President’s Day weekend I wanted to get out of the city.  I wanted to hear the wind and smell green things.  But where to go?  I didn’t feel like visiting anyone.  I didn’t feel like doing a class or workshop.

That is when I found the Immaculate Heart Center for Spiritual Renewal of Montecito, right next to the $500 a night San Ysidro Ranch.  You pay a low fee for Fri-Sun for room and board, with the promise that you will not leave the property except to hike (they want this to be a retreat, not a hostel).  Instead of 500-count sheets, you get amazing organic food made fresh from the farm with love, and gorgeous old stone architecture.

Although I was excited by the website’s photos and reports of the food, I was a bit worried about the whole religious thing.  I have limited experience with organized religion. I worried it might be a stuffy or uptight.  What I found was an inspiring group of ex-nuns who displayed true courage in their commitment to their faith.  I had the pleasure of speaking with one of those ex-nuns while I was at the Center, Joanne Connors, who entered the ex-Order in 1960.  This is their story.

In the 1940s, the Catholic Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary bought a 27-acre Montecito estate to house its novitiate (a novitiate is like training to be a nun).  Everything was going more or less according to traditional plan, when in 1965, Pope John XXIII called Vatican II Council.  The goal of Vatican II was to modernize the church, including the lifestyles and practices of its nuns.

The Immaculate Heart sisters were ready for a change.  They were a young, educated group of nuns eager to join the modern age.  In 1967, they adopted new regulations, allowing their members to choose their field of service, to wear secular clothes, and to pray on their own.

But the Los Angeles Cardinal at the time, James Francis McIntyre, said not so fast.  He hated the Vatican II, and hated the changes the sisters made.  He wanted them to go back to their old ways.  Eventually, the Church backed the Cardinal and told the IHM sisters that they needed to abandon their new changes or leave the Church.

The sisters were faced with a scary choice.  Joanne explained that the Church was not just their spiritual home–it was their work, their food, their health service.  But they truly believed in the changes that they had made.  Eventually, most of the women (about 300) decided to turn in their habits, and seek dispensation from their vows.  This was not an easy or light decision.  Joanne explained that they truly believed that they would all disband.  They had no way to support themselves.

But help came flooding in from fellow e-nuns, family, and friends.  They gave each other clothes, credit cards, and cars.  They got better jobs and housing.  They fostered closer ties with the community.  They established an ecumenical community based on their vision, including men.  The Immaculate Heart Community (IHC) was born.  The founding mission of this community is, in large part, to “foster access of all persons to truth, dignity, and full human development, and strategically change practices and situations which impede such access.”

Rather than give into the fear, these women followed their hearts.  They had no idea how they would make this transition, but they found the support.  Looking back, Joanne said it was “amazing to see how God was working through this situation.”   She came to believe that excommunication was just a “word they used to threaten you.”  No matter how big and real your fears might seem, “you have to be true to yourself.”  Ultimately, Joanne found a deeper connection with God by choosing to fully commit to her community and to their path of service, instead of safely staying with the organized Church.

I was truly inspired by Joanne and the women of the Immaculate Heart.  They helped me remember that courage does not mean the absence of fear, but the strength to follow your heart.


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