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Issue: Discover Hollywood Winter 2020

Immaculate Heart Community: A Story for the Ages

Keldine Hull

The year was 1848. Father Joaquin Masmitjá founded the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) in the Catalonia region of Spain to establish a community that served impoverished women, offering them a path to education.

In 1871, at the request of Bishop Amat of California, ten women from the IHM order traveled to Gilroy, California as missionaries and teachers, establishing an orphanage and several schools. The order grew as native Californians joined the community and in 1886, the sisters of IHM came to Los Angeles and established their foundational roots in the United States. To accommodate their growing community, a mother house was built at the corner of Franklin and Western Avenues to house the sisters and offer training for new women joining the order. The IHM’s were the only order in the United States where the majority of sisters agreed to seek dispensation from their vows and move forward as a community of faith.

Continuing the vision to offer access to education, it was at this site that the Immaculate Heart Convent and Immaculate Heart High School were established in 1906. The Immaculate Heart College was chartered in 1916 and became one of the early chartered colleges that offered women both undergraduate and graduate educational opportunities.

Throughout the 1960’s, Immaculate Heart College welcomed activists engaged in the Civil Rights and anti-war movement with a speaker series open to the public. The times were changing.

One of the most profound figures in both art and activism was Sister Mary Corita, who ran the college art department. She was heavily influenced by the community around her and created art that was political, poetic, thought provoking and rooted in her deep faith. Her lessons challenged students to pay attention to the city around them, apply what they learned to the outside world and express themselves through art.

“Her studio was right across the street, which is now a dry cleaner there on Franklin,” explained Nellie Scott, Director of the Corita Art Center in Hollywood, which holds the largest compilation of Corita’s artwork. “A lot of her pieces that are stemmed in activism and the stirring of hope really come from when she was at the college.”

Nellie continued, “There’s been a big surge in looking at women in history. We’re working to make sure that she’s included in those narratives. With the current political climate, her work of hope, justice and love really resonates with a new audience.”

IHC Marketing and Development Manager Beatina Theopold added, “She was constantly a very hopeful person. Despite all the negativity, frustrations and disappointments in the world, she still made sure hope was the theme.”

In 1970, after re-evaluating the role of faith in their mission to continue serving underprivileged communities, over 400 sisters made a choice to give up their vows and reestablish themselves as the Immaculate Heart Community (IHC) becoming the only full order of women to leave the Catholic church yet remain in community together. Their decision was not well-received by then Cardinal McIntyre.

“It was a unique time here in Los Angeles,” said Kathleen Buczko, Director of Advancement and Communications at IHC. “The Cardinal refused to accept the deep thought, discernment and intensions of the then IHM sisters to make such a transition. They chose to give up their vows because of a conviction to where they felt they could be the best ministers to the community.”

Anita Caspary became the first president of the IHC, the only woman in United States history to be Mother General of a Catholic order of sisters and president of a lay community.  She was followed by Dr. Helen Kelley, who joined IHM in 1945, served as President of the Immaculate Heart College from 1963 to 1977 and President of the Immaculate Heart Community from 1993 to 1996. Revered for her activism and integral part in the feminist movement, Helen “Sister William” Kelly had a monumental role as one of the original framers behind the new IHC.

After over 60 years of academic excellence, the Immaculate Heart College campus was sold to the American Film Institute. Despite the closure of the college, IHC was one of the largest teaching orders in California with schools established throughout Los Angeles, San Bernardino, the Bay area up to British Columbia and San Diego.

For nearly 50 years, Karol Schulkin, known for her groundbreaking work in the anti- nuclear movement, has served as President of IHC for the past 3 years, ushering in a new generation of the order. “We really got impressed with the message that we were reading in scripture,” Karol explained. “Our community has always been about prayer and service, the one flowing from and to the other. We made the connection between the news of the day and the needs of the time with the teachings of Jesus and the fundamentals of the Bible.”

IHC transitioned and grew with the times, continuing to positively impact the neighborhoods they served, including Blythe Street, an impoverished community in the San Fernando Valley. Two Sisters, Socorro Meza and Margaret Rose Welch began outreach in the community overrun by gangs and suffering from failed businesses and lack of education.

John Mutz was a Los Angeles police captain at the time. “I was concerned about their safety because it was a very dangerous neighborhood,” John explained. “I told Socorro, ‘I can’t protect you.’ She said, ‘We don’t need your protection. You don’t understand the negative impact that your officers have in this immigrant community.’”

John continued, “I said, ‘No Sister, you don’t understand. We’re here to help make things better.’ She said, ‘Our challenge is not only poverty and lack of social services, our problem is also with the police. You could help us or you could leave us alone.’”

What followed was relationship between the IHC and LAPD that had a positive impact within the community. More students graduated from high school and experienced a life beyond what they expected.

John continued, “We did some really extraordinary things in Blythe Street, later named Casa Esperanza. And it still goes on today. What I learned there was so impactful that I’ll never forget it.” The model that worked so well for Blythe Street was adopted into other cities throughout Los Angeles.

After John retired from the police department, he accepted Socorro Meza’s invitation to join IHC. “The Community has supported me in continuing my social justice work. There are incredible memories that I have now with many of those women who really took me in, inspired me and modeled what I needed to know as a police leader.”

Throughout the course of its long history, the IHM and IHC has seen many changes as it grew to encompass more communities. The original mother house at Franklin and Western was rebuilt following damage it endured from earthquakes. The middle school holds the only remaining part of the original building. The Immaculate Heart High School, now managed by independent faculty, founded their own non- profit and serves as a collaborative mission with IHC, sharing a common history and similar spirit. IHC helped found Housing Works, working with the homeless population struggling with mental illness and addiction. La Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, one of the earliest married couples retreat programs in the country, lost nine buildings to Montecito fires and mudslides. IHC is in the process of planning its reconstruction and transitioning into the future with the same courage and faith that has served them well for over 100 years.