America Comment

The unorthodox nuns who taught Meghan Markle

Meghan Markle (Getty Images)

The United States has a strange love-hate relationship with the British monarchy. Freud might have seen in it a titanic Oedipus complex spanning two-and-a-half centuries. But explain it as you will, American pundits routinely jeer at the monarchy, our Irish curse it and we annually congratulate ourselves at being freed of it.

At the same time, if we encounter it ourselves we go to pieces as when President Reagan’s protocol chief curtsied to the Queen (strictly speaking a no-no for Yanks, according to our own national etiquette). When our presidents visiting the Royal family make faux-pas, their political enemies over here make great hay. And it’s noticeable that the only white-tie State Dinners either Bush, Jr. or Obama threw were for the British and Spanish Sovereigns. Apparently only Monarchs could make the presidential pair behave like grown-up Chiefs of State.

Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles. Although the city is of royal foundation (courtesy of Charles III of Spain), Hollywood nevertheless churns out films depicting monarchy in the worst and/or most laughable light possible.

This is all the more amusing when one considers how hereditary an industry it is. Of course, recent revelations show that elements of that industry are run more like an Ottoman harem than any European court, but that is another issue. Here too, however, when real royalty appears, film magnates fall over themselves to bow – a phenomenon this writer has observed first-hand. But now that one of our own, Meghan Markle, is to wed your Prince Harry, this strange dichotomy is palpable.

For me, referring to the future Princess Harry (officially Princess Henry) as “our own” is true not only because she is part of an industry on whose edges I have lived for most of my life, nor merely because we were raised in the same part of Los Angeles – both industry and district sharing the name Hollywood. No, we have an additional and closer bond: we were both taught by the Immaculate Heart Sisters of California.

Now, to be fair, Miss Markle and I had very different experiences of them. They taught me in 1966-1968 at Blessed Sacrament School in Hollywood; she worked under their tutelage at Immaculate Heart Middle and High School, graduating in 1999. I knew them when they were Sisters, and watched them transform into something very different. Her future Royal Highness has only known them as they are – and therein hangs a tale.

The Daughters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of Mary was founded in 1848 by Fr Joaquim Masmitjà i de Puig “as a means of rebuilding society through the education of young women”. The Daughters came to Los Angeles in 1871, eventually establishing a network of hospitals, retreat centres and schools throughout the West Coast. The cornerstone was Immaculate Heart College, adjoining Miss Markle’s alma mater.

Something odd was brewing within them fairly early. In 1924 they broke with the Spanish order, asserting that the Spaniards could not understand the spirit of freedom that characterises the United States. By the time I came along, they boasted one artistic superstar, Sister Corita Kent, and one determined superior, Sister Mary Humiliata (Anita Caspary). Already prepared for radical change when it should come, they spent the summer of 1965 under the tutelage of the psychologist Carl Rogers, who taught them self-assertion. It was a teaching he would later regret bitterly.

What followed is a matter of history. In the summer of 1967, the Sisters voted to do away with habit and rule, and told their canonical superior that if he did not like it they would leave his schools. He refused, and the order split. The 60 or so who wanted to remain Sisters were given a new home. Three of those who wished to retain their original charism left and founded a flourishing branch in Wichita, Kansas. No new vocations came to those who remained in Hollywood and they are down to three today. Their convent has just been sold to the pop star Katy Perry.

But 300 or so were released from their vows, held on to the high school, college and retreat centre, and became the Immaculate Heart Community. This new organisation was open to men, non-Catholics and anyone else. This is the group that taught your future princess.

Immaculate Heart School remains all-female to this day, but the religion taught in Miss Markle’s day is quite different from what the IHMs taught in mine. Kate Sullivan, who graduated in 1988, wrote of it: “As I recall, the line between political assembly and liturgy was fairly thin in my early days at IH – and that felt perfectly natural. It was no big deal to receive Communion from the nuns, or to hear a sermon delivered by a woman, or to sing ‘We Are a Gentle Angry People’.

I even took a women’s studies class senior year, in which our teacher (an IH Sister) introduced me to the concept of a female god.” Even then, Sullivan laments, changes were occurring: “A campus priest was installed, so the nuns stopped saying the liturgies.” Needless to say, there was a great deal of emphasis on helping the poor, if little about Catholic doctrine.


Disturbing as that account may be to some, it should make British Catholics happier. Apart from dark whispers that the nuptials of the Prince and Miss Markle signal the creation of a half-American branch of the Royal Family who will be groomed to rule this country one day, there is the more realistic fear that Miss Markle, being a Catholic – as many suppose her to be, as an IHM alumna – will apostasise to wed Prince Harry.

Nothing could be further from the truth. So far from leaving the Catholic Church, she will actually be receiving Christian baptism for the first time. Moreover, for those upset at Prince Harry marrying a divorcee, since the future princess’s first husband was Jewish, the Pauline Privilege dissolves said marriage upon her baptism.

Knowing the Ladies on the Slope (as locals called them, from the IHMs’ geographic location) as I do, I have no doubt that she will learn more about the Christian religion from the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer than she ever did at school – and with less heresy.

Lastly, for those concerned about Miss Markle’s heritage, her father is a direct descendant of King Edward III. She receives a sacrament, and the Royal Family gets a few more drops of real Plantagenet blood: a win-win deal, as we say in Tinseltown.

Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles

This article first appeared in the January 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here