Countless tears have been shed this month up at Mount St. Michael’s. As they watch their fellow nuns pack their belongings and leave the convent, the remaining sisters of the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen are grieving.
“It’s been painful for all the sisters – for those who felt the need to leave and those who remain here,” said Sister Mary Dominica, the acting superior of the religious order, a group that most people recognize as “The Singing Nuns.”
“We’ve been a family for so many years,” she said, her voice quivering with emotion. “We feel like they are still our sisters.”
About a dozen of the roughly 50 nuns in the order moved out of the convent earlier this month. Three more sisters are preparing to leave by the end of the week.
Their departure was caused by theological differences, according to those familiar with the situation. A Traditionalist Catholic community also known as CMRI for “Congregatio Mariae Reginae Immaculatae,” the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen believes in the papacy but does not recognize Benedict XVI as the true pope. It also doesn’t adhere to the changes established more than 40 years ago by the Second Vatican Council. That means that at Mount St. Michael’s, only the traditional Latin Mass is offered.
About two years ago – prompted perhaps by the election of a conservative pope in Rome – some of the nuns began to rethink the way they dealt with the changes of Vatican II, said Sister Dominica. The convent was never at war, she explained; the sisters simply agreed to disagree about the papacy and other issues.
“Everybody was doing their best to respect each other,” she said.
Their theological differences, however, could have been problematic in the classroom, some said. As teachers at St. Michael’s Academy, a private Catholic school of about 180 students located on the mount, there was a fear that the sisters would teach contradictory lessons.
Sisters who “will continue to speak or act against the theological position of CMRI, whether in public or private,” will be required to leave by June 27, according to a May 17 letter from Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, the Nebraska-based superior general of Mary Immaculate Queen.
Those who “do not hold to the CMRI position” but refrain from speaking out against it will be allowed to stay but will not be permitted to teach or hold positions of authority, according to the letter.
“There is no greater contradiction today than for any member of CMRI to attempt ‘to serve two masters’ – to recognize Benedict XVI and to remain in a Congregation separated from him,” Pivarunas wrote. “The issue of the papacy is the crux of the matter and the CMRI Sisters need to decide whether they will belong to CMRI or not.”
The 15 or so nuns who are leaving the convent are scheduled to move to Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, which is owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane.
The Rev. Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s vicar general, declined to comment on the diocese’s efforts to support the sisters. “The diocese wishes to respect the sisters’ privacy and their need to discern God’s call,” Dublinski wrote in an e-mail.
Efforts to reach the sisters at the retreat center also were unsuccessful this week.
The split at the Mount St. Michael convent is perhaps no different from other religious groups or churches that have experienced a significant loss in membership.
But for the sisters, it is the traumatic breakup of a close-knit family.
“These are my superiors, my teaching companions, my sisters in Christ,” said Sister Marie Vianney, one of the nuns who has remained with the congregation. “It’s inconceivable that I could think ill of them.”
According to Sister Dominica and Sister Vianney, those who left had different reasons for leaving the convent.
“This isn’t an ‘us against them’ thing,” explained Sister Vianney, who joined the order at the age of 24 even though she was raised in the mainstream Catholic Church. “We all have different ways in dealing with the current crisis in the church.”
The crisis, she explained, stems from the changes enacted during Vatican II, which the traditionalists have deemed a heresy.
“Some of the sisters wanted to become more modern Catholics instead of traditional Catholics,” said the Very Rev. Casimir Puskorius, pastor of Mount St. Michael, a parish of about 300 households. “It caused an enormous rift in the community. … It’s been very sad.”
While the sisters were able to respectfully disagree on these issues, those who didn’t uphold the guidelines of the church had no choice but to leave. “They couldn’t stay,” said Puskorius, who has known some of the nuns for more than 30 years. “You might say it’s like trying to preserve the team.”
Some of the sisters have taken a formal “leave of absence,” he said, but if they formally join another entity such as the Diocese of Spokane, then they effectively separate from the order. It’s possible that some of the sisters might return, said Sister Dominica.
According to Puskorius, the sisters at the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center are considering forming a new religious community known as the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church. While the sisters will likely continue to wear habits, their clothing will differ slightly from the distinct, full-length blue habits worn with large black rosary beads by the nuns at Mount St. Michael, according to Sister Dominica.
Founded in 1967, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate Queen is dedicated to preserving Catholic traditions and promoting the message of Our Lady of Fatima – the title given to Mary by those who believe she appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, several times in 1917.
In its early days, the sisters’ work entailed the publication and distribution of religious literature. Now, in addition to the K-12 academy, a religious mail-order house and print shop based at Mount St. Michael, the nuns have several missions and smaller schools in other states.
Despite the loss of one-third of the congregation, the sisters of Mary Immaculate Queen will continue to be “The Singing Nuns” and proceed with their scheduled concert July 7. They’ll also continue to operate St. Michael’s Academy, although they now will have to combine some classes and hire more lay teachers. In the meantime, those who remain continue to lead a quiet, ordered life of service and prayer.
“My conviction is that in order to live as a Catholic, it would need to be the way the Catholic Church had been for 2,000 years until Vatican II,” said Sister Dominica, explaining her reasons for staying. “God wants me to be here.”
While Sister Vianney remains dismayed that some of the sisters who taught her and helped shape her convictions as a member of the order have left, she also isn’t surprised that this division has taken place in her congregation.
“Am I surprised?” she asked. “No, the Catholic Church worldwide is in confusion. … We’re all struggling to be Catholic right now.”
As they kneel in the chapel, the nuns at the convent continue to pray for their sisters who have left. They also ask God for the strength to continue to do their work, said Sister Vianney.
“We hope that someday we can all be reunited,” said Sister Dominica. “In heaven for sure, but maybe once again in this world. …
“This seems like a great evil – this separation,” she added. “But somehow, God will use it for good.”