SPOKANE, Wash. — Fifteen nuns left a schismatic community and are now in communion with the Catholic Church under the auspices of the Diocese of Spokane.

The sisters had been part of the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen at the religious community of Mount St. Michael in Spokane.

Mostly K-12 teachers, they left Mount St. Michael June 22, at the end of the Mount St. Michael Academy school year. One of the nuns who left had been teaching at the congregation’s small, two-teacher school in Detroit — a move that has closed the school.

“This is an answer to prayers,” said Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, “We are really grateful for the courage of these sisters, as some were part of that community for 30 to 35 years.”

The priests and nuns at Mount St. Michael are sedevacantists, believing that no pope has served legitimately since Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958. Members of the Mount St. Michael community say they prefer the term “traditionalist” over sedevacantist and argue that the Novus Ordo Mass is similar to a Protestant service, in that it has no references to the Mass as a sacrifice. Some acknowledge that Pope Benedict XVI has worked to restore traditionalism and to facilitate the Latin Mass, but they complain that Vatican II still reigns.

The mother general of the 36 nuns who didn’t flee said the split has left “traditionalists” concerned that others in the movement may follow the lead of the 15.

“I do have that concern, and I do get the sense that traditionalist Catholics are alarmed by these sisters leaving and believe that this may cause others to leave for the official Church, for lack of a better term,” said Mother Mary Dominica.

Pope Benedict’s decree to allow wider celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missal was made to advance the cause of unity with traditional Catholics who have gone into schism over their dissatisfaction with Novus Ordo Missae (Mass of Pope Paul VI).

Mother Dominica was elected mother general of Spokane’s sedevacantist sisters because the reigning mother general and the past mother general were among those who left.

Mother Mary Katrina had served as mother general of the order for decades, and taught Mother Dominica in the seventh grade. As a child, Mother Dominica had attended St. Joseph the Worker Catholic School in Los Angeles, and her parents pulled her out because of their disagreements with Vatican II.

“They put me in public school for a short time, and then we moved to northern Idaho to be with people who were holding on to the traditional Latin Mass,” Mother Dominica said. “My first teacher in Idaho was Mother Katrina. She’s the one who taught me why the traditional Mass was important. She taught me all about my faith. So this has been really hard. She came to say goodbye to me, and she went on for a while about how she had come to this decision. She was actually hoping that all of us would go together and be reunited with Rome.”

Rome Pilgrimage

Though Mother Dominica suspects some other adult sedevacantists might follow the lead of the 15 nuns, she’s certain the children at her school are questioning much of what the school teaches.

“Many of the students in our school here have been shaken by this, and some are saying maybe we should give this whole thing another look,” Mother Dominica said. “I hate what it is doing to these kids.”

Mother Dominica said some of the students have such respect for the nuns who fled that they can’t help but desire more information from them about Pope Benedict, the Church and even the Novus Ordo. Some of the students, she said, are planning visits to the departed nuns.

“We can’t tell the kids not to go see them, and what may result from these visits is a concern for me,” Mother Dominica said.

The nuns who left are living at Spokane’s Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, where Bishop Skylstad said they will pray and spend the next year discerning how to serve.

“This is their home now, and they are absolutely welcome here,” said Deacon John Ruscheinsky, director of the retreat center. “Their long-term future? That will be determined by God’s will.”

The 15 sisters declined to speak with the Register, and Deacon Ruscheinsky said they have chosen to convene speaking publicly only after selecting their new habits through a process of prayer and discernment that could take weeks.

“They want to keep their focus on that right now,” Deacon Ruscheinsky said. “This has been a very difficult time for many of them.”

Several sisters told the Inland Register, the news magazine of the Diocese of Spokane, that they began seriously questioning their separation from the Vatican during a 2000 visit to Rome.

“It was not what we had been told,” Sister Francis Marie said. “Every church was full. There was modesty, confessions. Masses. We saw an extraordinary pilgrimage of holiness.”

Stereotypes

Five years later, the funeral for Pope John Paul II caused them to seriously question their separation from the Church. The televised rites, said Sister Francis, were “very moving and rich. … We were moved by that loss.”

She and other sisters began following the story of Pope Benedict XVI, and his former work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“I noticed the good that he was doing,” Sister Francis said. “I sat up and paid attention: We had a good man, a good pope.”

As the sisters questioned their distance from the Church, they began meeting with Bishop Skylstad and with priests in the diocese.

One priest, who worked with the nuns as they made their decision, reported to the Inland Register that a sister began to hear truths about the Church by listening to Sacred Heart Radio.

Mother de Lourdes, who was serving as mother general of the sedevacantist nuns during the breakup, said: “We did this because of the promises of Christ to his Church: that it was founded on Peter, and that Christ would be with them for all days.”

Mother Dominica said she has been trying to understand why the departed sisters felt “misled” about the Church and the Novus Ordo Mass. She thinks it might have to do with stories of extremes, sometimes told in sedevacantist circles to highlight the community’s points of contention with the Church.

“Sometimes, when we have spoken of the errors of Vatican II, we have stressed some of the more outrageous things, like the folk Masses and the clown Mass,” sister Dominica said. “So maybe they got the idea the Novus Ordo could never be done in a reverent way, which isn’t true, just because there’s a clown Mass. So maybe when they saw that it could be done in a reverent way — that it’s not always a folk Mass or a clown Mass — they began to question some of the notions they had developed about it being some extremely weird thing all of the time, which clearly it is not.”

Charity Rules

Mother Dominica said she has questioned her own stand, and she suspects all “traditionalists” go through bouts of doubt.

“This has not happened to me recently,” Mother Dominica said. “I’m very strong in my beliefs right now.”

Mother Dominica said the split has been stressful, but cordial.

“I think we would still consider ourselves friends,” Mother Dominica said. “We certainly keep them in our prayers all the time, and there’s still a very deep love for all of them, and I’m sure they feel the same about us.”

Mother Dominica said her congregation has agreed to pay the health insurance of the departed nuns for the next year, and will continue giving them a small stipend while they spend a year praying and discerning their future direction.

“We also gave them a couple of cars and let them take their computers,” Sister Dominica said. “On both sides this has been done as charitably as possible.”

Bishop Skylstad said he doesn’t know whether the reunited nuns signify a trend, or whether it’s an isolated event. He plans to continue praying that all believers will come to know the truth about the Church and will submit to the authority of the pope.

“There are people who felt that Vatican II was such a tremendous break with past tradition that they could no longer be part of the Church at all,” Bishop Skylstad said. “It’s pretty strong stuff to say that the Pope is not the pope, and to set oneself aside from the Church. I think our role in this is to pray and to be available as healers and reconcilers.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.