In late January, Sister Pauline Krismanich packed her bags and left the place she had called home for the past 48 years. La Casa de Maria is where she had planned to continue her life of prayer and work until her final days, but this path ended when the Montecito mudslides devastated the retreat center, rendering it inoperable. Remarkably, the Center for Spiritual Renewal, where Krismanich lived and worked, remained wholly intact. As the people of Montecito continue to rebuild their homes and community, Krismanich’s bittersweet departure from La Casa de Maria to a permanent retirement home in Los Angeles represents the passing of a bygone era when a dedication to religious life was bound by rigid traditions.
At a young age, Krismanich felt compelled to devote her life to religion. She grew up in South Bend, Indiana, and attended Holy Cross College for women near the University of Notre Dame. By the time she graduated, Krismanich was certain “that what God wanted from me” was to become a nun. The year was 1948 and Krismanich was 18 years old, the youngest age a woman could take religious vows. She joined a cloistered convent in Brooklyn, where she led a simple life of silence, prayer, and work for 20 years. Simple, as well as rigorous: Krismanich described how the nuns followed the ancient monastic ritual of praying throughout the day and night, waking at midnight and then again at 5 a.m. “And we had an awful lot of cleaning,” Krismanich recalled. “Nuns — they clean too much. Everything was spotless!”
Then came Vatican II. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called together a counsel of Catholic clergy and laity to reevaluate Church liturgy with its rigid structure and practices. He hoped this would help stem the declining numbers of practicing Catholics and bring the Church into the modern world. That period of revolutionary renewal and experimentation lasted less than five years. For Krismanich, Vatican II presented an opportunity to live the religious life differently. Though the monastery had offered her peace and contemplation, Krismanich began to think about the world beyond the cloister.
Unknown to Krismanich, nuns belonging to the religious order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were already living a more open version of Catholic service in California. Originally from Spain, 10 Immaculate Heart nuns arrived in California during the gold rush, initially to work with the poor, but later to develop prestigious educational institutions throughout Southern California. They began teaching in Los Angeles in 1886 and, during the next several decades, staffed Catholic schools, started a convent, and founded the Immaculate Heart High School and Immaculate Heart College. In 1943, they established the Immaculate Heart Novitiate in Montecito, the property now known as La Casa de Maria, to train the many young women wanting to join the order.
Immaculate Heart nuns, who all received rigorous educations, were known for their inherently liberal, deeply radical philosophies. Their sisterhood predated the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, some nuns becoming early feminist theologians, some forming groups to reevaluate the rituals and disciplines of traditional religious life practices. Stephanie Glatt, formerly known as Sister Mary Stephano and now La Casa’s director emerita, had entered the Immaculate Heart Novitiate as a postulate in the ’50s and participated in these discussions. “We experimented and tried new things out; if things weren’t working for us, we didn’t keep doing them.” For centuries, Immaculate Heart nuns would gather together every morning to pray. But now these sisters were deciding differently. Glatt remembered, “We didn’t have to be in chapel to pray, and we didn’t have to do it together, which made the biggest difference when you were a teaching nun or another professional.” They began wearing street clothes instead of their traditional habits, set their own bedtimes, and chose what they wanted to read and what professions, other than teaching and nursing, they wanted to pursue.
But the Catholic hierarchy was not prepared to tolerate such radical thinking. When the sisters presented their plans for change and renewal in October 1969, tensions reached a breaking point. Archbishop Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, then head of the Los Angeles diocese, was outraged by the sisters’ radical ideas, rejected their plan outright, and barred them from teaching in Catholic schools. When the Vatican, under the new pope, Paul VI, sided with the archbishop, the Immaculate Heart sisters renounced their vows and left the church, the largest Catholic order in the United States to do so. They then founded the Immaculate Heart Community as an ecumenical, independent group of women. By 1970, La Casa de Maria was open to the public. Four years later, the community replaced the novitiate with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Center for Spiritual Renewal.
As the Immaculate Heart nuns pressed forward with their revolutionary changes, they nevertheless welcomed Krismanich into their community. She remained true to many of her traditional practices, attending daily mass at Mount Carmel Church, going to each prayer group at the center, and doing spiritual care work at Cottage Hospital every Wednesday. Throughout these 48 years of service, Krismanich embraced her more radical sisters, finding herself “attracted to their joy.”
This was around the same time that Krismanich, who had left her Brooklyn convent to seek the contemplative life in a new way, encountered the Immaculate Heart sisters. Immediately, Krismanich felt “a directive from God” that led her to their community. Here Krismanich worked as a bookkeeper and a spiritual counselor. She would “listen and try to help” the individuals and couples who stayed at the interfaith retreat center. Through her dedication, she became known for her purity, faith, and adherence to tradition.
On her free time, Krismanich prayed. She was a constant presence at the center’s chapel, where she would sit next to a window — not because it was good spiritual discipline, but “because she loved it.” “There are people that totally trust their tradition to be the key to life,” said Steve Jacobsen, director of La Casa de Maria. “And Krismanich is one of those people.” But she also drove around town with a license plate reading “4RJESUS” and wore a loud, bedazzled Jesus pin to “make people think of Him.” While other sisters from the original Immaculate Heart order have gone on to pursue other professions and family life, Krismanich remained true to her original vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
On the night of the mudslides, much of La Casa de Maria was devastated, leaving some buildings on the 26-acre property severely damaged or destroyed. Looking just past the backdoor windows, one can see how the mud came right up to the door of Krismanich’s home, and stopped there. Jacobsen claimed that there are only two explanations: One is physics. The other is that Krismanich’s pure spirit stopped the mud before it could enter God’s house. Now Krismanich has moved to her new home in Los Angeles, where 21 elderly sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will be waiting for her, just like they did when she first met them so many years ago.