Immaculate Heart Community president speaks on global collaboration and prophetic witness by Michael Centore

Prophetic leaders require “consciousness and concern about the needs of the times” as well as an openness to divine guidance and a willingness to take risks, said Sherry Purcell, IHM, Ph.D., president and principal executive officer of the Immaculate Heart Community (IHC) in California.

Her remarks came during a presentation for the UK-based reform group Root and Branch on April 18. The theme of the presentation was “Prophetic Leadership in Communities without Walls.”

Root and Branch member Sue Williamson opened the event by introducing Dr. Purcell and praising the “ecumenical and completely inclusive” culture of IHC.

“I found their prayer groups and spirituality immensely nurturing and transformative,” Williamson said.

Dr. Purcell joined IHC in 2015 after a career of service in public education. She is now over a year into her three-year term as president of the community.

Community Origins

Dr. Purcell began with a brief overview of the origins of the IHC, which was founded in Olot, Spain, by Fr. Joaquin Masmitjá in 1848. The order was originally known as the Daughters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Fr. Masmitjá was concerned about the lack of education for women as well as the effects of the Industrial Revolution on workers in Spain. He established as the four key principles of the order education (especially women’s education), apostolic prayer, the spiritual renewal of all society, and missionary vocation.

In 1871, eight nuns from the order were sent from Spain to California. They made their way to Los Angeles, where they founded schools including Saint Vibiana Cathedral School and Immaculate Heart High School. They went on to establish additional schools and hospitals elsewhere in California and in Arizona.

When the Second Vatican Council opened new paths of dialogue between the church and the modern world in the 1960s, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary responded with courage and zeal.

The sisters—many of whom worked as teachers in the order’s schools, though without formal training—requested more educational opportunities for themselves. They also called for greater freedom in the structure of their prayer life and mode of dress.

Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, then the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, rejected these reforms. He was also critical of religious artwork created by Immaculate Heart Sister Corita Kent that was done in a contemporary style reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s.

Cardinal McIntyre told the sisters to stop implementing new changes or else leave the order and cease teaching entirely. The Vatican concurred with the cardinal and issued an ultimatum to the sisters in 1969.

Dr. Purcell recounted how Immaculate Heart Sister Anita M. Caspary gave a “witness to integrity” speech to the community on December 6, 1969. The speech defended the order’s reforms.

“Our Decrees pledge us to an unending search for personhood, relevance and Christian community,” Caspary said in her address. Dr. Purcell commented that Caspary’s “prophetic view of what needed to happen still rings true today.”

In 1970, over 300 nuns “embraced integrity” and asked for dispensation from their vows. Together they formed the Immaculate Heart Community, which Dr. Purcell defined as “a community without walls,” ecumenical and faith based, intentional, and inclusive.

Call and Commission

Today, the Immaculate Heart Community has 97 members and 7 candidates for admission. New members are accepted on an annual basis after a 2-year candidacy process. Dr. Purcell described this as a “period of discernment” before entering the community.

IHC members are both male and female, married and single. IHC also welcomes LGBTQ+ members. The community is organized into prayer groups.

Dr. Purcell explained how IHC has retained its founder Fr. Masmitjá’s focus on education. The community leads retreats and workshops and forms partnerships with other ministry groups “to bring forth what we think our call is in the world,” she said.

IHC has also formed several social justice committees that work on various commissions, including justice for women, antiracism, hospitality for immigrants, refugees, and the unhoused, and care for the environment.

“Our prayer life is part of it but we also reach out to the local level,” Dr. Purcell said of these committees. “We are starting to build national and global relationships.”

IHC “embraces much of what people are looking for today,” she continued. “People are in search of spiritual growth and development. They’re hungry for it.”

Dr. Purcell added that people want to be guided by their faith to create a world of peace and justice, to live as Jesus taught, and to make the church more inclusive.

“We’re not a church, but we offer an opportunity for people to pray together, to work together, and to be together” in a supportive environment, she said. She noted that several members continue to attend Mass at their local parish while deriving additional spiritual sustenance from IHC.

The community is “carrying forward the charism from 1970,” she said, by facilitating a search for personhood, relevance, and Christian community; an unselfconscious devotion to truth; a vigilant concern with the destructive forces of society; a sensitive response to the needs of others; an embrace (and not just a tolerance) of diversity; and a condemnation of religious hypocrisy.

Prophetic Leadership

Dr. Purcell concluded her presentation with a question to prompt reflection and discussion: “Might there be a call right now for a global community without walls?”

Technological advances such as video conferencing have eliminated “geographic boundaries,” she said, creating opportunities for a global community that is ecumenical, faith-based, and inclusive, united by a shared interest in social justice issues.

“There’s power in numbers, and I think we have a role to play on the world stage,” she said.

Such a community would call for “prophetic leadership,” she said. Referencing Richard Rohr, she explained that “prophets are not necessarily part of the hierarchy of faith traditions.”

“To me, [prophecy] is having the ability to recognize the signs of the times,” she said. “And then go inward with the prayer life, to listen for what the call is for you. And then be willing to respond to that.”

“It was prophetic [IHC] was established 50 years ago so that we are ready for this time,” she said.

Divine Tension

In a discussion period following the presentation, Dr. Purcell and other IHC members addressed questions including how the community chooses its leaders and ways members balance their commitments to the community with their daily lives.

IHC member Rosa Manriquez said that members “live in a type of divine tension” as they seek to embody a kind of “post-institutional church or movement.”

“One of the things about community life is that we really try to hang in there together when there are issues,” Dr. Purcell said, naming “contemplative dialogue” as a tool for resolving conflict.

Asked whether the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been supportive of IHC, community vice president Christine Monroe cited the IHC’s co-sponsorship of a workshop with Joan Chittister and the Catholic organization L.A. Sisters Aging Well on Saturday April 20.

“We are the only noncanonical organization” signed on as a sponsor, Monroe said. She identified this as a “sign of support.”

Additionally, she noted that the work of Corita Kent—the Immaculate Heart sister who had been so roundly condemned by Cardinal McIntyre in the 1960s—was selected for inclusion in the Holy See Pavilion as part of the 60th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, on view through November 24, 2024. ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic. A recording of Dr. Purcell’s presentation is available here.

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