Katy Perry meets her match -- and it's nuns

katy perry nuns convent purchase zelin intv nr _00020515
katy perry nuns convent purchase zelin intv nr _00020515

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Story highlights

  • Heidi Schlumpf: Katy Perry may have met her match in a group of L.A. nuns defying an archbishop's plan to sell their convent to her
  • She says the nuns have sold to different buyer; it's a story of male-dominated hierarchy trying to assert itself over nuns and their assets

Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Singer, songwriter and sex symbol Katy Perry may be one of the best-selling, chart-topping, top-earning artists of all time, but the "Roar" performer may have met her match in a group of Los Angeles nuns.

For years, Perry reportedly has had her eye on the Los Feliz villa that served as the convent for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or IHMs. But the nuns chose another buyer and hurried that sale, for roughly $15.5 million to restaurateur Dana Hollister, two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Heidi Schlumpf
The Los Angeles Archdiocese, on the other hand, led by Archbishop Jose Gomez, believes it has the rights to sell the property, and wants to sell to Perry (reportedly for $14.5 million, all cash).
    It's a battle that once again pits women's religious orders against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. And no matter what the outcome, it is sure to end with that hierarchy looking unsupportive of women (as one of the nuns put it, the archdiocese would "put us under a bus and run over us"), unless they happen to be multimillionaire pop stars.
    Indeed, media reports have played up the contrast between the elderly, blue-habited nuns and Perry, known for her flamboyant, often food-related dress. At a recent meeting between the two, Perry allegedly sang "Oh Happy Day" for the nuns and showed them the "Jesus" tattoo near her wrist.
    But there is a bigger story here than a pop star railroading some retired religious women for their expensive property. (The nuns reportedly got it at a discount from a benefactor.)
    That real story is one of church hierarchy, mainly bishops, trying to get their hands on the vast property owned by women's religious orders in the United States. Even Pope Francis, as part of an address about poverty and refugees two years ago, chided religious orders of nuns about their holdings, saying, "Empty convents do not serve the church so that they can be turned into hotels for earning money. Empty convents are not ours, they are for the flesh of Christ, who are the refugees."
    Of course, the hospitals, schools, social service agencies, retreat centers, nursing homes and other ministries owned by women's religious orders are "for the flesh of Christ." But as writer Phyllis Zagano has pointed out, nuns, in effect, "run businesses." And if these businesses fail, the order should be able to sell the remaining property and make a profit to support something else.
    I agree. Although Gomez, according to the Los Angeles Times article, has assured the sisters he will use the money from the sale of the property to take care of the IHM sisters, why doesn't he let them take care of themselves?
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    As the Vatican office in charge of men's and women's religious congregations heard when it mounted an intrusive, three-year "apostolic visitation" of U.S. women's religious orders in 2009, American Catholics support nuns and get pretty upset when bishops and Vatican officials meddle. This is especially true when it looks like they're trying to gain control over the nuns' hard-earned assets.
    According to news reports, the accompanying questionnaire for the 2009 "visitation" asked religious orders for sensitive internal data on assets, landholding and financial information (some orders reportedly declined to provide that information).
    Sadly, the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles already have a tragic history, which is why there are only five women left in this once vibrant order. It goes back to the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, four years of meetings in Rome in which the Catholic Church dedicated itself to spiritual renewal.
    Members of the IHM sisters, like most religious orders at the time, sought to better engage with the modern world, as the council documents had directed. This meant changes such as exchanging the traditional habit for contemporary clothing, living in smaller communities in apartments rather than convents, less strict adherence to scheduled prayer and an increase in diversity of ministries, from law to medicine to social justice lobbying.
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    Then-Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles pegged the IHMs as radicals and demanded they reverse the changes. As an independent institute under the Vatican, the sisters sought help from Pope Paul VI, who refused to intervene. In 1970, then-superior Anita Caspary and some 90% of the IHM sisters were dispensed from their vows and went on to form a noncanonical group known as the Immaculate Heart Community. They also took some of the IHM property with them, including Immaculate Heart College and Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles.
    The nuns currently battling the archbishop and Perry are the last of those IHMs who did not leave, but it seems they have the same spunk.
    So, does Katy Perry have a chance?
    Gomez and the archdiocese's attorney claim that three of the five living sisters in the order have signed over their rights to sell. The other nuns believe their sisters were coerced or didn't understand what they were signing.
    Meanwhile, the restaurateur has already moved in, and local residents are rallying to oppose rumored plans she may turn the property into a boutique hotel. The diocese has sued Hollister, hoping to have her purchase voided, and last week a court order allowed Perry to visit the property with her architect, according to the Times.
    Perry and Gomez should be careful. U.S. nuns are prayerful, generous, giving people, but they also are strong, independent women who stand up for their rights. You don't want to mess with them.