatican, had wanted to remain faithful to the IHM charism, but could not agree on how to live it out. The sisters who stayed in Los Angeles and did not join the new ecumenical community eventually dwindled to the point that only a few members remain today.

Begun anew to survive

Mother Mary Magdalene said it took great courage for the three who relocated to begin again in Kansas, especially considering their ages at the time of 62, 63, and 73. “They were brokenhearted . . . but had they not done this, the IHM charism might not exist.”

Indeed, numerous women’s religious communities lost their identity and declined dramatically after undergoing reforms that dismantled such traditional aspects of religious life as living and praying in community, wearing a habit, and having a corporate apostolate, according to Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities (Our Sunday Visitor).

As a result, she said, “Many, including some of the most influential orders of the 20th century, will soon cease to exist, or exist only in an unrecognizable form led by lay associates.” Carey, who delved into the archival records of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and other prominent groups of sisters for her research, said she thinks the Vatican II directives were either misinterpreted or used by progressive leaders as an excuse to implement changes that were influenced by the culture of the 1960s.

For sisters who disagreed with those changes to break away from an existing community required the willingness to find a receptive bishop and begin the long process of canonical recognition, Carey said. Nonetheless, some did so with varying results. “That said, I do think the success of the IHMs of Wichita is rather unusual.”

Besides their apostolate of teaching and prayer, the sisters in Wichita see the advancement of religious life as a key part of their mission. “At this point, we’re really focusing on vocations,” Mother Mary Magdalene said. The community opened a novitiate house of formation in 2015, choosing to build it before a motherhouse because of the emphasis on vocations. “Young women were coming, but asking, ‘If we come, where will you put us?’”

New novitiate house for burgeoning vocations

Until the novitiate house was built, the Wichita sisters had lived in various diocesan-owned buildings. “We outgrew every convent we’ve been in, and in 2012 decided we had to build,” Mother Mary Magdalene said. “ . . . We approached the bishop and said we were being thwarted in our vocation work and that young women who want to come don’t feel we have a place for them. So we really emphasized the importance of purchasing property and building.”

In 2012, the sisters bought 80 acres near Colwich, Kansas, and contacted Lewis for advice. She agreed to help, having met the sisters years earlier when she was director of development and planned giving for the Diocese of Wichita and having promised thenBishop Thomas Olmsted that she would be available to them. Since then, Mother Mary Magdalene said, “Bronwen has never left. It’s a beautiful arrangement we have. She loves it. We can’t do this without her.”

Since beginning the building project, Mother Mary Magdalene said, the community has been steadily attracting vocations. In addition to the three novices, two of the sisters recently professed vows. “They’re persevering, beautiful, strong, dedicated young women whom we’ve been praying for. So we’re growing.”

According to Carey, it is not unusual that a community like the Wichita IHMs would be growing. “Multiple studies have shown that young people are more inclined to join an order that has retained the distinctive characteristics of religious life than the more diverse orders that continue to decline,” she said. “So, I believe that religious orders of the future will look a lot like the IHMs of Wichita: faithful, relevant, joyful, and very much appreciated and respected by the Church and by those whose lives they touch.”

Eventually, the Wichita sisters do hope to add a motherhouse, but for now, the house of formation, which has a chapel and community room, is serving that purpose by housing the general superior and several teaching sisters in addition to the novices and postulants and those guiding their formation. Other members of the community still live in several local convents.

…and guest house and shrine

Also on the property are a guest house for the sisters’ visiting family members and a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. Both were built to establish the community’s presence on the site until the sisters could live there. Since its completion in 2013, the shrine has drawn hundreds of people for processions held on May 13 and Oct. 13, the dates of the first and last Fatima apparitions.

“This past year, we had over 700 people come,” Mother Mary Magdalene said, “and it’s just been a great way to promote Our Lady of Fatima and the Rosary and Marian devotion in general.”

During the processions, the sisters have presented Mary with cards representing more than three million Memorares. They have solicited the prayers as part of their “Millions of Memorares for Mary” campaign, asking people to pray what is known as “Mother Teresa’s quick novena” – nine Memorares in petition and one in thanksgiving – for the conversion of sinners, an intention mentioned by Mary at Fatima and also part of the sisters’ apostolate.

Mother Mary Magdalene said the sisters always have had an affinity for Our Lady of Fatima because her message is in keeping with their charism. Their Marian devotion also includes praying and promoting the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which they wear on their habits. They currently are making and distributing the rosaries, and encouraging people to pray them for their own families and for religious vocations. “Strong families are the seedbed for religious vocations,” Mother Mary Magdalene said, “so this is something we’re doing and spending a lot of energy on.”

IHM Sisters’ journey from Spain to America

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Wichita trace their origins to Olot, Spain, where Father Joaquin Masmitja, known as their father founder, gathered seven young women to serve as teachers in 1848. At the time, the Spanish government did not allow the formation of new religious institutes, but Father Masmitja managed to form the young women in the spiritual life, calling them the Daughters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Some 23 years later, California Bishop Tadeo Amat, having heard about the work the women were doing in Spain, asked for volunteers to come to his mission diocese of Monterey and Los Angeles. Ten left for California on Aug. 2, 1871, to establish schools. By 1924, the professed IHM sisters in California numbered 100 and their community was declared a pontifical institute separate from the motherhouse in Spain.

The sisters went on to serve along California’s coast in elementary and secondary schools and in their own Immaculate Heart College, later expanding into Texas and Arizona and adding health care and retreat work to their apostolate.

In the 1960s, however, a split occurred when many in the community sought to alter their way of life and apostolate in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for the renewal of religious life. Three sisters moved to Wichita with the intent of preserving their community’s original charism and in hopes of becoming a province of the California community.

When it appeared that would not be possible, the Wichita sisters received dispensation from their vows and became autonomous in 1979. They continued their work of teaching and prayer and, after a lengthy process, the Wichita community was declared a religious institute of diocesan right in 2007.

JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.


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