SPOKANE, Wash. — Sister Mary Eucharista, 51, a member of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, has vivid memories of the day Pope Benedict XVI was announced to the world in 2005.
As the media broadcast images of Pope Benedict to the world, including to her community’s home in Spokane, she was excited and moved to tears. She thought I can’t believe it; he’s the Pope.
While the enthusiasm for the Holy Father might seem commonplace for a religious, it wasn’t for the nuns in Sister Mary Eucharista’s community. At the time, she was a member of the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (Congregatio Mariae Reginae Immaculatae), a 50-member group of nuns that does not accept the legitimacy of the Popes since the close of the Second Vatican Council: Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some do not accept John XXIII, who called the Council, either.
Sister Mary Eucharista’s acceptance of Benedict as the true Pope caused an irreparable split in her community and would ultimately lead her and 14 other nuns to leave a place they had come to love.
It’s not that Sister Mary Eucharista rejected Tradition in the Church. She was born in southern California into a pious Catholic family with five children. The family prayed the Rosary together and often went to daily Mass.
But after the close of Vatican II, her parish of St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa experienced an upheaval that was typical of the fallout caused in many parts of the Church by misinterpretations of the Council.
“My parents saw guitars and bongo drums suddenly appearing at Mass, altar rails and statues removed, and catechism teachers denying Catholic teachings such as the existence of purgatory and the Assumption,” Sister Mary Eucharista recalled. Her mother one day noticed that a holy water font was empty and informed the parish priest. He responded, “Fill it up with water and bless it yourself.”
In 1969, Sister Mary Eucharista’s parents learned of a new traditional Catholic school being founded in Coeur d’Alene, a northern Idaho resort area that has long been a draw for traditionalist Catholics. Its head was the charismatic Francis Schuckardt (1937-2006), who was originally part of the Blue Army apostolate spreading the message of Our Lady of Fatima. He founded a community of priests, nuns and religious brothers, the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, which would eventually make their headquarters at Mount St. Michael, a former Jesuit seminary in Spokane they had purchased. Sister Mary Eucharista taught at Mount St. Michael for 23 years.
Although the congregation was initially a traditionalist community founded with approval of Church authorities, its founder and members embraced sedevacantism, criticized the papacy and the Church hierarchy and broke away from the Church.
Members reject the changes in the Church that occurred after the Second Vatican Council, particularly in the areas of liturgy, ecumenism, religious liberty and collegiality among bishops. They celebrate the sacraments in the pre-Vatican II manner, most notably the old Latin (Tridentine) Mass. They argue that the Popes since John XXIII have espoused modernist doctrines over traditional Catholic teachings, hence are not really true popes.
According to William Marshner, professor of theology at Christendom College in Virginia, sedevacantists base their argument on an obscure bull issued in the 1550s by Pope Paul IV which pronounced excommunication against anyone who secretly held any sort of heresy. Anyone in the hierarchy who was even suspected of heresy was deprived of office.
“It was a very weird document,” Marshner said, noting that it was issued during the very tumultuous time of the Reformation. “No reputable theologian today thinks that it was anything but canonical legislation — a disciplinary thing.”
But the sedevacantists today “try to inflate it to a doctrinal level so that it can’t be canceled by later pontiffs,” Marshner said. “They’ll go through statements of Pope John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. Their current target is Benedict XVI. They will decide what is heretical in those statements and use their findings to claim that this person should be deprived of all ecclesiastical office and therefore can’t be pope.
“They seem be unaware,” he continued, “of an important canon from the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which says that you can’t accuse your ecclesiastical superior of heresy or of a crime without a canonical process. You can’t set yourself up as judge and jury.”
Mother Kathryn Joseph, mother general of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, who left the schismatic congregation along with Sister Mary Eucharista, explained, “We came to believe the new Mass and sacraments were invalid, so we thought, How could Paul VI be the true Pope? He must be an invalid Pope, too.”
Sister Mary Eucharista’s family relocated to northern Idaho and joined Schuckardt’s community. While many radical changes were occurring in the Church in the outside world, her family was content with the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Mass, teaching of children with the Baltimore Catechism and religious in traditional habits. But, Sister Mary Eucharista recalled, “The traditional environment kept us from being concerned about the cult-like practices of the group.”
Women, for example, were required to wear long dresses and keep their heads covered; parishioners were encouraged to pray with arms outstretched and walk backwards out of church (so as not to turn their backs on the Blessed Sacrament); reading newspapers and watching TV was discouraged; smoking was a mortal sin; and pursuing a religious vocation was stressed to the point of disparaging marriage.
‘We Were Becoming Our Own Magisterium’
Mother Kathryn Joseph added, “It seemed like an oasis of Catholic culture. We never saw ourselves as separate from the Catholic Church. In fact, we thought the Catholic Church left us. We didn’t realize that we were becoming our own magisterium.”
Schuckardt led the community until 1984. He had himself ordained a priest and bishop through a Vietnamese bishop living in France, Ngo Dinh Thuc, giving him valid but illicit orders. However, he was publicly accused by a fellow sedevacantist clergyman, Denis Chicoine, of being involved in homosexual relationships with underage associates, irresponsible fiscal management, drug abuse and even declaring himself to be pope. Schuckardt denied the charges but left the community immediately after he was accused of wrongdoing.
Today, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen is led by Superior General Mark Pivarunas, who also had himself ordained a priest and bishop without approval of Church authorities. He lives at a congregation seminary in Omaha and oversees dozens of churches in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.
In the final years of Schuckardt’s reign, Sister Mary Eucharista entered the Mary Immaculate convent at age 21. Her older sister was a Mary Immaculate nun, and she thought she might have a vocation as well. She said, “I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to raise horses, and I wanted to get married. But, in the end, I thought God was calling me to religious life.”
She became a teacher at St. Michael’s Academy, teaching a variety of subjects, including theology. She was also involved in a variety of Mary Immaculate apostolates. Some of the more extreme practices of the community subsided after Schuckardt’s abrupt departure, and Sister Mary Eucharista was pleased: “I was absolutely blissful. The kids that I taught always told me, ‘Sister, you’re always so happy.’ I told them, ‘Happiness is a choice, and I choose to bloom where I’m planted.’”
But she began having doubts about sedevacantism as early as 1993. She prayed for guidance, and increasingly began talking with Catholics in the “mainstream” Church.
Mother Kathryn Joseph’s sedevacantist views, meanwhile, began to soften in 2000. She took part in a pilgrimage to Rome and saw rank-and-file Catholics going to confession, praying the Rosary and being reverent in Church. She even did the unthinkable: She participated in a Holy Hour devotion in an adoration chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica. (Because she did not believe in the validity of Mass or sacraments, her official position was that those in the Vatican chapel “were worshipping a piece of bread.”)
Mother left Rome hopeful of a possible reconciliation with Rome.
Another development that had a powerful effect on the Mary Immaculate community was the coming of EWTN Global Catholic Radio to Spokane around 2005. The community heard orthodox Catholicism brought to them through the airwaves daily. Some of the sisters objected and insisted the radio be turned off, others were confused, and some were pleased to discover that orthodoxy existed outside their community.
A visit from nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity — women who were considered to be part of a false Church — also made an impact. Sister Mary Eucharista remarked, “We were taken with them. They modeled religious life to us in a positive way.”
By 2005, things reached a boiling point in the community. Sister Mary Eucharista had spent much time in prayer and conversations with Catholics in communion with the Church, culminating with her acceptance of Pope Benedict upon his election. She spoke of her views with her fellow sisters, and her Mother Superior ordered her to remain silent. That didn’t sit well with Sister Mary Eucharista: “I can’t speak openly in my own house?”
She was also no longer allowed to teach theology.
For Mother Kathryn Joseph, it was a conversation she had with her brother that changed her mind. He was a former seminarian who taught philosophy at St. Michael’s Academy. He had made the journey from ardent sedevacantist to full communion with the Church but kept quiet about his views so he could continue teaching. (He was later fired anyway.)
Mother Kathryn Joseph sat down to have it out with him on the whole sedevacantism issue. She recalled, “I had an epiphany in one sitting. I realized that I had been wrong for 35 years. But I was happy to have been proven wrong.”
In 2006, some of the nuns went to the bishop of Spokane, William Skylstad, seeking to be regularized. The bishop recalled meeting some of the CMRI nuns previously at the Spokane airport, when both had coincidentally been taking the same flight. Bishop Skylstad recalled the airport meeting: “It was cordial, but distant, considering their status in the Church.”
The bishop was pleased to be meeting the nuns under better circumstances. Over the course of several meetings, he suggested they stay with the Mary Immaculate community awhile longer, however, in an effort to change the minds and hearts of the other sisters. They did, but not for long.
Under the Bishop’s Wings
Some of the Mary Immaculate nuns contacted Mark Pivarunas, the superior general of the entire organization, to ask him to do something about the division in their community. Pivarunas, in turn, wrote each of the dissident sisters telling them to keep quiet about anti-sedevacantist positions or leave the community. So, in June 2007, 15 of the nuns left.
Sister Mary Eucharista recalled, “We were laughing in relief. We knew we needed to go. But it wasn’t easy. We had to leave the other sisters and a home we loved — a place many of us had been part of since we were kids. In the minds of the sisters we had left behind, we had become part of the ‘enemy’ Church.”
Those choosing to stay behind included Mary Eucharista’s own older sister.
With the blessing of Bishop Skylstad, the sisters formed the public association Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church. Their chief apostolates include teaching and working at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center in Spokane. It is still a period of discernment for the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church; some have already left to found new religious communities. Two new women are novices for the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church.
Bishop Skylstad is pleased with the outcome of the sisters’ journey. “It is with profound gratitude and appreciation of their courage that we received them into full communion with the Church,” he said. “Our prayers for unity were answered. It shows that with the power of the Holy Spirit, miracles can happen. It’s wonderful.”
The Mary Immaculate community has not been open to communication or dialogue with the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church. Mother Kathryn Joseph believes fear and a belief that the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church are apostates has caused the separation. She concluded, “I hope they will one day be able to share in the joy I have. It is a delight and a great comfort to live religious life in the Church.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.