Issue: Winter 2011-2012

Faith in Hollywood

Hollywood exists as a place of contrasts - from hiking in the rugged Mt. Hollywood hills to glamorous red carpet events on Hollywood Boulevard.  It is home to the very rich and the very poor. The allure and mystique of the place is alive in the American consciousness as a place where dreams can be made or broken. Marilyn Monroe once quipped, "Hollywood is a place where they will pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul."

"We pray for Hollywood every day," said Sister Mary Pia, one of the cloistered nuns at the Monastery of the Angeles right in the heart of Hollywood. The cloistered Dominican nuns at the Monastery of the Angels have been in their location since the early 1930s. Nestled in the foothills on Carmen Avenue just above Franklin, the monastery is a place of silence, prayer, work, and worship. According to Sister Mary Pia, the Cloistered Dominican Nuns of Perpetual Adoration acquired the three and a half acre property from a well-known copper magnate, Joseph Giroux. Many considered Hollywood 'too worldly' a location, but in 1938 Monsignor John Cawley blessed the monastery, welcoming the nuns to Hollywood by saying "they would impart the badly-needed tradition of spirituality to the area."

Sister Mary Pia

Monastic life is rigorous; prayerful contemplation, silence and worship seem a bold contrast to the swirling hub of activity in Hollywood. Sister Mary Pia explained what Dominican contemplative life is all about, and is not troubled by the seemingly theological paradox of a Catholic monastery just a stone's throw from Hollywood's colorful passing parade of residents and visitors.

It turned out that Hollywood in the '30s, before many of the studios and their moguls moved west, was in need of a stalwart source of spiritual assistance. Sister Mary Pia explains that the Dominican order has a true missionary outreach, and believes their presence in the Hollywood community inspires people to think of God.

Sister Mary Pia grew up in Hollywood and is aware that it might seem an unusual location for cloistered monastic life. "I graduated from Immaculate Heart High School in 1950. It was right after the war and everybody wanted to do something - do their part. My brother was in the war in 1945 in the Philippines," she said, "I wanted to do my part with prayer."

The monastery is completely self-sustaining; its chief source of income is the distribution of altar breads, and pumpkin bread and candy made at the monastery. Donations can also be made to receive "a share in the daily Mass, prayers, sacrifices and good works offered by the nuns. Their pumpkin bread has become quite famous through the years.  (City Councilmember Tom LaBonge is one of their best customers.) Customers come from as far as Utah and Arizona to buy large quantities (especially around the holidays) to give as gifts to friends and family. The nuns operate a gift shop selling their candy and bread year-round as well as religious and hand-made gift items. From the first week of November through December their Christmas Boutique offers a large assortment of handmade Christmas items.

An angel watches over the monastery

There are eighteen nuns living at the monastery, and their average age is well over seventy. The day starts before five in the morning and ends with lights out at around nine in the evening. The prioress Sister Mary Raymond, who is elected by the community, assigns each nun to work necessary for the daily living of community life. According to Sister Mary Pia, the nuns seek God by observing the purely contemplative life, withdawing from the world by enclosure and silence.  They work diligently, study the scriptures and pray in purity of conscience and the joys of sisterly concord, "in freedom of spirit." Silence is observed throughout the day and evening, except for an hour of daily recreation.

Although they are not out-and-about in Hollywood, the troubles of the community and the world is at the center of their prayers. The nuns read the newspaper every day to keep abreast of current affairs. They are registered voters and take their civic responsibilities very seriously. "Hollywood is always on our minds and in our hearts."

A completely different type of Catholic community also exists in Hollywood.  The contrast between the silent, cloistered lives of the Dominican nuns and the Immaculate Heart Community is profound.  Rooted in Catholic tradition, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary came to Hollywood and founded both Immaculate Heart College (now the campus of the American Film Institute) and Immaculate Heart High School. When Vatican II issued new directives in the 1960s, the sisters followed the guidance of Pope Paul VI and reviewed their internal structure and proposed changes in how they worked, prayed, and lived. This led to a dramatic showdown with Cardinal James McIntyre, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, who staunchly opposed all of the sisters' proposed changes, leading to the order of the removal of all Immaculate Heart Sisters teaching in Los Angeles diocesan schools. McIntyre presented the Community with an ultimatum: either conform to the standards of traditional religious life or seek dispensation from vows.

It was during this turbulent time during the 1960s and 1970s, that the IHC's Sister Corita Kent gained international fame for her vibrant serigraphs.  She ran the Art Department at Immaculate Heart College until 1968 when she left the Order and moved to Boston.

Sister Corita, in the center looking down, in her serigraph studio


In the end, ninety percent chose to dispense from their vows and reorganize as a non-profit community organization, the Immaculate Heart Community - a voluntary lay community. Although the process was by all accounts painful and difficult, the vision of the women who left the congregation has not only survived but today provides new and exciting models for renewal for the faithful - for Catholics and those from other faiths - and especially for women. The 'rebel nuns' blazed a trail of vibrancy and inclusiveness that is still reflected today with a membership of 165 Christian women and men - both married and single - with a diversity of culture, church affiliations, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Although their goals are similar, the IHC approach could hardly be more different to that of the cloistered nuns. The IHC works as an integrated part of the community, advocating for the marginalized, and for social and economic justice. The bold vision is evident through projects like the Kenmore Residence, a residential home for senior residents of the IHC community, Blythe Street Project, a community organizing collaboration that helps economically disadvantaged and immigrant residents, and the Corita Art Center on Franklin Avenue.

Residents of the Kenmore Residence


Some say the purpose of religion is to take personal contrasting experiences of faith and bring them together through a shared language. Just as Hollywood is growing and evolving, religions can evolve and grow through a collective experience.  As part of the experience we call "Hollywood," it's good to know that, regardless of religion, Hollywood is keeping the faith.