"The Flying Nun" and "The Painting Nun": Gender, conflict, and representation in 1960s Los Angeles

Diane Winston

On September 7, 1967, a singular show debuted on ABC’s Thursday night schedule. “The Flying Nun” was a sitcom about a Roman Catholic novice whose small stature and large cornette, the headpiece for her habit, provided the right aerodynamics for flight. Set at a convent in Puerto Rico, the show portrayed Sister Bertrille’s unorthodox attempts to improve conditions for both the nuns and the local villagers. Bertrille’s antics tested the patience of her staid Mother Superior, but initially won a large audience. Sally Field, who played the title character, excelled at pushing the line without offending Catholic viewers. The series was reassuring because it implicitly mitigated the social anxieties spawned by the youth-oriented counterculture, the women’s movement, and the generation gap. Its message, embodied by Sr. Bertrille, was that young people may tweak the status quo, but they would not abandon it.

Not far from the Burbank studio where “The Flying Nun” was filmed was the motherhouse of the nation’s most reported-on community of women religious. The nuns of the California Institute of the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mar}’ were known colloquially as the Immaculate Heart Sisters (IHMs). When “The Flying Nun” premiered, they were engaged in a public battle with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and among the Church’s staunchest conservatives. McIntyre and the IHMs held conflicting views on the nuns’ conduct, which came to a head on October 16, 1967. The news media headlined the two sides’ disagreement about religious habits, but clothing choices were symbolic of a much deeper clash over personal freedom, female agency, and religious authority.

Influenced by the social, cultural, and political ferment of their time and place, as well as by the reformist spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the IHMs had reenvisioned their order and presented McIntyre with their proposals a few days before the October meeting. But from McIntyre’s point of view, this was the final battle in an ongoing war with the sisters. He’d frequently complained about their disobedience and outright defiance of his orders. And, if that were not enough, McIntyre had a longstanding problem with one of the IHMs’ most celebrated members, Sr. Mary' Corita Kent.1 Kent had won a worldwide reputation for making art at the intersection of religion, politics, and commercial culture. The Cardinal called her work “blasphemous” and repeatedly, albeit unsuccessfully, demanded that she stop.

“The Flying Nun” and “The Painting Nun,” as Newsweek dubbed Kent, exemplified two culturally divergent strands in 1960s Los Angeles. The television series offered comic resolution to some of the era’s most vexing issues. Its depictions of gender roles and the generation gap was one that McIntyre and other conservatives could affirm. Kent, on the other hand, challenged the status quo. Her colorful, silkscreen prints, called serigraphs, juxtaposed religious texts, political statements, and poetry with images from popular and commercial culture. Her inspirations included the Beatles, the Beatitudes, and the “Big G” of General Mills. Kent saw her work as sacralizing the profane, McIntyre believed she was profaning the sacred. But her actions, as a teacher and as a creative, embodied the agency and autonomy that a majority of the IHMs desired for their own lives.

This essay explores how unfolding events at the order’s Hollywood motherhouse reflected the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, and why Los Angeles was a factor in the sisters’journey of self-actualization. Los Angeles in the 1960s was in transition. In 1960, when its population hit 2.5 million, Los Angeles became the third largest city in the country. More significantly, it had begun a transformation from a staid town overseen by conservative, White powerbrokers to a vibrant and diverse metropolis where countercultural ideals were manifest in music, movies, and political action. The same forces that changed the face of Los Angeles were at work in the Immaculate Heart community, and the story of the Cardinal and the nuns illumines the city’s shifting realities.

The nuns and their church

In 1848, the order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Maty was founded in Spain. The priest who began the group wanted to help poor, uneducated young women become conscientious Catholics serving the Church. Twenty-one years later, a bishop visiting from California asked if some of the sisters could come to his home state. Within two years, ten sisters had relocated to the New World, and by 1916, the order had five houses in California. The nuns focused their efforts on education, and one of their early achievements was to establish a school on the same site as the Los Angeles cathedral (Caspar)' 2003, 16).

The sisters’ good works attracted American women to the order, but cultural differences between the native-born sisters and the Spanish nuns caused conflicts. According to Anita Caspary, who headed the order from 1963 to 1970, “the attitudes of freedom of spirit, rugged individualism, and adaptation to life in

California created a distance between the two groups” (Caspary 2003, 17). In 1924, the American nuns, who valued efficiency, flexibility, and creativity more than “Spanish authoritarianism” (Caspary 2003, 17), received the Vatican’s permission to establish an independent community.

The new order was named the California Institute of the Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Maty’, and it was overseen by the Vatican rather than the local bishop (as many orders are).2 This new status and its modicum of independence helped attract even more young women to the community. By 1963, there were 600 IHMs, and their order had a reputation for educational excellence. The IHMs started the first Catholic high school in Southern California to be fully accredited by the state university, the first Catholic women’s college in Southern California, the first Catholic retreat house in the state, and two hospitals in Los Angeles county.

From the early 1940s to the early 1960s, the IHMs were led by women who valued intellectual openness. Progressive Catholics and even non-Catholics were invited to speak at Immaculate Heart College, and the order was known for its “enlightened Catholicism and spiritual development” (Caspary 2003, 20). Kent was a rising star in the school’s art department. In 1950, one of her prints, “lord is with thee” was awarded first place in the Los Angeles County print competition and at the California State Fair. During the 1960s, her work was displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair as well as in exhibitions, galleries, and museums worldwide.

When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, few observers, whether inside or outside the Church, could have imagined what its spirit of aggiornamento, i.e. bringing up to date, would mean for Roman Catholicism. The Council sought creative responses to social and political changes worldwide, a surprising move by a Church that had long resisted any accommodation to modernity. Vatican Council resolutions, laid out in 16 documents, pulled Catholics into the contemporary era. Among other shifts, the texts called for opening up to the world, improving relations with nonChristians, modernizing worship, and expanding the role of the laity. But most important for McIntyre and the IHMs, the Council directed religious communities to renew and reform their orders; in other words, priests and nuns were told to update their practices and policies to meet the challenges of the present moment.

McIntyre, however, liked the Church as it was. “|H]e intensely loved the Church that existed prior to the Council and he could see little need for change” (Burns 1999, 64). A New Yorker, born in 1886, McIntyre epitomized the conservative, parochial, and anti-intellectual outlook that dominated the American Church from the nineteenth century to the 1960s. McIntyre’s first job was on Wall Street where, working at an investment firm, he learned how to make and manage money. Just shy of his 30th birthday, he entered seminary and, a few years after ordination in 1921, was made a cleric-administrator for the Diocese of New York, a position he held for 25 years. Ascending to the post of Chancellor, heworked closely with Cardinal Francis Spellman, another arch-conservative. Cardinal Spellman was deeply appreciative of his protege’s gift for managing money and property, especially during the Depression.

In 1948, the Vatican named McIntyre the Archbishop of Los Angeles, and four years later he became a Cardinal, the fourth in the United States and the only one in the West. The Catholic population of Los Angeles was on the rise, growing from 625,000 in 1948 to 1.5 million when he retired in 1970. McIntyre oversaw the expansion of churches, hospitals, and, especially, schools—opening 128 elementary schools and 30 high schools during his 22-year tenure. His concern for Catholic education strengthened the diocese, but over time his conservativism alienated parishioners. According to a 1964 article in the New York Times: “[McIntyre] has been described by more than one Vatican observer as the most reactionary prelate in the church, bar none not even those of the Curia” (Dill 1979, D15).

The Cardinal was fervently anti-Communist, pro-law and order, and supportive of the Vietnam War. He spoke out against Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading, but he refused to actively support the Civil Kights movement and sanctioned clergy who did. When Mexican-Americans demonstrated against his policies at a 1969 Christmas Mass, McIntyre had off-duty sheriffs deputies standing by to attack and arrest them. He likened the protesters to those at the Crucifixion who demanded Jesus’ death. “Forgive them,” McIntyre told the assembled worshippers, “they know not what they do” (Mejia 2020).

Given his conservativism, McIntyre’s willingness to greenlight a sitcom set in a convent seems out of character. “The Flying Nun,” based on a young adult novel called The Fifteenth Pelican, would have been impossible to make before the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Church to open to the world, including the media. Previous films and television productions had featured serious Catholic characters, but this one was different, a lighthearted comedy. Harty’ Ackerman, a legendary television producer whose credits included “The Donna Reed Show,” “Gidget,” and “Bewitched” liked the concept and offered it to АВС-TV for its Thursday night female-focused programming. The network executives were enthused, but all agreed that they needed the Church’s imprimatur and turned to one of its most conservative leaders to get it.

McIntyre objected to its depiction of Sr. Bertrille as a flibbertigibbet. But when the producers agreed to make her a novice, an aspiring nun who has not yet taken formal vows, both he and Cardinal Spellman gave their blessing. The studio also took advice from an in-studio nun who ensured that the faith was portrayed correctly. At the show’s heart was the friction between the free-spirited Bertrille and her old-fashioned Mother Superior. Bertrille brimmed with good intentions and often acted without the latter’s permission. But unlike real-life conflicts, the series’ plotlines played traditionalists’ struggle with modernity for laughs, and, in a spirit of compromise, the two women resolved their differences before the end of every episode.

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