Nuns Who Feuded With Texas Bishop Say They Will Defy Vatican Order on Monastery’s Governance

The monastery also directed some of its frustrations toward how the Vatican has handled the dispute

The Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas.
The Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas. (photo: Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity Discalced Carmelite Nuns)

As the Vatican tries to settle a chaotic yearlong dispute between a Carmelite monastery and Diocese of Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson, the nuns at the center of the controversy announced they will defy a Vatican decree that delegates their governance to an outside religious association.

The dispute centers on Bishop Olson’s investigation into the former prioress of the Arlington-based Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity: the Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach. The prioress, who is now defrocked, admitted to sexual misconduct occurring over the phone and through video chats with a priest — a confession she has since retracted and claims was given when she was medically unfit and recovering from an operation.

After nearly a year of back-and-forth — which included a failed civil lawsuit against the bishop for how he handled the investigation and allegations from the bishop that the nuns may have been engaging in drug use — the Vatican ordered that the monastery’s governance will be delegated to the Association of Christ the King, which is a Carmelite monastery association.

This governance was meant to be in place until the monastery can hold new elections to replace its leadership, which would be overseen by the bishop. The Vatican also ordered the monastery to regularize its relationship with the bishop, whom the nuns forbade from entering the premises and alleged did not have authority over their governance — a claim rejected by the Vatican.

Rather than following the Vatican’s orders, the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity is going in the opposite direction. The monastery rejected the Vatican’s decree and banned Association of Christ the King President Mother Marie of the Incarnation, along with any delegates of the association, from entering the monastery.

“Neither the president of the Association of Christ the King, nor any delegate of hers, is welcome to enter our monastery at this time,” a statement from the monastery read.

The nuns referred to the Vatican’s order as “a hostile takeover that we cannot in conscience accept” and accused Rome of making this decision without the “knowledge or consent” of the monastery. 

“To accept this would risk the integrity of our monastery as a community, threatening the vocations of individual nuns, our liturgical and spiritual life, and the material assets of the monastery,” the statement read.

“This outside authority could easily disperse us, impose its agenda in respect of our daily observance and dispose of our assets — even of the monastery itself — as it wishes, contrary to our vows and to the intentions of those who founded our community and our benefactors,” the statement added.

The four-page statement, issued by the monastery in response to the Vatican decree, rehashed its grievances with Olson, particularly the accusation of an “illegal seizure of the personal property of the monastery and copying of private information.” A judge dismissed these claims in a civil trial.

In the statement, the nuns also protested the restrictions that Olson put on the monastery after the nuns filed a civil lawsuit against him. This included temporary measures limiting Mass to only Sundays, banning lay participation in their Masses, and limiting their access to regular confessions. The Vatican, however, sided with the bishop and formally recognized his authority in these matters.

The monastery also directed some of its frustrations toward how the Vatican has handled the dispute. In its statement, the nuns said they are still awaiting a response from Rome about their complaints related to the bishop’s conduct during the investigation. They alleged that the Vatican has fallen short of its stated objective to ensure that “every effort should be made to preserve the spiritual health and longevity” because the Vatican has not engaged in “active and ongoing dialogue” with the monastery.

“If Rome wishes to ‘save face’ and to sweep the issue of the abuse of the bishop under the carpet and move on regardless, this is unacceptable,” the monastery complained. “In justice, the issue of Bishop Olson must be dealt with for our good and for the good of the Diocese of Fort Worth as a whole.”

The monastery further argued that the problem posed by the expiration of terms of office could be solved in other ways, such as an extension of the terms during the monastery’s appeal of the bishop’s actions. The nuns claim that “nothing is to be changed and the status quo is to be preserved” when matters are under appeal. 

“We hope and pray that Rome will engage in dialogue with us directly to find a suitable way of moving forward that respects the integrity of our life and monastery,” the nuns wrote in their statement.

While openly defying the Vatican order, the monastery emphasized that it is not rejecting the legitimacy of the offices of either the Pope or the bishop: “The Holy Father, Pope Francis, is the pope and enjoys full papal authority [and] … Olson is the legitimate current bishop of Fort Worth with all the authority that this office confers.”

“We remain open to any initiative from higher authority that seeks to repair the damage that has been done to us and that respects the integrity of our life, vocation, and monastic community,” the nuns added. “We are not ‘things’ to be traded or given away in back-room deals but women vowed to the exclusive love and service of Almighty God, whose integrity is to be respected and protected for the good of their souls and for the good of the Church.”

The Vatican order, however, is not a mere suggestion to the monastery. The order informed the nuns that they were “instructed to cooperate fully” with Mother Marie, who the Vatican declared is now “the lawful major superior of the monastery.”

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