Many Americans of the 1960s likely had a fixed idea of nuns thanks to the Hollywood stereotypes of the era. If these women weren’t the quiet, solemn ones in modest black habits, they were the plucky young counterparts like Sally Field on The Flying Nun or Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
Few would imagine nuns like the ones who are so vividly portrayed in Rebel Hearts, a recent documentary about the extraordinary community of women in Los Angeles who followed a path that put them at odds with the rigid patriarchy of the Catholic Church. This sort of sister marched on Selma, Ala., with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, demanded rights for women and workers, and protested the Vietnam War. These were women of faith who were attuned to the struggles for peace, equality and social justice that surrounded them. They were the sisters who “didn’t fit in,” as one former Catholic official puts it in the film.
Rebel Hearts celebrates misfits like Corita Kent (then known as Sister Mary Corita), the pop art pioneer who joined the order at age 18 and went on to become an unabashedly political artist and educator. There’s also the late Anita Caspary, who served as the convent’s fearless mother superior in the ’60s, and Lenore Dowling, who continues her work as an activist decades after she joined the sisterhood. Yet the film is equally rich as an examination of the conflicts that rocked the Catholic Church when the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965, met their own fierce resistance.
Before that juncture, the high school and college overseen by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary became a hotbed for new ways of thinking for students and teachers alike — “I’m sure if I’d been a nice proper housewife, I wouldn’t have bumped into all of these ideas,” says Kent in an archival interview included in the film (she died in 1986).
The community incurred the wrath of Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the archbishop of Los Angeles and the mastermind of a vast school system that relied on the sisters as a pool of unpaid labour. (It’s no wonder that the fight for workers’ rights became one of their many causes.) The battle with the cardinal came to a head in 1969, when over 300 sisters asked to be released from their vows. Many went on to form a non-canonical community, charting a course beyond the limitations imposed on them by church officials.
More on Broadview:
- Nuns like Sister Megan Rice have gone to prison to protest nuclear weapons
- New anthology explores the experiences of LGBTQ Catholic nuns
- ‘It just won’t go away’: Charlottesville pastor on Unite the Right rally’s ongoing legacy
While the later history of the organization gets less attention from director Pedro Kos and his team, Rebel Hearts remains an inspiring tribute to a group of people whose determination to speak truth to power meant breaking the stereotypes that stymied not only nuns like themselves but women beyond those convent walls, too.
What’s more, they saw their activism as intrinsic to their faith and to their order’s namesake, rather than the acts of defiance perceived by their archbishop. In the bold words of another former sister, “What does Mary have to do with revolution? Only everything.”
Rebel Hearts is currently streaming on discovery+.
Jason Anderson is a writer, critic and film programmer in Toronto.
This essay first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “Sisters who resisted.”
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